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Betting Against the Dark Clouds

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook"

Director David O. Russell on Silver Linings Playbook

Winner of the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy with the kind of characters you seldom see in a rom-com. When we first meet Pat Solitano, he’s preparing to leave a mental institution where he has been confined for eight months after a violent incident. He’s only getting out because his mother (Jacki Weaver) has made a deal with the court, stressing that her son was driven to violence by circumstances. His father (Robert DeNiro) is not so sure, though he clearly has his own issues, having made a mid-life career change to become a bookie, a bad move for anyone so superstitious and devoted to a single team (the Philadelphia Eagles).

Director David O. Russell with Bradley Cooper.

Pat’s new involvement is with a woman not much more tethered than himself. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) has not taken easily to the death of her husband, throwing herself into a period in nymphomania in which she claims to have slept with just about everyone at her office.

That these characters are not standard movie material should come as no surprise to fans of director David O. Russell (The Fighter, I Heart Huckabees, Flirting with Disaster). Speaking during a press conference at TIFF, he recalls that he was drawn to the Matthew Quick novel on which the film is loosely based because he relates to these kinds of people.

“These are people who struggle with certain emotional issues that are bigger than the average issues. They’re emotional people, very intense, and extremely raw. These characters wear their emotions on their sleeve and they tell the truth, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant. I had personal ties to the material from my own experiences as a father, and so did Robert De Niro. I based it on people I knew who had tangled with these matters, with and without medication. My heart was in it because I care about those people.”

Though fans of the book may be unhappy at the changes he has made to the story, Russell saw it as a framework to portray trouble people he has known in his own life. “In the book, Pat was away for four years. I knew people who had been hospitalized for a month. I knew people who had been hospitalized for a week or a couple months. They were totally together, functioning professionals, working in high-level ways, parents with children and families. They went off their medication and they were in the hospital for a weekend.”

While the film exists entirely for its characters, Russell sees them as indicative of the contemporary world. “These people are like everybody else and like our world. Our world has been bipolar. Our economy was bipolar. It was manic and it was high and it crashed. De Niro’s character has lost his pension. He’s a manic guy, who is taking a manic way to support them in bookmaking. He’s still got his hand in the American economy in a very bipolar way.”

In casting his films, Russell says he prefers actors who can be alive and limber on set over those who carefully prepare in advance. “There are actors who are what De Niro calls ‘bedroom perfect.’ They give you the scene that was perfect in their bedroom when they were working on it back at the hotel. I just want to figure what’s going to happen right here [in the set]. It’s going to be different because they’re not alone, and that can be very frightening because you don’t have anything to hold on to.”

Jackie Weaver and Robert DeNiro.

The danger of his approach, Russell admits, is that “There comes a point when you have to cut the shit. You can get so entangled in some construction that your head ends up in your ass. You don’t know how it happens. Sometimes you just have to tell yourself, ‘If I just want to cut to the chase here, what would that be?’”

While Cooper (star of The Hangover and People magazine’s outgoing “Sexiest Man Alive”) and Lawrence (star of The Hunger Games) are different level of Hollywood star than Russell has worked with in the past, he was delighted that they were so willing to run contrary to their previous likeable images. “They gave us so many choices and put so much of themselves into what they did that there were so many choices in the editing room. If we wanted to, we could have cut it so that they were much less likable. There were takes where they were much more gnarly.

“I knew from Wedding Crashers that Bradley has an intensity and an anger that I found personally a little intimidating. I told him that when I first met him. It was a scary quality that made me think he could play the role. He isn’t just the affable, grounded guy from The Hangover. The more I got to know him, the more I saw all these colors and dimensions—perceptiveness, vulnerability—that I was excited to put into the movie.”

As for his much-in-demand leading lady, “She came in at the 11th hour. Every great actress in Los Angeles wanted this role and we had very good choices. We hadn’t thought of her because we thought she was too young, and none of us thought she was right for it because we didn’t really know who she was. She auditioned from her father’s study in Louisville, Kentucky and just knocked us out. She can seem 45 or 25 and that’s an interesting quality. Just like [Cooper] can seem really intense and fierce and then seem like such a sweetheart.

“We have so few dimensional roles for young actresses, and the main thing I do on scripts is say, ‘How can we make the woman’s role equal to the guy’s role?’ It makes the whole movie better.”

Watch the trailer for Silver Linings Playbook

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