May 20, 2019

For David O. Russell, it takes family

Director David O. Russell’s past efforts include the much-lauded “Three Kings” and the Oscar-winning “The Fighter,” but it is “Silver Linings Playbook,” the story of a bipolar teacher, that he sees as his most personal drama to date. The film is a contender for eight Oscar, including best picture, all four actor categories and received a directing and an adapted screenplay nod, as well, for Russell. 

In a telephone interview last weekend, the director’s voice shook with emotion at times as he described how he was inspired to make the film to honor his 18-year-old son, Matthew, who suffers from bipolar disorder as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

 “It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life,” Russell said. 

Matthew first exhibited emotional disturbances as a small child, as Russell was directing his 1999 war drama, “Three Kings.” The boy later attended Kenter Canyon Elementary School in Brentwood for a time, but by the time he was 12, his symptoms had shifted, and Russell and his then-wife, Janet Grillo, had to make the heart-wrenching decision to send Matthew to a boarding school in Connecticut that could better help him cope. “It was devastating to me when he went away, but it was probably the best thing we did for him, because it put such a specific order in his life,” Russell said.

“It’s almost making me cry right now, because the shame would almost be crushing for [him] if the illness wasn’t,” said Russell, who is Russian-Jewish on his father’s side of the family and Italian-Catholic on his mother’s. “It’s the shame of, ‘Look at me, I just keep wrecking things.’

“But my son also taught me the value of finding the silver lining in any situation, that you shouldn’t go down any dark path too long — and the gratitude you have for everyone around you, because it takes everyone, the entire family, to deal with this kind of challenge, and that’s what the film is about.”

It was through this lens, as a father, that Russell first read Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, “Silver Linings Playbook,” when Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella gave him the book several years ago. What caught his eye first was the story’s protagonist, Pat Solitano (played in the film by Bradley Cooper), a young man newly freed after an extended stint in a mental institution. The story describes Pat’s struggles to get his life back on track with the help of his hot-blooded family — including his obsessive-compulsive father (Robert De Niro) — and of Pat’s relationship with a tempestuous young widow (Jennifer Lawrence), who is battling her own depression and mood swings after the death of her husband.

“I wouldn’t have taken the book as seriously as I did had I not already been looking for a story that could include someone like my son — something to give him hope and the sense that he was part of the world,” Russell said of his first book-to-film adaptation. “And the story would include a family like ours, and could do so in a way that was very real.”

The sense of family rallying together while in crisis — in a specific neighborhood, on a specific block and even in a specific house — has a consistent theme in Russell’s recent films, from the Irish-Catholic working-class clan in Lowell, Mass., with a drug-addicted son in “The Fighter,” to the Italian-Americans in Philadelphia battling mental illness in “Silver Linings Playbook.” 

Russell said he drew heavily on his own family’s speech patterns and interactions to create the characters: “The way Robert De Niro speaks reminds me of my father,” he said, recalling the late nights he spent with his dad bonding over Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks movies. “A lot of the rhythm of how Bob talks is what I would call the intimacy, the warmth or the haimish nature of what I wanted to convey in the movie.”

Russell, 54, grew up in Mamaroneck, in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., but he often visited his mother’s relatives in Brooklyn and Queens, as well as his father’s extended tribe in Manhattan and the Bronx. “It was all very colorful, and it revolved around food, or whatever people were talking in politics; there was a lot of arguing, a lot of loud talking, and there was always a TV on and a lot of music playing,” he said.

Like the fictional Solitanos, the Russells could be volatile, albeit in amusing ways, the director recalled. There was the seder, when David was 13, where he drank far too much wine: “It was the first time I got drunk,” he said. “My father wanted to kill me, because he felt that I embarrassed him, but it was his friends’ kid who kept filling up my glass!”

Russell’s Jewish grandfather, a butcher on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who had lost many of his relatives in concentration camps, refused to have anything to do with his sister, Frieda, one of his few relatives to survive, after he fell on hard times and she refused to lend him money. “We had a lot of family on both sides where two people wouldn’t talk to each other and it would go on for, like, 30 years,” Russell said.

His mother grew up in Catholic schools, and his father attended Hebrew school, but neither parent wanted anything to do with religion. So much so that when David requested to become either a bar mitzvah or be confirmed in the Catholic Church, or at least to know “what’s my story,” they replied that he was Italian and Jewish and Russian and “so what?” he recalled. “Of course, that made me have a great deal of interest in all things spiritual, and now I can recite to you either a Jewish or a Christian prayer.”

When Matthew needed spiritual guidance, Russell took him to counselors of both faiths, including time spent with Moshe Rosenberg of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles. 

Asked how he felt when the character of Pat becomes enraged and unlikable after going off his meds, Russell said, “Anybody who struggles with this kind of thing is not always likable, but we tempered all of that in the performance. … Pat’s [outspokenness] is like a lightning rod for everyone else in the film. He makes all the bulls— stop. He makes all pretense fall away.”

To avoid any sense of pretense in the performances, Russell shot long sequences using a camera called a Steadicam, which was attached to an operator who could seamlessly weave his way among the actors. “It felt haimish because it involved the least amount of hardware,” Russell said. “There’s no dolly or track or crane or boom arm; it gets that out of the room, so it’s just the people, and the actors really got lost in it, like being in a play.”

Matthew Russell himself appears in the movie as a nosy neighbor who rings the doorbell to ask about Pat’s rages, which Russell found “kind of sweet,” he said. “Matthew is usually the kid in Pat Solitano’s shoes, who people are asking about, and I loved the fact that he was getting to be the one to ask those questions.”

His son is “extremely proud” of the film, Russell said, adding, “It’s a story that will be a landmark for our family maybe most of our lives. We’ve already referred to the story many times — Matthew will say, ‘How did Pat handle this?’ or ‘What did Pat do to pull himself together?’ ”

And, not surprisingly, Oscar nominations have meant a great deal to Russell’s entire family, but when a reporter concluded the interview by suggesting that he “break a leg” come the Oscar ceremony on Feb. 24, the director had a different idea. 

“Since this is the Jewish Journal, why don’t we just say mazel tov?” he said.