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Meeting one of Hollywood’s most diverse directorial minds

We meet David O. Russell to talk about his latest inspirational female lead, working with J-Law and the music he’s been desperate to use for decades

This fact may have passed you by, but David O. Russell is one of Hollywood’s most eclectic directors. Since Gulf War satire Three Kings (1999), he’s tackled existential comedy (I Heart Huckabees, 2004), biographical sports drama (The Fighter, 2010), not to mention the film that won Jennifer Lawrence her Oscar in 2013, Silver Linings Playbook.

This week, O. Russell reteams with the actress for the third time for Joy, a biographical-comedy following a real-life single mother who beats the odds to become head of a powerful family dynasty. We sat down with the director to discuss working with J-Law, his use of music and which characters he’d choose to revisit.

What was it about Joy’s story that made you think there was a film there?

David O.Russell: I begin every story with the characters. Joy is my first film with a woman at the centre of it and she’s not as unhinged as Jennifer (Lawrence) has been in our previous films together (Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle). In some ways, she had to give a deeper performance for she’s surrounded by these very special salt-of-the-earth characters. This film is not about violence or special effects; it’s about these people and what is riveting and inspiring about them.

When we sat with the real person – Joy Mangano – her most defining power was the way she took control of her destiny with a very forgiving heart – a lot like Michael Corleone. Joy is powerful in a way that I haven’t seen a woman be. The rhythm shifts into what is basically a gunslinger movie in the second half.

This is your third time working with Jennifer Lawrence. Do you both speak the same language on set?

David O.Russell: We do. We have a great trust for each other – we took big risks on those first two films and this one again is very different. I earned the privilege of working with her by giving her a role in a movie that she’s never done before; I’ve never seen her play someone form the age of 18 to 45 before.

On set, yes, we have a shorthand and we have a lot of fun, but we’re also close enough so that we can be dead serious and get it done. We can also be in silence and still understand what we want to go for. In this film, she plays someone who goes from being defied by the world to defining her own world; we feel like the movie is inspiring even though it’s no-nonsense.

As you mentioned, Joy’s story unfolds over a few decades.

Systematically, part of what we wanted to do was play with time. One of the reasons I go to the movies and that I still find them surprising and elating is because they play with time. In American Hustle, you see Christian Bale’s character’s story after you’ve been with him in a predicament back in time. In Joy, it’s great to see her courtship after you see her in a divorce and then get to understand why this man, played by Edgar Ramirez, is still her best friend.

Another standout aspect in Joy is the music...

In this movie, I used music I’ve been waiting to use for 20 to 30 years. The marriage of music in cinema is one of our trademarks and, in this movie, we have tracks I haven’t seen or heard in anything else – just amazing, beautiful and classic tracks. Cream singing the a capella part of "I Feel Free" stands out – and we had Brittany Howard, the lead singer of the Alabama Shakes, record a version for us in England. This film features music I’ve been meaning to use for a long time.

If you could revisit any characters from your previous films, which would you choose?

I’d probably choose some of the characters from American Hustle. I do love the characters in Silver Linings – I love that household – but I’d choose the characters in American Hustle. I love to imagine I’ll write another chapter of their lives because they’re all so different and, having gone through that insane adventure, I’d love to see where they all were.

Which character from one of your past films would give Joy a run for her money in the invention stakes?

I would say none of them – no one has the quiet perseverance that she has; they’re all a bit too mercurial. It takes a certain personality to not only be a performer on television, but also to quietly run your business – as Corleone did. It just takes such patience and fearlessness that is specific to Joy. That’s what we found badass about her.