A Q&A With David O. Russell on the Joy of Directing


David O. Russell is one of the most exciting film directors working today. Beginning in the 1990s with the oddball comedies Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster, then taking a unique spin on the war genre with Three Kings and continuing through his recent Oscar-nominated trio—The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle—Russell’s films are built upon the most basic human desires and the complex, often tragic, often humorous relationships they create. Known for his on-set intensity, Russell elicits emotional, career-defining performances from his actors, many of whom have worked with him several times over.

© 20th Century Fox Film Corp/Everett Collection
©20th Century Fox Film Corporation/Everett Collection

Coming out on Christmas Day, the new biopic Joy stars Russell favorite Jennifer Lawrence as the real-life inventor of the Miracle Mop, a single mom who must find joy, honor and truth in her struggles to achieve financial and personal success. The cast also includes Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini and Édgar Ramírez.

Russell and Kaethe Fine, Mediander’s director of creative development, have known each other since childhood. This week, the two spoke about Joy.

Joy is your third film with Lawrence, Cooper and De Niro. What qualities does an actor need in order to appreciate your particular ways of working?

We share a great trust and a great love for characters and worlds that are flawed—their love of life and of other people and all those contradictions. What is inherently sincere and real about them is also what is true and funny, and true and heartbreaking, and true and beautiful. So we share a trust about that and a willingness to put our love and our hearts into that and create with full commitment and nothing held back, with humanity and all contradictory sides of the person, as well as the willingness to be flexible and open and leap into chances and be creative and sometimes change. We like the place where heartbreaking things that happen to you don’t have to be final, horrible things; they can become other things, beautiful things. And that is the mystery of life, if you’re prepared to see it that way.

I find your films to be not just dramatic and engaging character studies—and fascinating stories about real, flawed people—but also dynamic and moving cinematic journeys. You have a very exciting signature visual style; it really moves, and it keeps things moving. How do you decide how a scene will be shot? How do you communicate with the cinematographers you’ve worked with?

Cinematographer Linus Sandgren and I found a very fluid, kinetic, brightly colored style in American Hustle, and here in Joy we have sought and discovered a cinematography partly inspired by the American cinema of the 1940s and ’50s.

David O Russell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren.
David O. Russell (center right) with cinematographer Linus Sandgren.

So tell us more about Joy.

Merie Weismiller Wallace/TM/©20th Century Fox Film Corp/Everett Collection
Merie Weismiller Wallace/TM/©20th Century Fox Film Corporation/Everett Collection

To me and Jenn and Robert and Bradley and the cast, the movie was an opportunity to tell an honest story about the sadness that is part of success and the emotion of joy: from childhood’s pure joy in the snow, making a world in your room, playing records; to the joy of falling in love and the euphoria of a wedding; to what is joy in divorce, in being a single mother, in becoming best friends with your ex-husband, in bearing the scars it takes to fight to create true commerce—unglamorous ordinary household items, well made and affordable, loved by millions. What is that joy? To sit with quiet power and authority and forgiveness for those you have loved who have hurt you, and to love your family and children, and be a godmother, in a way, with mature, quiet power. What is that mature joy with adult concerns and experience? And for Jennifer, to play the unanxious presence in the room—which is a power—to be quietly powerful is a very different performance from the past two films, moving in a different way.

And for Cooper to play a man not unlike your father and mine, Kaethe—men of sales—who are serious about putting food on their families’ tables. And whatever they’re selling—chairs or books or mops or hangers—it ain’t no joke. It’s business, and it’s sincere, and it’s serious. That was Cooper as the leader of this tiny cable station [QVC] in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to run it as if it were MGM in 1950, with meticulous seriousness and sincerity. And for De Niro to be so loving and true, and a romantic who makes it all possible with his Isabella Rossellini girlfriend; and then they become, in spite of themselves, obstacles who almost kill the endeavor because they are, after all, kitchen-table businesspeople, but the only bankers this single mother could appeal to. They were the gateway to her future.

David with his cinematographer Linus Sandgred amd producer Matthew Budman.
Russell (far left) with cinematographer Sandgren (center left) and producer Matthew Budman (center right).

Joy opens in theaters nationwide on December 25.

Feature photo courtesy of David O. Russell