This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Life doesn't always go according to plan" is the tagline that The Weinstein Co. is using to market its new, offbeat romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook. But it could just as easily serve as the moral for the story behind the making of David O. Russell's movie, which became a breakout hit at the Toronto International Film Festival. There it captured the top Audience Award over such stiff competition as Argo and The Master.
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence have been collecting praise for their quicksilver performances as Pat Solitano, a bipolar man recently sprung from a mental institution, and Tiffany Maxwell, the young widow who refuses to give up on him. And the rest of the ensemble -- which includes Robert De Niro as Pat's superstitious sports fan of a dad, Jacki Weaver (Oscar-nominated for best supporting actress for 2010's Animal Kingdom) as Pat's mom and the under-utilized Chris Tucker as a loyal best friend -- are sharing in the aura of the movie's critical success as well.
But however effectively all the elements came together to make this a winning Playbook, its success by no means was guaranteed. In fact, the project went through a number of dramatic transformations before it reached its final form. In the end -- as it often does in Russell's movies -- serendipity won out.
The producing team of Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, who died within months of each other in 2008, had optioned Matthew Quick's novel in advance of its September 2008 publication and set it up at The Weinstein Co. There, Russell had several meetings with Pollack before his death, helping him on his first book-to-screen adaptation.
Russell was drawn to the novel, in part, because his teenage son Matthew faces some of the same emotional challenges as the book's Pat. Russell's son was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, back when the director was filming his war movie Three Kings. Over the years, that diagnosis was redefined to a bipolar-obsessive compulsive disorder hybrid.
"It's always a moving target and a challenge, but he's doing great," says Russell of his son's condition. If any evidence is needed as proof, Russell wrote a small speaking role for Matthew, who appears in Playbook as a nosy neighbor whose intrusions upon the Solitano family garner some big laughs. "I was trying to find a role I thought he could handle. I thought it would be nice for him -- for both of us and the family -- to have a movie that his stuff was a part of."
As he worked on the screenplay, Russell also found himself talking with De Niro, for whom he wrote the part of Pat's father. While the senior Solitano is darker and more harder-edged in the book, Russell softened his character because he wanted to present him as more of a loving father. "Robert and I have been speaking about these family matters for years," explains Russell. "So I sat with him, and we discussed the script and personal matters, and he started to cry. I watched him cry for 10 minutes. … He told his agent, 'Make this happen.' "
First, though, Russell set aside the Playbook script to focus on The Fighter, his 2010 drama starring Mark Wahlberg about a boxer and his family, that earned seven Academy Award nominations, including Russell's first Oscar nom as best director. Its success would change the direction of his career.
Although he had been developing an adaptation of the video game Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, the reception The Fighter received convinced Russell he should continue exploring dysfunctional families instead. "I really got the message that this is a good direction for me," he says. "I loved how specific the world was in the novel and that it was a family of people that I kind of knew."
At the same time, Donna Gigliotti, who was then a TWC executive and would go on to become one of Playbook's producers, recalls: "I decided that this script that was sitting on the shelf at The Weinstein Co. just had to be made because it was so great. And then we saw The Fighter, and [Harvey Weinstein] was like, 'OK, fine. Let's go make this movie.'"
Originally, a very different pair of stars -- Wahlberg and Angelina Jolie -- were orbiting the property. But Jolie's interest eventually waned. So the filmmakers decided to audition Lawrence via Skype as she was on location in North Carolina filming The Hunger Games. Any skepticism that the actress, then 21, could pull off the role of a widow with her own emotional challenges quickly was erased.
The production momentarily appeared endangered when talks broke down with Wahlberg, who couldn't commit to the 33-day Philadelphia shoot that Weinstein wanted wrapped before Thanksgiving 2011. "As a producer, when a studio says to you, 'OK, fine, we're giving you X millions of dollars to make a movie and we want it in this time frame,' that is the No. 1 thing that you are going to adhere to," explains Gigliotti, who enlisted veteran producers Bruce Cohen (Milk) and Jonathan Gordon (Good Will Hunting) to help her shepherd the $22 million film. When Wahlberg opted for the action movie Contraband, Russell had to find a leading man -- and quick.
"You're never their first choice," says Cooper, whose own star was ascending following the worldwide box-office binge of 2009's The Hangover. But Russell, who laughs at Cooper's recollection, points out that Hollywood enjoys a long history of movies in which actors who were second and third choices created first-rate performances. After all, in The Fighter, Matt Damon was long attached to play Dicky Eklund, a role for which Christian Bale won the supporting actor Oscar. "[Damon] said to me very graciously, 'This just goes to prove that the right person plays the right role at the right time,' " says Russell of a recent meeting with the actor. "I think that was his way of saying that Christian Bale seemed destined to play that part. And I have to agree with that. It is out of your hands to some degree."
As for Playbook, admits Russell, "If you really want to go back and do an archeological dig, the first person that I wanted to do it with was Vince Vaughn," saying that he bonded with the Wedding Crashers star over the fact that both their fathers worked as salesmen. "I wrote it for Vince Vaughn. And Zooey Deschanel."
With production suddenly a go, neither Cooper nor Lawrence had much time to prepare, which actually proved to be an advantage when working with Russell, who is known for his improvisational style. Cooper did pore over as many documentaries about mental illness as he could in the two weeks leading to the shoot. But "a lot of the exploration of the character played out in real time," he notes.
Lawrence, a best actress Oscar nominee for 2010's Winter's Bone, says she simply put herself at Russell's mercy. "It's a different way of working, keeping you on your feet," she says. "He has a way of bringing out different sides that you wouldn't know you had because he takes you so outside of your comfort zone."
Russell encouraged spontaneity on the set, says film editor Jay Cassidy. "Dailies were unlike anybody else's I've ever seen," he elaborates. "He will stage things and run a camera and rerun, interject without stopping, have discussions, try new lines, all in an improvisational way where the actors are never given the release of cutting the camera. The actors are never off the hook. David is consciously shooting variations because he's working out his script in the shooting and in the editing."
To accommodate the freewheeling director, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi gave Russell a 360-degree vantage at all times on the set. Unlike directors who ask their cinematographers to set up a shot in a specific spot, Russell insisted on keeping his options open and letting the camera roll. "We light the whole first floor of the house instead of just the living room and give the actors the space to perform," says Takayanagi. "He wants the freedom for the actors to go anywhere. Once the actors are in the groove, he doesn't want to lose it."
"He's always multitasking," says Weaver of Russell. "Sometimes you do things that are scripted, and sometimes you go completely off script." For her part, the Australian actress worked with a dialect coach to nail a Philly accent and studied Cooper's real mother, who was often on the set, to play his fictional mom.
But for all the appearance of chaos, producer Cohen says Russell's method is quite deliberate. "The reason he can be that flexible is because he is so prepared," he explains. "He knows exactly what he wants going into the editing room. It's like he has a mental checklist going all the time, and he knows he's getting all the pieces. To another director, it may seem very unorthodox."
Gordon recalls one telling encounter when Cooper brought his real-life uncle to the set to give De Niro pointers on how a local Philadelphian might say the lines. "He sits down on the couch and starts reading the script," says Gordon. "And David, who of course can't help directing all the time, is actually giving Bradley's uncle direction on how to read the part."
In the case of Playbook, that all contributed to the movie's vital sense of unpredictability. Rom com rules may dictate that Pat and Tiffany must end up together, but Russell, offscreen and on, found unconventional routes to lead them into each other's arms. "I don't think I'm ever in danger of being conventional because I have my own approach and own voice," he says. "You put everything you've got into a movie, and then you want people to feel it. Everything else is out of your hands."