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How 'Joy' filmmaker David O. Russell went from mid-life crisis to reinvention

by John Horn , Darby Maloney, and Elizabeth Nonemaker | The Frame

Writer-director David O. Russell with actress Jennifer Lawrence on the set of "Joy." Photo credit: Merie Weismiller W

David O. Russell's entry into the movie business began at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994 with the dark comedy, "Spanking The Monkey."

Since then the writer and director has had two distinct eras of his career. The first encompasses the films he made before his 2010 movie "The Fighter" which include "Three Kings" and "I Heart Huckabees."

"Huckabees" has gained traction through the years — Jennifer Lawrence has said it's her favorite Russell movie — but it under-performed at the box office, and landed Russell in tabloid hot water after a video of an on-set argument with Lily Tomlin went viral.

Then came "The Fighter," a sports biopic about the career of the boxer Mickey Ward. That film won Oscars for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, along with Russell's first nomination as best director. When Russell spoke with The Frame, he described this movie as his "career reinvention."

Since then he's made three more films — all with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Lawrence won an Oscar for "Silver Linings Playbook," and "American Hustle" was nominated in 10 categories.

And now Russell's latest film, "Joy," has a SAG Award nomination for Best Ensemble — which includes Robert DeNiro and Isabella Rossellini. Like "The Fighter," "Joy" is based on a real person: Joy Mangano, the inventor and home-improvement mogul behind creations such as the Miracle Mop and Huggable Hangars. She was a struggling single mother of three at the time she started hawking her inventions on TV, and has since launched and run a multimillion-dollar business. In Russell's telling, Joy's story is as much about bizarre relationships — a staple in his movies — as it is about triumphing against the odds.

When David O. Russell sat down with John Horn, he talked about what made "Joy" his "most challenging" film yet, and how he's learned to handle premiere screenings throughout the years.


Did you ever imagine yourself getting to the place where you are now as a filmmaker?

I think when you set upon that path, you don't know where you're going to end up. I remember studying these great films that I loved because I was trying to figure out how they did it, because it was like watching magic tricks to me. I even now still do that. And I feel like it took me all this time to begin to even comprehend how they did it. You know, "Chinatown," "It's A Wonderful Life" — what exactly did they do that was so remarkable?

Then you grow up, and you eventually say, Oh, we are kind of doing that, a little bit. Because it's craftsmanship. It took time to learn it.

But was there a moment when you figured it out? Or was it always a challenge?

It's always a challenge. I mean, you do get to know your craft. But I knew this was a particularly challenging film, "Joy," because of its obviousness. She's a known entity, a real person. Her story is known.

So it was definitely a use of our confidence, and a use of our cinema capital that we had built up since "The Fighter" — taking the dare on this seemingly obvious and ordinary story and finding what was inspiring in it.

Is "cinema capital" something you acquire through making successful movies? Does it give you the ability to tell stories that you wouldn't be able to tell otherwise, or tell them the way in which you want to tell them? Or both?

Yes it does. But the stakes get higher and higher. Because of your success, the level of expectations gets impossible . . . And you feel at a certain point, like when you're on a balance beam, that people are expecting you to fall. Even some of the great filmmakers that I love so much, they've had spells that are not flashy.

But it also feels like that happened to you in the bigger sense — that you had a career before "The Fighter," and you had a career after. I'm really curious about that turning point. I think those kinds of movies are a different kind of movie. They're about people who refuse to live in a house of fear. They're not going to be trapped by time, they're going to do something optimistic in their lives. And I'm wondering if that was part of what was happening to you personally.

Yes. I think it's well known that after "Three Kings" and "Huckabees" — "Huckabees" was like my midlife crisis movie — it then was a matter of reinvention for myself. So, "The Fighter" does reflect that.

Reinvention by necessity or choice? What happened?

By necessity. I think you can lose your way as a storyteller. Many storytellers I know are always at a challenge to find something that inspires them.

You've said about "The Fighter" that at another point in your life you would have found the people in it not interesting. So what changed that made you receptive to the idea of making a story about those people?

I think being humbled. Getting simple. [With "The Fighter"] I could really dig into the characters. That's what "Joy" is. "Joy," I would say, is a bookend to that chapter that started with "The Fighter." [Joy is] someone who seems to be a very ordinary person, from a very ordinary, lower middle-class family. That in some ways was the most challenging and the most daring thing about the movie — to find what was inspiring and beautiful about her.

She is someone who is the un-anxious presence in the room . . . That's inspiring, when I see that in people.

There's a scene in "Joy," where she gathers with her family to watch something on television. And she's watching what's on television with tremendous excitement, but also a little bit of fear, maybe a little bit of dread. Is what Joy goes through the same for you when you watch your film the first time with an audience?

Yes. It is always like a baptism . . . Here's the difference: When I was a younger filmmaker, I'd walk in the door, with my beating heart in my hand, ready to give it to the audience to step on. I didn't know how to protect myself. As an older filmmaker, I put on an imaginary armor of saying, Well, how do I feel about this film? I love this film, and here's what I love about it. And this cannot be taken away from me. So I don't know what's going to happen in here today, and I know we're going to have a lot of emotions about it and it's going to be intense — but no one can take this away from me. That's the difference between being an older filmmaker and a younger filmmaker.

"Joy" is currently in theaters.

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