Few people receive Oscar nominations for their work, let alone accomplish that feat two years in a row, but David O. Russell has achieved a level of success that has cemented his status as a gifted filmmaker who can have his pick of the top actors in Hollywood. While Russell has been very busy on the awards circuit, he found time to speak to SFTV students in the second installment of The Hollywood Masters series, with Stephen Galloway.
On His Biggest Influences
Russell cites both of his parents for instilling a love of motion pictures in him at an early age. “They were colorful and passionate and that had a huge influence on me,” he said. Russell credits this early love of film with helping him to develop an imagination that had him constantly thinking about movies in every aspect of his life. Russell listed Jim Jarmusch, Roman Polanski, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra and Martin Scorsese as some of his favorite filmmakers.
The Creative Process
“You have to do a lot of bad work before you do good work,” Russell assured the audience. “I tried to be a novelist but I couldn’t find my voice and it was too lonely. Filmmaking by its very nature is a more social endeavor.” He still gets writer’s block and, when it hits, he reminds himself to just tell the story rather than getting hung up in the backwaters. He said that his writer’s block tends to go away once he tunes into the music of the dialogue. “I do a lot of verbalizing with friends when I’m working on a script. I just have conversations with them about the story or I tell them the story in an email. Once I do that enough times, then I can open up Final Draft and start writing.”
His Big Break
Russell believes it’s important to have your “marital” projects (ones that you’re committed to) and your “mistress” projects (those ideas you work on secretly). “I was working on a feature film and writing Spanking the Monkey, which was my mistress project, in my spare time. The feature film was supposed to be this big thing but much to my surprise, Spanking the Monkey turned out to be my big break. I was very inspired by Gus Van Sant’s first feature film Mala Noche because I thought it was so daring–and maybe even embarrassing–for him to expose himself with that film. Seeing his work pushed me to take a risk with my own script.”
Casting Actors Against Type
Russell admits that he likes disarming an audience and using their preconceived notions of an actor against them. “During a screening of Silver Linings Playbook, I could feel the discomfort in the audience because they were expecting a ‘Bradley Cooper’ film based on what he had done up to that point, but 20 minutes later they fell in love with Bradley Cooper in a whole new way.” Russell knows how scary it is for everyone involved to take those kinds of risks but he approaches it from the standpoint of “we’re all in this together, and I have to put my heart into it and guide the actors through the process.”
The Hollywood Masters is a new series that examines the careers of Oscar-winning filmmakers and successful executives, with The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway and presented by LMU School of Film and Television.