There aren't many movies like Silver Linings Playbook. Based on Matthew Quick's 2008 novel of the same name, and adapted by writer-director David O. Russell, the film follows Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man with bipolar disorder who tries desperately to put his life back together after being released from a psychiatric hospital. Having moved back in with his parents, Pat soon crosses paths with a young widow, Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), who convinces him to sign up for a dance competition with her.
The film's combination of screwball comedy, intense family drama, and sincere romanticism made an impact on those who saw Silver Linings Playbook when it premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, before opening in theaters later in the year. The film received a total of eight nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and nominations in each of the four acting categories, for Cooper (Best Actor), Lawrence (Best Actress), Robert De Niro (Best Supporting Actor), and Jacki Weaver (Best Supporting Actress). Lawrence won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance, becoming the second-youngest actress to do so.
Now 10 years later, Russell still remembers the moment he was convinced to tackle the film. "It started when Sydney Pollack said to me in the year before he died, 'I think, given your personal experience with these challenges in your own family, you may be the one filmmaker to make this movie,'" he recalls.
That pivotal conversation with Pollack not only gave Russell the confidence to try his hand at adapting Quick's novel, but it also opened him up to injecting some of his own experiences into the script. "The film is a blend of Matthew Quick's novel and my own personal experiences," he explains, "as well as some of Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper's experiences." In the months and weeks leading up to the start of production, Russell and his cast met at De Niro's home to make sure the film felt as strong and true as they could make it. "We grew to understand the kind of love and unity the film would have," he says.
Following the release of Silver Linings Playbook, Russell, Cooper, Lawrence, and De Niro went on to work together in 2013's American Hustle and 2015's Joy. Of all their collaborations though, Silver Linings Playbook holds a uniquely special place in the hearts of the people who made it, and to those who have seen the film and felt seen in that magical way that cinema can make one feel not so alone in the world. "To this day, I still have people come up and tell me about how much the film has meant to their own experiences with mental health in their families," Russell says.
In conversation with A.frame, the filmmaker reflects on the making of Silver Linings Playbook and opens up about what it's been like to see the film's legacy grow and evolve over the past decade.
A.frame: It's been 10 years since Silver Linings Playbook was released. In 2012, what was it like for you to see the film be received as positively as it was?
It was exciting: Bradley was being discovered as a whole new actor in a way which has continued through many inspired roles right up to directing himself; Jennifer had not been widely discovered yet. The Hunger Games was just beginning. She was a new electricity — you could feel it in the theaters. Both of them were revelations for audiences, which is very exhilarating and alive when it happens. People respond to something new and human — emotional, funny, confident, lit up — and say, 'You have to see this movie.' Robert De Niro connected in a big, renewed way that dazzled audiences and elevated everything in the movie together. The whole movie hit this harmonic chord, further elevated with Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, John Ortiz, Paul Herman (rest in peace, Paul, we love you), Shea Whigham, Julia Stiles, all the members of the cast.
The story from Matthew Quick's novel, as I adapted it, took many by surprise, because it was unpredictable and a blend of many tones that kept firing from start to finish: Emotional drama, comedy rooted in character, heart, not trying to be funny, intrigue and secrets, a Philadelphia neighborhood community that enveloped the entire film in an embrace, a main frame device of LETTERS — handwritten letters — and a dance competition that, in combination with De Niro’s character's compulsive gambling, made for emotional reversals and a great climax.
What has it been like to see the film's legacy grow over the course of the past 10 years?
It’s meaningful that the film is a beacon for many people who struggle socially or as outsiders with any number of attitudes or issues — to this day, people come up to me and say it is the favorite film of their teenager, as well as many others who feel this way. It's a solid, inspired film that isn't going anywhere. And I'm grateful we got to make it with those exact people and collaborations.
Silver Linings Playbook was exceptionally well-cast. What was it like putting the film's cast together? And do you remember the moment when you saw how well the actors clicked as an ensemble?
Bradley was first. It is clear that he was hungry for the role to reveal much more of himself as an actor — to make the role very personal to part of himself that related to any of what was inside himself that he's been through. And that was powerful. He was completely available with huge energy and enthusiasm as a collaborator first in creating the character. We spoke about it in depth and about bringing in De Niro, with whom he had worked on Limitless. He was able to bring a lot of rawness from his own challenges or experiences in the past, his own life — which included many transformations. And, in spending time around myself and Robert, he was able to pick up a lot from people around us in our families and outside our families who faced challenges of mood disorders, of cognitive differences. He picked up many behaviors, and specific attitudes, and looks about the stigma, the heartbreaking desire to shed the stigma and not be socially outcast, the tics, the triggers, the intense delusional beliefs that everyone needs to walk on eggshells around so they don’t trigger an episode of a mood disorder or cognitive mistake. Bradley was a sponge for all of that, and he inhabited it well before production and into production.
Jennifer, coming off of Winter’s Bone, was very ready to be an unleashed, raw, very sincere open-hearted person who has been stigmatized for behaviors that the character had not been able to manage. She got that right away. And she got it more than she may have been able to understand it. Then we spent a lot of time together before pre-production or in pre-production, at Robert’s house, Bradley and I, really getting comfortable and closer to each other, and trusting each other, and understanding the kind of love and unity the film would have, as well as the connection and bond, as well as the realness in the tone — principally, Bradley and myself with Robert. And Robert was meticulous in going over every aspect of the script and every line, and making sure he completely owned it, and knew it or altered it or upgraded it to what he felt would be best and truest. And he knew every turn in the story. He went over it meticulously, almost as if it was entirely his film as a producer or director or star or all three. That's how meticulous he was. And we were learning from him a lot and we were soaking it all up — his meticulousness.
Chris Tucker did a similar thing with his character, until it got very specific about the actual laws that govern and regulate people who face these challenges when they need to be kept in a facility, if not jail — hopefully not jail. They can get to a facility that hopefully isn't too bad, and a character like Chris' has studied the law, knew the law by heart, who wanted to get out. He wanted to be better and get out. A lot of mutual support between people, not to be negative or deny, but to get out of the situation that had gotten them stuck, and not stay in the stigma of being stuck. Then all the other characters — Jacki Weaver, extremely powerful presence, breathing everything. Said so much with so few words. So much love was felt from her. She was a huge presence and a huge performance worth studying. It's all in her eyes and in her heart, which powerfully occupied the entire house and filled it with her energy and power in her dynamic with Bob. It all happened very naturally. It was all a dance between the stigma and the fear of the behavior and the lack of control and the vision, all tied to a vision to step up and the community around it in every way, support every way they could, including watching a football game around Thanksgiving or a holiday. It was all the community that was together around this and every variation of being supportive or struggling in a funny, real way with this challenge. Not turning their backs on it.
Silver Linings Playbook was seen as a bit of a turning-point film for both Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. What has it been like for you to see how their careers have evolved over the past 10 years?
It has been glorious to work with them over several movies and to grow together with them and see them evolve into the people they are today. I'm grateful to be their friend and collaborator.
When you think back, what is the defining memory you have from the making of the film?
The love we all felt together making it. How much trust and seriousness and fun we had, how we all felt we were making something original and special. The Philadelphia neighborhood and the house; I didn't want to leave the family house when it was over. I wanted to stay there, and I didn't like saying goodbye to it and the characters who had lived there. But I get to visit them whenever someone talks about the film or I see it again.
In particular, I remember the climactic scene which involves nearly every member of the cast, when De Niro and everyone are in a big conflict with Bradley, and Jennifer bursts in and the whole scene levitates, and reverses all the alliances and stakes of the entire film. You could feel audiences almost levitate with surprise and a kind of joy when that happened. And the dance sequence over two or three nights, I will never forget the magic of filming that dance we had never seen performed all at once like that beyond pieces in rehearsals. Jennifer taking a nap between setups late at night next to the table where my parents and friends were playing the dance judges, I have a picture of it. The entire sequence, Bradley, De Niro, all of it coming together felt like something I'd never experienced, both as we filmed it and when we edited it.
If you learn something new from every film, what did you learn about yourself as a filmmaker on Silver Linings Playbook?
That I do well adapting novels or true stories — as with The Fighter and American Hustle and Joy — and that I feel a terrific creative chemistry with Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, all the cast. And that there is a rhythm to a story when the protagonist has a clear drive, even if it is delusional, the predicament remains on a full boil throughout the film, shifting and changing with each character. I learned that it's wonderful to have smart collaborators helping — from producers Donna Gigliotti, Michelle Kouyate, Jon Gordon, Bruce Cohen, Bradley, Bob, and Jennifer and, of course, this is when I met the brilliant, amazing editor Jay Cassidy — which began our work together so far, knock on wood — as well as music supervisor, Sue Jacobs, and many others. It was the beginning of a specific, really good band that played together for several films and had a fantastic time. And dealing with a true mental health matter experienced in life is powerful for a filmmaker and everyone on the film, and that it removes stigma, and opens a good and kind conversation that’s helpful. To this day, I have people tell me how much the film means to their own experiences with mental health in their families.
You've just released Amsterdam. How do you feel like you have and haven’t changed as a filmmaker in the decade since Silver Linings Playbook?
Amsterdam is a more epic story and canvas carrying this heart and fun and love, a larger world, but I've held on to loving characters, and their hearts, and their voices, and the fun they have, and the emotion and love they have, amid any predicament.
Silver Linings Playbook felt like a very specific take on the romantic comedy genre. How do you feel about the current state of the genre in Hollywood?
Silver Linings always had its own personality and tone — it is what it is — and started when Sydney Pollack said to me in the year before he died: "I think given your personal experience with these challenges in your own family, you may be the one filmmaker to make this movie with both the heart, the emotion, the agony, and the comedy grounded in all those things, including the absurdity." It is a blend of Matthew Quick's novel together with my own personal experiences, as well as some of De Niro's and Cooper's. We never never felt it was a "romantic comedy genre," and were surprised when we heard those words. As far as films that have heart and romance in general, I like lots of them when they’re good; and I especially like stories that are original, unexpected, and stand in territory where romance is the last thing you see coming. The world today sure seems like it might benefit from not escapism, but remembering what the heart is, what free, flawed, human, fun, and funny aliveness are.
10 years later, what does Silver Linings Playbook mean to you?
Originality, heart, human comedy and tragedy together carry the day at the movies for me anytime. I feel giant gratitude that I got to make the film and work with every single person involved in it.