Silver Linings Playbook director David O Russell and producer Donna Gigliotti tell Jeremy Kay about developing the emotional source material into an award-winning package.
The range of elements that went into the production of Silver Linings Playbook is as appropriately heartfelt as the film itself.
The project started with Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, first published in 2008. Renee Witt, a former executive at The Weinstein Company (TWC), had read the manuscript and convinced Harvey Weinstein to option the film rights. Around the same time as Witt was championing the book, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella had been mulling over the same project. The late producing partners had a deal with Weinstein through their Mirage Enterprises and it was decided Pollack and Minghella would take on the challenge.
By terrible coincidence both Mirage co-founders died within three months of each other in the first half of 2008. “They hadn’t got very far down the road with the project,” says Donna Gigliotti, the film’s producer and a former Miramax executive who served briefly as TWC president of production until she left in early 2012 to produce full-time. “The only thing that happened that everybody was agreed upon was that David [O Russell] should write the screenplay.”
“About five years ago Sydney Pollack showed me the novel,” Russell says. “It was a dream to me. I was looking for a story that would make my son feel like he was part of the world, because he has grappled with OCD and bipolar issues.”
The film stars Bradley Cooper as a man released from a mental institution who pines for his estranged wife and is pursued by a quirky, alarmingly frank young woman played by Jennifer Lawrence. “It was about people who understand each other without lying to each other,” Russell adds. “I wanted it to be a story that could show my son he could go to a good place [in life].
“High-functioning people with mental issues are all different - they’re like fingerprints and you can never say any two are the same. I would sometimes meet parents and be very worried about my son’s behaviour and parents told me they had suffered the same maladies.
“Robert De Niro’s character [a superstitious sports gambler and the father to Cooper’s character] was very on the edge, like my father. He had some very rigid behaviours and some of them might almost be diagnosable.”
Witt and former Miramax executive Michelle Raimo - who has since taken the top job at Sony Pictures Animation - developed the screenplay with Russell. However once they finished the script, it sat on the shelf “languishing”, as Gigliotti puts it.
Russell could not wait around for the Weinsteins to commit to production and in the summer of 2009 he went off to shoot The Fighter in Philadelphia. By that time, Gigliotti had come on board at the behest of Witt.
“I saw an early cut of The Fighter and was out of my mind because I loved it so much,” says Gigliotti. “In a lot of ways I felt Silver Linings Playbook was a companion piece to The Fighter and that’s also how David sees it. The Weinstein Company had foreign rights on The Fighter and loved it. We began to get Silver Linings up and running.” Witt inadvertently threw a spanner in the works when she left TWC in early 2010. “Renee had been the person in there, pushing and pushing,” says Gigliotti. “When she left we thought, ‘How are we going to get this made?’ We started to talk about budget [Silver Linings Playbook ended up being made for around $21m] and locations. It took us a while to get all the pieces together. But we did it.
“I was in post in New York on I Don’t Know How She Does It. We decided [to shoot in] Philadelphia, which is where the book takes place. David said he could do it in the same timeframe as The Fighter - a remarkable 33 days.”
In late summer 2011, five weeks from the start of production, Gigliotti brought on fellow producers Bruce Cohen - “The most organised human being I know,” she says - and Jonathan Gordon, who had been the Miramax executive in charge of production on Russell’s 1996 movie Flirting With Disaster.
The film-makers wanted Jennifer Lawrence but the actress was shooting The Hunger Games and could not make it to either New York or Los Angeles to meet Russell. They arranged for the actress to audition via Skype. “It was the only time I had done that,” says Russell, who recorded the audition on his computer screen. “I thought she was probably too young and inexperienced to play such a role but I did it as a courtesy.
“She stunned us all. She came in and had a quality that’s very hard to name. She could have been 20 or 40. She’s very confident and frank and very vulnerable and human. It was a real bit of kismet that we got her. She had prepared the lines and put on black eyeliner and black nail polish and was doing it in her father’s study.”
Opposite Lawrence would be Bradley Cooper, a choice Russell was excited about since the actor knew Robert De Niro from Limitless and the two had become fond of one another. However Cooper and Lawrence did not know each other.
“They met two weeks before the start of production,” says Gigliotti. “She was coming off The Hunger Games and he was coming off The Place Beyond The Pines. They bonded quickly because they had to go into dance practice for two weeks before the shoot [for the film’s climactic dance contest sequence].”
Russell delivered Silver Linings on time and on budget. “He is extremely unconventional,” says Gigliotti. “It would appear on any given day to be chaotic but the trick is he is so well prepared. On set he has this ability to allow actors a tremendous amount of freedom, to literally move around as they see fit. We lit that house 360 degrees so the actors could move anywhere they felt they ought to be.”
Russell says he loved the process. “I feel this is a different phase of my career. I went through a sort of weird time when I wasn’t as clear on the work. As a writer or director there’s nothing worse than that, because even if you are clear it’s hard enough to accomplish it.
“This period began with the writing of this script. I thought I was making it then it got to be on the shelf, as often happens. The Fighter came and once I hit this stride I felt very excited and felt this was a wheelhouse I could work in because I think I have a good feel for it.
“This could be a territory for me. The next film is cut from similar cloth and it’s another companion piece because it’s about a specific place with similar emotions. It’s about a group of people in New York who went through very different situations and come from very different walks of life.”
Silver Linings Playbook had its world premiere at Toronto this year, where it won the festival’s People’s Choice Award. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave the film four Golden Globe nominations including best motion picture - comedy or musical, best screenplay for Russell and nominations for both Lawrence and Cooper. The film also has four nominations for the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
“It is nice when you’re recognised by your peers,” says Russell, “but what’s really gratifying is how you hear that audiences responded emotionally. I have had many stars see the movie and come up to me and tell me they have people like this in their family. It’s something people don’t talk about.”
Russell and Harvey Weinstein, on the other hand, talked about pretty much everything. “Yes, he interferes and yes, he lets us do what we need to do,” says the director. “I love the guy and I love working with him. It’s certainly challenging at times but many great people you get to work with are challenging at times. He has passion, taste and is a gambler - that’s a rare thing in the world of cinema.”