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Finding the Silver Lining
Director David O. Russell Talks about the Award-Winning Film and His Personal Connection with Mental Illness
By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator
Silver Linings Playbook was the first movie in more than three decades to receive Academy Award nominations for all four acting categories. Add in nominations for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best film editing, and it is understandable why many critics, and casual filmgoers alike, considered the film one of the year’s best. (The film ultimately only came away with one win: Jennifer Lawrence won the Oscar for best actress.)
But beyond the nominations, awards and critical accolades lies what may be the film’s most lasting impact: the conversation that it has helped spur on mental health. Since the film’s release, director David O. Russell and the stars of the film, including Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, have all spoken up about mental illness and placed a spotlight on a topic still not often openly discussed.
Helping introduce legislation, meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and sharing his son’s own history with bipolar disorder— with his son Matthew at his side—Russell has taken the lead in raising awareness. In regards to the film, his directing creates scenes that, while fictional, appear to rip actual details out of the lives of those who have experienced mental illness themselves. Yes, the feverish story does come together nicely in the end for all those involved, which is not always the case for people living with bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses, but it accomplishes what many movies are supposed to do: provide a break from our own lives, make a connection and offer a little hope.
NAMI was fortunate enough to be able to speak with Russell about the making of the film, his personal connection with bipolar disorder and his advocacy efforts so far.
You had been working on the script for Silver Linings Playbook for five years before you had the final version for the movie. What were you able to accomplish in the last version that you don’t think you were able to in the first?
Many things. The script evolved the entire five years. At first, it was a rough adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel, but then there were many questions I had to answer over time, such as how hard-hit this main character should be with his issues, because in the book he’s been away for four years. I didn’t know how to do that exactly. But I do know people who have been hospitalized for short periods, sometimes repeatedly. It was a process of defining exactly what Pat Solatano’s [played by Bradley Cooper] issues were and how they were visible and when. Also, there was the evolution of the father character, Pat Sr. [Robert De Niro], into a bookmaker from someone who in the book was an obsessive fan. Then it was deciding how the father was superstitious and had OCD.
At some point I made The Fighter, which I was very grateful to get, and in the making of that movie I focused my affection for the specific enchantment of neighborhood worlds, in that case Lowell, Mass., and in Silver Linings Playbook, Upper Darby or Lower Merion, Pa. This became as interesting to me as the story. And the romance became very important to me, and how to back into that via the secret deal with the book, because in the novel, the Nikki [Pat Solatano’s wife] incident is withheld until near the end, and I did not want to use it that way; I preferred to give it up sooner, because it’s not so much about that incident as it is how he’s picking himself back up and putting his life back together in an excelsior fashion. Also in the book, his upward-attitude strategy was expressed through his love of movies and going over them in his mind. One film in particular was Rocky, but after I did The Fighter that seemed like not the best idea, and also I wasn’t sure about using movies inside of a movie.
The depiction of the family relationships showed the tumultuous situations that can sometimes develop when a member of a family has a mental illness. How did the importance of family influence the way you chose to portray those relationships and mental illness?
From my own experience, I know what many families go through and how much everyone has to step up. And how some people can be in denial of what’s happening, or not want to deal with it.
In speaking about the movie, you and your son have mentioned his own personal experiences with a mood disorder. What was his reaction after he had seen the final product?
He said the film makes him feel proud and that it is inspiring. It was a remarkable opportunity to make a film about experiences that we, and many other families, have lived. There is something healing in storytelling and inclusion.
The film is filled with painful experiences but is also filled with love and humor. How did you find and create the balance between the two sides?
I find it hard to get through anything without a sense of humor, and this is especially true of the challenges mood disorders can present. While it is very helpful and important to have serious strategies and consequences in behavioral programs, it is also good to not take certain things too seriously because that can be seen as empowering the disease versus seeing through its intensity as illusory and not letting it become what is considered “real.”
Many of the leading actors have come out expressing the need for a more open discussion of mental health, and have made efforts to combat stigma and raise awareness. Did their personal connections and feelings toward mental illness have an impact on the production of the film?
Absolutely—the film’s heart was informed by personal care and experience. It was all an atmosphere of embracing the family and the people in the family no matter what their issues, and all of it being dealt with rather than shunned.
You and Bradley Cooper recently met with Vice President Joe Biden in February to discuss the importance of addressing the topic of mental health in America. What was that conversation like?
It was amazing to be in the White House in the Vice President’s office; he has known people who have suffered. As he himself was once a stutterer, and so relates to that, he felt that this film was an opportunity to open up that entire dialog. We spoke for a while about how people go through adversity of all kinds, and how families need help at a time when programs, schools and other supports are being defunded. It was a gift that Mr. Biden gave his time and blessings to the open embrace of those who deal with mood disorders and their families.
You worked with a group of senators to introduce the Excellence in Mental Health Act, a bill that would strengthen treatment options at the community level. Do you have any plans to continue to advocate and raise awareness for mental illness in the future?
Yes; it never stops. Just helping my own family means a constant dialog about how to get the right support, the right resources, the right set-ups, living situations, aides, attitudes. I know so many families who will deal with these questions for the rest of our lives. I can see what is needed: There is a need for so many more schools that can meet these needs, or resources within existing schools. And I can see the exact bridge programs needed to help the transition from high school into either college, or other programs, or a safe environment of work and learning and building a community.
What do you hope people take away from the film about mental illness?
Mostly, I want people to come out feeling that it was a good movie. Part of that is feeling less afraid of talking about and dealing with and being warm and human about mental illness challenges—and wanting to do more.
Bradley Cooper’s character in the movie tries to “take all this negativity and use it as fuel and find the silver lining.” How do you find your silver lining?
Work is very good. It’s important to be grateful for it and commit to it no matter how difficult. But it’s the people around me and a good meal in a home or a neighborhood restaurant. These are things I love. Baseball games, too.
For a chance to win a Blu-ray/DVD of Silver Linings Playbook, check out NAMI's Facebook page. The interview, along with more pictures of Russell, his son and the cast can be seen in next month's edition of the Advocate.