‘Joy’ Director David O. Russell On Jennifer Lawrence’s Journey, Success, And Why It’s Still A Wonderful Life

"Success is not a cake," Russell told MTV News.

By Neal Gabler

David O. Russell is intense in an almost monastic way. He slouches in his seat, an oversize, light-gray tweed Toronto Maple Leafs baseball cap on his head, his tie loosened. He closes his eyes as he speaks, the result of either exhaustion or concentration. It is difficult to tell which, though given his measured tone, it is probably the latter. Russell, a youthful 57, has been on a whirlwind tour promoting his new film “Joy,” which opened Christmas Day. The movie stars Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano, the Long Island single mother who invented the Miracle Mop and became a home-products entrepreneur on QVC against enormous odds — including the loss of her family’s faith and the depredations of business swindlers.

It is, at first blush, an odd subject for a sprawling epic, but Russell made his reputation on offbeat, seriocomic pictures like “Spanking the Monkey,” “Flirting With Disaster,” “Three Kings,” and, perhaps the oddest of them all, “I Heart Huckabees,” a farrago of a film starring Jason Schwartzman as a confused young man who hires “existential detectives” to help him find himself.

Russell said that after “Huckabees,” which received a tepid critical reception and polarized audiences, he felt humbled, and that humbling led to something of a revelation: No more films of the head, only films of the heart, and no more films of fancy, only films of realism. His subsequent movies, “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” and “American Hustle” — all works, more or less, of domestic realism (more in the case of “The Fighter,” less in the case of “American Hustle,” whose swindler protagonists caricature themselves in their world of self-invention) — were huge successes, both critically and commercially, and elevated Russell into the directorial stratosphere.

“Joy,” which has opened to mixed reviews, follows both the recent Russell tradition of realism and his tradition of chronicling characters struggling to find their best selves through the arduous journey of life. Talking with Russell, one discovers just how close this idea hits home both for himself and for his recent muse, Jennifer Lawrence, with whom he has now made three films. In fact, this wonderfully strange and frequently moving picture about a woman who invents a mop may just be Russell’s most personal film yet.

MTV News: When I first heard about this film, I thought, “What the heck is this?”

David O. Russell: It was brought to us by Elizabeth Gabler [president, Fox 2000 and no relation to the interviewer], and she presented it to Jennifer and I together. I’d been writing other things, and my first thought was: Gee, is it too soon for us, Jennifer and I, to come back right away?

MTV: So Jennifer Lawrence was there at the inception. Would you have made the film without her?

Russell: It was a mutual decision. If I have a partner who says to me, “I think this is interesting. I think we could do things we’ve never done before” — have Jennifer at the center of a film in a quiet way, the first character she played that’s not sort of crazy. Tell the tale of someone from 10 years old to 45 years old, which was another ambition I had not undertaken. These were all new ambitions for us. That was always there from the beginning.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
Jennifer and David on set at office in Rudy’s Garage, and they are on opposite ends of room reading.

MTV: You share the writing credit, but did it come to you as a finished script? [The Writers Guild required Russell to share an original story credit with Annie Mumalo, who had previously written “Bridesmaids,” and who had written the first script for “Joy” — though Russell received sole screenplay credit for the latter.]

Russell: Yes. But I knew I didn’t want to do that script because it was much more of a biopic, and Jennifer’s first question to Fox was, “Well, can we do whatever we want to it? Can David write whatever he wants to write?” I wanted to do something different, in a different voice from Annie’s, and Joy [Mangano] gave us her blessing. I took Joy’s last name out of it so I would not be so beholden to the biopic aspect of it. But I did take the most interesting facts from her. I spoke to her for maybe 100 hours on the telephone and got all these amazing, intricate details that made me want to do a film.

MTV: You have said that after “Huckabees,” you wanted to make films with the texture of real life, that those were the kinds of pictures that fascinate you. You want details.

Russell: I could not make a movie if I did not have a love for the particular details of the world — from the wallpaper, to their shirts, to the things they hold in their hands, to the sign on the garage. I saw that rooftop sign on Joy’s father’s garage the whole time. I loved it.

Merie Weismiller Wallace/Twentieth Century Fox

MTV: That was already in your head before you started making the film?

Russell: Yes. And just the snow all around. And that sort of Hopperesque or Andrew Wyeth feeling at these service stations of this classic America that made things — not virtual things, but things where people used their hands. And I could see De Niro [who plays Joy’s father] in there. And I could see him being on the tail end of that business of a welding garage that fixes buses and trucks.

MTV: Coincidentally, this is the second big movie this year, after Pixar’s “Inside Out,” with a character named Joy that investigates the emotion of joy. I have a feeling that you also sparked to the idea that the protagonist’s name was Joy and how evocative and contradictory that is.

Russell: Yes, I did! My friend Spike Jonze was the first one to say, “Wow! Will the film be about the emotion of joy?” I said, “Yes.” Joy is a very complicated emotion in a grown-up world. What’s joy when you’re 10 years old and you can escape in your room and put on a record player? You don’t have to deal with adult concerns and you can make things with your hands. I’d make a paper world of trees and houses and characters.

MTV: Like Joy in the film.

Russell: That was me. And I could tell stories endlessly like that. And when Jennifer Lawrence bought her first house, I was there, and she pulled out these boxes that she hadn’t seen since she was a little girl. It is very moving to me. [Russell tears up.] Things she made when she was 5 or 6, and I relived the moment, which is in the film, when I saw her saying, “What is this?” And seeing paper dolls she made when she was 6, and they were kind of falling apart. There was just something very beautiful about the idea that that’s where she had started.

Merie Weismiller Wallace/Twentieth Century Fox
David pointing to Jennifer Lawrence and Edgar Ramirez on set of her home.

MTV: Your recent films have been about how people fight for their dreams as a way of redeeming their lives — of making life something more than survival. You’ve called it “enchantment.” You have said that you want your films to show the process of enchantment.

Russell: That’s exactly right. That’s what I care about most in a movie. And that’s why I go to the movies. There are great dark movies, which have their purpose, and I love to have them in my life. But enchantment is very important to me. And I loved seeing the enchantment in Joy as a little girl, and then when she got married. And what happens when you’re divorced and you’re a single mother of two? What happens to that enchantment? Sometimes the music of your enchantment can become very, very faint. You can’t even hear it. And maybe you forget that you once had it. And that, to me, is survival. That’s not living fully. But if you really envision something, it starts to take on a reality. And there’s magic in that. But you’re going to have to fight for it. Because the misconception of dreams is that there isn’t an enormous amount of work and heartbreak that’s going to make it real. You begin with the dream. Then you have to fight to defend it.

MTV: There is a line in “Joy” that echoes a line in “Silver Linings Playbook”: “The world will break your heart.”

Russell: Pat says in “Silver Linings,” “The world will break your heart 10 ways to Sunday.”

MTV: Nothing is easy for your characters in realizing their dreams.

Russell: You have to be willing to become a different person. You have to become very tough, fierce, and at the same time hope you haven’t lost the tenderness that was your reason to dream. I’ve seen Jennifer do it in her life. I’ve watched her grow up from a 20-year-old who was very guileless and full of brimming, hustling talent and magic and who then — “Hunger Games” had not come out yet — suddenly has all this attention and success come to her. I said, “Please stay true to yourself. And find a way to protect yourself.” I remember when Jennifer cut her hair after “Silver Linings.” It was sort of a big moment because until then she had always had this long, long hair. She said that she cut it because the hair was so damaged from being dyed so much for “X-Men” and for “Hunger Games.” But I felt there was a passage. There was kind of a Joan of Arc thing going on where I witnessed her taking ownership of herself, and that’s why I wanted to put that hair cutting in the movie. As I’ve known moments in people’s lives, including my own, it’s like putting on war paint. It’s a declaration of, I’m going to save this! I’ve watched Jennifer become a more grounded grown-up. She has become a young woman needing to own herself and protect herself, her true self.

MTV: So this is not just a film starring Jennifer Lawrence. “Joy” is a film about Jennifer Lawrence, and the way her experience captures the experience of success.

Russell: For me it is. I don’t know if she’ll take exception to this, but she’s heard me say it. To me, it’s honoring her. Success is not a cake. It looks like a cake on the outside. But there is sadness and loneliness and heartbreak and collapse. So you find people who are loyal to you and will love you. But you have to face the valley of life and death alone. If you’re not alone, you aren’t going to be able to do it. It’s down to you, and that’s how you make yourself. I loved using space in those Hopperesque frames, which I’d never done quite so much before, to define loneliness as someone who is the last person to take “no” for an answer. Most people will do anything to avoid that feeling.

MTV: Basically, whether you are inventing a mop or becoming a star, you have to reinvent yourself without losing yourself.

Russell: There is no one who is an actress who that hasn’t happened to. I think of Jennifer in her home — a home full of guys, since she grew up with brothers, and her mother is a very formidable character. So to declare her space, she became other people her whole life. And from a very young age she would ring a doorbell and say, “Hi, my name in Nancy. My car broke down the road.” She would just make it up. And the person would say, “What?” “May I use your phone? My car broke down.” And I just think there are whole scenarios from her life that are just so amazing and memorable to me.

MTV: You’ve talked about being humbled after “Huckabees,” as Joy is humbled when no one will buy her mop and her life seems over.

Russell: She was done, done, done. She was dead. You don’t got nothing. You just go home and maybe declare bankruptcy and that’s it.

Merie Weismiller Wallace/Twentieth Century Fox

MTV: And you’ve talked about the necessity of being humbled that way and how your own humbling after “Huckabees” affected your life and work.

Russell: If you look at any fairy tale, it is fraught with horrors that seem insurmountable, relentless goblins who seen undefeatable, and relentless rabbit holes, but they make you feel human. That’s why fairy tales were invented — so that you could tell them to children so they could face the greatest, most horrific things. “I hate to break it to you, but…” Fairy tales are really meant to let humans feel very small and realize how small they are — small, fragile creatures. And it isn’t until you really experience that and don’t hide from it, and you’re willing to accept it, that a story becomes inspiring to me. Any story.

MTV: In “Joy,” as in nearly all of your previous films, family plays a major role.

Russell: It is our lives. As Robert De Niro and I always say to one another about life with families, “It’s always something. It never ends.” Every time we turn around, it’s going to be something. Forget the news. I’m not talking about the news. I’m talking about your life. And families are part of the duality of our world. Beauty does not exist without ugliness. Plants don’t grow without garbage and dirt and death. The same thing is true of your family. They can be your greatest foes and your greatest supporters.

MTV: It’s the balance in “Joy” between her family supporting her and trapping her — sometimes trapping her by supporting her, as her father does when he tells her it is OK that she is failing. He thinks she has overreached herself. In most movies, the father who says that would be one-dimensional: the man who tried to thwart his daughter’s dreams. But here he is a man who loves Joy so much that he wants to protect her from her not being able to realize her dreams.

Russell: There are people who describe this family in terrible terms, and I do not agree with them. It’s not all or nothing. Some people are like ice cream. They are 100 percent wonderful. And some people are very mixed. But you still love them, and you’re very grateful they’re in your life, and your world would be emptier without them. We didn’t meet Joy until right before pre-production, and only because Robert insisted that we meet the father. I didn’t want to meet Joy because I didn’t want to be beholden to her. I just wanted to do this big fable where she would open the box of her childhood paper creations at the end, like I’d seen Jennifer do in life, and she’d be older. And so they sat with us — Joy; her father, Rudy; and her daughter Christie, who’s very beautiful and runs Joy’s company with her. And as soon as they sat down, Rudy, who is in his argyle sweater and is in his eighties, says, “When I created all these things, and I made all these inventions…” As if he had invented the Miracle Mop and the other things.

And we look over to her and think, Is this going to become like some reality TV show where she throws a chair at him? And instead, we were knocked out by her quiet, benevolent power. We just looked at Joy, and just the way she sat there and brushed her pants off and looked at him with complete compassion knocked us out. Joy still has love in her heart for him. And we said, “She is the unanxious presence in the room.”

Francois Duhamel/Twentieth Century Fox

MTV: Which is what Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd) says of Joy in the film. In that vein, let me throw something at you. I know when you were young, you once copied “It’s a Wonderful Life” line by line because you loved the film so much and you thought it would help teach you how to write a script. I see “Joy” as David O. Russell’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Joy is George Bailey; the Miracle Mop is her savings and loan; her grandmother is Clarence the Angel; and capitalism, which threatens to crush Joy, is Potter.

Russell: I will say this much. There is all that in this picture: the love of family; all the different characters in the family; the relentlessness of what she must face; the loss of her dreams and her saying, “Why am I still stuck here? I was the high school valedictorian.” “The smartest one in the [crowd]” — do you remember that line from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” about George?

MTV: And also the line, “George, you were born old.” That’s Joy too.

Russell: “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a magical movie that I would love to pay homage to in yet an even bigger way. There’s much of it in this picture just in the sense that I love seeing Joy in her maturity, happy to be alive but happy to be at peace with herself and what she’s fought for. What I said to Jennifer is, “This is the secret of your character. Look. [Russell places his palms together and moves his hands gently up and down in front of him as if in prayer, pointing to some inner strength.] No one can ever take that away from you. It’s right here. And you can just pick it up and do it again. Something is going to happen. It’s that focus between you and whatever it is you’re going to dare to create.”

And that is what the movie is celebrating. When she looks out the window at the end of the film with those two little girls and their dad, it’s a big snow, but it’s not a real snow; and it’s not the family she quite wanted. She’s looking through there and she’s feeling sadness. But she’s also feeling gratitude. And she’s feeling she’s just broken through, and she’s feeling like a grown-up who is able to carry loss. And that’s mature joy.