April 24, 2014

David O. Russell @SCA

Oscar Nominated Writer Visits SCA

Writer/director David O. Russell visited the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) for a Q&A on March 24th. During a discussion in which he talked honestly about how his process has grown in his last three films, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Russell also told the audience how the analysis of other films has helped him grow as a storyteller and that success for him is being able to show the audience why he loves his characters. The Russell Q&A was part of Writing for Screen & Television Division’s Writing Presents Speaker Series,  moderated by Mary Sweeney, the Dino and Martha De Laurentiis Endowed Professor.

Mary Sweeney and David O. Russell

Sweeney started the session by asking Russell how he chooses his projects. “It starts for me when I have something that I feel very personal or excited about,” said Russell. “I never want to soar over my material. I look for unexpected things. I look for things that are exciting. When you get to the filmmaking part, stuff happens. So, you have to be true to yourself.”

One of the themes of the evening was how Russell’s process has changed through his long career. He said that, early in his career, his films were often hard to explain to executives and “bosses” that have to approve things. One of the practical tips he gave to students was to start with the trailer in your mind instead of the full film.

“I sometimes start with just a story. Not even a movie, just a story you would tell someone,” said Russell. “Sometimes I start with a trailer so that, when the studio is freaking out because they don’t have a script, you have something. I try to make them feel OK. I like to tell my stories to people and, if I do it enough times, it helps me write the full version.”

The audience in the Ray Stark Theatre was primarily made up of students from the Writing Division and much of the conversation veered toward Russell’s influences as a writer. In particular, Russell referenced Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather explaining that its focus was emotional connections rather than the actual business of running a crime family.

“[The Godfather] is just about behavior and relationships,” he continued. “There’s all this talk about casinos and money but you never see any of it. You never see any money exchange hands. You never see commerce. You don’t set foot in a casino. What they do well is that you’re with Al Pacino, sweating it. In Silver Linings Playbook I took this with the parlay scene. You never really say what the father does. You don’t spell it out. It’s a little shady. You don’t have to know how casinos work to know it’s important in the Godfather and you don’t need to know what a parlay is to make the parlay scene work.”

The most emphatic lesson Russell imparted on the students was to fall in love with the characters you write as a screenwriter.

“I need to be in love with my characters,” said Russell. “I wanted the parents in Silver Linings to love each other. Deeply in love. It was interesting. I loved everything in the home. The rituals in the home. I loved the neighborhood. Everyone on the corner. I like the fact that everyone [in the neighborhood] was very concerned about the parlay. You have to really commit and tell the scene really passionately. I’ll go character by character and write why I love them and they’ll turn into scenes. The scenes start to appear. The moments.”

For more information of David O. Russell, visit: http://www.davidorussell.com/