January 22, 2016

4 Keys to Making an Emotionally Dynamic Film from Director David O. Russell

Director David O. Russell is an auteur -- you always know when you're watching one of his films. 

It's not necessarily the look of his films that distinguish them, but rather the feel of them. They're frenetic, chaotic -- their energy is pulsing and overflowing. However, even though he likes to give his actors the room to move and improvise, all of his shots are carefully and precisely choreographed -- so, really -- the frenzy, the chaos, the pulsing energy is mostly a construct of Russell and his team.

But how does he manage to do that? And how does he manage to make something like energy a signature style? And what characterizes his signature style, anyway? Russell explains all of that and more in this BAFTA Guru interview, which is actually a pretty beefy masterclass in directing.

Here are a bunch of takeaways from the interview:

Write the story from each character's point of view

One of Russell's trademarks is making his character's ordinary lives seem extraordinary. He starts his writing process by writing the story from each character's point of view -- "finding them in all of their glory," which means pinpointing their humanness and whatever is specific to them. So, Russell suggests trying to find what is "human, crazy, particular, inspiring, ugly, laughable" about your character.

Tell your story

Writing a screenplay is all well and good -- you get to spend a lot of time inside the world of your characters. However, sometimes it helps to invite others inside the world. One thing Russell does is tell his story to people, because, as he says, he's able to come up with new ideas as he's telling it -- which is why he records it every time he does this.

I like the scariness of walking into a room of a studio or an actor and not knowing half the answer. And somehow the answer comes and I walk out saying, "That's good."

Sometimes you can't make the film you want -- right now

Our tastes and ambitions oftentimes don't match the work we're currently putting out -- that's a lesson we learned from Ira Glass. You've got this great idea for a film, shot, piece of dialog, but maybe you don't have enough money to pull it off right now, or maybe your skills don't match your ambitions yet. That's okay. Russell explains that making movies is pretty much about honing your skills for years and years and years until none of that work can be visible on screen.

You wanna make it seem alive and effortless and fun, but that's an art that took me 25 years to really learn. I wanted to do it very much 25 years ago, but I didn't know how.

The lesson here is to not give up just because you can't do it now. Though inspiration may be immediate, the actual process of creating art from that inspiration is not; it's a sometimes grueling endeavor that takes years, or even decades to accomplish.

David O. Russell's Holy Trifecta

So, what elements does Russell care about when making a film? What does he think draws an audience in emotionally? Simply put: music, emotion, and camera -- working together.

My holy trifecta is to have music, emotion, and camera be in a propulsion that is almost as if you're breathing the moment yourself. And then you have to go back and watch it again because it was so -- grabbing you.      

Your Comment

3 Comments

You know when you're watching one of his films when the characters have flimsy motivation and he's got his steady cam op chugging Red Bull.

January 22, 2016 at 2:32PM

1
Reply
avatar
Brooks Reynolds
Director/DOP
269

I think he has a lot of good ideas, but he has problems with pacing. I've recently watched "Joy" & there were too many not needed dialogues/scenes, which only slowed the pace & didn't bring ANYTHING to the story. This kind of storytelling might give us a perception of having more realistic story, but it kills the pace & it fits tv shows more than films. Besides that I think he is very talented director, but I would like to see more "precision" in his movies, less soup opera.

January 22, 2016 at 5:22PM, Edited January 22, 5:23PM

0
Reply
Andy Tokarski
Director, Editor, Colorist
1307

I always know I'm watching one of his movies when I see Jennifer Lawrence and/or Bradley Cooper surrounded by a lot of knock-off Scorsese camera wooshes.

January 22, 2016 at 10:29PM

0
Reply