David O. Russell has, as many will attest, his own way of shooting a movie. "He’s not hanging out in video village [like most directors do]," explains Jay Cassidy, Oscar-nominated editor (along with Crispin Struthers) of Silver Linings Playbook. The film has earned two Oscar nominations for Russell—for best director and best adapted screenplay—and nods for its four stars, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Jacki Weaver, as well as being nominated for best picture. "He talks to the actors and resets the action while the camera’s running. He’d run full scenes without stopping, picking up coverage out of order."
Russell’s always-on method explains a lot about what ended up on the screen—scenes in which a handheld camera or a Steadicam seems to be following the action from various angles and dialogue is coming from every direction. Here, Russell and Cassidy discuss their collaboration, what got left in and out, and how they turned an unusually large amount of footage into an eight-time Oscar nominee.
Russell’s way of working was valuable for Cassidy, who was watching dailies in Los Angeles as the shoot carried on in Philadelphia. "In between takes I hear a lot of the dialogue between director and actor," says Cassidy, which allowed him to fully understand the director’s and actors’ intentions as they’re adjusting performances—all without having yet met any of them. "I’d never met David but during those 33 days [of the shoot] yet I felt like I knew him."
Russell captures actors in the moment by shooting with multiple cameras, from every angle, often with a Steadicam or a handheld. "He’s getting the actors not to act," says Cassidy.
Typically when a director finishes shooting a film the editor has a period of time on his own to put together an assembly—a rough cut of the whole film. But Russell finds watching that to be an excruciating experience, so he dove right in and started putting scenes together with the editors. "After the first four films, I couldn’t go through it," says Russell. "It’s the worst day of a director’s life. I spoke to [The Descendants director] Alexander Payne about it; it’s so demoralizing. I had to wonder what purpose it serves since you still have to cut every bit of the film"—which they did for nine or 10 months of long days. "We went deep into every scene. We never stopped combing over material."
"I was skeptical at first," says Cassidy of skipping the editor’s assembly. "But I don’t think we suffered for it at all."
One of the most striking things about Silver Lining Playbook is its agile balance of comedy and drama. "That tone was there in script," says Cassidy. "I understood the tone of the movie from that. These characters have a volatility; they move from one emotion to another on a swing and the script had a lot of that—it would turn on a dime and go in a whole different direction. But because the tone was so clear it never felt like we were lost with what kind of movie we were making." The key, says Cassidy, is in playing comedy seriously. "These characters’ concerns were the most important things in world to them. The parlay, the dance, the stakes absolute, if you’re serious it can then play with humor but it’s got to be played with earnestness and specificity."
For Russell, this is of a piece with his last film, The Fighter. "The thing with this movie is it’s real," the director says. "It never really had a genre. Like The Fighter was not a fight movie. It’s real. Whatever’s going to happen whether it’s emotional or funny. My goal was for the film to grab you by the throat and pull you through a surprising experience."
"It was very collaborative," Russell says of the editing process, "with people fighting passionately about how to do scenes." At times, he says, it became a "bake-off" between those involved over which version of a scene was better. "Sometimes you’d be arguing one position and by the end of the argument you’ve completely switched to the opposite without even realizing it."
Cassidy recalls one such instance: "There was a scene David shot with Bob [De Niro] and Bradley [in which] Bradley is reading a book. He gets upset and tosses it aside and hits Bob in the face with the book. It’s fantastic—Bob De Niro gets hit in the face with a book! I argued very hard that we couldn’t not include this, that in the canon of De Niro’s work this would be a moment people would come back to. But it came at a bad time in the film when we actually didn’t need it. Still," he continues, "I argued for it hard while David argued to take it out. We tried to find other places for it. Later on, I was arguing that it couldn’t be in."
Cassidy explains that the passionate feelings are all contingent on the latest cut. "Everything is in context," he says. "Your feelings for the material only exist for that run of the film that you’re doing, and if you start changing things down the road, things you thought were perfect are now not. Once you give in to that process there’s a certain freedom because there’s no preciousness to some great execution of a thought you’ve had."
The scene in which Cooper’s character is in the kitchen fighting over the phone with his mother was, for a long time, out of the movie. "That was a scene in which we switched positions a number of times," says Russell. "Jay said we had to keep it and I insisted it come out." Then it was out for a while until Russell came to feel differently and "insisted" on putting it back in. "Jay fought that even though he’d originally been the champion of [the sequence]. But then Jay was explaining to me why it has to be in the film: You have to see the father is almost as volatile [as the son] and the house is a pressure cooker."
Ultimately it was, according to Russell, "too good" to keep out so they put it back in the movie but cut it down significantly. "We didn’t want it to step on the attic scene but we wanted [the viewer] to feel that [Cooper’s character] Pat wouldn’t listen to reason. Jay, are you happy with it?" Russell asks of Cassidy, laughing.
"I’m very happy with that," replies the editor.
Since actor Cooper is an executive producer of the movie, he was able to play a role in the editing room, which isn’t something most actors get to do. "Bradley would be in one room while Crispin was in another," recalls Russell. "We’d all come back to Jay’s room—the boss’s room—and work over [whatever was being cut]." Because there were so many takes performed in so many different ways, there was a vast amount of material to cull through. "We cut the film many different ways," reports Russell. "Jay had to do an enormous amount of work. [On the set], Bradley had to craft his performance to be lighter and darker [depending on what I wanted at the moment] and we ended up using all of it. As editor, Jay had to become intimate with all of that."
"I’m not the kind of passive-aggressive editor who rolls his eyes and keeps going with whatever the director says," reports Cassidy, who was previously nominated for an Oscar for editing Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn.
He and Russell share that way of working. "I wanted him to be vocal," says the director. "It’s a privilege to be making a movie and I want everybody to be as excited about it as I am, and to be as real and vocal about it."
On this topic, Cassidy has the last word: "In retrospect, all arguments lead to perfection."