Spring 2017

The Dance of the Several Reveals

A Silver Lining is achieved with a high-stakes third act

By David O. Russell

Silver Linings Playbook (2012), about two damaged people who come together against all odds, has David O. Russell firing on all cylinders. It would end up earning eight Academy Award nominations, including best picture and director, as well as nominations in the four acting categories. It was also Russell's first outing with Jennifer Lawrence—who triumphed on Oscar night; the collaboration would continue to blossom in two subsequent movies.

As Russell explains, the dance competition sequence forms "the emotional and narrative culmination of the entire film," when all the hopes and dreams of not just Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Lawrence) are at stake, but those of Pat's parents, particularly Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), a bookmaker whose future is riding on the outcome of both the dance and a football game between his beloved Eagles and the Cowboys.

The sequence is packed with intricate detail, not just technically (Russell's work with DP Masa Takayanagi is filled with dynamic movement and framing, and punctuated by countless light sources) but also psychologically, with mere glances that tell a thousand words, and ulterior motives that get played out in the most exhilarating fashion.

Here then, in his own words. -Steve Chagollan

This is the quiet before the storm. It was essential to set the stage for the third act like a curtain opening, because so many different emotional hopes and bets and people were all involved in the dance, whether watching or participating: parents, friends, estranged wife—all in an unknown public competitive arena filled with professional dancers. Moving into these beckoning chambers achieved the feeling of going deeper into a new and momentous event and also allowed us to locate all the many characters emotionally invested throughout the space.

The actual location of the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia has the authentic feel of a historical local landmark that holds benefit events like this one—a kind of a middle-to working-class event. The hotel itself is a Chinese box of successive spaces, entrances, marble stairs, a downstairs bar, an upper tier to look down through a railing, an upstairs lobby and corridor, as well as a huge, two-tiered, 60-foot-ceiling ballroom.

The ballroom has an emotional buildup for Pat and Tiffany, and everyone else. We feel all points of view, leading with Pat's and Tiffany's; as he is serene, taking in the entire room because he has a secret plan; and she is coming undone, because her hidden plan seems to have fallen apart as she storms across the loud ballroom and hides, almost quits really, by sitting at a small bar and allowing a stranger to buy her multiple vodkas.

The lighting in the film in general, with DP Masa Takayanagi and gaffer Bill O'Leary, aspired to be as soft and natural as possible, from windows and soft practical sources that allow actors to move freely in and out of shadows and light. In contrast, the hotel lobby was bright downstairs, filled with sparkling holiday lights, then dim again upstairs, then dark with pools of light and an overall sense of scale, crowd, and a kind of magic lighting around the perimeter, with the dance floor bright at its center.

Unlike the bright dance floor of the orthodox professional dancers, the floor went dark for Pat and Tiffany and would rely on high follow spots posted at either end of the ballroom. In addition to accentuating the vast depth of the space, this allowed the actors to be backlit with a flare into the lens, which has a messy aliveness and immediacy. It also allowed the dancers to move in and out of circles of direct follow spotlight in the dark. In addition, Pat and Tiffany's lighting for the dance was distinguished by a skirt around the perimeter of the dance floor, designed by Masa about six inches high all the way around, which had been programmed in accordance with the dance to go dark or bright or colored at different moments.

The dance itself was designed from an emotional standpoint when writing the screenplay, such that it would show three very different kinds of dance and music and moods, using the varied colors of these unconventional characters who had "failed" in the normal world thus far. The songs were grounded in who each character was. We were privy to their unofficial courtship during dance rehearsals at her studio so the challenge was to still have the final dance at the competition be a surprise to everyone, family and audience. The first piece was Stevie Wonder ("Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing"), which is related to the wedding song ("My Cherie Amour") that has haunted Pat in his mental illness. Playing it here was a show of mastery for him, emotionally and mentally, to be free from his trauma. As Tiffany had said earlier, "It's just a song, don't make it a monster."

The shot list for the dance sequence was boarded over the course of two days beginning with wider shots of the dance from the point of view of the family all over the ballroom. We worked our way into tighter, still fairly basic coverage, with Steadicam operator Dave Thompson and AD Shelley Ziegler, until we got onto the dance floor and then went into the shots that were designed to alternately follow the dancers, then let them go wide. Dave had gone to dance rehearsals and we knew which parts of the dance to try different shots on (wrapping around, letting them go, or staying with them, on which sides). Amazing Dave eventually was dancing with them, wearing his 70-pound Steadicam rig.

Their dancing has a homemade feeling, very different from the professional dancers. Pat and Tiffany were amateurs and knew it. Over weeks of rehearsal in pre-production, dance choreographer Mandy Moore collaborated to emphasize this amateur feeling while also being personal to the characters. This dancing includes crawling and intimacy on the dance floor (see previous image) before exploding into the second piece of music by the White Stripes, which adds a very kinetic whip to a different, free, goth emotion Tiffany carries. Lights flash very bright here, and this sequence includes the move Danny (Chris Tucker) suggested, which I discovered in the 1941 film Hellzapoppin'. Pat and Tiffany are unorthodox and wild, as they are regular, if they are anything.

Having startled their families and friends and strangers in attendance with this, they just as suddenly now stand and turn, elegantly, seamlessly, into a more balletic dance, naturally done by the dancers and Mandy, and Dave, and the lighting, into a quiet stillness that leads into a formal waltz to Dave Brubeck's cover of "Maria" from West Side Story, which Pat's best friend, Ronnie (John Ortiz), had talked about earlier in the film.

The goal first and foremost was to be as intimate, emotional and personal with the characters as possible, in addition to seeing the dance from farther distances and points of view, hence the varying coverages. The many points of view were woven amid a sense of movement, this braid and weave of emotions—of the father, the mother (Jacki Weaver), the best friend, the estranged wife—all remain inside the intimate emotional pocket of these two dancers. This was the feat expertly braided by editor Jay Cassidy and all of our collaborators, including Bradley Cooper and the producers, that worked on this sequence.

The dance turns to its penultimate moment when they do the number taken from Singin' in the Rain—which Tiffany had shown Pat on her iPod in the studio, with Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor jumping off the desk. The characters made their own version of this with windmill arms and dancing in unison. We then suddenly find ourselves arriving at the previously established dramatic moment of the "big move" that Tiffany insisted they do, but which they never successfully practiced. It feels like the culmination of the entire film with a suspense that it could all break apart like some ill-fated airplane in the sky.

With the dance over, we return to the emotional predicament that interlocked Tiffany always and most especially earlier in the evening: Pat's estranged wife Nikki is there, and his heart and attention and his point of view are locked upon her. The points of view here change multiple times—from Pat and Tiffany embracing, to the entire family celebrating, Pat seeing Nikki over Tiffany's shoulder, walking toward his estranged wife, and Pat's father as he watches all of this in alarm. The camera then stays on Tiffany as she walks away, leaving the shadows and pools of light of the ballroom to the luminous, soft practical lights of the stairwell.

Now, coat flowing behind her like a cape of retreat, Tiffany descends the same winding marble staircase in defeat that she had previously climbed with promise and hope with Pat. She runs across the marble lobby, seen from above through the balcony railing in the exact same isolating bird's eye master from which she first spied Pat's wife at the beginning of the evening—only now as Nikki was coming in, Tiffany is running out. She leaves the Benjamin Franklin Hotel barefoot, pulling on a discarded shoe like Cinderella. She's outside, alone in the cold, escaping into her emotional solitude, keeping her sadness private. She feels small and isolated. These shots tended to stay wider so you could feel that coldness and aloneness.

Pat runs down the empty city streets behind Tiffany—the inverse of all the running earlier in the movie. He presents her with his last letter and insists she read it against her wishes. She sees it is addressed to her and he declares his love. She asks, "You love me?" He answers quietly, "Yeah I do." She stares. "Okay." And she kisses him. The camera circles them and goes to the letter clutched in her hand, the currency of their entire secret contract that has lead them to the dance and their union. The camera then zips straight back a hundred yards down the empty street of holiday lights. The exhilaration of the pullout remains intimate as it leaves them in context of the larger frame and world, together.

(Photos: (top) Everett; Screenpulls: HBO Home Entertainment)