How David O. Russell Made Me a Journalist
Life-changing moments are within reach — maybe even a phone call away
When I showed up at the first newspaper pitch meeting of my sophomore year of high school, the entertainment editor said he had a special assignment for me. We’d become friends during my freshman year, when I wrote story after story in pursuit of that coveted staff job and my name on the masthead of the Mamaroneck High School Globe. I wasn’t an athlete or a cheerleader, but I’d found my place among the newspaper crowd and was eager to be an editor.
When my best friend got the only position available to a sophomore, I was devastated. I faced a major decision: Walk away from the paper forever and dive into another extracurricular activity, or swallow my pride and write as a contributor.
I knew I was meant to be a part of this paper, no matter how long it would take me to get on staff. No assignment was too big or too small. I would prove to them that I deserved it. So I perked up and asked what the assignment was.
“Interview David O. Russell,” the editor said. “He went to our high school.”
I had no idea who David O. Russell was.
“Sure! Sounds great,” I replied.
I went home and Googled David O. Russell only to find that he was a successful director best known for movies like Three Kings, Spanking the Monkey, and, at the time, I <3 Huckabees. (He went on to direct 2010’s critically acclaimed The Fighter and 2013’s Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook.)
I was used to writing stories about the school’s drum line, library renovations, and new Student Council policies. Maybe I couldn’t do this.
I tried to imagine how it would go: “Hi, um, I’m Callie, and um, I work at the newspaper where David O. Russell went to high school. I mean, he went to my high school, and I work at the newspaper, and I was hoping to interview him.”
Russell was represented by the talent agency Endeavor (now merged with William Morris), where some poor assistant took pity on my pathetic cause. He referred me to Russell’s office, and through all the “umms” and awkward pauses, I managed to leave my name and number and the nature of my assignment. After being told to “hold,” I listened in while a crowd of people watched a World Series game in the background. The handset seemed to have been set down on a table, and my heart leapt every time I heard a man’s voice. Was that him? Was he coming to the phone right this instant?
No, he wasn’t, and after an hour of pressing my ear into the receiver so hard it was bright red, someone on the other end hung up.
That night around midnight, as I got ready for bed, my house phone rang. I sprinted to it, yanking my retainer from my mouth, panicked that the phone would awaken my parents, and said a frantic, “Hello?”
A man’s voice on the other end of the line said, “Callie? This is David O. Russell.”
“I’m ready to do the interview.”
I was stunned. I asked if I could put him on hold and ran to my computer. I booted up my Dell, which, in 2005, was a process. I worried I had somehow hung up on him or committed the ultimate offense by asking a celebrity to wait.
When I got back on the phone, I made small talk about Los Angeles (where he currently was) versus New York (where I currently was) while I opened my Word document of questions.
I could feel myself shaking, stammering over my words. Before I asked a single question, I jokingly suggested he “swing by” our high school for a visit. He paused.
“You know what? I think I will.”
“Does that back entrance still exist? I’ll see you there at eleven.”
I sat frozen, the phone hanging over my shoulder, dial tone blaring into my ear. Russell was known for his outbursts and had recently landed in an all-out verbal brawl on set with Huckabees star Lily Tomlin. He was also in L.A. How on earth was he going to be in New York in less than twelve hours? There was just no way. Why on earth would David O. Russell fly across the country to visit his old high school? Didn’t he have famous people things to do?
Every rational part of my brain told me he wouldn’t show, but part of me wondered whether he was the kind of person who would.
At 11 a.m., I stood outside the back entrance of Mamaroneck High School waiting, with the hope that he might actually come. But I had so much doubt. What kind of person hops on a plane on the spur of the moment and flies across the country at the request of a fifteen-year-old he has never met?
11:15, he still wasn’t there.
I waited another five minutes just in case, but I knew that I had been a fool to believe him. Worst of all, I hadn’t gotten the story.
As I turned to go inside and face the shame of failure and embarrassment for having plastered the school with fliers about a famous alumnus coming to visit, I heard car wheels on the pavement and turned around.
There it was, a black stretch limo, and there he was, a tall man in his forties with shoulder-length brown hair getting out of the back seat.
Twenty-eight years after graduating from Mamaroneck High School, David O. Russell walked back into the world he said made him want to be in film, with me by his side.
We walked to the English Media Center, where I’d set up about thirty chairs. I closed my eyes as we approached, hoping at least half the seats were filled. The room was packed. Students and teachers were sitting on the floor, and an overflow crowd flooded into the halls.
Russell looked around and said it was in this very room that he had watched The Graduate, which would ultimately be the reason he got into cinema. It was also the moment he realized how much he wanted to work with Dustin Hoffman — a dream he was currently living when Hoffman signed on to star in Huckabees.
Russell and I spent the rest of the day walking around the building, visiting his old teachers, and trading stories about life in and after high school.
In an email to me after he returned to L.A., Russell wrote, “What a privilege it was for me to visit MHS and see all of you and speak to all of you, including my old teachers. To remember and to see how time and life pass—is an extraordinary experience that will be turning over in my head for a long time to come.”
The story of David O. Russell’s visit was my first front-page story for The Globe, and it spilled over to a full-page insert in the middle of the issue.
What had felt like just a high school activity soon became my mission in life: telling other people’s stories. My piece on Russell led me to interview other famous alumni of MHS — Entourage’s Kevin Dillon, celebrity photographer Matt Baron, and Capote writer/producer Bennett Miller and director Danny Futterman. (Miller went on to direct Moneyball.)
An assignment given to me because of something I didn’t get was a defining moment of my early career.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my life changed the minute David O. Russell walked into it. He made me see that people can surprise you in the most unexpected ways. He showed me that life-changing moments are within reach — maybe even a phone call away.
I had the chance to tell this story publicly for the first time recently at a conference called Spark Camp, where a few of us told the story of a “first time.” I remembered all of the details of Russell’s visit except for the advice he gave us, which made the story feel incomplete. Since the school newspaper didn’t have a website in 2005, I had to hope my mom had saved a print copy. She had, of course, and proceeded to scan and email me the story.
Looking at the piece in print brought back all of those memories, and I couldn’t believe how fitting his words still are, and how important they were, to telling this story: “It all comes down to having passion for something through thick and thin. And believe me, there’s a lot of thick, but what you learn is that the bad times—those are the adventure.”
Thoughts? Reach me @cschweitz or firstname.lastname@example.org