david o. russell directs a prada-filled fever dream

The Oscar-nominated director of 'Silver Linings Playbook' makes his fashion film debut with 'Past Forward. He tells us about making abstract art with Miuccia Prada and why it feels so politically relevant.

by Hannah Ongley
17 November 2016, 6:18pm

Abstract clips of the short film David O. Russell created with Miuccia Prada debuted at her brand's spring 17 show in September. Past Forward debuts in full today on Prada.com, feeling more intensely surreal and suspenseful than it might have two months ago. The film follows three glamorous heroines - Freida Pinto, Allison Williams, and Kuoth Wiel - in a fragmented pursuit through parallel worlds. It's both dreamlike and uncomfortably real. "I'm very drawn to Hitchcock and the feeling of that pursuit movie, because unconsciously I knew that the way we were approaching this point in history, we were about to go over a waterfall," the Oscar-nominated director tells i-D. "Now that we have gone over that waterfall, it's interesting to me that some people say, 'I thought your movie was about all the experiences and emotions in life,' and some people would say, 'I thought your movie was about all the people who were going to be deported.' I never saw it like that, but it completely makes sense."

Prada's spring/summer 17 collection weaves through the layered narratives seamlessly. Minimalist 90s suits and uncluttered trench coats, free from the flamboyant ostrich feathers that appeared on the runway, are less important than emotions and identities. O. Russell wanted to approach the project as an abstract art project that demands to be experienced rather than interpreted. "It wasn't a job or anything - nobody got paid," he tells i-D. "I didn't know which actors were going to show up. There were numerous actors I was talking to." We spoke to the director about referencing classic movies and futuristic landscapes in the context of an uncertain today.

This is your first big fashion project. What appealed to you about working with Miuccia Prada?
She's not just a designer. She's also a patron of the arts. She has a museum of contemporary art, which is really amazing. She has done projects with other filmmakers, and she just likes collaborating on works of art. We were having a conversation about contemporary artists for about a year, and I was intrigued by what she found interesting in contemporary art. What I find interesting involves surrealism, and the emotion of a Hitchcock film, and following your instincts, which I think pure cinema does. It's emotional and visual, and even if you don't understand it it's still a poignant experience.

Did the layering of fragmented identities, feelings, and narratives pose a challenge for you or was it rather liberating?
It was sort of a cinematic experiment. And to me, it's fascinating, because it feels different to me as I watch it, as I watch each actor experience the same moment emotionally. Why is it so different when you look at Freida Pinto or Kuoth Wiel versus Allison Williams. Which poses a really interesting question about identity, culture, and race... It feels like a Hitchcock film in the way that it has romance and love in it, but it's placed in an experience where you don't really know what is happening. You don't know if you're going to be protected or not. That, to me, is a way that the unconscious said something, and when you look at it in today's context, there's a feeling of the whole security experience, of being treated like a suspect. How will people be regarded? How will they be treated? All three women have to go through such a strange test, and the meaning of it is unclear.

You can certainly experience it in a very real and relevant way. Yet the overwhelming sense of abstract emotions is almost childlike. How far back do you go in your own life when referencing dreams, emotions, and movies?
I do think that dreams are purely emotional, and I think paintings or images can be purely emotional. There are images in the film that are from dreams I had in my childhood, and I look back and think, "What was that? What was that image?" I think art, at its best, is instinctual, and I just found it very interesting and liberating to not have dialogue, and to be purely visual. I think there are some emotional chapters in the film that are universal, and are experienced by each person.

What was your dynamic like with Nancy Collini, the costume stylist?
In all my films, I like a kind of elegance and simplicity of design. I knew I wanted to have that simplicity in design. I love that people can go through experiences in suits regardless of what they're experiencing and they still have some shred of dignity. There's one scene with a trench coat, and I bunched it up in the back, because I knew how I wanted it to look and fall on the body. I didn't want it to look too structured or boxy, I wanted it to look more natural. It felt like a classic movie to me - a movie memory. It's special for that reason. Those movies have feelings, and those feelings overlap with feelings we have in our own lives.


Text Hannah Ongley
Images courtesy of Prada

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