Haddonfield teacher follows his passion - and succeeds with 'Silver Linings Playbook'

Author Matthew Quick (right) with director David O. Russell and actress Brea Bee.
Author Matthew Quick (right) with director David O. Russell and actress Brea Bee. (STEVEN M. FALK/ Staff)
Posted: November 16, 2012

Matthew Quick was a fake.

Here was the beloved English teacher at Haddonfield Memorial High - getting props from his students in the halls, getting them to believe his "follow your bliss, follow your dream mantra" - and all the while he wasn't following his bliss, his dream.

And so, in 2004, Quick moved on.

And moved to his in-laws' house in the middle of Massachusetts, where he tromped down the basement stairs and started writing. For three years.

"I quit a tenured position at perhaps the best high school in South Jersey," Quick says. "Coming from a family of very conservative bankers, I couldn't have done anything more radical, and my father let me know . . . he was very disappointed."

Not any more.

Silver Linings Playbook, the movie based on Quick's 2008 novel - the fourth novel he wrote in that basement (the first three were "unsalable") - opens in theaters Friday. Starring Bradley Cooper (as, yes, a teacher), Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro, this head-spinning, heart-pumping Philly-centric affair has already won accolades at the Toronto International Film Festival, and here at home, where it opened the Philadelphia Film Festival last month. The Weinstein Co. release, directed by The Fighter's David O. Russell, is generating Oscar buzz and feels like a hit.

And Quick feels good.

"I felt a huge responsibility," he says, flashing back to his exit from Haddonfield. "I had been telling these kids that were being pushed into the sciences - because the sciences are where the money is - that you can follow your bliss and go into the arts. We need novelists. We need painters. We need musicians. The world needs those things.

"And I felt, well, what if I try to do this after telling these kids for seven years, and I fail? That would be a horrible example. And that weighed heavily on my mind for those three years while I was writing."

In the book version of Silver Linings Playbook - optioned for the screen even before it was published - Quick's protagonist, dealing with bipolar disorder and just released from a psych ward, lives in Collingswood, where Quick lived when he taught in Haddonfield.

In the film, Russell - who adapted the novel - moved things across the Delaware and changed the family ethnicity from Irish American to Italian American. Much of the $26 million production was shot in and around Ridley Park and Upper Darby. There's a crazy tailgating scene in the Lincoln Financial Field parking lot. The Eagles figure prominently. Cooper even wears a DeSean Jackson jersey.

It took Quick a while to process all the changes when he was shown the film for the first time.

"It was stressful," he remembers. "For the first 15 or 20 minutes, my mind was on overdrive. Just looking at all the choices David had made, and comparing the book to the movie. But somewhere around 20 minutes in, I started to lose myself, as I would in any movie that I enjoyed. And at that point, I realized that we really had something here, and I gave myself over to the film."

Russell, who speaks slow and low, but who is capable of orchestrating manic, madcap moments onscreen, says that, for him, the book had struck a deep chord.

"It's very intense and emotional, but it's also funny and it's about a subject I could relate to," he says. "It's personal to me, because of my own experiences with a son who has had mental-health issues."

Originally, Russell planned to shoot Silver Linings before The Fighter (which was nominated for seven Oscars at the 2011 Academy Awards, and won two). In fact, The Fighter's Mark Wahlberg was going to star, with Anne Hathaway.

But that didn't happen. And now it's Cooper's and Lawrence's movie, and they're aces.

 For Joseph Serico, the former Haddonfield High School principal who both hired Quick and then, with "extreme sadness," watched him go, the traits that made Quick a great teacher - and coach, and counselor to troubled students - come through in his prose.

"Matt had a really deep understanding of the challenges that people who have serious mental-health issues struggle with, and people with disabilities," says Serico, who now teaches at Rutgers Camden. "He is such a highly empathic person - that's really what shines through to me. This is Matt - the writing just reflects so much of his sensitivity to all of us, but particularly to that group of folks who struggle with those issues."

Quick, 39, who grew up in Oaklyn, says his last year at Haddonfield was rough.

"Very privately, I was going through a severe depression," he says. "And now I talk about this openly, and the students will come to my talks, and they'd be like, 'Q, there's no way! You were the guy who gave me a smile every day in the hallway, the big talk before the game!' But I was putting on this show.

"And when I left and started to write, I felt as though things inside of me were right, and everything started to recalibrate and it got better.

"I still deal with anxiety and depression issues, but the writing is a form of therapy for me."

For Jean Bentley, Haddonfield Class of '04, and now the Los Angeles news director for Hollywood.com, "Mr. Quick was one of the best teachers that I have had in my years of education.

"He was like the young, cool teacher, but there were different kinds of young, cool teachers," Bentley says and laughs. "There was the young, cool teacher who's trying to live their high school years over again as, like, a cool person. But then there's the young, cool one who just understands how to interact with the kids, and that was definitely how he was."

Bentley, along with many of her fellow former classmates, follows Quick on Facebook and Twitter, and shows up at his book signings. After he published Silver Linings Playbook, Quick wrote two young-adult hits, Sorta Like a Rock Star and Boy 21. In August, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, about a suicidal teen, will be published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

And Quick, whose wife, Alicia Bessette, is also a novelist - they both attended LaSalle - has another book in the pipeline.

"For our summer reading, sophomore year English, Mr. Quick had us read Jack Kerouac's On the Road," Bentley recalls. "And on the wall, the board, in class, he had written that quote: 'burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.' "

That was 10 years ago, and Bentley still remembers, still has books from Quick's American Lit class, from his Film as Art elective.

Does Quick miss it? Does he miss teaching?

"All the time," he says. "I go in for a day on a college campus, or in a high school . . . and at the end of the day, inevitably someone will say, 'You should be teaching.'

"It's a nice compliment, but it makes me feel guilty. Then I have to remind myself: 'Oh, remember those weekends you spent 20 hours grading papers? And dealing with parents and politics? And not seeing your wife for weeks at a time? . . . You can't serve two masters, right?'

"And so, for me, I would have to be a bad teacher to be a good writer, so I'd rather just be a good writer."

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.

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