Scott Cooper has reason to celebrate. On the weekend of the Critic’s Choice and the Golden Globe Awards, the 39-year-old writer-director of Crazy Heart boasts an air of self-confidence. And who could blame him?
His $7 million film has just opened across the country, and is up for several year-end awards. Not just for lead actor Jeff Bridges, who has been gaining lots of steam for his marvelous performance as “Bad” Blake, washed-up country-western singer. Cooper himself has been singled out, too, nominated for Indie Spirit Awards and a Writer’s Guild of America Award for turning Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel about the resurrection of an alcoholic troubadour into a moving, music-filled drama that has critics singing its praises and the industry buzzing: “Will The Dude finally get an Oscar?”
All this from a guy who has never written a screenplay before, or directed so much as a high school play. To say nothing of a movie that was abandoned by its now-defunct studio (Paramount Vantage), and then acquired by Fox Searchlight. That’s the same studio that had a little luck last year releasing a film called Slumdog Millionaire, after Warner Brothers left it orphaned.
As everyone knows, Hollywood loves a Cinderella story, and this year, Crazy Heart is it.
Cooper, wearing a black tie, sports jacket and jeans, recognizes his good karma. When told by a reporter he seems self-confident, he thanks them for the compliment. “I guess I was born under a lucky star,” the goateed, spiked-haired filmmaker says, summing it all up.
Born and raised in the artistic community of Abingdon, Virginia amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains, Cooper cut his teeth on bluegrass music, listening to the likes of Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson. His musical education continued by tuning to his father’s record collection that included Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.
“That’s why I’m always drawn to people who write about their life experience and do it eloquently like Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Jeff Tweedy of Wilco,” says Cooper over coffee in a Philly hotel room. “Then these guys like Cash and Merle Haggard. That gave me personal insight into what this man Bad Blake was and is, and what to take into his personal life.”
Originally, Cooper had intended to make a dramatic film about country star Haggard, whose roughhewn life mirrors that of Crazy Heart’s fictional Bad Blake. But that didn’t work out as the novice Cooper had hoped.
“I spent some time with Merle at some shows and on his bus,” recalls Cooper. “And he had a lot of ex-wives, so I wasn’t able to retain his life rights. But I used him, Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt, some of the people who helped shape my musical world view, and made it fiction as opposed to a straight biopic.”
Cooper, whose previous show business experience came strictly as an actor, found the perfect blueprint for his film in Cobb’s novel. “I tried to stay true to the spirit of the novel, but if you are a filmmaker you try to personalize it in what you want to say,” says Cooper. “So I took liberties by personalizing it as I know it, basing things on people I knew who suffered through alcoholism, or some of the great radio heroes I grew up on and how they wrote about their life experiences. But I think it’s a faithful adaptation.”
“When the novelist saw the film, he said he cried. But I guess his expectations were so low because I never directed anything before, it certainly didn’t give him high hopes.”
After Cooper read the book, only one actor stood out as the embodiment of Bad Blake: Jeff Bridges.
“I wrote it for Jeff,” states Cooper. “In fact, when I first wrote the screenplay I sent it to Robert Duvall, a mentor of mine. He said, ‘Scott, I love this script, and I’d like to make it, but there are two things I need, and if I don’t get them, I shouldn’t make this movie. One is (music producer) T-Bone Burnett, and the next is Jeff Bridges.’ He said if he can’t get Jeff, he can’t make the film, because he was the only one who could play this part.
“He’s a musician and very good guitarist, and shares a physicality of the people like Waylon and Kris Kristofferson. But he’s certainly deserves the praise he’s getting. He’s just a remarkable, wonderful actor and it’s now his favorite film. He thinks it’s his best work.”
That says a lot from a man who has been nominated for four Academy Awards and has acted in scores of films over a career that spans four decades. Cooper says his influences for filming Crazy Heart came from the films of a different era, an era in which Bridges, son of Lloyd and brother of Beau, made an early mark, appearing in such films as The Last Picture Show, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and Stay Hungry, efforts helmed, respectively, by “New Hollywood” filmmakers Cooper respects: Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Cimino and Bob Rafelson.
“It all harkens back to ‘70s filmmaking, where characterization is emphasized more than plot,” relates Cooper. “I had to address that he was a man who ultimately realizes he has flaws, and has faults, and has to ultimately find that redemption if he’s going to grow as an artist and person. And in order to get that across, I think you have to see it. And I made it impressionistic because it is a movie, not a documentary. And you have to take liberties. And it seems to have worked, at least for my money and for Jeff Bridges’.”
Cooper says he and Bridges “worked very closely for a year, working on the music together and shaping the character. I inundated him with music that influenced me while writing. And I gave him lots of concert footage of Waylon performing, some Highwaymen and Cash. So he really embodied that outlaw sensibility of these guys. He carried it from town to town and show to show, so we really had a collaborative relationship from the beginning.”
Crazy Heart was shot cheap and fast. Cooper says that the acting part of it came easiest, since his background is in performing in front of the camera. “As an actor, I was able to calibrate all the performances, from Jeff on down to the smaller parts. We used a lot of non-actors. Robert Duvall said ‘They don’t have bad habits, so you can direct them easily.’ So that was the easiest thing for me.”
The most trouble Cooper had was getting it all in within the three weeks allotted for filming. “The most difficult thing was the logistics. I had only 24 days to shoot it in three states. There were ten musical numbers, and one of them was live in front of 12, 000 people who didn’t know I was shooting. Those were challenges I encountered because I never directed before. But in terms of telling the story, working with the actors, production design, telling the story, I really steeped myself in those great films of the 1970s.”
Cooper’s relationship with Duvall certainly made things easier. The two met while making Gods and Generals, and have worked together on such projects as the mini-series Broken Trail and the upcoming film Get Low with Sissy Spacek. With financing coming from CMT (Country Music Television), Duvall helped get things together with his co-producers, and found support from the studio when everything came together. But, according to Cooper, Duvall, who has directed such indie films as The Apostle, allowed first-timer Cooper do his own thing.
“He really loved the film and didn’t come into the cutting room,” says Cooper, who considers Duvall one of his closest friends. “I had Jeff (Bridges) come in, and Maggie (Gyllenhaal, who co-stars) would stop in, too. T-Bone (Burnett) also. They all were really supportive from my first cut on. Mr. Duvall and I talk every day, sometimes a few times a day. We talk about actors, technique, directors’ styles.”
One thing Cooper learned early on was to give the actors their own space. “If you are directing actors of this caliber, you don’t want to overly direct people. You want to get them to feel comfortable in a room. You need to get them to feel safe and take risks, and fail if they need to. If you do, you will find success. If you direct with a heavy hand, people don’t get relaxed. They feel it and get tense and it just doesn’t work.”
Of course, the music in Crazy Heart is essential to its success. Working on the songs were Burnett, the legendary producer/performer and the man behind the music in O Brother Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line, as were the late Stephen Bruton, to whom the film is dedicated, and newcomer Ryan Bingham, who also has a small part in the movie. “T-Bone created an alternate universe of part country music, part delta blues, part Texas romance,” says Cooper.
The filmmaker says it was essential to find a song that would work as a connecting device for the events depicted in the lead character’s life. “He (Bad Black) hasn’t written a song for years, and the song he writes is about reconnecting with his son, finding a younger woman that will reawaken him artistically, about his life on the road, the lonely life. Out of the story comes ‘The Weary Life.’ Once we had that song—a thread through the film—I tailored this script to it.”
The song was authored by Bingham, who was living out of his truck a few short years ago. He was playing in a small club in L.A. when Colin Farrell (who has an unbilled cameo in Crazy Heart) found him. “I met with him, and I told him I wanted him in the movie,” recalls Cooper. “I told him, ‘Take the script, and if something hits you, write something.’ He takes the script home and the next day, he calls and says he wrote something. He comes to T-Bone’s place, sits on his coffee table and starts playing this song. I sit behind him, watching T-Bone’s reaction. T-Bone’s jaw starts to drop. You never know when the legendary T-Bone is moved like that. And we said, ‘That’s it! That’s the song, that’s the narrative thread!’ And Ryan did it overnight.”
As for Farrell, who plays one of Bridge’s former backup men who has become a slick country star, Cooper explains that “I wanted someone very surprising in the role.” And he got that with notorious hellraiser Farrell. “Country music comes from the Irish-Scottish heritage, and he’s, of course, Irish,” says Cooper. “He had been doing some work of late which I really liked, like In Bruges, Cassandra’s Dream. He was getting away from the bigger fare, doing more personal stuff. And Colin has the dark charisma that I thought would be perfect, along with the star quality that lets you buy him as a big country star.
“And I had a sneaking suspicion that he had spent some time in a pub. He’s very communal and (I figured) he could probably sing. And sure enough, with T-Bone at the helm, we pulled a great performance out of Colin—he’s getting some of the best reviews of the film.”
Cooper is not sure what his next project will be, but it seems like his acting career will be taking a back seat to writing and directing. He’s mulling over adaptations, perhaps of an author he believes hasn’t been well-represented in Hollywood, like William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. Or a biography of a music legend, like Bob Marley, Miles Davis, or John Coltrane.
But whatever Cooper’s tackling next, it will have to wait until the Crazy Heart hubbub quiets down a bit. Already, he’s had to pass on one project that sounded pretty good.
“I had a chance to meet the Coen Brothers for their new film, but I am out promoting Crazy Heart, which is sort of a bummer,” Cooper says, relating to a potential acting assignment in the Coens’ ballyhooed remake of True Grit. Bridges is on board for the project as Rooster Cogburn, and Duvall, of course, co-starred in the 1969 original. “My two biggest supporters as an actor are Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall, so there you go.”
So, what was it exactly that made Scott Cooper decide that going to the other side of the camera was right for him—and in the process, passing on the opportunity to partake in such a juicy project?
“My urge for directing comes from becoming a bridesmaid and not expressing myself artistically,” says Cooper. “When you are acting on stage, it’s different, but on film, you only get a very short time to act, between cuts. And unless you have a body of work, like Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall, it takes years and years of experience to get started.
“So I felt that if you’d like to be a complete filmmaker, you should take a page from the guys I respect…Sean Penn, Duvall, Eastwood—writers and directors, although Clint doesn’t write– but Ed Harris, Billy Bob Thornton…complete filmmakers. And I have a long way to go, but I think I am in that camp where my talents will align.”
Please check-out the article “The Lost Films Of Jeff Bridges“