Whenever the holidays roll around and Oscar season begins in earnest, there’s always one movie or performance that takes everyone by surprise, and this year, it’s Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart and the amazing performance by Jeff Bridges that’s the very heart and soul of the film.
Bridges plays Bad Blake, a run-down country music singer who has been driving his pick-up truck around the Southwest playing dives and bowling alleys, while his protégé Tommy Sweet, played by Colin Farrell, achieves a level of fame and popularity well beyond his mentor. In one town, he’s interviewed by a reporter played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, a single mother who’s able to get through to the crotchety crooner, but Blake’s serious drinking problem has made it hard for him to have any sort of relationships and he hopes that this will be the one time where things work out.
Many Oscar prognosticators think Bridges is guaranteed to get a number of awards for the role–he’s already been honored by a few critics groups over the weekend–as well as this possibly being the performance that finally gets him a well-deserved Oscar. A lot of that comes not only from Bridges’ dramatic work but his musical performances on stage, singing rousing country-blues tunes composed by T-Bone Burnett and Steve Bruton.
Last week, ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Cooper to talk about his amazing directorial debut.
ComingSoon.net: The movie’s great, and it really was a surprise that came from out of nowhere. Everybody who has seen it generally loves it. Scott Cooper: Yeah, I tell ya, it’s very gratifying, the critical and also just the audience response so far has been overwhelming and I’m really, really excited because you never know. I started out to make a film that felt like it came out of the 1970s, where you had to be patient with it and it’s all about characterizations and behavior over say, plot. Sometimes, because we live in a BlackBerry world and we need our information quickly and disposabley, you really have to be patient with movies like this and so far, so good.
CS: The fact you got such a great performance from Jeff Bridges and the movie has such great music is part of what people are loving about the movie. You originally adapted it from a novel by Thomas Cobb, and this was the first movie you directed, so did you just read the novel and say, “I want to direct this movie”? Cooper: Yeah, I always wanted to tell the story of Merle Haggard who’s probably the poet laureate of country music and for whatever reason I couldn’t tell it because he had a lot of ex-wives and the rights issues were an issue. So, I recalled the novel and I felt like, “Wow, I can tell Merle’s life story; I can tell Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristopherson’s all at once and use it through this character.” That’s how it was adapting. Of course, I’ve never written a screenplay or adapted anything and as I was doing this, I wrote it for Jeff Bridges who is also a singer and a songwriter. He had the carriage and the physicality that I wanted and the fact that he’s among the best American screen actors doesn’t hurt. (Laughs)
CS: Did you know that Jeff was a singer? Because I don’t think it’s exactly common knowledge. Cooper: I did, yes, actually I owned his record. I had it on my iPod.
CS: Interesting, because it doesn’t really come up that much I don’t think, maybe ’cause he doesn’t do many singing roles. Cooper: No, you’re right. Jeff’s a very private person and is not the kind of guy–unlike a lot of movie stars–who is a self-promoter. You know nothing about his private life which is why you believe everything you see on screen whether he’s playing the President or a country music star or an ex-con as in “American Heart.” We don’t know where Jeff buys his coffee; we don’t see him pumping gas in “Us Weekly,” that sorta thing, so you see what you believe.
CS: I’m assuming you’re a country music fan because you were interested in telling Merle Haggard’s story. Were you always interested in the other side of the lives of these guys when they’re offstage? Cooper: Yes, absolutely. Yeah, I spent a lot of time with Merle, traveling around, and kind of cut my teeth listening to really traditional country music and bluegrass before it was de rigueur. So I knew this world intimately, and it felt like it was right for cinematic exploration. If you look at pictures like “Coal Miner’s Daughter” or “Tender Mercies,” it’s clear that those themes are universal and that people can really respond to those in all walks of life, so it just seemed like a natural retelling.
CS: Do you know if Thomas actually had any of those singers in mind when he wrote it? Cooper: He did not, no, no. In fact, I spoke with him about it this week. He had written it for Hank Thompson who’s also of course, an older country musician, but I had those guys in mind.
CS: At some point you must’ve known that you’d have to write songs for Bad to sing and they’d have to be original songs. Cooper: I knew we had to have all original songs and I knew that there was one person… Well, after I finished the screenplay I sent it to my mentor, Robert Duvall, he and I have acted in three movies together and this is our fourth collaboration. I sent it to him, and hesitantly because of course, he won the best actor for “Tender Mercies.” He read it and said, “Scott, I love it. Let’s make it. Well, what do you need?” I said, “There’s two things I have to have to make this film and if I don’t get them I shouldn’t make it. One is Jeff Bridges of course and the other is T-Bone Burnett.” So, T-Bone and I and Jeff really collaborated very closely in writing these songs and choosing the material and creating this alternate universe that Bad Blake lives in. It was critical because if you don’t have that musical component, your movie’s not gonna work.
CS: I agree. Usually you just go into the studio and you record them, did you try to do any of this stuff live? Did you have musicians who could play? Cooper: Oh yeah, I shot some of it live. We shot some of it to pre-record, but also, every take, I gave Colin and Jeff a chance to do it live and I used both.
CS: What about Colin? Did he have any sort of singing background as well? Cooper: Well, he didn’t that I knew of, but he’s from Ireland and country music comes from the Scotch-Irish heritage and from what I understand about the Irish, they’re very communal and they like to spend time in pubs and sing. Colin’s so talented I didn’t think it would be an issue for him and clearly not ’cause he has a beautiful voice.
CS: Was it hard getting Jeff? It obviously must’ve been a really great script and he must’ve liked the musical aspect of it… Cooper: Jeff’s the most difficult actor notoriously to attach to any project in town. He says, “No,” to everything almost. That’s his process. I know that it took the Coen brothers a year to get him for “The Big Lebowski.” I knew that he really loved it, it’s just sometimes scheduling becomes an issue and then a year later he really committed.
CS: How active was Robert Duvall involved in terms of getting Jeff or getting T-Bone involved? Cooper: Any time that you send a script with Robert Duvall’s name on it, people are gonna read that first, trust me. He was very instrumental because he’s putting his reputation and his name behind me as a first time writer and director, and he did it without any questions. Or at least he didn’t question me about it. He felt it was time for me to step behind the camera.
CS: Had you done any directing of music videos or anything before making this movie? Cooper: I never directed a music video, a commercial or a high school play, nothing. I’ve never been to film school. I would watch the great films from the 1970s with the sound off and watch how the directors would tell the story with the lens, the frame and the dolly. That really was my film school, that and listening to director commentary.
CS: That’s pretty amazing ’cause this is a great looking film too, I mean, just the way you captured the desert highways and everything. Cooper: Yeah, well, thanks. It’s very expressively shot. I’m not a fan of movies that are overly lit where you can see everything on the screen and there’s no mystery. But you look at the films that I’m referring to, that I love so much from the 70s, shot by Haskell Wexler and Gordon Willis and Conrad Hall, those are the guys that most impressed me in terms of telling the story visually and expressively and that’s what I wanted for this.
CS: Did you go looking for any of those guys who made movies from the ’70s to work on your movie? Cooper: Yeah, I chose Barry Markowitz who’s a disciple of Gordon Willis and was a protégé of his for a couple of his movies. Barry has a very keen eye and he is very knowledgeable about using very little light which is what I wanted. In a lot of these scenes, when you look at it again you’ll see that many of the times their faces are obscured in darkness which draws the viewer in closer because you want to know what’s going on in their faces and if you see everything, then what is there actually to engage in? So, I felt like that through shadow and light we could really tell the story.
CS: When you first start hearing about the Tommy Sweet character you kind of assume it’s gonna be an indictment of modern rock and that he’ll be a jerk, but he’s actually a really nice guy… Cooper: No, that one’s by design. I wanted people to think through the first act of the movie that, “Wow, this guy’s gonna be really arrogant. He’s gonna be full of hubris. This is a guy who is going to disdain where Bad is in his life,” where in fact, he is very differential and he owes everything to Bad and makes that very well known. I felt like to do that is to set it up one way and then of course (go) 180 from that.
CS: With these old-timers, do you think maybe it’s just the alcohol or whatever that makes them bitter about the younger generation? Cooper: Sure, absolutely because these guys are almost forgotten. You don’t hear Willie Nelson on the radio or Kristopherson or Merle Haggard. Now, it’s all very young people who are reaching a younger audience. You have these people who are operating on the periphery of the entertainment industry who are doing some of the best work in any genre.
CS: I think everyone likes that. Colin only has a couple of scenes, and they’re just really great with Jeff. Cooper: Yeah, man. I’m really happy you like it.
CS: The movie opens in a bowling alley, so of course, whenever someone sees this movie, they’ll immediately think of “The Big Lebowski” especially with that scene at the bar. Cooper: Let me just tell you I know the question because I’m asked this frequently. The Coen brothers are some of my favorite filmmakers and Jeff and I had dinner and discussed this the other night. I have never seen that film. That’s the only film of the Coens I’ve never seen and the reason I haven’t seen it is because I wasn’t available to see it when it was projected and I don’t like watching films, for the most part, on DVD, certainly not the Coen Brothers’ (movies), and I haven’t been able to see it in a revival house or anything. I’ve seen it in passing on television, but wanted to give them the respect that they deserve and just see it actually in a theater if I could. I’m waiting for that chance, but yeah, people have made that parallel to the bowling alley and of course, I didn’t understand what that meant. My entire crew kept telling me about it and I was like, “Well, I don’t understand.”
CS: It’s such a classic Jeff Bridges moment. Did he say anything about it? Cooper: Oh yeah, he and T-Bone–’cause T-Bone also did the music for that movie–those guys ripped me all the time. In fact, at dinner last night Jeff was doing it, “I can’t believe you haven’t seen ‘Lebowski,’ Scott,” and I told him why. Because I love film and I love what the Coens do and I don’t want to see it at home. Infrequently, do you see a film projected on television in letterbox or in scope in the way it should be seen.
CS: Well, since you’re in L.A., there’s a good chance they might hold a “Lebowski-Fest” there and then you’d be able to see it finally. Cooper: I know and I will see it. Once I knew I was directing this… Of course, I’m very intimate and familiar with Jeff’s material, his performances over the years and that was the only thing I hadn’t seen and I felt like, “Well, don’t see it until after you’ve worked with Jeff if that’s the only thing that I hadn’t seen.” So, now that we’re finished I’m gonna see it.
CS: I was curious, how long did it actually take to shoot the movie? Cooper: Yeah, I shot it in 24 days man, three states.
CS: That’s pretty amazing. Cooper: Well, yeah, when you don’t have much money or time and you’re a first time writer/director, you know, it’s a wing and a prayer.
CS: I also want to ask about filming at that huge venue because this movie obviously didn’t have a big budget, so I assume you must’ve done it during somebody else’s concert. Cooper: Yeah, I piggybacked Toby Keith’s concert and Montgomery Gentry. We knew they were filming in New Mexico and I asked if they would allow me to shoot in between their sets and they did. I got about 10 minutes of time and I shot it in about six.
CS: Wow, that’s amazing. Cooper: Jeff and Colin and I also shot Colin if you recall separately.
CS: How did you swing that? The changeover between sets on stage is normally quite chaotic. Cooper: Very carefully. I had it very carefully planned. I used five cameras and then a steady cam. I got two passes at it. The steady cam was the second because otherwise it would be in the frame of everybody else’s shot, which is fine sometimes ’cause I could edit around that. When you have 24 days, I was almost overly-prepared, you know, as a first timer with my shot list, how I wanted to compose literally almost every frame. So I went in with a really concise game plan and then we executed it perfectly, very little time. I just was not… enough to think I could do this. A more seasoned director would not have taken this on. (Laughs)
CS: Yeah, but it’s an amazing scene. Again, it’s adding to the credibility of the movie, it worked. Cooper: Yeah, and it’s not just about a musical scene. There’s a real narrative on stage with Jeff and Colin about protégé and the master and the relationship plays out on stage if you watch it closely. It’s not just about a musical moment.
CS: Absolutely and it’s even more amazing for a six-minute shoot. Cooper: Yeah, it’s all very, very subtle in terms of my direction. I almost wanted it to feel much like the ’70s great films of Mallick and Dolph Donovish and Hal Ashby. For the direction to be invisible and invisibly edited because it’s all about behavior and performance. I don’t want people to say, “Oh, wow look how all showy he is. Watch how I move the camera. Watch how exquisitely I framed this shot.” You know, that’s not what it’s about for me at least.
CS: Do you have any idea what you’re gonna do next? You must have just finished this movie. Cooper: Well, I just finished it this Monday. No chance. I will say I’ve been afforded more opportunities than I ever have imagined and I’m grateful for that. I just have to really be careful and take my time because these guys have spoiled me because working with them is such a pleasure that I just don’t want to rush into something just to make a film. It really has to be personal like this was for me; otherwise, why make a film?
CS: I absolutely agree. Have you already been planning a soundtrack album and stuff like that? Cooper: Yeah, T-Bone Burnett just mastered the soundtrack last night and it’s remarkable. I mean, everybody from blues, Lightin’ Hopkins of course, Wayland Jennings, to Buck Owens and Lucinda Williams. I mean, it’s really, really spectacular.
CS: I have to admit I’m not a country music fan almost at all. Cooper: Well, it’s not country music so much, it’s really country blues. If you notice I have Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character which by the way, please don’t overlook her. Jeff thinks she’s one of the best actresses he’s ever worked with.
CS: Oh, she’s amazing in the movie. I certainly haven’t discounted her part in this movie at all Cooper: What I was saying is, the only time we see Bad Blake listening to music is when he’s waiting for Jean, Maggie’s character, to approach right after the show. She was supposed to come, but she’s late and he’s listening, smoking a cigarette and listening to Lightin’ Hopkins. Then, in the first interview scene she says, “Is your music influenced by the blues?” He says, “Yeah, we all owe our existence to the Delta Boys,” meaning the Delta Blues. So, he’s really kind of a country blues, Texas swing roadhouse, not so much traditional country music because yeah, I don’t really listen to modern country music.
CS: I was curious about hooking up with Searchlight. I don’t know the whole history of this movie, but was it going to end up as a TV movie at one point? Cooper: Never. It was in everybody’s contract. It was never gonna be a television movie, but Viacom financed it who owns MTV Films and CMT and Paramount. Paramount Vantage disintegrated as I was cutting and my agent Jeff Berg at ICM was able to take it elsewhere and fortunately Fox Searchlight picked it up.
CS: I just interviewed Terry Gilliam and he said that he really liked the movie you did with Duvall, “Get Low.” Cooper: Yeah, I’m in that picture, that’s funny. I thought maybe because of Duvall. Yeah, right, yeah, it’s great. It is a very good movie. I’m very proud of it and Duvall, you’ll be talking a lot about him next year. He’s remarkable in the film.
Crazy Heart opens in select cities on Wednesday, December 16, and then expect it to roll out nationally sometime in the coming months.