I spoke to writer/director Scott Cooper, whose first film, Crazy Heart has been acclaimed for its authenticity, its captivating music, and a performance by Jeff Bridges that many people believe will bring him his long-deserved Oscar.
You must be thrilled with the reaction your film is getting.
Oh, Nell, for a first time writer/director who has never been to film school or directed a commercial or a rock video — I am over the moon. Not just the critical response, but the reaction from my colleagues who have sought me out and who really loved the film. It just means the world to me.
And it must be a special joy to see the response to the performance of Jeff Bridges as the lead character, country singer “Bad” Blake.
I wrote the role for Jeff, and once I finished the film and sent the script to Robert Duvall, I told him that there are two people I need to make this film happen. One is Jeff Bridges and the other is T. Bone Burnett. In my estimation, both Jeff and Duvall are America’s two finest screen actors and I was able fortunately to get those guys. But I don’t want to overlook Maggie [Gyllenhaal's] fine work and Colin Farrell.
I’m glad you mentioned Farrell, because I thought he was extraordinary as Tommy Sweet, the big country star Bridges’ character had mentored on the way up.
When I cast the movie, Colin Farrell is not the obvious choice. He looks like a movie star but he is really a character actor. He is a very humble guy. I felt like he’s the kind of guy who would support Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall. And in such a short time on screen he gives such a nuanced, masterful performance, and he has a beautiful singing voice. It just was inspired all the way around. I wanted to design it so that you were set up to dislike his character and then he is humble and gracious and owes everything to this elder statesman and it all comes through.
One thing I respected about the film is what you left out — a lot of people would have put in a rehab montage and the usual scenes to make us feel we see all the details but you suggested them and then left it alone.
I think it is important that we realize this man is on a road to redemption. We all see redemption. We all are flawed individuals. The themes of hope and regret and loss, all of those course through this movie and course through our daily lives and course through the great country songs. So all humans who see this and suffer through the human condition will understand this.
So you’re a fan of country music?
Oh, I am! I literally cut my teeth in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia going to really great blue grass festivals in Virginia with my parents and then I segued to my father’s LP collection — Waylon and Cash and Haggard and Kristofferson. I loved that these guys wrote about their life experiences. So I was very well steeped in these songs and it was very personal to me. I hope that country music listeners will enjoy the picture and find a little bit of themselves in these characters and relate to it.
I wanted the pacing of the film, the look of the film, everything to have the feeling of an old George Jones song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” You have to really listen closely and let the song develop. It has a third less cuts than most films, a more languid pace.
So if you didn’t go to film school, did you watch a lot of movies and study them on your own?
I watched a lot of films from the 1970’s, my favorite decade of American film, and I would watch with the sound off, so I could see how they would move the camera, how they would tell the story through performance and lens selection. I would watch the greats like Terrence Malick, with “Days of Heaven” or “Badlands” or Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Coppola, all those guys. And film-makers of today, Sean Penn, Robert Duvall, Ed Harris, Billy Bob Thornton, guys who are complete film-makers, actors and writers and directors.
You said you could not do the movie without T. Bone Burnett. What does he bring to the movie?
He really is peerless in his Americana roots genre. He understands behavior, he understands characterization, he understands the un-obvious and he understood the alternate universe I wanted to create, one part Willie, one part Waylon and Kris, some Merele and Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver. He could do that and bring it into this fictional character. He’s just a master at what he does. I told him we have to have a narrative thread through the course of this movie that him write a song over the course of this movie that helps him rediscover his artistry and helps him rediscover who he is as a person. Then we had Ryan Bingham, a young man who in my opinion is the heir apparent to Hank Williams, and he came in with “The Weary Kind” because that’s who Bad Blake is, he is a weary individual. It captures all the themes that I wanted and it’s a stunning, stunning song. It’s a part of the fabric of the film.
What inspires you?
My two beautiful girls inspire me every day. Great art. Music, gospel, classical, jazz. It’s part of my life. Mostly by people who aren’t afraid to take risks intheir lives, who live their lives as if every day was their last. People who have strong convictions.
What did you learn from your first film?
The most important lesson I learned was to always trust your instincts, never stop learning — and steal from the best, because I surely did.