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.
Tyler Perry’s movies are review-proof. Not just because he does not let critics see them before they are released, knowing that his audience won’t care about reviews, but because they do not lend themselves to the usual kind of analysis. They are not the usual kind of movie. They don’t fit into any category except their own: Tyler Perry movie. And as his wildly enthusiastic and utterly devoted fans know, that means a walloping portion of high drama and low comedy, with suffering women who are afraid to trust and very hunky men who are good with their hands, endlessly patient and thoughtful and — in both senses of the word — faithful.
Taraji P. Henson plays April, who lives in a decaying house she inherited from her father, and shuts the door on rooms that are about to collapse rather than trying to repair them. She supplements what she earns by singing at a tiny club with support from her married boyfriend (Brian White). Madea (Perry) catches April’s 16-year-old niece and two younger nephews trying to rob her house. She feeds them, scolds them, and delivers them to April, who has no interest in taking care of anyone, even herself. They are the children of April’s sister, who died of a drug overdose, and they have been cared for by April’s mother, who has disappeared. April is a bit slow on the uptake about what could have happened to her mother, which gives the story a few days for everyone to get acquainted, including a recent immigrant named Sandino (Adam Rodriguez) who is conveniently enough a handyman installed in the house by the kindly preacher around the corner (real-life pastor and gospel great Marvin Winans).
April’s one friend is Tanya (Mary J. Blige) and there is a woman from the church named Wilma who knows April’s mother (Gladys Knight). This gives the film an opportunity for some raise-the roof singing and praise, including the title number. Pastor Winans lends his voice to a heartfelt “Just Don’t Wanna Know/Over it Now,” and we believe that April, hearing it through her window, is genuinely moved by its powerful message. The songs and Henson’s sensitive portrayal of the woman who has neglected herself and her home keep us involved.
Some audiences object to Perry’s portrayal of the popular character Madea, calling her an exaggerated caricature or an embarrassing stereotype. But Perry knows that she provides some counterpoint to the melodrama, in this case including drug abuse, adultery, child molestation, and disability. I am far more troubled by the stereotypes in films like “Friday After Next,” “The Cookout,” and “Next Day Air” than in Perry’s films, which always include an assortment of thoughtful and responsible characters. A little comic relief with Madea’s jumbled-up Bible stories keeps things from getting overheated and reminds us that life — and families — are always a jumble of good, bad, wicked, kind, and silly.
Spike Lee’s latest movie is a film version of the Tony Award-winning musical autobiography, something between a concert and a play, about, by, and starring the one-named musician named Stew. He heads up the on-stage band, which functions somewhere between an orchestra and a Greek chorus, in this story based on his experiences leaving home to move to Europe and find himself.
Stew and his collaborator, Heidi Rodewald have put together a show that is very specific and autobiographical but also archetypal. It has a terrific script that perfectly captures the tug of home, the lure of away, the hunger for art, and the vulnerability of relationships. The main character’s only name is Youth to emphasize his Candide-ish qualities. The show is genre-crossing, with music that shows the influence of rock, pop, funk, gospel, and more. It explodes with electrifying performances by Daniel Breaker as Youth and a top-notch cast that instantly creates a range of international characters. Lee’s camera takes us into the heart of the action, even back-stage, seamlessly integrating three different performances.
Wired has a great article about “Cheap-and-Schlocky Blockbuster Ripoffs” of big-budget movies, made for less money than the cost of crew t-shirts of the multi-billion dollar Hollywood movies they flatter with imitation.
While “Sherlock Holmes” with Robert Downey, Jr. is getting its final touches, another “Sherlock Holmes” is being filmed in Wales. It may not have Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, or Guy Ritchie. But on the other hand, it does have a homicidal robot, a dinosaur, and a giant squid.
The gonzo Sherlock, which you’ll be able to find at major rental chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, is the creation of the Asylum, a low-budget studio specializing in shamelessly derivative knockoffs that are not-so-affectionately dubbed “mockbusters.” B-movie producers have been cribbing from Hollywood for decades, but none have done so as brazenly or efficiently as the Asylum, which for the past six years has churned out titles like “Snakes on a Train,” “Transmorphers,” “The Terminators,” “The Day the Earth Stopped,” and, of course, last summer’s “Transmorphers: Fall of Man.” These are uniformly dreadful films, notable mainly for their stilted dialogue, flimsy-looking sets (which are frequently recycled), and turns by faded stars such as Judd Nelson and C. Thomas Howell — actors whose careers crumbled around the same time as the Berlin Wall….
And the studio is growing. It recently signed a series of deals to air more than 20 films — both “vintage” mockbusters and new titles — on the Syfy network and other NBC Universal cable channels, and it moved to a new production facility in Burbank, California.
The Asylum has even had a hit of sorts: “Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus,” a tongue-in-cheek, non-mockbuster monster-mash starring Lorenzo Lamas and former teen pop star Deborah Gibson. Released last spring, the Mega Shark trailer — which ends with a shark devouring an airplane — went viral, garnering nearly 2 million views on YouTube.
This reminds me of the self-billed most successful producer in movie history, Roger Corman, whose biography is titled How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime. He has never lost money on a movie. Some of his films became cult classics like the original “Little Shop of Horrors,” which went on to become a musical play and movie with much bigger budgets and much bigger box office than the original film. Some of Corman’s films have even achieved some critical and scholarly acclaim. But outside of his investors, it is likely that his most significant contribution to the art form of making movies was giving talented young film-makers a chance when no one else would — people like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Gale Anne Hurd, Joe Dante, James Cameron, John Sayles, Nicholas Roeg, and Curtis Hanson. “Avatar” director James Cameron has said, “I trained at the Roger Corman Film School.” Actors who appeared in Corman films include Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Michael McDonald, Dennis Hopper, Talia Shire, David Caradine, and Robert De Niro.
I am not expecting the Asylum’s films to be picked up for big-budget remakes with song and dance numbers, and it does not sound like their directors or actors are on the road to stardom. But the Wired article notes that they are expanding, including opening a California production facility. So who knows? Maybe 20 years from now there will be some scrappy start-up making shlocky rip-offs of their films.