MOVIES | “Crazy Heart” director Scott Cooper: “Music is a very important part of my life”

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In the new film Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges gives a spectacular Oscar-worthy performance playing a tough, broken-down and weary country rock musician named “Bad” Blake who has seen better days.  Blake hasn’t stopped performing but he’s playing in dive bars and bowling alleys instead of coliseums and arenas. When local newspaper reporter Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is granted an interview with Blake, he begins to have an interest in her, and they become involved in a romantic relationship. Blake’s protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell, in a cameo role but terrific) is the genre’s biggest act going, and Blake can’t stand being mentioned with him, given that Blake is the one who taught Sweet everything he knows. When Blake’s agent is able to get him a big gig opening for Sweet, Blake must choose to bury the hatchet with Tommy and take the gig in the hope of sparking a comeback.

January 11 at the Lagoon Cinema, character actor Scott Cooper (Gods and Generals, Broken Trail, and the upcoming Get Low) was in town to promote Crazy Heart, his first film as a writer, producer, and director. The theater was packed for the word-of-mouth screening, which turned away over 100 people. Before the film started, Cooper walked to the front of the theater and spoke about being in Minneapolis for the first time in nine years. “It feels great to be back here. I was last here in 2000 or 2001 acting on a film called Bill’s Gun Shop, did anyone here see it?” A few cheers came from the crowd. Cooper thanked everyone for coming and encouraged the audience to think of plenty of questions to ask him afterwards.

After the Q&A, I sat down with Cooper to talk with him about the process of bringing Crazy Heart to the screen, about his musical influences (he’s a musician too), about working with Crazy Heart producer Robert Duvall for the fourth time, and about what are his plans are following Crazy Heart—which is now playing at the Uptown Theatre.

I’ve heard that you originally wanted to do a film about Merle Haggard but you couldn’t get rights or he wouldn’t sign off on it. Is that correct?
Well, not exactly—he would have. I spent a little time with Merle at some shows and hung out on the bus with him and his life is very ripe for cinematic exploration. But the rights were difficult because he had too many ex-wives and it was difficult to get all the life rights to their stories, so I decided to turn my attention to this book and use elements from Merle, Kris [Kristofferson], Waylon [Jennings], and all those guys. Townes Van Zandt is another.

How many liberties did you take with the book [source material]?
Oh, many. It was great source material, but it really only served as a blueprint and I then I added my personal touches to it, for better or worse. It really is a fantastic book and it gave me a wonderful place to start.

Not being very familiar with the source material—is the story set in New Mexico?
Yeah, it takes place in the southwest. It’s a very obscure and fine novel. It’s out of print but it’s being re-released in February—as it should, because it’s a lovely piece of work.

Has Crazy Heart novelist Thomas Cobb written anything else?
He has written some stories and a book that came out last year called Shavetail. He’s a very talented writer.

How long ago did you start adapting this?
I started in 2005 or ’06, and it didn’t take long to adapt—maybe six weeks to have a first draft ready. Then I sent it off to Robert Duvall and said, “Yeah, I love it, let’s make this.” It took a while to get Jeff attached, took a while to find financing, took a while to find the right time and to get everyone’s schedules to align.

Was Jeff who you wanted to play “Bad” Blake from the beginning, and what about T-Bone Burnett doing the music?
Yes. I wrote the part for Jeff. I sent the script to Robert and he said, “Scott, what do you need?” I told him I need two things and if I don’t get them, I shouldn’t make the film. One is T-Bone Burnett and the other is Jeff Bridges.

When you wrote the script, was there ever a point that you thought you might not be able to direct it—being a first time writer/director?
No, it was never an option. Robert Duvall signed on quickly and when you have him on your side, people don’t say no; he believed in me. He felt strongly about me directing it. It was never in question, otherwise, the script would have never been written and I wouldn’t have sold it.

You and Duvall first met on the 2003 historical war film, Gods and Generals?
Yes, and we’ve worked on Broken Trail and the upcoming Get Low and now this, which is our fourth collaboration. And there is a good chance he’ll show up in whatever I do next.

Did Jeff need to learn how to play all the songs in the film?
Yes. We had to write it, produce it, create it, score it, and Jeff had to learn how to play it all, as did Colin. And that took some time, so Jeff and I worked on it for about eight months to a year, working on the character and the music until he was very comfortable with it.

Jeff Bridges has a music CD of his own out, right?
He does. He is a very talented singer and is a great picker, as we say, and has the physicality of Kris and Waylon and is a towering actor. He is the only one who could play this role.

Growing up you must have enjoyed this music—you seem to know it very well.
Oh yeah, I cut my teeth listening to bluegrass musicians: Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley. Then I segued into my father’s vinyl collection listening to Billy Joe Shaver, Glen Campbell, Waylon, and Willie [Nelson]. I grew up in a very musical household, and this was a very personal story to me. I know it inside-out.

When it came to releasing the film, it wasn’t on too many people’s radars until about November.
Well, it was in Hollywood, maybe not elsewhere. Paramount Vantage was going to release it but then they folded. They no longer exist. It really isn’t a movie that big Paramount releases—they release big blockbusters and waterslide movies, some people say. And my agent extricated it, gracefully, from Paramount and there were a lot of suitors and film festivals that wanted it. [The film is being released by Fox Searchlight.] Telluride really wanted it, which is a great festival for filmmakers. Toronto. Sundance—we were asked to open Sundance this year and we didn’t take it to any [festivals]. So it didn’t have that advance buzz like some festival films get. Like A Single Man and Up in the Air—they go to those festivals and people start writing about them. And we came out very late in the year, the latest you possibly could to qualify for the Oscars, and now people are embracing it, critics and audiences alike.

Having been an actor and now a director, would you like to be just a director now or would you like to dabble in both?
Well as I was editing this, I was acting in a film with Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, and Robert Duvall called Get Low—which, ironically, is opening Sundance this year. So I was doing both at the same time, and I will definitely continue to act since it is my first love, but I love writing and directing because film is a director’s medium.

With the film out now, I imagine you’ll have more offers to direct.
It’s all about the story and the material: I have to be able to personalize it in some way. I’ve never had more opportunities than I have now, in terms of offers to write, direct, and act. I’m so grateful for that. And while I’m here, I just missed an opportunity to meet the Coen Brothers for their new movie, True Grit
, so I’m sorry that I couldn’t do that. I mean, you can’t be everywhere. But I’m just thrilled about the opportunities and I wish every filmmaker could experience this. This might sound trite, but it really is like living a dream. It’s been remarkable, the reception the film has received. When you’re a filmmaker like Sodenbergh, Coppala, Clint Eastwood—they get this type of reception every time out. But me, it’s very gratifying.

Do you know have any ideas what you’re going to do next?
I do, but I’m in the process now of sorting through the offers and very carefully choosing what that’s going to be. There are a lot of great stories, a lot of great novels that are considered classics that are ripe for cinematic exploration.

What are some authors or stories you’re looking to tell?
William Faulkner, William Styron, a great Virginia writer. There should be a story on Miles Davis, Hendrix, Marley, Chet Baker—all those guys lived great, tragic lives.

Are you a musician yourself?
I am. Music is a very important part of my life.

So it must have helped being a musician to tell this story?
I don’t see how I could have made it otherwise. I definitely think I’ll do something else with music, at some point. Whatever I do next, it will have a strong musical component. It may not be a biopic, but something with music being part of the fabric in the story.

What do you hope an audience gets from your film?
Well, there was a lady that came up to me after screening and said, “they typically don’t like country western music, but I love this movie and the music.” It really isn’t just country-western, it’s country blues with rock influence. But what I think people should take is that there are themes that course through this movie that course through our daily lives. Hope. Regret. Loss. Redemption. Things that we all know and deal with on a daily basis. We’re all flawed, deeply flawed, and we just have to overcome those flaws. We can become better people, and I want this movie to illuminate the human condition. I guess it’s that simple.

As a writer myself, I was excited before this interview to know that today you received a Writers Guild of America nomination, so congratulations.
Thank you very much. Any time you are recognized by your peers in the Writers Guild and the Independent Spirit Awards, it is an honor. When you have those people embracing you, that means more to me than anything, and it is something I will always cherish and never forget.