Scott Cooper is sitting back, resting in a wicker chair. An awning protects him from most of the San Diego sun, except for a few speckled slivers of light that lattice over his shirt. It’s a Wednesday morning, around 10:40, when he peers over the top of the Ivy Hotel, in which he now sits, to take in the sights of downtown. Cooper looks exhausted, but his smile is lively and genuine. I shake his hand and ask about his directorial debut, Crazy Heart, in which Jeff Bridges plays a weary old country singer, whose syrupy drawl and leathery fingers have seen better days. The picture is generating a lot of buzz; the Golden Globes and Independent Spirit Awards have both given Cooper’s film nods, and it is rumored that the Academy will follow suit in the coming months.
Your film received a lot of well deserved nominations. How about that “Best First Screenplay” nod at the Independent Spirit Awards?
I was completed psyched, because those are your peers who are voting, as opposed to people who don’t really know what it takes to make a film. The nomination really means a lot.
Initially, before you came to find Thomas Cobb’s book Crazy Heart, you wanted to direct a movie about Merle Haggard’s life. In a way, when you weren’t able to secure the rights to his life story, were you happy that you came upon a character, in Bad Blake, who embodies several monolithic country singers?
I’m not sure about that. Merle has lived such a cinematic life, a very rich life that he wrote about so beautifully. I took elements of not only Merle, but Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and even Townes Van Zandt. I’m very happy to find Thomas Cobb’s novel, which was great source material to tell a lot of people’s stories. But Merle’s life is a powerful one. Someone with more power than me should make a movie about him.
Cobb’s novel had been out of print for sometime. What was his reaction upon seeing his book adapted to the big screen?
I’m sure when he heard that I, an actor of modest credits, was adapting his book into a film, his hopes and expectations were very low. He did tell me, however, that after he had seen it he cried. From the person who created the world of Bad Blake, it meant a lot to me.
The music of the movie is obviously the focal point, the vanguard of the story. Did you always imagine using T Bone Burnett to write the music?
Yes, I always did. T Bone is peerless at this Americana roots music. After I finished the Crazy Heart script, I sent it to Robert Duvall — who is a good friend and a mentor of sorts — and he said “What do you need?” I told him that I needed two things, Jeff Bridges and T Bone. I told him that I shouldn’t make it if I didn’t get those two guys. The persistence paid, and it all worked out.
The music and writing received nominations — this must have been a thrill.
I’m always vexed as to how people gauge performances or written words. Rarely do I agree with that. I mean, how do you tell what is better between a Jackson Pollock and a Picasso? How do you do that? But anytime someone recognizes your work, especially people that I’ve longtime admired, and they seek me out to tell me that they enjoyed my film, it means so much to me. I’m living a dream.
You’ve been an actor for quite some time, and you continue to be one. When did you first decide that you wanted to direct a film?
When I wasn’t being artistically satisfied. I was a groomsmen in a lot of big films. When that happens over and over again, in order to survive, you have to think about things. A lot of times you have to take work as an artist to sustain yourself and live. I felt that, if I really wanted to express myself, I should do it through the written word and images. I looked to guys like Duvall, again, and even Sean Penn. Names like Billy Bob Thornton and Ed Harris, just to name a few more, are fine, complete filmmakers.
You speak about Duvall a lot. Can you tell me about your relationship with him? He seemed to be almost a compass for the movie.
Oh yeah. Duvall grounded the whole thing. I think, in my opinion, that he’s America’s finest actor. Crazy Heart, if you remember Tender Mercies, is an homage to that piece. Bobby, as I call him, shares a lot of sensibilities that I have in film, acting and style. It only seemed natural that he would come on as godfather of this piece. I could have never gotten the film made if not for him, because his name is on the script. When the thing goes out to Jeff Bridges, for instance, he will read it much faster than if my name is on it.
The small details in the movie, such as the sound check through the midpoint in the film, gives the story a lot of authenticity. How important was it to get all of those small details in?
Absolutely critical. This whole thing is about authenticity and creating a sense of place, whether it’s having the elbows of Jeff’s shirt be worn out, or the soles of his shoes frayed. Details such as the crease of his pants or the size of his shirts were vital to painting an accurate depiction of this character. When he is wearing clothes two sizes too small, during certain parts of the film, he is trying to live in the past. Everything about it had to be authentic, down to the singing and the playing, or why make it?
Jeff Bridges is more than musically adept. I’m sure he was an easy choice for you, given his abilities as an actor and as a musician.
I wrote the film with Jeff in mind. I wanted to make certain that he was the guy that portrayed Bad Blake, and it was not easy to make that happen. Jeff is notoriously difficult to attach to a film. It took the Coen brothers a year to convince him to make The Big Lebowski. In fact, it took me a year to attach Jeff to this particular film, because he says no to everything, especially, ironically, things that he loves. I mean, he loved the script and didn’t mind that I was a first time director. I think, most glaringly of all, was that there was no music attached to Crazy Heart at the time. Eventually T Bone helped lasso Jeff, and thank god that he did, because he gave a career best performance.
Jeff is just tailor made for this role.
Oh yeah he is. I asked him to gain twenty-five pounds for the role and he did.
And how about Jeff’s voice? He really nails the weathered, lonesome sound of a country musician.
T Bone can make anybody’s voice sound good — even mine. We told him, look, we want this to sound a little bit like Leonard Cohen’s delivery.
There’s a surprise cameo in the film – –
Colin (Farrell), you mean?
Good, I’m glad you were surprised. You wouldn’t expect to see him in this.
How did you think about getting him attached to your film?
Well, it’s easy to bring someone who isn’t Colin Farrell into that role. Colin is, more than anything, a character actor. He’s not only skilled, but very humble. I wanted him because I knew it would be a surprise, and I also knew that he would come in and support Jeff in a lot of ways. Colin has a dark charisma that I really wanted for that role. One part Bad Blake’s voice, who lives in the past, and one part current Nashville star.
Looking at Colin Farrell, you wouldn’t immediately associate him with that particular role, but he just fit’s the modern look of a country singer to a tee. And he sang, correct?
Yes, he did.
He’s quite good.
Both Jeff and Colin sing in the film.
And they have terrific chemistry.
Yes, they do. Jeff and Maggie also both have amazing chemistry.
Maggie has such an emotive face already, that her character, in being such a powerful yet downtrodden women, really fit’s the look of her character.
Oh yes, she is amazing. She’s one of my favorite actresses. She’s such a unique beauty. She’s fearless. If you’ve ever seen Secretary or Sherry Baby, you know that she’s fearless, and she’ll go to places that a lot of actresses wont.
That fearlessness that you spoke about, did you always imagine her being in your film as you were writing it?
I had written two roles for Bobby and Jeff, and I didn’t know what I was to do with Tommy Sweet, even though I had Colin in mind, so Jeff and I started to discuss actresses. We wanted one who you didn’t know about, or someone who lived a private life, so you could believe what you saw on screen. We didn’t want an actress who was always in the pages of Us Weekly. We wanted someone with a fresh face — maybe a young Ellen Burstyn or a Gena Rowlands, and that’s Maggie.
Looking forward, do you envision best song recognition at the Academy Awards?
It would be nice, because “The Weary Kind” is fantastic. The kid who sings it is also in the movie. He’s another non-actor, but he could be an heir apparent to Hank Williams. I only hope that the film’s success isn’t tied to how many Oscars it wins. I’m really proud of this film, and I don’t think I could’ve made a better one as a first timer.
The look of your film is very particular. There is a feeling of isolation, despondency and at the same time hope.
Exactly. That’s why I shot it in the American southwest. That’s also why I used the cinematographer that I did. I wanted this film to be reminiscent of the nineteen-seventies movies that I most respond to. You can see shades of Robert Altman and Terrence Malick, even Peter Bogdanovich. I felt like if we could capture his loneliness in a starkly beautiful locale, such as the American southwest, we could capture the feel of something completely organic.
When watching the movie, the backdrop highlights him as being the focal point of the film, while it also becomes him at the same time.
Thank you. That’s excellent. I can tell that you’re a film lover.
You did an amazing job filming this picture; the truthfulness pours out of every frame.
I had to be, in so many ways, invisible when I was directing this film, if only to capture what you just mentioned. I couldn’t have my fingerprints on it. The film isn’t showy in any way. I wasn’t trying to be clever with the camera – I didn’t go to film school.
I like the fact that there aren’t any boastful or pretentious shots. It’s very natural and helps the story move along without distractions.
Exactly. It’s all about the place and the thing. You have to be mindful of serving that.
Going back to when you said you first wanted to direct, was this the film that kindled the torch?
Yes, it was. Again, if you look at The Apostle, Duvall’s picture that he self-financed, that was a very personal film. Billy Bob Thornton did the same thing with Sling Blade. These are all actors that I love and admire. Sean Penn filmed The Indian Runner, which you should see if you haven’t. I felt like this film was really the perfect thing for me to try to add my voice into the film community. I can tell you that trying to follow it up wont be easy.
Do you have anything in mind for your second feature?
Oh yeah, but the films I want to make are not easy to get made. I love the work of William Faulkner. I also think that Miles Davis’ story should be told someday. Maybe even Chet Baker. There are things out there, I just have to find them and get somebody to help me make it. Films are getting made for fourteen year-olds, and these aren’t the films I want to make.
It’s apparent when watching your film that there is a nineteen-seventies feel. The character based drama is something that is overlooked in modern film, save for a few scattered pictures.
Oh man, a lot of my colleagues respond to dramas like that, but other people don’t. Critics have been so kind to me, but I hope that audiences want to see a modest story that’s told truthfully.
It’s hard to have a duality of clever and natural dialogue, but it’s done very nicely in the film.
A lot of times things are too cute.
To bring up a film where the entire script is covered in neon sheen would be Juno. That movie, to me, is over the top with its cuteness and unbelievably stilted dialogue.
Not in particular to Juno, but Hollywood tends to reward showiness. I don’t mean just in acting, but this also applies to directing. Subtleties and nuances get overlooked. I think this is due to those traits being uninteresting to people. I don’t know what it is. I only know that you either have a good ear for vernacular, and you understand the human condition, or you don’t. These stories are really the only ones that I want to tell.
Minimalism is more powerful to telling a good story, I think.
I agree. My film is very minimal story. There was a movie that I saw last year, Ballast, that was a lovely and beautiful film, very minimalist. I think that, for me too, less is more. This applies for acting, directing and writing. I certainly hope that Jeff doesn’t get overlooked for his wonderful work in this film.
Minimalism often brings out character build. I thought of Five Easy Pieces when I saw your film.
Oh yeah, I love it. Those are the movies that I really respond to. I find myself seeing more European cinema than American.
They seem to have more quality and quantity at the same time.
Yeah, it’s great. Those movies channel what I loved about older cinema.