Scott Cooper: The body and soul behind 'Crazy Heart'
The critics have been raving nonstop, and rightfully so, over Jeff Bridges' peerless performance in "Crazy Heart" as Bad Blake, the burned-out country music star who finds himself running on empty, reduced to playing bowling alleys as he tries to regain a small measure of his self-respect.
But so far, with "Crazy Heart's" many admirers hailing the acting work of Bridges and his costars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall, they have somehow overlooked another actor associated with the film: Scott Cooper, who after working in TV and film for more than a decade as an actor has suddenly made a splash as the rookie writer-director of "Crazy Heart."
For years, thousands of young Hollywood wannabes have been paying top dollar to get a film school education, figuring that it is the best way to break into the movie business. But it turns out that if you want a career as an admired filmmaker, one of the shortest lines to success is to put in some time working as an actor. If you study the Oscar history books, it is nothing short of remarkable how many great films over the last few decades have been made by directors who began their careers as actors.
Some names roll off the tongue, starting with several members of the film pantheon, including such Oscar luminaries as Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Mel Gibson, Warren Beatty and Ron Howard. You can add to that a list of such strong directing talent as Kevin Costner (who won an Oscar for making "Dances With Wolves"), Rob Reiner, Penny Marshall and Sean Penn, whose recent "Into the Wild" was an especially well directed film. Being on stage is also a good beginning for filmmakers: Mike Nichols was acting in sketch comedy long before he became a director, while Woody Allen did stand-up for years before turning to filmmaking.
But there's also a host of gifted younger directors who, like Cooper, spent considerable time working as actors without ever getting a real turn in the spotlight. The honors list would include Todd Field, who was acting for years (even appearing in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut") before making "In the Bedroom"; Tom McCarthy, who had also acted in a wide range of films -- "Flags of Our Fathers," a season of the "The Wire" -- before making "The Visitor." And then there's John Cameron Mitchell, who worked in TV for years before directing "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Julian Fellowes was also a veteran actor before turning to screenwriting ("Gosford Park") and directing ("Separate Lies").
If you ask film producers, they'll say that while many writers have become talented directors, they often are too protective of their words, worrying more about the dialogue than the subtleties of their actors' performances. Having often spent years working out scenes in acting classes and observing great filmmakers on movie sets, actors have a keen eye and ear for the right rhythm and tone that help form the creative architecture of a good movie. It's telling that while Cooper learned about acting by watching the best in action -- after working with Duvall on three different projects, he says, "I went to the Robert Duvall school of acting." He also soaked up a lot of filmmaking savvy watching old masters like Walter Hill, who directed Cooper in a western TV miniseries called "Broken Trail."
"I think actors make good directors because they understand behavior," says Cooper, 39, who grew up in Virginia, where his parents gave him a serious grounding in Southern literature and Southern music. Talking with me over breakfast the other day, Cooper came off more like a young English professor than a filmmaker. He has an earnest, almost studious air about him, it probably being the studiousness that kept him from getting farther as an actor -- acting being a trade that largely values studliness over seriousness. Even though he has continued to act -- he was playing a part in the indie film "Get Low" while he was editing "Crazy Heart" -- he realized after losing role after role to the likes of Jude Law and Matt Damon that he would probably always be, as he put it, "the bridesmaid instead of the bride."
"It was a gradual thing," he says. "But I slowly realized that the life of an actor is awfully difficult, and if I wanted to fully express myself, I'd have to go in another direction. Writing and directing is a lot more rewarding. After making 'Crazy Heart,' I think I fully understand that film is really a director's medium."
But how did Cooper get a movie about a burned-out country singer off the ground, especially after Bridges passed on the script the first time he read it? Keep reading:
If you look at Cooper's life story, you can see the signposts that led him to make a movie about a self-destructive artist who, even though he's a honky-tonk-style country singer, would be right at home in the bountiful gallery of beautiful losers that have populated Southern literature for decades, dating back to the days of Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner (who taught Cooper's father English at the University of Virginia).
When Cooper was a boy, his mother and father would take him along to hear bluegrass music, exposing him to the likes of Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson. His father also turned him on to such country icons as Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt. (Cooper, who has two young daughters, says, "If my daughter Stella had been a boy she would've been named Townes.") When Cooper started looking for a story that might make a good movie, he went out on the road with Haggard, spending a year on the singer's Super Chief tour bus.
But while Haggard's life was full of rich material, he had a battalion of ex-wives, making it impossible to disentangle the singer's life rights. However, soon afterward, an acquaintance of Cooper's gave him Thomas Cobb's novel, which offered an uncannily similar fictional portrait of a Haggard- (or Jennings- or Van Zandt-) style broken-down country singer. After Cooper optioned the book and wrote a script, he sent it to Duvall, a longtime family friend. (Cooper, who frequently refers to the actor as Mr. Duvall, was married at Duvall's 300-acre estate in Virginia, which he says Duvall's wife refers to as "the last station" -- as in the last station before heaven.)
Duvall liked the script and signed on as a producer, which immediately opened a lot of doors, since, as Cooper acknowledges, "it's one thing for an actor to read a script by some new filmmaker, very much another thing to read a script that says 'produced by Robert Duvall.' " When Duvall asked Cooper what he needed, Cooper said he needed Jeff Bridges and T Bone Burnett, the music producer who's brought verve and authenticity to all sorts of music-rich movies over the years, including "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Walk the Line."
Cooper eventually got 'em both, although when Bridges first read the script, he passed on it, concerned that it didn't have any music attached to it. A year later, Bridges ran into Burnett -- whom he's known since they were both young actors, spending endless evenings jamming on the set of "Heaven's Gate." Once Burnett said he was on-board, Bridges was too. It hardly seemed to matter that Cooper was a neophyte filmmaker, since Bridges -- a student of film history -- hadn't forgotten that his all-time favorite film, "Citizen Kane," also was made by a first-time director.
Cooper stuck to his guns throughout the whole process. Even though it was hard to scare up financing, when one potential backer insisted on having him shoot "Crazy Heart" in Canada to save some money, he turned them down flat. He shot the film in the American Southwest, which had the high and lonesome feel that seemed to perfectly suit Bad Blake's personality.
"I wanted the movie to have the same rhythm and feel as a George Jones song," Cooper says. He gave Bridges mix tapes and videos of all the country icons to watch and listen to. During the 24-day film shoot, Cooper played music on the set constantly, blaring Freddie Fender, Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Conway Twitty, Jones and the Highwaymen, a supergroup that featured Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash.
During filming, Cooper was a sponge, listening to anyone with a good idea, especially one that lent more grit to the story. In the opening of the movie, we see Bridges pull into town in his woebegone '78 Chevy Suburban, emptying a Sparkletts bottle full of urine in a parking lot. "That came from Stephen Bruton," says Cooper, referring to the recently deceased country singer -- a mainstay in Kristofferson's band -- who worked on much of the film's music with Burnett. "He said he'd often drive 300 miles between gigs and he needed to find a way so he never had to stop to take a [leak]. So, man, that felt so perfect. It went right into the movie."
"Crazy Heart" is probably so popular with critics because it feels like a throwback to the scruffy, unpolished films of the '70s, an era that spawned most of Cooper's favorite films, including Robert Altman's "Nashville," Terence Malick's "Badlands," John Huston's "Fat City" and Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show," the latter pair of pictures, of course, featuring a young Jeff Bridges making his mark as an actor. Cooper never went to film school, finding his way as a director by watching DVDs of those great '70's films with the sound off, "just seeing how the filmmakers shot every scene."
It's refreshing to see a young filmmaker with such a fond regard for the classics, whether he's paying homage to edgy '70s movies or pure, flat-picking country music. Cooper can still recall the first time he went to T Bone Burnett's house for a meeting about the film. Burnett let him in and then ran upstairs for a minute, leaving Cooper alone in the living room.
"Right there, in the middle of the room, T Bone had a life-sized cutout of Ralph Stanley, the amazing bluegrass musician my father had taken me to see as a boy," Cooper recalls. "I just stared at that image of him and I thought to myself, 'You know, I think this movie might work out just fine.' "
Photo: Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart." Credit: Lorey Sebastian / Fox Searchlight.