First-time director Scott Cooper stopped in San Antonio this week to promote his new film “Crazy Heart,” which stars four-time Academy Award nominated actor Jeff Briges as Bad Blake, a country western musician looking to kick-start his life and career.
During our interview, Cooper talked about his musical influences growing up, described what was going through his mind when he heard the song “The Weary Kind” for the first time, and even sang a bit of Marty Robbins’ song “El Paso” to pass the time.
“Crazy Heart” is your first film. You have no filmmaking background. You never went to film school. Honestly, how did you even know where to begin when you walk onto the set?
Well, my film school was watching great directors from the 1970s and watching these films without the sound. I would just watch how they would move the camera and the lens and how they would work with the actors and the framing. As an actor, which is what I primarily am, [“Crazy Heart”] is a very human story and I knew how to get those performances from the actors. Then you cast people with similar sensibilities and instincts and you try to tell a story as truthfully and honestly as you can. It’s always a process of discovery as most films or any type of artistic endeavor is.
Is the actual story the most important element of filmmaking to you?
Absolutely. Characterization and behavior over plot. I want the film to feel invisibility directed. [In “Crazy Heart”] I wanted you to feel like you were a fly on the wall. I wanted you to feel like you were in those motel rooms and in those bowling alleys and in the backseat of [Bad’s] ’78 Suburban truck.
Where did the confidence come from to be able to step into a job like this? I mean, Jeff Bridges has worked with directors like John Huston…
The Coen Brothers…
Well, the confidence came from knowing I could tell the story very clearly and humanly. Also, I had a patron saint in this project who is a very close friend, collaborator and mentor of mine, Robert Duvall. I’ve taken a page out of the Robert Duvall School of Acting and Directing on more than one occasion. To have him was also helpful. But he let me succeed or fail on my own terms. He was there if I needed him, but I felt fairly confident that I could tell the story.
You met Robert on the set of “God and Generals,” correct?
That’s right. We were both in that big Civil War epic. He liked my approach to the craft. We shared some likes in films and actors. Then I ended up getting married on his farm. We’ve now collaborated four times. When I was editing “Crazy Heart,” I was acting in a film with him called “Get Low” with Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek. It comes out this year.
“Crazy Heart” has been compared, of course, to movies like “The Wrestler” and “Tender Mercies.” Are you OK with these comparisons or would you rather have the film stand on its own?
I had never seen “The Wrestler” when I made this movie, but anytime you are compared to [director] Darren Aronofsky or Bruce Beresford (director of “Tender Mercies”) or Horton Foote (screenwriter of “Tender Mercies”) that is the highest of compliments. We all take from other films.
I know you had your heart set on making a biopic on Merle Haggard until you found out you would have trouble getting the rights to his story. Did you go into “Crazy Heart” still thinking of it as a Merle Haggard-type film since you had this fictional character you could mold into what you wanted?
I always wanted to tell Merle’s life story because I grew up listening to his music – his outlaw sensibility. He’s a great singer/songwriter and a poet laureate who really wrote about his life experiences. When I couldn’t tell Merle’s story I turned to this out-of-print, obscure novel (“Crazy Heart”) and it allowed me to fictionalize Merle’s life along with Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver – all these great guys that had that outlaw sensibility. I realized I could do it in a way that was truthful and from my own experience and create a character that could stand alongside those guys.
How much of the character of Bad Blake is your creation? How much of it is Thomas Cobb (author of the novel “Crazy Heart”)?
It’s a combination of both. He gave me great and very rich source material. You have to take that blueprint and make it three dimensional, which I did. You infuse that with your experience of spending time with Merle or watching Billy Joe Shaver. You have to personalize it to make it real and searing.
Then, of course, you hand it over to Jeff and let him give something else to it.
That’s right. I think he and Robert Duvall are America’s two finest screen actors. When you surround yourself with geniuses, it makes your job a whole lot easier.
Country music is such a broad term when describing the genre. How would you describe the music in “Crazy Heart?”
It’s one part rooted in traditional country and western music and it’s one part rooted in Texas roadhouse and another in Mississippi Delta blues. It was important that I infused all of those. Then, T-Bone shaped it all for the movie. Even people who don’t like country music love the music in “Crazy Heart.” It all comes down to how truthful it is, how soulful it is. It’s all the same because it all comes from a very pure place.
I read that you are a big Ralph Stanley fan.
I grew up spending the night at Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass concerts. Ralph Stanley would buy all his automobiles from my family’s dealership. So, I really grew up with him. He’s a throwback. He’s an iconoclast. He’s a guy that no one could fill his boots. Every day we have Ralph Stanley is a good day.
Tell me about the first time you heard “The Weary Kind.”
I gave Ryan [Bingham] the script and he called me and said, “I’ve written a song. Meet me at T-Bone’s.” So, we went to T-Bone’s and I sat on his coffee table and [Ryan] pulled out his well-worn acoustic guitar and he started singing it. I said to myself, “I just heard a classic.” I could see T-Bone’s jaw slowly drop. We said, “That is the narrative thread of ‘Crazy Heart.’ That is the end-title song. That is the song he is writing.”
What do you have in your iPod?
I have Radiohead, Jay-Z, Ralph Stanley. You’re the first person to ask me this question. I have Mozart, the Shins. When I’m out here in Texas I have Marty Robbins and his song “El Paso.” (Singing) Out in the West Texas town of El Paso…
Ah, great song to sing while you’re visiting!
I sang that song in a duet with Laura Bush at the White House. I took the film “Broken Trail” to the White House and screened it for George W. and the First Lady.
What would your country and western name be if you were a country and western singer?
Oh, good question. I haven’t thought of that. I think you’ve stumped me.
T-Bone is hard to top.
It is. Maybe Road Dog.