The former actor turned writer/director discusses his Oscar Award winning film, which is now available on DVD and Blu-ray
Scott Cooper began his career has an actor and was best known for his role in the 2003 film Gods and Generals, which is where he met his mentor and friend, acting legend Robert Duvall. However Cooper took on the new titles of writer/director and producer last year with his directorial debut, the extremely successful independent film Crazy Heart, which is available on DVD and Blu-ray beginning April 20th. The film most notably won veteran actor Jeff Bridges his long overdue Oscar, for playing washed up musician Bad Blake, at this year's Academy Awards ceremony. We recently had a chance to talk with Scott Cooper about the film; it's music, working with T-Bone Burnett, all the accolades the movie received and the incomparable Jeff Bridges. Here is what he had to say:
To begin with, were you surprised by all the attention that Crazy Heart got this past awards season?
Scott Cooper: Well when you surround yourself with geniuses like I did, all of those guys and T-Bone, good things tend to come out of it. As a first time filmmaker you surround yourself with the best and learn from each of them. You try and give them an arena where they can feel very comfortable and relaxed and can do their best work and discover. That's all I sent out to do and give them the blueprint to do that and it turned out well.
When you first read the novel that the film is based on by Thomas Cobb, what was it about the book that touched you and made you think it would make a great film?
Scott Cooper: Well, I always wanted to tell Merle Haggard's life story, which I'm sure you've heard. When I couldn't do it because I couldn't obtain his life rights even though I spent time with him, he had too many ex wives and was very difficult to do. Thomas had created a world that I knew very well. The world in the scenes that captured in his novel of lost, hope and redemption all the things that course through great country songs and of course, through his novel, I understood and I understood those well. Regret, heartbreak and I felt like I could tell the story because I knew these people so well. I knew the music well. I knew the world well. I felt like if I were going to be a first time writer/director/producer then this would be the one to do it with.
Tell me about how you met legendary actor Robert Duvall and a little bit about your friendship with him, he helped you get the movie made, correct?
Scott Cooper: I wouldn't be where I am if not for Bobby. We've done four movies together. While I was cutting film Crazy Heart we were acting in a movie together called Get Low, which is coming out this year it's extraordinary with Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek. It all started on a civil war epic for Warner Bros. called Gods and Generals and we struck up a friendship and we're really kindred spirits. We really like the same type of music, same kind of films and the same kind of actors. A Relationship grew out of that and my wife and I were married on his farm. We've become frequent collaborators, and one that I think is an artistic mentor certainly. The movie would never have been made if not for him.
After you decided to make the film, at what point did you approach Duvall about working on it and what intimidated your more, possibly overstepping the bounds of your friendship or the fact that he won an Oscar for playing a similar character in "Tender Mercies?
Scott Cooper: I didn't even tell him that I had optioned the book. I only told my wife and agent but as soon as I finished it, he was the first person to read it. I sent it to him a little reluctantly not because of the friendship but because he had won an Oscar for Tender Mercies. He had read Horton Foote's script, which had maybe one of the best titles of any film I can ever recall. So I was a little bit reluctant to send it to him because of that. You just can't compare yourself to Horton Foote or the work those guys did in that film. I felt embolden that I could tell the story and I felt confident that I could tell the story so I sent it off to him and he read it immediately. I got a call back and he said, "Scott, I love it. Let's go make it. What do you need?" I said there are two things I have to have to make it Bobby and if I don't get them, I shouldn't make it and that's Jeff Bridges and T-Bone Burnett. They probably wouldn't have ever read the script if they didn't see his name as a producer.
So you knew from the beginning that it was essential for you to get Jeff Bridges and T-bone Burnett involved in the project in order for it to work?
Scott Cooper: I wrote the role for Jeff. I was always listening to music when I was writing and throughout the play list that I created as I wrote the screenplay I was always listening to music and I just said, there is no one who could do this better than T-Bone. I knew his music so well and the world that he created both orally and systematically so I knew that he was ideal. You know, when you're as naive I was, have never tried to make a film before, you feel like you can do it and I think why not. Those guys are very difficult to get to do your projects. They get offers all the time. I think Jeff and Daniel Day-Lewis are the two most difficult to attach to anything. So I got lucky.
We spoke to Jeff last year when the movie first came out about some of the similarities between the character he plays in this film, Bad Blake, and The Dude, the character that he played in "The Big Lebowski." He told us that in early screenings audiences would laugh when Blake was walking through the bowling alley at the beginning of the movie due to it's connection to the classic Coen Brothers film and that because you had never seen that movie you had no idea why they were laughing, is that true?
Scott Cooper: That's right. I had literally never seen the movie and I've seen all of Joel & Ethan Coen's movies but I only want to see their movies projected. I don't like watching things on DVD or at home. It never translates as well and I just have never had a chance to see it. People always mentioned it on set and didn't I didn't know what it was, but of course now I do know. I'm eager to see it but I hope the similarities are there. I know The Dude from what I've read and clips that I've seen and maybe there is some Dude in Bad Blake.
Can you tell us a little bit about Bad Blake, the character from the book, your interpretation of him in the screenplay and then Jeff's interpretation of the role in the film?
Scott Cooper: Because I wanted to tell Merle Haggard's life story, I wanted to be able to capture the essence of Merle, Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver. All those I've admired for a very long time. I admired their life styles. Their lives were cinematic and they wrote about their very difficult life experiences. I wanted to see the character through that prism so I'd supply Jeff with lots of rolls of footage of all those guys then he interpreted it that way. But I have a feeling that Jeff not only pulled from the guys I just mentioned, but also from people he knows. He tends to do that for his roles, he tends to zero on someone he is close to, so he can find the qualities in that character and bring that onto the work he is doing in the moment.
So we both probably saw it through different prisms but I do know that he thought about those guys. I said to Jeff that if we do this correctly, Bad Blake will have been the fifth Highwaymen, if you know who the other four were, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. That simple group of the Highwaymen, they all live that outlaw life style and Bad Blake would have been the fifth.
It must have helped knowing that Jeff is actually friends with Kris Kristofferson, personally knew a lot of those musicians and has access to some of those people, right?
Scott Cooper: That's right and Jeff and I screened the movie for Kris and that was quite an experience I have to say. He had to compose himself and at that point I knew that I had really captured that role well since Kris responded to it that way. Willie even wrote an article about it in a newspaper. These guys really responded to it in a very authentic way.
I'm sure you were aware of the magical performance that Jeff Bridges was giving at the time that you were shooting it but looking back now, post-Oscars, doesn't it just seem inevitable that he would have won for this role?
Scott Cooper: What I saw between while we were filming was nothing short of extraordinary. From day one his work was so detailed, so specific, so, so good and lived in that I haven't seen a performance like that from anyone in a very long time. A lot of times with people who win these awards, you see them "acting" or even sometimes overacting. People tend to respond to that where Jeff is the opposite, which is why he hasn't won before. Robert Duvall has only won once, go back and look at his body of work and tell me if that is fair?
What was Jeff like to work with on set?
Scott Cooper:Jeff was very focused and nothing was by accident. Jeff tends to slide into a role well before he starts shooting it. I don't want to say he was living the life style of Bad Blake, but you can see he was going to places that most actors wouldn't, I think in terms of really knowing who this character was. Sometimes that meant playing sets where people didn't know who he was or being late out rehearsing a lot. Sometimes he would get a little bit of whiskey and put it on his temples before we would do a take so Maggie could smell it and maybe that would inspire her to do something differently. Or even have a little taste here or there so he knew what Bad Blake was living through.
Did he already know how to play guitar or did T-bone have to help him with that on set?
Scott Cooper: Both. Jeff is a very good musician and a very good singer but when you have T-Bone Burnett it's like you've get strapped to the hood of a Cadillac while T-Bone's driving with his entire band in the back seat and they just take you down the road. Jeff is a very good musician in his own right but T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton certainly helped him become a better musician and a better singer.
How did you and T-bone come to choose the music that is used throughout the film?
Scott Cooper: Again, I knew this role extremely well, as well as T-Bone in terms of the type of musician I wanted to hear and the world that I wanted to hear. He and I collaborated very closely on that. In terms of writing the songs or choosing songs Bad would sing, we wanted it to support the narrative. So if you look at the opening number in the bowling alley, his first song is "Somebody Else." "I used to be somebody and now I'm somebody else." This guy who played the Grand Ole Opry and now he is playing bowling alleys and having fun with that. Or if you look at "Brand New Angel" toward the end of the movie at Robert Duvall's bar, it's really about the death of a fiddle player. Now it's the "Brand New Angel," but we used it as the rebirth of a man who is sought and found redemption. Or if you look at the "The Weary Kind," which is woven into the narrative of the film and it's about this journey that this man has taken. Nothing was by mistake it was all by design and we worked very hard on that in a very short time, which just speaks to their genius really.
You cast both Maggie Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell against type in the movie and got great performances out of both of them, tell us about casting them and working with the two actors on this film?
Scott Cooper: I wanted to cast people who you would find unexpected in those roles. I've never seen Maggie ever play anything like this, she always plays someone sophisticated, someone who lived in New York or was Columbia educated. I think Colin is someone is going to be one of our great young character actors, which is what he is, a character actor in a leading man's body. He is doing his best work and I felt like people were going to say "Colin Farrell," at the beginning of the movie, and at the end say "COLIN FARRELL WOW!" I knew he would be game and support Jeff in a way other actors of his caliber and level probably wouldn't. So I tried to cast and use people that you found unexpected.
Tell us about the DVD and Blu-Ray, are there a lot of deleted scenes that fans can expect to see?
Scott Cooper: Yes there are. As Faulkner used to say, you have to kill your darlings. You take out the best scenes sometimes of the movie, or the novel if it stands up and you know you have something good. In this case there are some very good scenes that you will find on the DVD that were very difficult to cut and just show the greater lengths of just how good Jeff Bridges is.
Did you and Jeff get a chance to do commentary for it?
Scott Cooper: No, we didn't have time. Literally the movie wasn't coming out when it did and the movie is still in theaters. We've been promoting it and Jeff's been working. We had The Oscars, The Golden Globes and it's still in movie theaters. So unfortunately we didn't get too, but hopefully we can go back and do one for a release at another date.
Finally, can you tell us a little about what you are working on next?
Scott Cooper: I just finished writing something that I'm really proud of. I can't really announce yet, but I hope it's my next picture. It's a devastating piece, but one I'm very proud of and eager to tell. So stayed tune. I'm very proud of what I've written. I've written it for very specific actors and hopefully they'll agree to do it.