You can be forgiven for not knowing who Scott Cooper is. He’s the kind of vital Hollywood insider who never garners much media attention, despite appearing in everything from an episode of The X-Files to such films as Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and collaborating with Robert Duvall—whom he counts as a mentor and friend—on four films.
But you’ll likely be hearing more about him now that Crazy Heart, a film Cooper wrote, produced, and directed, is generating Oscar buzz, having recently scored a Golden Globe award for its lead actor, Jeff Bridges. Bridges stars as the down-and-out country singer Bad Blake, drinking his way across the American Southwest and riding the dying momentum of a few threadbare old hits.
When Cooper came through Minneapolis recently to promote Crazy Heart, now in wide release, Minnesota Monthly sat down with the first-time director to talk about the film, his youth in bluegrass country, and why Bridges and bowling just seem to go together.
MnMo: It’s almost impossible to imagine this movie without the music— it’s such an essential part of its emotional resonance and even its narrative. Did you try writing lyrics yourself, or was it always your intention to attract professional musicians to the project?
SC: It was always my intention to attract T-Bone Burnett. After I finished the screenplay I sent it to Robert Duvall, and of course he won the best actor for Tender Mercies, which is based on country music, and he said, “I love it. Let’s make it. What do you need?” I told him there are two people I need to make this film, and if I don’t get them I shouldn’t make it. One is T-Bone Burnett and the other is Jeff Bridges.
T-Bone is really peerless at what he does. He really has a singular voice and a genius level of talent. I literally cut my teeth in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia listening to this type of music, before it was de rigueur, and then I segued into my dad’s vinyl collections—Cash, Waylon, Merle Haggard. They were all really wonderful storytellers. I felt like [their music] was about telling the truth. And I knew that in order to do that, I needed someone who could help me express my vision musically, and that was T-Bone.
MnMo: What was it like working with T-Bone?
SC: Jeff, T-Bone, myself, and the late Stephen Bruton—to whom I dedicated the film—we would all pull up guitars and write lyrics and melodies. Some were good, some were terrible, some were very good, and it was really born out of that.
And then there was a young singer/songwriter named Ryan Bingham. Ryan is a Texas troubadour, in my estimation the heir apparent to Hank Williams. He’s a non-actor, but I met with Ryan, and told him, “I want you to take the script, and if it strikes you to write a song, please do.” The next day, I get a phone call from Ryan and he tells me that he’s written a song. So we meet at T-Bone Burnett’s house, and he sits on T-Bone’s coffee table and pulls out a guitar and sings a song called “The Weary Kind” that he wrote the night before. I’m sitting behind Ryan watching T-Bone and his jaw just slowly drops and he says, “That’s it, that’s genius.”
MnMo: You opened the film with that song.
SC: And we closed with it. That’s the narrative thread, the fabric of the film, that he’s writing and discovering this song throughout the whole movie. … And along that journey he’s discovering all the themes of a great country song that we discover on a daily basis: the themes of hope and regret and loss and redemption.
MnMo: Crazy Heart is your directorial debut. What are some unexpected challenges you faced in bringing your script to life?
SC: The logistical aspects of bringing it in on budget and on time, and never having done that [before]. Ten musical numbers, one of them live in front of 12,000 people who weren’t expecting to see Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell because it was filmed at a Toby Keith concert. I wasn’t concerned about telling the story or composing the images or the music, just the logistics. I learned a lot.
MnMo: Tell me about the scene you shot during the Toby Keith concert.
SC: I didn’t want to shoot the big concert sequence in front of extras, because you won’t have that same electricity take after take. So we asked around about who was playing in the area, found out that Toby Keith and Montgomery Gentry, two big country bands, were playing in Albuquerque. We asked if we could piggyback their show and shoot in between their sets and they agreed. But I had about 10 minutes to shoot the sequence with Jeff and Colin and the sequence with Colin alone. So I had about five cameras placed strategically around the stadium, and we didn’t tell the audience. Jeff Bridges comes out, and Collin Farrell, and they went nuts. It was on YouTube that night.
MnMo: You had one shot at it?
SC: It really was pretty astounding, I have to say. I think back on it and we were all on the edge of our seats. Except, of course, Jeff Bridges. He’s like, “Aw, man. It was nothing.” But that’s how the Dude is.
MnMo: Speaking of the Dude, the film opens on Bad Blake pulling up to a divey bowling alley, and I had to wonder: Was that a nod to The Big Lebowski?
SC: I have to say, Jeff and T-Bone kid me about this. The Coens are among my favorite filmmakers, but I’ve never seen that film. I don’t like watching any great filmmaker’s films on DVD. I will only see it projected. I couldn’t see it in the theater and I will only see it when it’s at a revival house and I’m available to see it.
There’s a huge age gap between Bad Blake and Jean Craddock (played by Maggie Gyllenhal), and Blake is a barely-functional alcoholic to boot.
SC: A charming one. And handsome!
Were you concerned, though, that their relationship might come across as improbable?
SC: No. Robert Duvall is married to a woman 40 years younger than he is. And given that she has a 4-year-old boy, I wanted [Jean] to be in her early 30s. I wanted this to be someone young enough that she could still have second chances if this didn’t work out. Bad Blake is a man who’s lived in a cocoon, who has badly treated himself. And I wanted someone who had a youthful vitality, who could re-awaken Bad Blake artistically, emotionally, sexually. Everything.