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CONVERSATION

Ann Hornaday interviews director Scott Cooper on the making of 'Crazy Heart'

IN TUNE: Scott Cooper, left, works with actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bridges on the set of his film about a washed-up country singer.
IN TUNE: Scott Cooper, left, works with actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bridges on the set of his film about a washed-up country singer. (Lorey Sebastian/fox Searchlight Pictures)

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By Ann Hornaday
Sunday, January 3, 2010

It's not often that a movie sneaks up on critics, film industry insiders and audiences alike. But "Crazy Heart," a booze-and-music-soaked romantic drama that opens here Jan. 8, has done just that. Amid the thrum of such blockbusters as "Avatar" and "Sherlock Holmes," this small, character-driven movie -- without benefit of a festival run or a splashy marketing campaign -- has tiptoed into theaters and quietly knocked the socks off nearly everyone who's seen it.

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The movie's star, Jeff Bridges, has already been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of a washed-up country music singer named Bad Blake, who reconsiders his hard-living ways when he meets a journalist played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. (The film's composer, T Bone Burnett, was also recognized with a Golden Globe nomination.)

Some Oscar prognosticators predict that Bridges will not only receive his fifth Academy Award nomination but may well finally take the statue home for a turn that's notable not only for his total immersion into his character, but for his musical performance as a tarnished honky-tonk legend.

The success of "Crazy Heart" is all the more remarkable for having been written and directed by a first-time filmmaker, Scott Cooper, who grew up in Abingdon, Va., and began acting as a child with the venerable Barter Theatre in Abingdon (he later studied in New York at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute).

Cooper, 39, spoke with us from his home in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.

You clearly have a visceral understanding for the music in "Crazy Heart." Where did that come from?

I literally cut my teeth in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where my mother and father would take me to see [bluegrass pioneers] Bill Monroe and Doc Watson and Ralph Stanley. . . . When I first sent the "Crazy Heart" screenplay to T Bone and went to a meeting at his house, right across from me in his living room was a life-size cutout of Ralph Stanley, and at that point I knew this was gonna work out!

In the film, Bridges seems to be playing Kris Kristofferson channeling Waylon Jennings, with occasional nods to Doug Sahm and Townes Van Zandt.

That's exactly right. Or at least very, very close. I told Jeff, if we do this correctly, Bad Blake could have been the fifth Highwayman, if you know who the other four were [Jennings, Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash]. From the very beginning, I always wanted to tell Merle Haggard's life story. It's very cinematic, and I know Merle a little bit, I went to numerous shows and spent time with him backstage. But he has numerous ex-wives, which made it difficult to get life rights.

Much of the music in the movie was co-written by Burnett and Kristofferson's longtime guitar player, Stephen Bruton, who died earlier this year.

I have to say, there's a slight pall hanging over the picture because of the passing of Stephen. Fortunately, Jeff Bridges and I took the picture down to Austin to screen for Stephen and Kris. As you can imagine, it was a very moving occasion. Kris had to go out and compose himself. He said he felt like he was watching his life on-screen.

You were an actor for many years and appeared in the 2003 film "Gods and Generals," which is where you met Robert Duvall. He has a supporting role in "Crazy Heart" and produced it. Talk about your friendship with him.

We have very similar sensibilities in terms of acting styles. We're both very restrained. Some of the best direction he's ever given me, which I used not just as an actor but as a director, is to start at zero and end at zero. Always be ready to go in various different ways, always responding to what the other performers are doing. Do not have a road map for a scene.

I optioned the book "Crazy Heart," which was long out of print, in 2005, with what little money I had. After I finished the first draft, I forwarded it very hesitantly to Bobby. Because "Tender Mercies" [in which Duvall plays another washed-up country singer] was a huge influence on me. And he called back and said, "Scott, I love it, let's make it. What do you need?" I said, "I need two things and without them, the film probably isn't worth making." One was T Bone Burnett and the other was Jeff Bridges, neither of whom I knew.

You've said before that Bruton gave you lots of details that would make Bad's character more authentic, like having him urinate in a plastic water bottle while he's driving so he wouldn't have to pull over.

There's another detail, it's very minor, but a lot of performers, on their guitar straps, their name crosses their chest. On Bad's, the name is on the back of his strap, so the band never forgets who they're playing with. Because at this point in his career, the only bands he plays with are pickup bands. And when he turns to face the band, the audience will never forget who they're seeing. I told Jeff, No matter how drunk Bad Blake gets, when he's on stage, he's home.

Has your family seen "Crazy Heart" yet?

Because the movie isn't coming to small-town Virginia until about four to six weeks from now, my distributor arranged for a screening at a small art house in Abingdon on Friday. So my parents are inviting 166 of their closest friends for the screening. It will be around my grandmother's 89th birthday, and we have a very big family, so a lot of it will be family. I'm grateful to Fox for arranging that.


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