'Crazy Heart' director got a start in Minnesota

On set
Scott Cooper on the set of "Crazy Heart" with Jeff Bridges
Image courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

This weekend Minnesota audiences will get to see "Crazy Heart" a new movie about an aging country musician teetering on the edge of self-destruction.

The film is generating lots of Oscar buzz for its star Jeff Bridges - and attention for first time director Scott Cooper. He said part of the success of "Crazy Heart" may lie in the Twin Cities.

Scott Cooper has acted for years. He got his first starring role in a film called "Bill's Gun Shop," shot in Edina about 10 years ago. He said you always learn something on every job, and his Minnesota movie was no different.

"Rob Nilsson, who wrote, or helped write the screenplay for Bill's Gun Shop, I've maintained a friendship with Rob, and realize it's all about the story. The play's the thing," Cooper said.

It was this fascination with a good story which led him to "Crazy Heart," albeit via a roundabout route.

One thing that happened was, after a decade of acting in films and TV series, Scott Cooper came to an awkward realization.

"I found myself becoming a bridesmaid to a lot of young great actors," he said. "Jude Law, Matt Damon."

Bad Blake
Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake in "Crazy Heart."
Image courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

After losing out on some roles, he began developing projects on his own. Remembering the importance of story he researched a possible movie about hard-living country star Merle Haggard. He even toured with Haggard. That too ended in frustration when it became clear that because of competing claims for the rights to Haggard's life story he wouldn't be able to make a film.

"So I turned to this obscure, out-of-print novel, that would allow me then to fictionalize Merle's life, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, all the greats," Cooper said.

The book was "Crazy Heart" by Thomas Cobb. Published in the '80s, it follows a former country music star, Bad Blake, whose career is now collapsing as fast as his alcohol and cigarette wrinkled face. He's a penniless wreck, only just holding it together as he lurches from gig to gig, in small town bars and bowling alleys, in an ancient pick-up, some days only just managing to hold it together. Yet when he's on stage, he's magnificent.

Scott Cooper crafted a screenplay from the novel. He then asked for help.

"I was fortunate enough to work with Robert Duvall, who is a mentor and a close friend, and someone, I think, is probably America's finest screen actor," he said.

"I'm not sure how you compare one performance or one film against another."

He's also someone who has produced and directed films, and when he signed on as a producer and actor in "Crazy Heart" it opened a lot of doors.

However, Cooper said he decided early on that he couldn't do the film unless he had T-Bone Burnett doing the music, and Jeff Bridges in the lead role. He managed it, although he said getting Bridges wasn't easy.

"As I sent off the script to him in fact, I'd read that the Coen Brothers said it took them a year to get him for "The Big Lebowski," said Cooper." So I thought 'Oh God!' And about a year later, he came aboard."

It is Bridges' fearless performance which has drawn praise for the film. A musician in his own right, Bridges plays and sings Bad Blake's songs. He gained 25 pounds for the role, and portrays his character at his whiskey-sodden worst and at his best. That's when he falls for Jean, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. She's the young woman who may be Bad Blake's salvation.

Scott Cooper
Scott Cooper made the leap from actor to screenwriter/producer/director in a single bound for "Crazy Heart." The film is now generating Oscar buzz.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Cooper said he brought his experience and understanding as an actor to directing his first time out. He said he recognized he would have better results through minor adjustments rather than blanket demands of his actors.

Now the film is in the thick of the Oscar race. Scott Cooper admits to finding the awards season vexing.

"Because I'm not sure how you compare one performance or one film against another," he said. "How do you say a Pollock is better than a Vermeer? I don't know. Either you respond to it or you don't."

Cooper said he doesn't want the film's merits to rest purely on the number of nominations it receives, because he and his cast are proud of what they have created.

Although he quickly adds he wouldn't object to a few nods from the Academy.

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