Interview: Scott Cooper (director, CRAZY HEART)
When it came time for me to announce my Top Ten Favorite Films of 2009, I ran into some trouble with Scott Cooper’s directorial debut, CRAZY HEART. I loved the film and knew it would definitely rank high on my list of year end faves, but for me the trouble was where to place it. I decided on placing it at #5 but to be honest, that top five changes almost daily.
I was really excited to get a chance to talk with the film's writer/director Scott Cooper and a few days ago, he took the time to answer some questions about the politics involved with releasing a film in the heated Oscar race, the long, strange trip the film has taken, and what’s next for this upstart with a bright future ahead of him.
Read the interview after the jump!
Don: So, how’s it been going?
Scott: Oh man, great. Just kind of riding this wave. As a first time writer-director you don’t often get to go on this kind of ride.
Don: Yeah, I bet! So I wanted to first ask you how you came across this source material? Did you own the rights to the book?
Scott: Well, I had always wanted to tell Merle Haggard’s story but I could never ascertain the rights so I turned to this very obscure, out of print novel that allowed me to fictionalize the lives of people like Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and a little Townes Van Zant. Ya know, put all my radio heroes into one character.
Don: What was the process like then for taking a book about a specific character (reportedly based on Hank Thompson) and then interjecting these other stories into it?
Scott: I spent a little time watching Merle play and being on his bus so I knew that world. I grew up in Virginia and really cut my teeth listening to the great bluegrass musicians like Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and graduated into my father’s LP’s…Waylon, Hag, those guys. So it was a very personal story for me. Having seen these guys in all these various venues and wanting to personalize that experience, I was able to tell the story in what I hope is a very truthful way.
Don: Were there any stories you had heard or things you’d seen with these real-life guys that you wanted to include but just couldn’t work them into CRAZY HEART? Maybe they didn’t fit or it didn’t feel true to the film?
Scott: Oh yeah, always. It was kind of an embarrassment of riches after you’ve spent some time with guys like Billy Joe Shaver, Haggard. You try to take elements from their lives or other people’s lives who’ve influenced you and try to put it into a scene or an act that really helps you tell the story in a very real way.
Don: Having said that…for your money, if you could make a straight up biopic about any legendary, rebel country guy, who would you pick?
Scott: Well, like I said I wanted to tell Merle’s story so I’d say it would have to be him. But you know, Waylon’s life was awfully interesting too. But definitely Merle. He’s the poet laureate of country music and he just lead a really exciting, rich life.
Don: Yeah, he’s amazing, I’m just such a big fan of all those old country musicians. Why do you think it is no one has gone to that well of amazing stories more often? They almost write themselves cinematically with these hard-luck stories of redemption. Why do you think no one ever goes there?
Scott: I have no idea and I often ask myself that. But I’m glad they don’t so I could have a chance to tell this story in a fictionalized way. But there’s alot of people who’s story I’d like to tell. I’d like to tell Chet Baker’s or Miles Davis’. Bob Marley. Just, people I’ve always responded to who lived an incredible life. I hope at some point of my life to be able to scratch the surface of their lives as well.
Don: A big frustration for me with CRAZY HEART is how all these people are trying to compare it to TENDER MERCIES or that Rip Torn movie PAYDAY. I mean, aside from the basic idea that these are hard living, down and out country singers, I don’t see a lot of similarities. Does that comparison frustrate you?
Scott: Well, Robert Duvall would agree with you. He says the same thing. And you know, I don’t know. I guess because Duvall’s in it and it’s about a country singer, people will draw that comparison. But you know, I haven’t even seen “Payday.”
Don: Yeah, no one has. So Robert Duvall has been a really good friend and mentor to you, right?
Scott: Oh yeah. My wife and I were married on his farm in Virginia and when I wrote the script, he was the first person to read it. He loved it and said “let’s make it!”
Don: So now that the film has found a home with FOX Searchlight, how do you feel about this kind of “putting all your eggs in one basket” approach that studio has taken in regards to the Oscar race? I mean, this is just such a great all-around film but all the focus has been put on Jeff Bridges and this kind of, attempt to get him an Oscar. I just worry what will happen to the film if he doesn’t win. Wouldn’t you rather have a nice, easy release where people can discover it on their own?
Scott: Yeah, well…you know any time a film comes out this time of year, it makes it that much more difficult. People are looking at it more closely and in the way they critique it. But like you said, there’s a lot more to the film than just Jeff’s performance. Maggie (Gyllenhaal) is great, Duvall is great, Colin (Farrell) has a great turn and I’m just really proud of everyone. And in the film.
Don: Yeah, I totally agree with you on all of that. And, I wasn’t trying to take anything away from his performance because Jeff Bridges is phenomenal. In my review I noted how he’s able to create his own character but channels Waylon, Billy Joe Shaver and Kris Kristofferon.
Scott: Yeah, thanks man., Jeff was amazing. I knew he could sing and play because I have his album and knew he could embody what I wanted. And Maggie is just great too.
Don: Yeah, I was going to say. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her look so happy and self-assured in a film. And I love her stuff, it’s just that she always seems to go dark and troubled and here, even though there’s some darkness in the film, she seems so happy and vibrant.
Scott: Well, that’s Maggie. She’s just a wonderful actor and she’s courageous. It’s a courageous performance. I mean, she’s just everything you could want.
Don: What were some of the films you studies or looked to emulate when creating CRAZY HEART?
Scott: A lot of Terrence Mallick. BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN. I didn’t go to film school so I learned by watching movies with the sound turned off, seeing where directors put the camera, how they told the story, when they cut. Things like that were my film school. I watched a lot of Hal Ashby.
Don: Oh, sweet! I did my masters thesis on Hal Ashby!
Scott: Oh hey, that’s cool! Well you get it then, Hal Ashby’s fingerprints are all over this thing by proxy. And Jeff (Bridges) worked with him in his last film (8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE).
Don: So once Oscar season dies down and you’ve moved forward to your next project, what are you thinking of doing?
Scott: I don’t know. There’s been all kinds of scripts coming in but nothing has really caught (me?). I have a film that will be at Sundance called GET LOW with Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek. So I’ll be there for that. After that, I don’t know.
Don: Well, I really loved your film, it was in my top five favorites of the year so thanks for making it. I wish you all the best of luck!
Scott: Aww man, thank you. That means a lot. Take care.
Don: See you at Sundance!
Scott: Yeah, come over and say hello.
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