Scott Cooper's life is changing every second, but you could hardly tell. He's facing the press at a swank metro Detroit hotel suite and he's calm, leaning to casual. After years slogging it out as a working actor, he made his directorial feature debut with Crazy Heart, featuring a stunning Jeff Bridges performance as a boozed-out wreck of an outlaw country singer struggling to reclaim his dignity and revive his stalled career. He even sings and plays a number of great tunes written for the film by T-Bone Burnett.
The film's critical applause is loud. It has been, along with Bridges, racking up award nominations and honors from everyone from the L.A. Film Critics and the Screen Actors Guild to the Independent Spirit Awards, the Golden Globes and more. Could Oscar be far behind? The buzz is as noisy as an attacking swarm of angry hornets, but Cooper stands resolute in the face of the hype, with a blend of calm, a touch of arrogance, and confidence that the work does the talking for him.
Metro Times: How did you make the leap from acting to writing and directing?
Scott Cooper: I guess I was tired of being a bridesmaid, always coming in second to a lot of very fine actors, but felt that ultimately, if I was going to express myself artistically, I'd better do it with a pen. This was an opportunity to do something in the style of the films of the 1970s.
MT: The great directors you grew up on?
Cooper: Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, ...
MT: Oh, Badlands is so great. ...
Cooper: It is very good, but I lean to Days of Heaven. ... Peter Bogdanovich, Rafelson, Coppola, all those guys.
MT: Back then, they took the time to develop characters.
Cooper: Yes. I wanted to set a lyrical, poetic kind of languid pace that would allow me to tell the story and cover the ground and probably have one-third less edits than most movies you see these days. Maybe it's anathema to many people, but I seem to like it.
MT: The story feels familiar, because these sorts of things happen to artists all the time. Does the talent come with a burden?
Cooper: Oh, sure, we all suffer peaks and valleys whether you're an artist or not, but certainly it's tough for artists because you can't always stay on top.
MT: It seems so many biopics of creative people follow a similar arc.
Cooper: Look at Jackson Pollock, look at The Wrestler, Ray...
MT: Bound for Glory, Hal Ashby's Woody Guthrie bio?
Cooper: Oh, yeah, absolutely. All of them. Eastwood's Charlie Parker bio, Bird; you know, those stories have the same themes. ...
MT: You didn't write a part for yourself?
Cooper: No. I didn't have enough of an ego. I felt that was too much. To do that you'd have to write, direct, produce and act in it. I wanted to focus on all the other performances; I had veteran stars and some non-actors, a young child.
MT: Pretty high degree of difficulty for a first-time director?
Cooper: Ten musical numbers, 24 days, three states: Texas, New Mexico and California.
MT: Did it occur to you what you'd gotten into?
Cooper: A more seasoned director probably would never have taken this on in that short of time with that little money.
MT: Talk about the challenge of just getting this made as a first-time filmmaker.
Cooper: Any time you try to make a movie as first timer, and it's character-based, it's not easy. They'll say it's a waste of money; it's hard to get backing. There's no shortage of actors who want to challenge themselves and take on these demanding, pivotal roles. Fortunately, there's lots of people who want to do that. But I wrote this for Jeff Bridges, tailored it for him, as a singer and guitarist, and I felt if he didn't play the role I shouldn't make the film.
MT: How'd you get Jeff in the picture?
Cooper: He's the most notoriously difficult actor to attach to a project. I read that the Coens said it took them a year to get him to do Big Lebowski. He finds every reason to say no. So it has to be something he really loves and wants to do.
MT: This character reminds me of a lot of people, Ramblin Jack Elliot, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon. Have you had feedback from people who think it's about them?
Cooper: Yeah in a sense, and people who say, "Wow, man you've really captured what it's like to live on the road and play these bowling alleys and juke joints." Because all these people have played little joints like this at some point. Even Taylor Swift.
MT: It doesn't sound like a Nashville product.
Cooper: It doesn't really come out of there; it's a more traditional country, with some blues and rock sounds thrown in.
MT: You went out on a high wire for this.
Cooper: If you don't take a risk as an artist, don't do it. Go be a banker or insurance salesman.
Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111. It opens on Friday, Jan. 22, at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463).Corey Hall's writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org