Crazy Heart director talks country music, Jeff Bridges

It's Hollywood awards season again, and one film getting plenty of buzz from fans and critics alike is Crazy Heart, a musical-drama starring Jeff Bridges (in what many are calling a career-defining role) as a washed-up, alcoholic country singer named Bad Blake.

The movie, based on the 1987 novel by the same name, follows Blake as he travels the country, playing in bowling alleys and dive bars, before meeting a young journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who helps him to turn his life around, while serving as a mentor to a young modern-day country star (Colin Farrell).

The film's writer and director, Scott Cooper, stopped by the Twin Cities Monday night for a special screening of the film along with an audience Q&A. He sat down with Gimme Noise to talk about the film, Jeff Bridges' musical ability and what "real country music" is all about.

Gimme Noise: So is it true that this movie is your very first time as a writer/director/producer?

Scott Cooper: That's right, first time. I never went to film school; never directed a TV show, commercial, music video -- nothing.

GN: Choosing to take on an adaptation of a novel for your very first writing project, did you have any concerns or fears in making this movie?

SC: Not really. I knew this material really well, and my goal was to stay true to the novel while adding my own personal stamp. That was really important because I grew up literally cutting my teeth to the great bluegrass musicians of the time, before seguewaying into guys like Cash and Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristopherson and those guys, so I really understand who these men are and where they come from. That's why I wanted to incorporate that knowledge and my own personal experiences, while using the novel as more of a blueprint for the film.

GN: When you say personal experiences, what do you mean specifically?

SC: I mean, just spending time with musicians who at one time may have been on the very top, and then found themselves not. It's very cyclical. I've been around great singers and songwriters who have operated on the periphery of the entertainment business and been subjected to whims in the industry. And then I've spent time with many musicians who shall remain nameless that lived very hard like Bad Blake.

GN: Now, you were very specific about Jeff Bridges starring in this film. What made you want him for the lead role?

SC: I actually wrote the role for Jeff specifically. He's one of the best screen actors in America, and I'm very fortunate to have two of the best in this film between him and Robert Duvall (who plays a long-time friend of Bad Blake). Jeff is also a singer and a very good guitarist to go with a fearless actor, and physically he looked like Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristopherson. He just such a remarkable actor that he absorbs into the scene and you truly feel that he is the character.

GN: Not a lot of people are aware that Jeff is a musician, but that's something you were familiar with prior to this film. Tell me a little bit about that.

SC: Well, he recorded a record with Michael McDonald, the famous pianist from The Doobie Brothers, and he also has a very good friend from Nashville who helped write some of the music for this movie. So ever since high school - and maybe even younger - he's been playing guitar and singing. When we were working on the film, we would all just be picking up our guitars and playing and singing, and it just reinforced what an amazingly talented guy he is, and that he's the only person who should play this role.

GN: Was there anything in the movie that you specifically connected with?

SC: I wouldn't say that there was anything specific to just myself, but we certainly all deal with many of the themes of this movie as well as the great country songs in history. Things like regret, hope, loss and redemption. These are all things that we can all relate to, so even if you don't like country music but you like blues, jazz, rock or punk, you should be able to relate to it on a humanistic level. That's how I approached it.

GN: The character of Bad Blake is one that has a lot in common with other "fallen-hero" type characters in recent films, such as Mickey Rourke's character in The Wrestler. However, even with all of his faults and shortcomings, Blake still comes off as really likeable. Was that something you tried to establish when you wrote the script, or was that Jeff's personality on display?

SC: First off, anytime that I can be compared to Darren Aronofsky (director of The Wrestler) I take it as a huge compliment, so thank you. As for the role, I would say it's a little of both. I wanted the character to be someone who you want to root for. No matter how down on his luck he is, Bad Blake has an undeniable charm. But a lot of it comes from the fact that Jeff is such a likeable guy. He could be playing a complete bastard and you can't help but like him. He's the kind of guy who is a better human being than he is an actor - which says a lot about him - and makes you want to root for him as a person and as a character.

GN: There's one scene in the film where Bad Blake and Maggie Gyllenhaal's characters discuss "fake country vs. real country." As a fan, what would you say is "real" country music?

SC: For me, it's really about anyone who writes about their real life experiences. That's what's important, no matter what kind of music. There's a line in the movie where Maggie says, "Where do all those songs come from?" and Blake says, "Life, unfortunately." That's what interests me; people who write about their life. A lot of times you get musicians who have teams of writers that help put together their songs and I don't really respond to that.

GN: The music in this movie plays a significant role, almost becoming the star of the film. Was that your intention when you were writing the film or did that happen after the music started coming together?

SC: Without the music, the film wouldn't have worked. Throughout the movie Bad Blake is writing a song about his life experience, and it's from that experience that he comes up with the greatest song he's written in years. In order to tell the story accurately and authentically, I needed to have music that supported it. And without that music, why bother telling the story?

GN: With all of the Oscar buzz and whatnot, as a first time writer and producer what would make you view this project as a success?

SC: Oh, it already is. Anytime that you have Jeff Bridges tell you that this is his favorite film of his filmography and that it's the best performance of his career, it's a success. I don't want it to be defined by Oscar nominations or anything like that, because I couldn't be happier with how it turned out. I've had filmmakers and actors who I never thought I'd hear from reaching out to me and telling me how much they enjoyed it. That means everything to me.

GN: Regardless of whether or not someone is a country music fan or not, what message would you like viewers to take away from this movie?

SC: Redemption. I think we can all be redeemed, and we all have flaws. In the movie, Blake chooses to confront his flaws and choose the right path, but that's not to say he can't lose it all again. It's all up for interpretation. If you look deep inside yourself, then you can overcome any obstacles placed in front of you.