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Monday, Jan. 18, 2010

Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart

Golden Globe winner Ready for the Oscars?

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For years, Scott Cooper plugged away in Hollywood as an actor. Stardom eluded him. Now, he has created quite a splash as the screenwriter and director of the critically acclaimed Crazy Heart.

The film chronicles Bad Blake, a down-and-out country singer/songwriter. Once a rising force, he’s become encumbered with numerous ex-wives and a serious drinking problem. The erstwhile star has been reduced to the status of a dissolute vagabond. Bad drives a battered Dodge to a litany of demeaning gigs in bowling alleys and bars, where he’s backed up by local pick-up bands.

The 39-year-old Cooper was born and raised in the artistic community of Abingdon, Va., in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I cut my teeth on bluegrass musicians, listening to Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson,” he recounts in a mild Southern accent. Originally, Cooper had hoped to do a straight biopic of Merle Haggard. Instead, he ended up adapting the novel by Thomas Cobb.

“I tried to stay true to the spirit of the novel, but if you’re a filmmaker, you try to personalize it in what you want to say,” Cooper notes. “I took liberties by personalizing it as I know it, basing things on people I knew, who suffered through alcoholism or some of the great radio heroes I grew up on and how they wrote about their life experiences. You use the novel as a blueprint and embellish from there. I made it fictionalized as opposed to a straight biopic.”

How did Cooper segue from a struggling actor to writing and helming a feature film? It seemingly stems from his relationship with actor/director/producer Robert Duvall, who he describes as his “mentor.” The two men met on the set of the Civil War epic Gods and Generals. Duvall portrayed Gen. Robert E. Lee, while Cooper was relegated to a significantly less substantive role.

“After seeing my work, Duvall thought I should have had one of the lead roles,” Cooper says. “He really liked my approach to the work. He likes actors and directors who don’t push the emotion.

“I had dinner with him soon thereafter,” Cooper continues. “We ended up becoming very close. We shared similar tastes in actors and films. I ended up getting married on his farm in Virginia. I’m blessed to now have a 10-year relationship with him. I count him as one of my closest friends.”

As the protagonist of Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges won the Golden Globe as best actor and is widely touted as the prohibitive favorite for an Oscar in the same category. Cooper wrote the role specifically for Bridges. Cooper recounted that when Duvall expressed interest in producing the film, “I told him if I can’t get Jeff Bridges, I shouldn’t make this movie. He was the only one who could play this part. He’s a musician and very good guitarist and shares the physicality of people like Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.”

Cooper describes the collaborative relationship he developed with Bridges: “We worked very closely for a year, working on the music together and shaping the character. I inundated him with music that influenced me while writing. I gave him lots of concert footage of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings performing. So he really embodied that outlaw sensibility of these guys.”

Referencing the country supergroup of Cash, Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, Cooper says Bad Blake “would have been the fifth member of The Highwaymen.”

Crazy Heart was made under the aegis of Paramount Vantage. However, the studio folded. It appeared that the film was doomed to go directly to DVD without the benefit of a theatrical release. Fortunately, that dubious distinction was averted when the film was picked up by Fox Searchlight.

“I guess that I was born under a lucky star,” Cooper says.