Written by Dylan Callaghan
Virginia isn’t Texas, but it sure is the South, and it’s definitely country. That’s justification enough for Scott Cooper, a native Virginian, and the actor-turned-writer-director behind the WGA Award-nominated film Crazy Heart, to have a real yen for outlaw country music.
That personal fondness is the central impetus behind the movie, which tells the tale of Bad Blake, a dead-ended 57-year-old country singer played by Jeff Bridges, who goes from dissolution to redemption with the help of a young journalist, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Blake’s character is based on an amalgam of Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Towns Van Zandt all rolled into one talented, whiskey-soaked protagonist.
Originally, Cooper wanted to make a film about Merle Haggard’s life, but when rights proved too complicated – precisely because Haggard had such a rich life – he instead adapted Thomas Cobb’s same-titled 1989 novel. With the help of both Haggard and, most crucially, his good pal and fellow Old Dominion-native Robert Duvall, who also appears in the film, he was able to attract Bridges and get his film made.
Cooper spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about which country crooner Blake most closely resembles, what surprised him about his first script-to-screen journey, and the similarities between writing a good screenplay and hit country song.
Even though this script is an adaptation, you had the rough story in mind before finding the book.
Yeah, that’s right. I had always wanted to tell Merle Haggard’s story and found that difficult. He has numerous ex-wives, and the rights were going to be an issue. So I turned to this novel and was able to tell Merle’s story, Waylon Jennings, Kristofferson and a little Towns Van Zandt and Billy Joe Shaver all at once, all of my radio heroes, so to speak.
If you were forced by an intrepid journalist to say which one of these real-life characters win out in Bridges’ performance in your film, who would it be?
Photo: © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox
Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall in Crazy Heart.
Well, he certainly looks like Kris, and he has the writing ability of Merle, and he has the stage presence and physicality of Waylon Jennings, so that’s very difficult.
So once you went the book, what did you want to get at with this story?
Two things: one, this is a story about a personal journey that a man takes. In this journey he rediscovers his artistry...
That he’s lost somehow?
That’s right. The themes of this movie are loss, hope, redemption, regret – all themes that make for a great country song and themes that we all deal with on a daily basis. Through the novel I wanted this to reach deep into the country and western tradition of great singers who are also songwriters who write from their life experiences. That’s what Jeff Bridges’ character does – he writes this incredible song, after not having written a song for years, based on his life experiences.
Merle Haggard does that beautifully [and] so does Kristofferson and Van Zandt. Today in music in general, people have teams of writers who write hits. These guys wrote about their lives. That’s what I wanted to examine as a filmmaker.
You are a musician yourself and a songwriter, correct?
So I’m curious, you’re an actor and here you are with your maiden voyage as a screenwriter. What for you is distinctive about the form of songwriting?
You can draw upon life experiences – stuff that’s personal to you and only to you. The greatest songwriters did that. In particular, in this movie, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character asks [Bad Blake] where all these songs come from and he says, “Life, unfortunately.”
How much did the journey here, writing your first script, take you to places in the narrative that you didn’t expect?
Well, the theme of redemption kept emerging...
And you weren’t expecting that?
Well, no. I wasn’t thinking that in the beginning because the book doesn’t have a redemptive ending at all. It’s a much darker ending. But I felt that, in order for this man to express himself and to see that he’s taken this personal journey, he had to gain redemption, which he does in the picture.
Was there any fear of tying it up in a redemptive bow, so to speak?
I didn’t want it to be tidy or neat, but I wanted him to experience redemption in a very authentic and truthful way. Everything that this character and this movie does is bring out the authenticity this life – to capture the verisimilitude of the American Southwest – this big landscape, I wanted the music to sound like this landscape. I wanted to do that through all the pain, loss and regret this character experienced.
You’ve said that you wrote this script without ever consulting a screenwriting book or class. Do you think that’s a good way to go?
Yeah. I think Merle Haggard and Duvall both told me separately, and in general, to just tell the truth. It sounds very trite, but it absolutely kept me focused on telling the truth through these characterizations and through their behavior and their experiences.
The one thing that’s tricky about that is, you’re not a 57-year-old country singer, so how do you tell the truth?
You tell the truth through your life experiences the best way you know how. And you also overlap not just your own personal experiences but those of people around you, whether it’s an uncle or a grandfather or friend or neighbor. If you do it in a truthful way, people who have touched you throughout your life will make it into this character, or into certain characters.
Rather than boilerplate clichés.
Oh, for sure. In a lot of these screenwriting manuals s that I’ve since looked at, on page 36, you have to have this happen, page 58 this has to happen, page 90 this has to happen, and if you do that and you’re welded to those types of things, then you’re not going to be able to tell the truth, but you’re going to try to satisfy the creative executives in Hollywood. That’s not something that really interests me.
Putting directing aside, what big lessons, practical or theoretical, have you taken from your first page-to-screen voyage?
Film is the most collaborative of art forms. I wrote numerous drafts, and then I would rewrite on the day of shooting and in the cutting room.
I don’t know that I’ll ever direct a film that I don’t at least have a hand in writing or rewriting the script. That’s the only way I know how to get into a film.