Saturday, January 28, 2012

Jeff Bridges Reveals a "Crazy Heart"

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Jeff Bridges Reveals a "Crazy Heart"


Crazy Heart is the little film I'm hoping will find a big audience in the hectic holiday season. Adapted from a novel by Thomas Cobb, it was made by first-time director, Steve Cooper, whose own crazy heart is in every frame of the picture, performance, and chord of music. The soundtrack, courtesy of T Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton, is pure, prime country. Jeff Bridges, who does his own singing as the alcoholic and broke country-music singer-songwriter Bad Blake, gives his umpteenth Oscar-worthy performance, supported ably by Maggie Gyllenhaal (as Jean Craddock, the young single-mother and aspiring writer who falls for Bad), uncredited Colin Farrell (as Tommy Sweet, who became a country superstar because of Bad's mentoring), and Robert Duvall (as Wayne, a Houston bartender who still has faith in Bad). And it might be the best of the troubled-country-singer-on-the-road genre that includes Payday with Rip Torn, Honeysuckle Rose with Willie Nelson, Pure Country with George Strait, and Tender Mercies, for which Duvall won a Best Actor Oscar back in 1983. Cooper says of his film: "I always wanted to tell Merle Haggard's life story but when it became apparent that I couldn't because of right's issues I turned to this novel and was able to tell not only Merle's story, but Kris Kristofferson's and Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt's all together in this kind of alternate universe of Bad Blake's. I respond to the guys who wrote about what they lived. I screened it for Kris and it moved him so much that after he composed himself he said, "I think I've just seen my life on screen."
Prior to the release of Crazy Heart, Cooper, Bridges, and Gyllenhaal have been publicizing the film that needs for word to get out. Below is a roundtable with Bridges that I participated in, followed by my questions to Gyllenhaal and Cooper.
Roundtable with Jeff BridgesQ: Who did you have in mind when you were creating your character Bad Blake?
Jeff Bridges: My prime role model, who was on board with me every day, was Stephen Bruton. I met him thirty years ago, along with T Bone Burnett, on Heaven's Gate. And one of the stars of that, Kris Kristofferson, was another one of my role models. Kris invited his musician friends to come play minor parts in the movie. That was six months of jamming every night after work. That was preparation for this movie thirty years later! Steven's life paralleled Bad Blake's quite a bit. He would drive himself from gig to gig, toting his guitar, and he struggled with substance and booze and all that kind of stuff, so he was a wonderful resource for me, and a dear friend, too. Another role model for this role was John Goodwin. We go back to the fourth grade together, writing music, dancing, doing art. He wrote the song "Hold on You" with T Bone and Stephen that is in the movie.
Q: Is there any music you listened to?
JB: Of course I listened to "The Highwaymen," with Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. That was one of Scott Cooper's first inspirations. He said, "If Bad was a real guy, he'd be the fifth Highwaymen."
Danny Peary: Early in the movie, and I think it's important that it's early, Bad tells his agent, "I'm fifty-seven-years-old and I'm broke." Does that pretty much sum up everything about him?
JB: I don't know about everything, but it is a key line. There are other key lines. A lot of the music was written specifically for the movie and for the character, and I like the line "I used to be somebody but now I'm somebody else." I imagine that Bad wrote that song about once being famous and not being famous anymore. But he can look at that line in a positive sense--you don't have to be who you think you are. So in the end, he doesn't have to be that alcoholic country guy who is trying to maintain his suffering because that's where he gets his tunes. I don't have to be that guy, I can be somebody else.
DP: There is a key lyric in one of Bad's songs: "I never meant to hurt anyone." Your character is named Bad but one reason we like him is that he's a good person. He also has integrity and irresponsibility, which is why you can connect him to Lebowski and some of your other characters. Did you think you were playing a good guy or is it just you coming through?
JB: That lyric came from a Stephen Bruton song that he had written already with Al Anderson. I thought of Bad as a really good person who never meant to hurt anyone.
He is irresponsible but he's honest. He never presents himself in any other way than what he is. That's attractive to people, I think.
DP: Where did he go wrong? Was he an alcoholic before he went wrong or did he become an alcoholic because things went wrong?
JB: A couple of things about that. We were talking about how you dance with your fear. A lot of artists get swept up in this myth of "I've got to suffer because that's how I get my material." Your marriage falls apart, so you have to drink and all of a sudden you write about it and say, "Hey, that's good!" That cheers you up and you think there's something good about being bad. When you're caught up in that myth and having artistic success, it's very hard to get healthy. You numb yourself to life and go that way. We can't get out of that groove because we're very habitual creatures.
Q: Bad meets the dream music critic in Jean. But what have been your experiences with music critics?
JB: I didn't talk to many. I put an album out a couple of years ago. I thought that since I had a certain degree of fame I'd do all the talk shows and be on the radio and promote my album. But radio is so different from when I was growing up and it's impossible to get on there. So I created a web site and that's how I tried to sell my albums. It became a different kind of canvas for me creatively, but I didn't really have any experience with music critics.
Q: How was it working with Maggie Gyllenhaal?
JB: She's an incredible actress. Our approach is similar. I like to work and be very open and become as intimate as possible with the other person. You don't have sex [laughing], but you open your hearts and really get to know and care about each other, especially when you make a movie that is shot in twenty-four days. Maggie and I took that approach and became good friends.
Q: Talk about working with Scott Cooper, who started out as an actor.
JB: There are a lot of different approaches to acting and if you're an actor yourself, you know that. Scott read my perfectly and gave me exactly what I enjoy from a director, which is instilling confidence. He's a wonderful person--he's very kind and passionate and loose. He had the opportunity to be anxious and fearful, especially as a first time director making a film quickly. But I never felt rushed. I felt like I had all the time in the world and that he was interested in hearing every idea I had. He circled himself with all these people he admired, from actors to the director of photography to the production designer, and listened to them. It was very collaborative. Even in the editing process, he invited me in to express my ideas. So he's one of the best directors I've ever worked with.
Q: You can sing and you can act, so how did this movie challenge you?
JB: In both ways. The challenging thing in my work is when a really great opportunity comes my way, like with this film, and you have fears about being able to pull it off. You want to do it so badly that it's hard to pull off. It's almost like a sexual thing when you want it work but it's hard to make it happen. Or going out for a touchdown pass and it's right there and you're thinking, "Please let me catch it!" So there's a lot of anxiety but that's also where the good stuff is.
Q: How did you manage to act, do your music, and serve as executive producer and still come out with a great movie?
JB: I looked at it as all aspects of one thing, the performance. I bring everything I've got to my work. As executive producer, I got my dream cast. For the songs, I brought in John Goodwin and Greg Brown, who is a wonderful songwriter. Greg is a great guy whose career has been on his terms, who never went with a big label but has a wonderful fan base. He's a great poet. In terms of singing, I worked with T Bone and a vocal coach, Roger Love, and he helped me a lot although I've been a musician since I was a kid.
Q: Did you give pointers to Colin Farrell?
JB: No, he didn't need them. He's a singer, too. But I didn't know he auditioned to be in a band.
Q: Like Bad, you've spent time on the road performing. Can you share a moment from the road?
JB: I can share what I call "my Beatle moment." That was performing at Lebowski Fest to a sea of dudes. It was as if I were a Beatle. I played a bunch of John Goodwin tunes, "The Man in Me"--a Dylan song that's in The Big Lebowski--and a couple of my tunes. I did a set and it was fun.
Q: If you made another album what would be on it?
JB: There were a lot of songs that Bruton, Goodwin and myself wrote for the film that didn't make the cut, so they're all waiting for me to do at some point. I also have a whole slew of other songs.
Q: How do you feel when you get on stage to perform? Do you get nervous?
JB: There are always butterflies and a degree of fear in my work. I read a great article about Mike Tyson in Interview recently. He talks about fear. Remember when he started out and we'd say, "My God! He's so vicious and fearless!" He said he'd come out like that was because he was so afraid of having an asthma attack. He had to finish the fight quickly because he had asthma! He had a lot fear. He said, "Fear is like fire. You can cook a meal on it, or burn yourself, or burn your house down or kill yourself." So you have to learn to dance with fear. I remember that when I was a young actor I thought I might not want to do this because of fear and anxiety. Through the years I learned that it's never going to go away. A certain degree of it is beneficial. It makes you learn your lines and learn the chords of the songs, and when it finally gets to the point to perform you can relax and be in the moment and be the character. For Bad, being on the stage was his throne. He was uncomfortable off the stage. On the stage he could be drunk but he was fine. Realizing that the fear wasn't going to go away was a turning point that made me decide I was going to be an actor. My father loved show business so much that he encouraged all of us to go into it. Most kids want to do what their father does but I was into music and painting and other stuff so I was reticent to make acting my path. I made about ten movies before I really decided I would do this for the rest of my life. That shift came when I made the movie of the play The Iceman Cometh. I worked with all these masters, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Fredric March. Most of my scenes were with Bob Ryan. We had a tense scene where were at a table and Bob had his fists on a table. They had to take time to adjust a light and I noticed these big puddles of sweat on the table in front of him. I said, "Bob, after all these years, you're still nervous?" He said, "I couldn't be scared if I wasn't scared." I was watched how all those guys dealt with their anxiety. They did their scenes with long speeches, but they didn't do it without being afraid.
Q: This film has some things in common with The Wrestler, so are you hoping for the same kind of results leading up the awards.
JB: I don't know about the awards thing. If that happens that's great, I'm not counting on that, but it's always great to be acknowledged by the people who do what you do. The same guys who rescued The Wrestler rescued us. Our film got picked up by Fox Searchlight, who is the best distributor for this kind of movie. A lot of great movies that were shown at festivals were not picked up this year. It's very difficult to get a distributor this year, so we're very pleased.
Q&A with Maggie Gyllenhaal
Danny Peary: Jean impresses Bad because she knows who Lefty Frizzell is. Did you know Lefty Frizzell before making this movie?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: It's interesting that you ask me that because I actually do listen to country music. I was born in New York and I grew up in California and I've lived here in New York for fifteen years. There's no reason at all why I should like country music but do. None of my friends listen to country. I love Gillian Welch, Iris Dement, Emmylou Harris, the Dixie Chicks. I'm not sure what T-Bone would think about the country music that I listen to. I have listened to Merle Haggard and Hank Williams and some of the other old school guys. But I didn't listen to Lefty Frizzell until I started the movie and did the scene where Jean interviews Bad.
DP: Did you learn about the rootsy country music from the musicians who worked on the movie?
MG: I did spend a lot of time with Stephen Bruton. He was T-Bone's partner and wrote many of the songs with him. He passed away and the film is dedicated to him. Stephen and I did get to know each other really well. He played me music and we talked a lot about the background of the music because I think Jean does listen to country music and knows more about it than I do, although not a great deal more. I think she walks into the interview with Bad without a massive amount of information. I think it's part of their instant connection when she lets on she knows Lefty Frizzell and thinks he may have influenced Bad. Not that that makes her a country music genius but it shows she knows more than just Hank Williams.
DP: Right, when she mentions Lefty Frizzell he has a heightened interest in her. If Jean weren't a mother, do you think she would stay with Bad no matter what and join him in being self-destructive? Does being a mother actually protect her from making a mistake?
MG: Yeah, I think so. What's so nice about working on a script that's so good and with an actor who's so good is that you don't actually have to make a lot of choices. I think if you're working with a weak script or if you're working with someone who's not there with you and not going to respond to you, you have to make a lot of actor choices. If you're lucky enough not to be in that position, you can just let anything happen. Usually though, even with a really good script, there will be one thing that will cause me to think, "'Oh, that's something to avoid or something I need to think through." On this film, I remember thinking before we started shooting, "'Okay, how does a capable, smart woman fall for a serious drunk?'" Obviously, it's a much more interesting movie if Jean is a capable and smart woman than if she's a train wreck. So I asked myself at the beginning how it happens that she falls for Bad. But you know what? I never thought about it again. She falls for him because she's just not thinking. I am a person who uses my brain and sometimes I don't think, either. It happens to us. [Talking to the entire roundtable] I was so fierce and kind of like a powerhouse in some of my other roles that I like and when I was a little younger I thought the idea was to just be as strong as you can be so you can fight anything that got in your way. Lee Holloway in Secretary may be submissive but she too is a fucking powerhouse. Jean is not like that. When I first watched the movie I was with my best girlfriend because my husband Peter was away and I thought, '"God, she seems so weak." I was looking at my girlfriend who's a professor and is so awesome and strong and I thought, "Sometimes even she's weak, and so am I." I think it's only recently really, in the past couple of months even,
that I see the real power in feeling your true feelings even if that means being vulnerable and in not being so ashamed of your weaknesses and exposing them at times. So that's what I learned here. I knew it in my work before I knew it in my life.
DP: Is Jean relieved in a secret way, not even telling herself, that Bad does something so awful, losing her four-year-old Buddy while he's drinking, that prevents her from ever forgiving him and taking him back? She doesn't have to make the decision herself.
MG: Well, I do think, if my friend is right, that you begin the movie thinking, "No way they're going to work," and then you watch them work until at the end they can't survive. I mean, how can you make the movie so that they end up together and it's right? You can't. I understand what you're saying, but no, I don't thinks she's glad. But I do think what he does makes it a little clearer to her why she must move on. If he were responsible and was not drinking and was thinking clearly and the child still got lost for a half hour, they could end up together. Somebody said to me, 'But he only had a sip of that drink, that's all we saw." But I think it makes absolutely no difference. If you're with someone who's a drunk who fucking knows if he had one drink or has been drinking all day? Bad might've been drinking offscreen all the times that you think he's trying not to. You just don't know, so it can't work. Ultimately, she realizes that. It's so great what Scott did the first time Bad takes Buddy out for a day and Jean comes home and is there is nobody there. It's only for about two seconds before they come home but she already knows it's not safe for Buddy. I don't know if she felt relief because Bad does lose Buddy while drinking. It's just really terribly sad. Yet, at the same time, they do reveal their love for each other, both of them, by not trying to be with each other. I think she is loving him by telling him no.
DP: She's probably also thinking that she'll never find anyone else that she can have as much fun with.
MG: Like I said, in order to be with him, she has to not think, and that can't be good for anybody.
Q&A with Steve Cooper
Danny Peary: I think you made an interesting choice in the scene Bad Blake makes his comeback in front of 13,000 people. You choose to not make him nervous at all.
SC: Right. This is a many who has played the Ryman and the Opry and other great concert halls throughout America. That's really his home. When we first see Bad arrive at the big pavilion and he walking between two tractor-trailers and we're listening to Waylon Jennings on the soundtrack, he looks like Waylon and has an almost iconic presence, a physicality and gait, that we hadn't seen earlier in the picture. So he's home. Only nobody knows it but Bad, because he's been playing in bowling alleys and juke joints.
DP: The production notes say you studied at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York.
SC: I was there very, very briefly.
DP: The least Method-actor in the world is Jeff Bridges, who is very intuitive and natural.
SC: True. Jeff is very detail oriented. He takes things from people that he knows--cousins, uncles, friends--and tries to put them all into a character. He does something very few actors can do. There is a scene in the movie when Bad has just arrived in Santa Fe and he's polishing his guitar. It's a very quiet moment. He sits back in his chair and has his ever-present whiskey. On his face, his entire life passes through. It's almost like a road map. So few actors can express that. Sometimes I'd stand right next to the camera lens and watch him, because I rarely look at the monitor, and I'd ask myself, "What is he doing? Is it coming across what I hoped to convey about Bad?" Then I'd give him a note about what I wanted. then I'd go home and watch the dailies and say, "My God!" He was conveying so much by doing so little. I've seen this film two or three hundred times and I keep finding things that surprise me about his performance. He's mesmerizing. As an actor, I hated being overly directed. So I wanted to give Jeff, as well as Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, and Robert Duvall room to explore and feel safe. I can't say enough about what a good actor he is. And he is a better person than he is an actor.
DP: I asked Jeff Bridges about the name Bad and if the key to the character is that he is the opposite, good. Was that what you were thinking of or did Jeff Bridges just bring likability to the character?

SC: I absolutely wanted the contrast between his name and who he is. The same with Tommy Sweet, played by Colin Farrell. I wanted to set him up as someone full of hubris and arrogance, because of what Bad says about him, but when you meet him you discover he's very deferential and continually tells Bad and his audience that he owes Bad everything. The same with Bad. You figure that someone with a name like that wouldn't be a good guy. Here's something interesting about what Jeff and I decided to do. Most stars put their names on the guitar strap in front. We made the choice to turn it around. So Bad is on the back so his band is always looking at it, and when he turns to address his band, the audience sees it. This is a guy who always thinks outside the box.
DP: I like the way Jeff always gets out of his vehicle with an open belt.
SC: When I met Jeff, I said, "Oooo, you're too handsome." So he gained twenty-five pounds. And it changed the way he moved and his gait. We went over the belt stuff and everything else. When Bad's driving two or three hundred miles between gigs, he's not going to want to stop other than to call someone. Bad doesn't have a cell phone--that guy? He has a pocket full of quarters and it's hard to find pay phones.
DP: You had a choice of having Bad's pickup bands be good or amateurish, and the musicians are all talented.
SC: Ryan Bingham's band, the Dead Horses, backed Bad in the bowling alley. All the others we hand picked from the best regional musicians. Joel Guzman is considered to be maybe the best squeeze box player in the world.
DP: Was there the temptation to give Bad a completely happy ending?
SC: Never. I wouldn't have made the film. I wanted it to be bittersweet and I wanted it to be about redemption and to be ambiguous regarding his future. I wanted it to leave on a redemptive note but not one that seemed inauthentic.
DP: Will he call his son again someday after being hung up on?
SC: Yes. As Robert Duvall says, "It's never too late." What you haven't seen is a scene that I cut out of the film. It's a six-minute scene in which Bad drives out to Martha, Texas and sees his son. It was powerful and compelling. I hired someone who looked a bit like Jeff and he was astonishing in the film. But as William Faulkner did, you sometimes have to kill your "darlings." He'd take out his favorite scenes to see if his novel still held up. And if it did, he knew he had a great novel. Next time, I'll get final cut!

1 comment:

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