The most surprising thing about Scott Cooper is that he
never set out to be a director. On his resume prior to Crazy Heart, he hadn't
even directed so much as a school play. He had grown up in Abington, Virginia,
wanting to be an actor, and graduated from the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film
Institute in New York City before moving out to California. In Los Angeles, he
went on audition after audition - winning some parts, losing others, never
quite breaking through the way he’d hoped; he was an actor, but a starving one.
In 2002, he landed a small part in the Ronald F. Maxwell period war drama Gods
and Generals. Robert Duval was playing Robert E. Lee, and the two men started
talking between scenes. It was the beginning of a lasting friendship, and
ultimately one that changed Cooper’s life.
|Scott Cooper with Jeff Bridges|
“Since that movie, he has become not only a mentor but a close friend, and he has really helped shape my artistic world view. He’s probably the most important artistic life-force in my life,” said Cooper, adding that it was Duval who first read Crazy Heart. “He loved it,” smiles Cooper, “and asked me what I needed to make the movie.” Like any movie, it needed money, but it also needed Jeff Bridges - Cooper had written the part of Blake especially for the actor. “I didn't know Jeff, but I wrote a note and sent it off and it took him about a year to read the script. But eventually he did call me and we arranged a meeting”. In that meeting, Cooper told Bridges “not only have I not directed a film, I've never directed a commercial or a short, but I know the characters, and I've written this part especially for you.” Jeff Bridges listened intently, leaned in a couple of times, and then leaned back, thought about it and said “Alright, man”.
As an actor who stumbled into directing, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Cooper sees himself as an actor’s director. He talks at length about movie-making being nothing but artifice, and wanting, as much as possible, to strip it away and leave something authentic up on the screen. He succeeded with Crazy Heart, a slow drama with a good heart – like many a country song. The movie received universal acclaim and netted Jeff Bridges an Oscar for Best Actor. Scott Cooper, the un-heralded actor from small-town Virginia, was now a Hollywood director with a bull's-eye on his back. “It’s a double-edged sword,” said Cooper, “you've got this target on you all of sudden, but it’s as much from yourself as anybody else. You strive to hit those heights again, to move people in the same way. You put yourself under a lot of pressure”.
Black Mass is the first feature Cooper didn't write himself. So what drew him to the story of James “Whitey” Bulger? Like a lot of people, he was aware of the Mob boss, but it was his arrest in Santa Monica, not far from the Aero, that fused an uneasy connection - “I live two miles from here, and Whitey was apprehended about a mile away. I was riveted by his trial.” He received the script from producer John Lesher, but had reservations about getting involved. “I didn't know if this was a story that could be told in two hours," remembers Cooper, “it could easily have been an eight-hour Netflix series." Condensing three decades of story into a two hour movie wasn't the only concern. Despite admiring many movies in the gangster genre, it was important to Cooper that he told this story differently, as “humans who just happen to be gangsters” rather than the other way around. Lasher and Studio agreed, so Cooper came on board.
Tall, stocky, blonde but balding, with piercing blue eyes is an accurate description of “Whitey” Bulger. So Johnny Depp is not the first person you think of to play the role. Cooper, however, has a knack of casting against type and getting it right. The fact that Depp is garnering Oscar buzz for his performance suggest he’s got it right again. The director, however, was keen to praise the actor’s bravery. “When you've created as many indelible characters as Johnny has, it’s asking the audience a lot to then allow you the freedom to strangle an eighteen-year-old prostitute on screen without any edits." Cooper lifts his eyebrows, “It’s going to upset a lot of your fanbase. But Johnny was okay with it."
As for the real Whitey, both reached out to him – Cooper with a personal letter and Depp through his attorney. Neither heard back, although his attorney did visit the set one day. “I noticed he was watching the monitor and shaking his head," remembers Cooper, “I thought we must just not be getting it right." The director introduced himself to the man, hoping to get a better insight. But he just said, “Mr Cooper, he looks just like him. He sounds just like him. His eyes, the way he moves. It’s uncanny”. Coming from a man who has known James Bulger for thirty years, it was high praise indeed.
The hour between reels flew by and Cooper looked like he wouldn't have minded sticking around, but Crazy Heart was up next. Cooper is a man concerned with authenticity; he’s a natural storyteller, made in the mold of old America. He talks of stripping away artifice, of not feeling the director’s hand; in his world it’s easier to make the edit than to not make it. If he was a musician, he’d be a folk singer. His next project is a western starring Christian Bale, and there is one thing we can all be certain about – it’ll be a good story.