When Scott Cooper set out to write and direct his first movie, he felt he had to have two key talents: Jeff Bridges to play down-on-his-luck country singer Bad Blake and renowned musician-producer T-Bone Burnett to create the musical world in which he lived. Cooper got both for Crazy Heart, a film that may finally bring Bridges his Oscar for Best Actor and that will be a contender in the music categories as well.
And once Burnett signed on, he knew exactly who he needed: his old friend Stephen Bruton. Burnett and Bruton had made music together since they were teenagers recording songs in a Fort Worth studio that Burnett managed to buy at age 17. The two worked in Bruton’s father’s record store, picking up a musical education as they went. And Bruton, who had started out playing bluegrass as a kid, introduced Burnett to “O Death,” the song he later used to such haunting effect in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Bridges’ character of Bad Blake “was so obviously almost him,” Burnett says. Like Blake, Bruton had driven around playing gigs and wound up poorer than when he set out. Like Blake, he held fast to his country roots. (Bruton played with Kris Kristofferson for nearly 40 years.) And like Blake, his songs have been recorded by stars, including Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. Burnett says Bridges borrowed a lot from Bruton, down to the necklace that he wore in the film.
But Crazy Heart was to be their last gig together. Bruton was suffering from cancer even as he worked on the film. Last May, he died at Burnett’s house in Los Angeles at the age of 60. “Stephen said he was so happy to have lived through it,” Burnett says, “because he didn’t want to be the card at the end.”
Though Bruton saw a version of the film before he died, he did not get to see Crazy Heart transform from a small movie that was headed straight to DVD into an unlikely late entrant into this year’s Oscar race. A number of minor miracles have to occur along the way for a small film like Crazy Heart to get made at all these days. In this case, the movie not only got made but battled its way into a better release than Cooper could have dreamed possible.
Cooper was a minor actor who initially wanted to do the life story of Merle Haggard. (To hear my interview with Cooper, click here.) When he couldn’t get those rights, he wrote a script based on Crazy Heart, a 1987 novel by Thomas Cobb.
Cooper had never had a breakout role but he did have one big break: In 2003, Robert Duvall befriended him on the set of Gods and Generals, Ted Turner’s lavish Civil War epic. When Cooper finished his Crazy Heart script, Duvall threw his support behind the project. That led to Burnett signing on.
Read Caryn James' interview with Jeff Bridges
Oddly enough, Crazy Heart turned out to be something of a Heaven’s Gate reunion. ( Heaven’s Gate was the infamous 1980 epic in which director Michael Cimino ran up what was then the most extraordinary budget in Hollywood history and wound up taking the rap for bringing down United Artists when the movie flopped.) Bridges was in Heaven’s Gate and Crazy Heart production designer Waldemar Kalinowski was a photographer on the set. Burnett and Bruton were both there, performing as musicians in the “Heaven’s Gate band.”
“We were holed up at the Outlaw Inn in Kalispell, Montana, for five months,” Burnett recalls. “Some of the actors just went insane. John Heard and I finally rented a plane and left. It was the only way we could get out of town.” Those on the set felt that “we were actually in a war,” Burnett continues. “I would say that we started rehearsing for this [movie] then.”
When Burnett brought Bruton in to work on Crazy Heart, he knew his friend was sick. “I figured he’d be OK,” Burnett says. “But he took a turn for the worse.” At one point, while the film was in post-production, Bruton went to Texas for treatment. Cooper and Bridges took a version of Crazy Heart to Austin and showed it to him and Kristofferson.
“It was killer great times,” Burnett says. “Everyone was treating Stephen as if he was living. Nobody treated him as if he were a disease.”
“I think it rallied him,” Burnett says. “He got up and came back and he finished.” Burnett says Bruton threw himself into writing music and playing the guitar for the soundtrack. “It was killer great times,” Burnett says. “Everyone was treating Stephen as if he was living. Nobody treated him as if he were a disease.”
But as Bruton went into his final decline last May, Crazy Heart was in trouble. The film was supposed to be distributed by Paramount Vantage, the art-house label that folded last year. Crazy Heart was left in limbo and Paramount decided to send it straight to DVD. That fate was averted thanks to some heavy lifting by Cooper’s agent, ICM Chairman Jeff Berg, who persuaded Paramount to let him find another buyer.
And so Crazy Heart found a happy home at Fox Searchlight, one of the last art-house labels attached to a major studio. Fox Searchlight released Little Miss Sunshine and Juno and last year, it bought Slumdog Millionaire from Warner Bros. in circumstances similar to those in which Crazy Heart had found itself. (Considering what happened with Slumdog, it’s obvious why Paramount might have hesitated to let Crazy Heart go.)
It’s too much to hope that Crazy Heart will be a hit on the order of Slumdog, but certainly it’s getting as muscular a push as Cooper could have dared to dream about. And when it’s all over, Cooper says it’ll be hard to let go of Crazy Heart—and not just because it’s in the hunt for awards. “A day doesn’t go by that we don’t discuss Stephen and what he meant to the film and how he touched all of us,” he says. “I’m sure it’s akin to what happened on The Dark Knight with the passing of Heath Ledger. These experiences tend to galvanize a group of people.”
In the end, Cooper decided to dedicate the film to Bruton—just the fate that Bruton had hoped to avoid.
“He is a card at the end of the film now,” Burnett says. “But that’s OK. It’s beautiful.”
Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.