Crazy Heart: Cooper’s Vision of the New American West

“Crazy Heart” stars Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and is written/directed by Scott Cooper. The film is being released December 16 by Fox Searchlight.

Bad Blake’s story unfolds in the rambling world he inhabits, rolling through Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, as he plays a variety of bars, clubs and even bowling alleys, traversing a geography filled with fragmented lives and the constant search for love lost or never found.  Along the way, the film opens up a fresh view into the American West, which no matter how modern life becomes remains wild in many ways, full of dogged earnestness and rusty dreams.

“I wanted a really timeless quality to the film,” explains Scott Cooper, “that naturalistic feeling of great 70s character films.  Thematically, you have tough characters and tough situations, so the visuals have to counterpoint that.”

To capture all that, Cooper collaborated with several accomplished artists, including cinematographer Barry Markowitz, renowned for his work on such films as ALL THE PRETTY HORSES, THE APOSTLE and SLING BLADE; production designer Waldemar Kalinowski, whose films include APPALOOSA and LEAVING LAS VEGAS; and costume designer Doug Hall (who worked with Markowitz on ALL THE PRETTY HORSES, THE APOSTLE and SLING BLADE).

Markowitz suggested that Cooper break out of the film’s intimate interior scenes by balancing them with the solace of the landscape’s endless skies and infinite vistas.  “After all, we were shooting in some big country,” remarks the cinematographer.  “So we ended up shooting a lot of stuff outdoors, beautiful shots that had us up at three in the morning doing all the dirty work.  The idea was to really open the story up.”

“Barry’s cinematography is just so beautiful,” says Cooper.  “He understood exactly what I was going for visually and he evoked all the right emotions.”

Meanwhile Waldemar Kalinowski focused on over 25 locations in the Santa Fe and Albuquerque areas, drawn to a challenge he describes as “creating a classically beautiful slice of American life in an interesting new way.”

In creating interiors for both Bad Blake and Jean Craddock, Kalinowski focused on back-story.  “Remnants of their previous lives are visible in the story,” he notes, “especially in Bad’s house, which is a window into who he used to be and where he came from.”

Along the way, he was inspired by the cast’s performances.  “The depth of character that Jeff was brining to Bad gave my whole department the inspiration to create a more complete and specific world,” he says.  “Maggie also had some very specific opinions about Jean’s house, and I think both of them are actors who really think about where their characters live, where they come from and where they are going, so it was interesting to try to reflect all of that.”

Working with practical locations with a down-home feel, the only set Kalinowski had to build was the bowling alley exterior where Blake meets Tony and The Renegades.

Two locations that added further to the atmosphere were Albuquerque’s 12,000-seat outdoor amphitheatre, the Journal Pavilion, where Tommy Sweet appears in concert, and the Santa Fe Opera House, where the film’s final scenes were shot.

The Journal Pavilion, one of New Mexico’s premiere concert locales, was already booked solid when the production approached them about shooting Tommy Sweet in front of an enthusiastic crowd of country music fans.  But the filmmakers were able to wrangle permission from Toby Keith to use the 10-minute breaks between set changeovers to shoot the sequence.

Through careful planning for camera placement and several dry runs in the afternoon before the big night, the production was able to capture both “Gone, Gone, Gone” and Bad and Tommy’s “Fallin’ & Flyin’” duet, with a second take for a steadicam pass.

The film’s climactic moment, in which recovering Bad Blake runs into Jean Craddock one revealing last time, was shot at the Santa Fe Opera House, an architectural wonder with its sweeping balcony roof set in the middle of multi-chromatic Sangre De Cristo and Jemez Mountains.  Stark, dramatic and full of moody life, it seemed the perfect place for star-crossed modern lovers to confront the future.

Sums up Kalinowksi:  “The story of Bad Blake ends in this stunning beautiful, inspiring place where you see the main character’s two worlds momentarily coming together one more time.”

Like Kalinowski, costume designer Doug Hall was guided by character and by the long history of country music fashion.  “I looked at a lot of old concert footage to get a sense of what people were wearing,” he says.  “I was also inspired by Richard Avedon’s West Texas photography.”

“For Bad Blake we wanted to evoke not just a look but a lifestyle,” Hall explains.  “Jeff paid a lot of attention to the details, like what he keeps in his pockets every day – guitar picks, a lighter, a few crumpled cigarettes.  It was all based in the reality of this man’s life.  His version of Bad is striking looking but not necessarily a showman.  He’s a little more rough-edged and tumble-down.”

For Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Jean Craddock, Hall emphasized her role as a mother.  “Being a mother is so important to Jean’s character and that’s something I think she identifies with.  The hard part, of course, was making Maggie plain.  Of course, she was just as specific and concerned with the clothes as Jeff was, and was a pleasure to work with.”

The filming of CRAZY HEART was chock full of these kinds of small pleasures – from live musical performances that hit the sweet spot to minor details that built up to pure emotions – and that, sums up Judy Cairo, is what made it so special.  She concludes, “This is a intimate character study with a great story that was lucky to draw an amazing cast of award-winning actors and filmmakers who created beautiful characters and dialogue and a whole world that didn’t even exist just a few weeks before.”