Whenever I ran into Bradley Cooper on the “A Star Is Born” promo trail — a cocktail party in Toronto, the premiere in Los Angeles, the American Cinematheque tribute, the AFI Awards, the Oscar nominee lunch — he was eager to talk about his movie. But between the rapturous response to the backstage musical update back in the early fall (final Metascore: 88) and earning eight Oscar nominations last month, the excited buzz around the picture peaked and waned.
Many an early frontrunner faces that risk over a long Oscar campaign. And Warner Bros., which always puts box-office performance ahead of awards, refused to foreground the film’s depiction of addiction to lend gravitas to their commercial entertainment. In any case, Cooper isn’t gathering as much credit as he deserves for diving off a high board and executing “A Star Is Born” so well.
This big-budget glossy studio picture with major movie stars and hit songs runs the risk of winning the same single award at the Oscars that it won at the Golden Globes: Best Song for “Shallow.”
That’s partly because the movie lacks the gravitas of an art film and — while Dave Chappelle makes a notable appearance, which took Cooper a year and a half of wooing to close — the backstage musical is very white in a year when diversity is an asset. But, like Oscar-winners “The Artist” and “Birdman,” it’s about show business. Clearly, “A Star Is Born” is one of the most popular films in the race: it scored $417 million worldwide, and the Interscope soundtrack album went platinum, sold over 32 million copies worldwide and spawned several hit songs, including the Grammy and Oscar-nominated “Shallow.”
This kind of movie is tough to pull off — a well-mounted mainstream entertainment that becomes art, a moving, relatable, modestly budgeted studio drama that feels authentic. Oscar perennial Sydney Pollack (“The Way We Were”) used to make movies like this. There aren’t many people these days who can push these films across the finish line.
It took dogged determination for Bradley Cooper to mount a complicated music movie with a high degree of difficulty and made it look easy. A movie star with three acting nominations (“American Sniper,” “American Hustle,” “Silver Linings Playbook”), Cooper was partly inspired to play a musician by performing air guitar for Neil Young’s “Down by the River” on Jimmy Fallon, and then “American Sniper” filmmaker Clint Eastwood left “A Star Is Born” behind. Cooper was originally supposed to star opposite Beyoncé. But he realized that “A Star Is Born” gave him the perfect vehicle to work through some ideas he had wanted to put into a movie. All he had to do was talk Warner Bros. into letting him direct it.
“I always wanted to be a director since I was a kid,” he told me. “What greater way is there to tell the human experience than through the story of the love of two people? We look at this music world, family trauma, addiction, the plight of being alive, dealing with love, finding your identity and your voice, all the things I wanted to investigate as a director. It came through Clint Eastwood, and I saw it was the perfect sandbox to examine all these things.”
I asked Cooper about the many misapprehensions surrounding “A Star Is Born.”
It’s easy to greenlight a remake.
As an update of a successful show business story made by Hollywood three times before (four, if you count the very similar “What Price Hollywood?”), “A Star Is Born” qualifies as branded Intellectual Property (IP). You’d think a studio would consider that an asset. They didn’t. “It was only familiar to the older demo that’s harder to get into theaters these days,” said producer Billy Gerber (“Gran Torino”), who tried to get the movie made for 11 years. Eastwood started developing a remake back in 2011, and eventually gave up.
The studio said, “‘Why retell it?'” said Cooper. “It felt fresh to me. It was an R-rated drama. That alone right there. I had done ‘Hangover,’ ‘Limitless,’ American Sniper.’ And I was used to making movies on a tight budget and short schedules, which I prefer. We did ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ in 32 days.”
Bradley Cooper is a handsome movie star who can get anything he wants.
Remember that eager 24-year-old at “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” asking Sean Penn about “Hurley Burley?” Cooper has been over-achieving his whole life, whether tackling foreign languages and Proust or headlining as “The Elephant Man” on Broadway, which earned him rave reviews, packed houses and a Tony nomination.
First Cooper pitched directing the movie to Warners production chief Greg Silverman, who agreed to let the actor develop a screenplay. “Then I wrote the script, built upon a potential budget that was very low. Below $30 million,” he said. “Thanks to ‘Hangover’ and ‘American Sniper’ they were willing to take a shot. But as the process continued they got more scared. ‘This is actually going to happen, we’re going to do it.’ August 8, 2015 is the last time I acted. I spent all my time on this.”
Writer Will Fetters had worked on the Eastwood version, and Cooper brought him back in to continue. “We worked hand in hand,” said Cooper. “We write together, spend all day together. He’ll go do a pass, send it to me, I’ll do a pass back, breaking it and discovering, pushing each other the whole time. Will and I got to a point with the script, we’d do table reads with friends to hear it. I’d replay the whole movie in my head as an exercise, say the movie out loud. I learned that from David O. Russell. I’d tell the story constantly to people.”
Cooper put himself in that script — he has been open about his past battles with alcohol (if not to the New York Times). “Write what you know,” he said. Warners talked him into letting Oscar-winning scribe Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”) come in and take the script to the next level. “We’d work all day long, I’d drive to Malibu for a month and a half.” Fetters was on set for any changes during shooting. “That’s the way I like to do everything creatively, keep digging and mining and never give up until I feel it’s serving the story and actor.”
And Cooper studied the past versions of the movies in order to add reverberations to his version, like shooting at The Shrine. “I wanted the movie to be cognizant of its history,” he said. “Little elements to reflect that.”
Movies that influenced him include musicians falling in love in “Once,” “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” “All That Jazz,” “Chicago,” and the Martin Scorsese short “Life Lessons” about an artist and his muse from “New York Stories.”
The movie follows classic script structure.
Nope. The writers broke the rules by opening the budding romance with three back-to-back talking sequences. “It was the tallest order for the writing,” Cooper said. “I adamantly wanted the first act to be like a night out. We could check a lot of boxes with that, get to know the characters, how the world reacts to them, and why they see each other the way other characters don’t see them. Because of that, they start to fall in love. We shot it so the camera lens by the end of the parking lot scene is right between the characters, so the audience would feel invested in them. If you are taking a writing class, you don’t want to start a script like that. But I knew that if we don’t anchor you early on, you aren’t going on the ride.”
Lady Gaga is a star.
She’s a pop star, yes, and now she’s a movie star. When Cooper saw her perform “La Vie en Rose,” he instantly divined how she would work in the movie, called her and went to her house to play a song for her. He sang “Midnight,” which he knew well, and she joined in. “Wait a second, has anybody heard you sing? Let’s record so we have it,” she said. Cooper took out his phone and recorded the one song. “I felt you could see something there, a spark and chemistry,” he said.
Warner Bros. took some convincing. “When I proposed Lady Gaga to them,” said Cooper, “they were not so keen on the idea, or of us together. ‘We don’t see Lady Gaga and you as a couple.’ They didn’t want to screen-test her at the time. I knew she was the one and I could not make it without her.”
So he set up a meeting at Warners, hooked his iPhone to a Sonos speaker and played the video for them. “I thought it was a home run,” Cooper said, “but they said ‘that’s cool.’ It didn’t really move the needle. They were trepidatious about me directing.” So he wrote and directed a scene with 10 pages of dialogue as if it were a film and showed it to the Warners executives in a theater. “Technically, I had never directed anything. It was a fun process to do, to discover things.”
“It was incredibly risky from the studio perspective,” said producer Lynette Howell Taylor, who met Cooper on “The Pines.” “He’s becoming a musician, directing an actress who’s never been in a feature film before, on a tight $38-million budget with 42 days of shooting. They got on board for the same reason I did: he’s prepared, he knows what he wants.”
A greenlight means go.
Not so fast. Cooper got the greenlight from Silverman. But when studio chief Kevin Tsujihara gave the studio reins to New Line’s Toby Emmerich, he also told him to decide whether to make “A Star Is Born.” So Cooper went back into the fold to pitch again. “At that point, I had songs, ‘Maybe It’s Time,’ a demo Jason Isbel sent me, and a couple songs from Stefani,” he said. “Toby comes from music. Once they were on, he was a huge asset throughout the process.”
On set, Cooper brought the efficient, no-nonsense everybody-pulls-their-weight environment he had learned from Eastwood. “He did not take his foot off the pedal,” said Taylor. And he allowed Lady Gaga “to feel her most vulnerable, where she felt safe and confident enough to be stripped down and raw.”
In the drag bar, Cooper shoots the moment when Ally is singing “La Vie en Rose” and spots Jackson at the bar. “I wanted her to do a seduction,” said Cooper. “We see him watch her, she’s standing up negotiating to lie down on top of the bar. She sees him glance at her, we show how powerful and strong she is, she’s right back at him with a look, we highlight that. I was inspired by ‘Life Lessons’ which showed me that you can frame a profile shot as you turn the camera. You can see people in space.”
From the start, Cooper was a gifted musician.
Nope. For the four years it took to make the movie, Cooper was creating his character, practicing guitar and piano, writing and singing songs, writing the screenplay, and prepping the production. He started with some piano skills and ideas for songs to drive the narrative, eventually bringing in Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, to help him craft songs and a persuasive stage persona.
Cooper is playing a huge iconic music star, like no one else, instantly recognizable with his signature off-stage hat shadowing his face, easy on stage after having put in his 10,000 hours. And he’s singing live in front of huge venues–often opposite powerful Lady Gaga. “We had to sell that Jackson Maine was an incredibly successful music star,” said Taylor, “not on the downward spiral. His spiral is a mental one of addiction. He still sells out concerts.”
While “Bohemian Rhapsody” relies on the well-known globally popular music of Queen, “A Star Is Born” required 17 original song out of 19, carefully woven into the narrative fabric of the movie. This took years to accomplish–with two writing rooms in Nashville and Hollywood filled with top composers and songwriters. “There were so many different buckets,” said Gerber. “It was like making a second movie.”
“With music and singing live, you can’t hide the authenticity of what it means to be human,” said Cooper, “using your body as an instrument, creating sound that is pleasing while the body is in a relaxed state. I had all these ideas, themes, and compositions in my mind. If I ever made a movie about music, I wanted it to be subjective when on the stage, I’d never seen anything shot from there. We never shot anything from the audience.”
This was a glossy big-budget studio production.
Given what Cooper was trying to achieve, $38 million was not a massive budget. (The two stars worked for scale.) For example, given the multiple live concerts required, producers Taylor and Gerber figured out that they could not afford to build concert venues–nor would they be authentic if they did, with the right amps and wires everywhere. So they had to go to real concerts and try to squeeze themselves in.
“I wanted it to be authentic,” Cooper said. “I’m an addict, I watch movies –‘that’s right, that’s not BS.’ Musicians would watch. That meant real stages, singing live.” When Cooper played at Coachella for the song that opens the movie, he had to jump between Willie Nelson sets (the singer gave up eight minutes) and play live just once–without the audience hearing anything. “Look like you’re having a good time!” he told the crowd. No retakes. No second go. He and his shooting crew had to nail it. At Glastonbury he had four minutes. That was it. And he had to have his rock act down. “It was terrifying, he said. “I knew what it had to be. This is the only way it’s going to work.”
That meant hours with Nelson in Cooper’s basement working on Jackson Maine songs, singing and talking in a lower register (inspired by gravel-voiced Sam Elliott who eventually played his older brother) to create an iconic rock star. They wrote “Black Eyes” and performed it for 20,000 people at Stagecoach–which replaced the original opening scene.
The concerts at the Greek were more luxurious–Lady Gaga was already booked there, so that helped, as they took over the outdoor amphitheatre during weekday down time and filled it with extras. “Shallow” took two days. Taylor remembers the electricity when she first heard her perform the song live: “It was like you were watching the birth of a star.” They moved “Shallow” from later in the movie to the parking lot scene as Ally composes a song on the spot–and then gets pulled on stage.
“Given the scale and scope of the movie, we wanted it to have an epic feel,” Cooper said. “There is music and larger-than-life characters. Music is intimate, it’s the only way for the characters to find release. Finding an epic scope with utter intimacy, that was the goal. It was a tall order.”
The edit was a breeze.
Oscar-nominated editor Jay Cassidy (“Silver Linings Playbook”) set up the editing bay in Cooper’s basement, so they could put in 12 hours a day in post-production. “It was a very hard movie,” said Cooper. “It was challenging to make a movie with such a huge music element, it was almost behemoth. My work ethic is pretty high. We were spending hours and months on a mixing stage, mixing in all the formats, Dolby Atmos, 7.2, 5.1.”
Cooper didn’t do much press for “A Star Is Born.”
According to his press agent, the star’s press schedule for award season was 17 pages long. He did press at two film festivals, Venice and Toronto, multiple premieres, television appearances and interviews, from The New York Times to Oprah, and wound up with eight Oscar nominations. The Times interview launched the destructive meme that somehow Cooper wasn’t playing ball, was withholding. This has dogged him ever since.
“That came from the New York Times piece and germinated,” he said. “That was disappointing. It was a philosophical conversation with that writer about the nature of cover stories. I talked to her 15 times, we texted. Really I was baffled. I enjoy talking about making the movie.” And if “A Star Is Born” seemed less high-profile on the L.A./N.Y. Oscar circuit, it’s because Cooper doesn’t enjoy the tastemaker meet and greets: “I’ll do a thousand Q & As to talk about the film and the process.”
Maybe Cooper is so phenomenally successful, living the perfect life with his perfect super-model girlfriend and perfect child, that people don’t think he needs extra kudos for crushing “A Star Is Born.” While “A Star Is Born” hasn’t been winning many awards so far–Lady Gaga won the National Board of Review and shared Critics Choice with Glenn Close and has repeatedly won Best Song for “Shallow”– the movie has racked up tons of key nominations.
“The fact that we were nominated by every guild as a first-time director was wonderful,” said Cooper. “I have been through this three times, with ‘American Hustle’ we had 10 Oscar nominations and didn’t win one. I don’t put any stock in it. At the Oscar nominees luncheon, as we were all standing on the risers for 45 minutes, I was grateful they were able to be rewarded for the chance they took with me.”
And not getting nominated for director? “If anything it makes me hungrier.”