THE BIG PICTURE
Bad Blake’s dark-horse comeback Director/screenwriter Scott Cooper didn’t help Thomas Cobb write the novel Crazy Heart, and Cobb didn’t help Cooper write the screenplay.
That’s how it should be, according to the Rhode Island-based author of the 1987 novel about an aging, hard-drinking country-western star named Bad Blake who gets a shot at both a career comeback and personal redemption after he meets and falls for Jean, a journalist in Santa Fe. The film has won over a lot of critics, netting Oscar nominations for star Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jean Craddock. New Mexico-born singer/songwriter Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett’s tune “The Weary Kind” is also up for an Oscar for Best Song.
Speaking by phone from his home, Cobb— who lived in the Southwest for years and spent considerable time in Santa Fe in the 1970s— said that he’s very happy with the film version, particularly as it depicts his lead character, Bad Blake.
“It’s a novel about character; it’s a novel about him,” Cobb said. “And Jeff did a fantastic job with the character. Jeff told me that at night, after he would finish a scene, he’d go back and study the novel before preparing for the next scene. That’s one of the reasons I think he’s so accurate to it, so true to the character of the book, because he spent time working with that character. He studied the book to recreate my character rather than going out and creating a new character.”
Cobb said Bad Blake is an amalgam of a lot of people— including himself. The character’s appearance was modeled after that of country western star Hank Thompson (1925-2007). Cobb also added a little of author Donald Barthelme’s (1931-1989) personality.
When the novel came out, Cobb’s agent asked the writer if he would consider writing a film adaptation of it. “I said no, and I think that was the right choice,” Cobb recalled. “I don’t write screenplays. I don’t understand the form that well. My interest is in writing novels.”
Chuck Barris of The Gong Show first optioned the story in the late 1980s. “It looked like he was gonna get it made; he had a very good director — Jim McBride, who had just done The Big Easy (1987)— signed to direct, and then Chuck decided he wanted to sail around the world on his yacht, so he just dropped it and took off,” Cobb said.
Cinematographer John Bailey then optioned it and set up a deal with Orion Pictures— which went bankrupt shortly thereafter, quashing that deal. Finally, Cobb said, “An actor I won’t name optioned it and then ripped it off for an episode of
L.A. Law. That was an unfortunate event, but it’s forgotten now— except, obviously, by me.”
First time director/writer Cooper— who had worked as an actor in the film business for years — called Cobb about four years ago to discuss optioning the book. According to a recent Los
Angeles Times article, a friend gave Cooper— who grew up with a fondness for Southern literature and country and bluegrass music— a copy of Cobb’s novel. Cooper got family friend Robert Duvall to produce, and that led to Bridges and Burnett coming on board. Cooper shot the picture primarily in New Mexico in 24 days in the autumn of 2008.
The picture is fairly faithful to Cobb’s novel, though it does not delve as deeply into its protagonist’s past as the book does. Likewise, the ending is considerably different, with the film offering Blake hope and a beautiful New Mexico sunset. In the novel, he’s left to an ambiguous fate as he lies outdoors in the rain with a bottle of whiskey in his hand.
“Jeff said they filmed my ending, but that the studio had final cut and decided it was too dark,” Cobb said. “Jeff said it was one of the most miserable nights of his acting life, stuck in a ditch while they poured water from some big container on him. And he wasn’t very happy that they didn’t use it after he suffered that much!”
Cobb isn’t shunning the corner of the spotlight he’s been thrust into, but he’s waiting for it to fade so he can get back to his office to work on his next novel, which is based on the true story of a shootout between a pair of WorldWar I draft dodgers and their dogged pursuers in southern Arizona. His most recent novel, Shavetail, is a Western set in the harsh Southwest desert during the 1870s. Though the novel picked up a Western Writers of America Spur Award last year, it’s been overshadowed by the renewed interest in Crazy Heart.
“It’s very strange,” he said. “The pre-orders on the rerelease of the novel have shot far beyond the total sales the book had in its entire career.
Crazy Heart was way in the background and has shouldered its way back into the foreground, while
Shavetail has been pushed to the background. And that’s fine, because Crazy Heart is doing important things for me. It’s given me a kind of recognition I wasn’t getting, and people are paying attention to what I do, which is great. That’s what authors look for.”
Cobb calls writing an “incredibly inefficient process. People have this idea that you get this spark of inspiration and just ski to the finish line. You don’t. There are lots of blind alleys and dead ends, and you are constantly going back and second-guessing yourself. It’s hard work, being a writer. But I’m at my happiest when I’m writing, especially when I’m writing well. If I’m not writing well, I’m miserable.”
In his loving cups: Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal