THE BIG PIC­TURE

Pasatiempo - - Art in Review - Robert Nott

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

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