Into the Spotlight: Bradley Cooper on A Star is Born, Consulting with Terrence Malick and Shooting his First Feature in 42 Days
Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star is Born, is the kind of movie that feels as though it contains decades’ worth of saved-up ideas and feelings, yet never strains under the weight of its ambition. It’s simultaneously sweeping in its scope and razor-sharp in its clarity, passionate and exuberant but restrained and confident. Although the tale has been told several times before, most memorably in George Cukor’s 1954 CinemaScope extravaganza, Cooper (who collaborated on the screenplay with Eric Roth and Will Fetters) makes it his own by using the basic premise as a springboard for a sophisticated meditation on fame and addiction that’s also one of the most penetrating adult love stories since the glory days of John Cassavetes.
The story from previous incarnations—Jackson Maine (Cooper), a male artist on his way down falls in love with Ally (Lady Gaga), a female artist on her way up, and their relationship struggles against his addictions and insecurities—remains the same. But the variations Cooper plays on it are specific, contemporary and probing, as he deftly manipulates point of view to explore artistic striving from a broad array of perspectives. Although the movie revolves around an almost painfully intimate love story, there’s room in Cooper’s approach for a fully realized ensemble cast that includes Sam Elliott as the troubled protagonist’s brother, Andrew Dice Clay as the heroine’s father and Dave Chappelle as an old friend. Each of them is rich and compelling enough to anchor their own movie, and Cooper weaves them in and out of the central romance with a delicacy that allows for one emotionally revelatory moment after another. Yet the movie is as epic as it is subtle, with a series of spectacular concert sequences made all the more immersive by the director’s decision to keep the camera among the musicians and out of the audience. Throughout the movie, Cooper exhibits an unerring instinct for where to place his camera in a way that will allow the viewer to identify with whichever character’s point of view is being honored at any given moment. The subjectivity is further enhanced by the most dynamic, expressive sound design I’ve heard in a theatrical release this year. Cooper’s achievement is all the more impressive for how smooth and effortless it all looks—he never forces his effects, but their impeccable calibration is the result of years of preparation on this passion project.
A Star is Born is a movie of small, personal moments and big set pieces that build to a climax both elegant in its simplicity and devastating in its impact. I wanted to know how Cooper pulled it all off his first time behind the camera. We sat down to talk about it a few weeks before his film’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and I began by asking about his writing process.
Filmmaker: One of the things that really impressed me about this movie was how consistent the tone was in spite of the fact that it’s about a lot of different things. It’s a love story, it’s about what it’s like to live in the public eye, there’s the addiction story and the stuff about family. I’m curious how you kept all of those things in balance at the script stage.
Cooper: That was the hardest task, not only in the writing but in all three portions of making the movie—the writing, the shooting and the editing, which I find are kind of three separate entities. You’re almost creating three works of art, each informing the next in progression. At each stage, you have to be relentless about what is needed, making sure that you’re not letting one story point go too far by the wayside while others are in the forefront. There’s no secret other than constant, constant going over it and trying to make each scene encapsulate as many of the various elements at the same time [as possible]—and making sure that each character is expressing all of those elements. For example, every character in the movie has a relationship to love and fame and art. Jack, the character I play, is a guy who was catapulted into this world because he just had these gifts as a songwriter and created a sound people wanted to hear at a certain point in time. He was saying what he really felt—he was telling the truth as an artist at one point. His brother, played by Sam Elliott, is a resentful guy—he was passed over for the prodigal son and has had to endure it. Andrew Dice Clay, who plays Ally’s dad, is a dreamer who never really put the work in—a couple people maybe thought he had a nice voice, but… It goes on down the list, to characters like the one Dave Chappelle plays, who became content at a certain point in his life and said, “I can have this much music in my life, but I also want to build my family.” So, to answer your question, I just had to make sure that all the satellites in this world related to those elements—you narrow down each character, and explore how they’re associated with those things, and whittle away until the whole movie feels like it’s one sort of musical piece.
Filmmaker: That point about the characters brings up something else that I really liked, which is the way you express point of view. For example, at the beginning you do something really interesting with your character, which is convey a visceral sense of what it’s like to be a celebrity—how the world both expands and closes in at the same time.
Cooper: I’m so glad you said that because I really thought about it. I didn’t want the characters to talk about tweeting or the paparazzi, I wanted the movie to get across the audio of being famous. It’s BAM, BAM, BAM—then nothing. There’s this loud cacophony of noise and energy, and then you’re in a vacuum.
Filmmaker: You get that across immediately by opening the movie with a huge, loud concert scene and then following Maine into the dead silence and isolation of his SUV as he’s driven away from the show.
Cooper: I wanted the audience to feel the claustrophobia he feels, even when he’s on stage, so it’s framed in a way where he’s kind of avoiding the camera—in fact, he avoids the camera for the whole movie until the very end, when he has to face himself. After rehab, the camera’s right in his face. But you’re right, in the opening we start to feel the scope of everything on stage, and then he escapes from it into this little cave-like place—the SUV, where the audio from outside is immediately muted. The point of view is always subjective, and the first thing I knew I wanted to do in the movie was keep the camera on stage. In preparation for this, I watched every movie I could find that had a performance piece on a stage and realized that being in the crowd is a point of view everyone already knows, especially in the age we live in, where so much is at our fingertips. I thought, we can still get the scope of it without ever leaving the stage and give the audience a real sense of what it’s like to be in that position.
Filmmaker: Yeah, it reminded me of what Scorsese did in Raging Bull, where the camera is always inside the boxing ring. This movie has that same kind of intimacy and immediacy. But, in terms of the concert sequences, they seem like enormous logistical undertakings. How did you execute those?
Cooper: It’s so hard to recreate the feeling of an actual concert, so I always knew I wanted to go on real stages during real shows and just steal some time. I remember seeing Song to Song and realizing that Terrence Malick had captured that point of view I wanted, so I got in touch with him and asked how he did it. He was kind enough to take my call and told me that they just went to South by Southwest and talked people into letting them go onstage. Because we sang everything live, we had the ability to go onstage and perform if we could get a venue, so honestly, it was just boots on the ground trying to find people that would do us favors. Willie Nelson allowed us to take eight minutes of his set, so I jumped on stage with Jack’s band, and we performed that opening song in the movie—what you see is real. That is us performing, and those aren’t extras. That was at Stagecoach [a California country music festival], and then we shot at Glastonbury, which was the hugest get of all time. I go there every year and have become friends with the owners, and they said they’d allow us to do it, but we had to get somebody to allow us to have part of their set because everything was blocked out. Kris Kristofferson was kind enough to give us four minutes, so my director of photography Matty [Matthew] Libatique and Steven Morrow, the sound mixer, and I went to Glastonbury, and I played “Maybe It’s Time” twice and the guitar solo and we cut off. When Lady Gaga was performing at The Forum, we were able to shoot her playing at the piano right before her concert started. The only time we had any real control was at The Greek, where we shot the scene where Jack brings Ally onstage for the first time. Each time, we would learn what the lighting board was like and what the sound board was like, then utilize the parameters of each venue toward however I wanted the story to be told cinematically at that point.
Filmmaker: What kind of cameras were you shooting with?
Cooper: We used the Alexa Mini. I didn’t want to shoot on film because I knew we’d be pressed for time, and digital was great for catching little moments and jumping on stage—it was also wonderful in terms of the color and all the things you can do to mess with the palette. I had very specific ideas about how I wanted to use color to express the transitions the characters were going through—you can track Ally’s development through her association with the color red and how she takes on its power, for example—and digital really lent itself to that. Now, while I knew that I didn’t want to shoot on film, I knew that I did want to shoot in anamorphic to help with that sense of subjectivity on the stage; I didn’t care about the highs and lows, I cared about getting the scope of right to left. Certain shots—like Lady Gaga at the piano while Jack and the other musicians are on the right side of the frame—would have been difficult in any other aspect ratio.
Filmmaker: You also get some nice subjective effects from the properties of the anamorphic lenses themselves, in terms of flaring and hazing and all these things that, again, really give the viewer a sensory experience.
Cooper: In my initial conversations with Matty, we talked a lot about how I wanted those flares and a kind of proscenium feel, and shooting in that aspect ratio with the Kowa anamorphic lenses helped achieve everything I was looking for.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about Lady Gaga and her casting a little. What made you think of her, and how did you know she could pull it off? Because it’s an incredible performance.
Cooper: I knew that I couldn’t make the movie if I didn’t find the right person, and I knew that it had to be a real singer because we didn’t have a lot of time—we shot it in 42 days, and the budget was low for the scope of the movie. I loved the meta aspect of it, too, honestly—I don’t think you could really tell the story without that. I was at a cancer benefit at Sean Parker’s house, where I was speaking because my father passed away from cancer, and I have this foundation. The last performance of the night was Lady Gaga singing “La Vie en Rose,” and I was absolutely floored. I got her agent’s number the next day and asked if I could meet her, drove up to Malibu where she lives, met with her and that was it. The road up Everest began.
Filmmaker: Coming from an acting background, what’s your approach to casting in general? Do you audition people, do you watch tapes, do you just meet with them and get a sense of who they are?
Cooper: It’s interesting, Elia Kazan would always just walk an actor around the block. He didn’t care about auditioning, he just wanted to meet the person. Clint Eastwood won’t ever meet anybody—he just looks at tape because, as an actor, he remembers what it’s like to be rejected and doesn’t want to be the guy in the room doing the rejecting. I certainly auditioned for 10,000 things and was rejected for 9,948 of them. For me, it’s more about intuition and feeling. It’s not about auditioning people. In the case of Sam Elliott, if he had said no, I would have been absolutely fucked because I wrote the script with him in mind and worked for a year to lower my voice so that it would sound like we were brothers. I asked him to dinner and said I wanted to see him play a person filled with resentment, and, thank God, he said yes. Andrew Dice Clay is somebody whose tapes I memorized when I was in eighth grade, and I always thought he was a really talented actor. We met for about four hours and had him and Stefani [Lady Gaga] meet because I wanted her to be comfortable, and I wanted to see if I believed him as her father. I just had them do an improvisation together, and it was incredible. I tried to get Chappelle for two and a half years. I met him when he came to see a play I was doing in London, and we spent the whole night together talking, and I loved our dynamic—I thought that was the dynamic that should be in the movie. So, there was no second choice for him. Anthony Ramos put himself on tape, and he was just a gift—incredible actor.
Filmmaker: Everyone in the movie is terrific, and I’m curious how you elicit those emotional effects. Do you rehearse, or—
Cooper: I don’t rehearse. I like to shoot the rehearsal, I don’t want to run the scene and then shoot it. But Stefani and I worked for two months. I pushed the movie for two months because I didn’t feel like she and I were where we needed to be in order to tell the story. We didn’t act out scenes, just did all the exercises and crazy calisthenics I learned in grad school and worked with a wonderful acting coach, Susan Batson, so that when we showed up on set we were ready. I didn’t rehearse any of the other actors. I just had conversations with them, and on the day we went to work.
Filmmaker: And on the day, how do you facilitate the best possible performances from your actors? What kind of environment do you create?
Cooper: Loving, nurturing, safe… but also a feeling of a time limit. So, it’s a sort of hybrid of safety and pressure. [laughs] And quiet, a quiet set. There’s no big personality regaling people with stories off camera, everybody is there for the work.
Filmmaker: How precisely do you plan your shots? Are you responding more to what the actors are doing on the day, or do you come in with a set plan everyone has to adhere to?
Cooper: I remember Mike Nichols did a Q&A right before he died and said, “I approach directing the way I approached acting, I prepare as much as I can, and I throw it all away when I show up on the day.” I visualize the whole movie shot for shot in my head and then on the day I have a shot list, but I completely give myself over to what’s there. I allow myself to be dexterous and hope that the crew believes in me enough that if I completely shift something, and we only have 10 minutes to shoot it, they’re going to do it.
Filmmaker: That leads me to another question, which has to do with how you balance the roles of actor and director in a piece that’s as intimate and emotionally intense as this. How do you throw yourself completely into the performance while still allowing yourself to step back and think about how that performance is working in the overall context?
Cooper: That’s about preparation, too. I locked Jackson Maine six months before I even started prepping. He grew, obviously, but I took care of the piano, the guitar, the singing and the voice and who he was—I did a tremendous amount of preparation. So, I at least felt confident that Jack was a person I knew and that was a part of me. By the time I got to the set, I actually felt like it was the opposite of difficult—like I was almost cheating because it’s so much easier being right there on the field as a director. As long as you’ve done your work and you know where you want the camera and where you want everything to be, it’s a wonderful place to help the other actors, to help move the story in a way that you want it to move. Or to allow yourself to have options in the editing room with your own performance; it just saves so much time as opposed to cutting and talking about it and then coming back. You’re doing it as the movie’s rolling, so you save a lot of time.
Filmmaker: And, as you indicated, time was an issue on this movie since you only had 42 days to shoot, which is minimal for a film of this scale. To make a sweeping romantic epic in that amount of time as your directorial debut seems pretty daunting to me. Were you nervous going in? Were other people nervous for you?
Cooper: I was terrified. Many people who I respect told me that I shouldn’t do it and that I was crazy, and I believed them. But I also knew that I was going to be 41, and Clint Eastwood was 41 when he directed his first movie and that had always given me the ability to procrastinate. I’d say, “He didn’t direct until he was 41, and look at how many movies he’s done!” But I knew I was at a point where I had to do it, and this story really spoke to me. I kept visualizing sequences and hearing Jackson’s voice relentlessly in my head, and I thought, “If I do this and it fails miserably, it would be better than if I never did it at all.” I was fine with the 42 days because when I worked with Clint Eastwood and David O. Russell they always put parameters around themselves, and it creates a kind of pressure that focuses everybody. I would have gotten way more nervous if it was a $60-million budget because… maybe it’s just my upbringing, but I’m very conscious of staying on budget and making our days. I’m very aware that just because I’m not paying for the movie, somebody else is, and I want to deliver under their parameters. The most fear I felt was during prep, when I was writing and creating the character and thinking, “How the fuck am I going to get to the finish line?” By the time we started shooting, I felt so prepared that it was really joyous, and so was the editing—though it was also pressure filled, and there are always days when you go to bed thinking, “Oh my God, we don’t have a movie.”
Filmmaker: Yeah, I would imagine that business of balancing all the elements that we talked about in terms of the writing is even more important during editing. Were you trying out a lot of different things at that stage to find the movie?
Cooper: At every stage of the process—the writing, the shooting, the editing. I don’t want to leave any stone unturned or any avenue unexplored. I had the benefit of editing it at my house, which was great because sometimes the best idea comes at 2:30 in the morning. And I also had the benefit of a supportive studio—Warner Bros. really allowed [editor] Jay Cassidy and I the luxury of a lot of time in post. We were able to make the movie we wanted to make, and now I just hope that people will allow me to do it again and again and again. Because it’s all I want to do.