Scott Cooper —Reflecting from the Director’s Chair

Scott Cooper

Scott Cooper (’92) earned immediate acclaim with his directorial debut Crazy Heart, a film that won Jeff Bridges an Oscar for Best Actor. The movie about an aging country singer wrestling with his demons and struggling to stay relevant also garnered an Academy Award for its heartfelt theme song, “The Weary Kind,” which was written by Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett.

Before the film’s success, Cooper, a native Virginian, had worked in the business in some small acting roles. Since, though, he has found himself with plenty of Hollywood opportunities. He recently checked in from his home in Los Angeles to reveal his next project and talk about his path to film from Hampden-Sydney.

Q: When can next expect to see your work on the big screen?
A: This winter I’m finishing up the follow-up to Crazy Heart. The film is called Out of the Furnace, and it will be released this fall. It stars Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck and Forest Whitaker. It was influenced by the films of the 1970s by Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese, and it takes place in Western Pennsylvania steel country. I won’t reveal too much, but I’ll say it’s a biting social commentary on America today.

Q: How much did growing up in the mountains of Virginia influence your work as a filmmaker? 
A: My upbringing has really influenced both of my films. They’re both very personal. With Crazy Heart, I grew up a longtime lover of bluegrass and traditional country music, everybody from Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley to Townes Van Zandt and Waylon Jennings. Coming from a small yet strongly bonded community in Southwest Virginia helped influence Out of the Furnace, which is a searing portrait of family life and crime in the Appalachian Mountain chain.

Q: Can you briefly explain what led you to film after graduation from Hampden-Sydney?
A: I grew up in a family that valued great art, music and dance. As a child in the small town of Abingdon, I was heavily involved in stage acting. At Hampden-Sydney I studied economics, but I always knew I wanted to get back into exploring the arts. After graduation I moved to Manhattan and went to Lee Strasberg’s Method Acting School. I broke into the business as an actor and was fortunate to have one of America’s greatest screen actors, Robert Duvall, become a mentor and close friend. He’s been a guiding influence, and he helped me explore the medium in different ways—writing and directing.

Q: After the success of Crazy Heart, will directing be your main focus going forward?
A: Writing and directing is personally much more rewarding and satisfying. The stage is really an actor’s medium, but film is truly a director’s medium. You get to shape the worldview of the film, make the decisions as far as the cast and deliver the message that you really want to get across to the audience. It’s more influence and control over the final product, and I find that wholly more rewarding. After the success of Crazy Heart, I had a lot of different offers. But I ultimately decided the follow-up should be told through my pen. Not to say that I won’t direct somebody else’s script, but the chances are fairly slim.

Q: Reflecting on Hampden-Sydney, does something about your time on the Hill influence your work today?

I would say atmosphere and a sense of place. I shoot in a way that will make the audience—consciously or subconsciously—aware of the locale. At Hampden-Sydney I felt the strong bonds of community, and I felt really free to explore my creativity. It was the great center of my learning that helped to influence everything else going forward. The professors really care about communication with students, and as a director fortunate to work with actors of the highest caliber, it’s important that I have clear and precise ways to communicate. A lot of the skills I learned in the Rhetoric Program, I find myself using today, and I couldn’t be more thankful.

I’ll never forget sitting in the diner in Farmville, while Richard Gere was shooting Sommersby with Jodie Foster. He was sitting there eating alone. I introduced myself, and we had a brief conversation. It turns out that 20-some years later he’s become a pal of mine. It’s funny how life comes full circle.