<I>A Star Is Born</I> director Bradley Cooper
Issue: November 1, 2018

A Star Is Born director Bradley Cooper

Most actors who take on their first gig as a director opt for a modest, low-profile project that allows them to learn the ropes without too many risks attached and to make the inevitable mistakes that go with the territory, without too much attention.

Bradley Cooper is not one of those actors.

When he decided to make his directorial debut, he shot for the stars and remade a Hollywood classic — A Star Is Born.

And he didn’t stop there. For his take on the iconic love story (it’s the fourth version), he cast music superstar Lady Gaga in her first leading role in a major motion picture, and she follows in the considerable footsteps of Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Janet Gaynor.

Cooper, who also co-produced and co-wrote it, also took on the co-lead opposite Gaga, playing rock ‘n’ roller Jackson Maine, a musician struggling with various addictions who discovers and falls in love with Gaga’s struggling artist Ally. She has given up on her dream to become a successful singer, until she meets Jack, who immediately sees her natural talent.

And of course there’s the music. Gaga — who earned an Oscar nod for the song “Til It Happens to You” from the film The Hunting Ground — performs original songs in the film with Cooper, which they co-wrote with a handful of artists, including Lukas Nelson, Jason Isbell and Mark Ronson, and all vocals for the movie were recorded live during filming.

Talk about pressure. But Cooper smartly assembled a behind-the-scenes team that included Oscar-nominated director of photography Matthew Libatique (Black Swan), production designer Karen Murphy (The Light Between Oceans) and three-time Oscar-nominated editor Jay Cassidy ( American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, Into the Wild).

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Cooper talks about making the Warner Bros. release, which is generating lots of Oscar talk, and his love of post.

Did you always want to direct, and why?

“I did, and I have to date it back to what moved me as a child growing up in Philly — cinema. My dad showed me movies and I’d watch films like Citizen Kane, Raging Bull, Popeye — a lot of very different types of movies, and we lived across from a movie theater, and those were the days when films stayed there for months and you could keep going back to see them again. So it was the whole cultivation of growing up around cinema, and seeing life and thinking about things cinematically. I always remember pretending I was shooting a movie just by what my eyes saw around me, and I’d move my head where I wanted the camera to go, and it was just instinctual for me. It’s what moved me.

“When I was 12, I saw The Elephant Man, and it just floored me and stayed with me. I was just as entranced with what David Lynch was doing and how he told the story cinematically as I was with the great acting. But I don’t think I had the courage to take directing on as a job, so I thought, maybe be a part of it, so acting became my focus. But as I got older, I realized just how curious I am on sets about directing, from my first commercials through to TV and movies. I’d spend all my time on-set, asking questions and watching dailies and sitting with editors, soaking it all up. So the desire to direct came from that sheer curiosity. And working with David O. Russell was really like film school, and I was able to executive produce Silver Linings Playbook and that’s where I met Jay Cassidy. So I finally got to a point at 39 years old where I felt I had something to say, and knew I’d rather fail trying than not try at all.”

You definitely jumped in the deep end for your directorial debut with this.  How did you prepare to direct, and who gave you great advice?

(Laughs) “Well, a lot of people who care about me said, ‘Why don’t you choose something else?’ But you choose what moves you, and I always wanted to direct a love story. I’d thought, ‘Maybe I should direct a TV pilot or a commercial first,’ but that really scared me, and I thought about all the movies I loved and how it was the emotional experience that was most important to me, and then you look at how they used the camera and the language of cinema after that. So this moved me, the story of a man and woman who really love each other, and I wanted to make that as strong as I could, and look at the impact of family on identity, and how you find your voice in this world.

“A couple of years before I started this, I talked to Clint Eastwood about it as he’d been thinking of remaking it, and it was a slightly different take on it and my character, though he had the same basic DNA. So it all came about because of a convergence of my age and feeling I had a point of view, and then this property giving me the structure to do it. And other directors told me that preparation is everything, and it has to be your sole focus, and it’s so true. I spent four years making this. The last time I acted was in 2015, and I felt I couldn’t expect the cast and crew to give their all if I wasn’t totally prepared. Right before we began shooting, I saw this great documentary about Mike Nichols, who was asked how he approached directing, and he said, ‘Prepare, prepare, prepare, and when I show up I throw it all away.’ And I followed that approach, so we could catch those authentic moments. That’s what you’re trying to do.”

Any big surprises, directing for the first time?

“Many, and every day. That’s part of the thrill. And I hadn’t realized that every movie’s three different artistic elements. The script is its own thing, as is the shoot and then editing and post. And it works best for me if you see them as all separate bits of an evolution. As for acting and directing, it felt like a real asset for me. I’d spent two months prepping my character, so I never had to stop and discuss it. It was all about the prep.” 

Casting Ally was obviously crucial. What did Gaga bring to the role and any surprises working with her?

“She brought everything, and this wouldn’t exist without her. She really came first, and then the character of Ally was born around her and her voice, and it became indelibly her. First, she brought the nuclear power of her singing and charisma, and then she’s very warm and present in her life, and I knew if I could capture all that, I’d at least have a fighting chance. The big surprise was her work ethic. She committed so much time, and I even delayed the shoot two months so we could focus on our characters’ relationship, which I knew would anchor everything. I don’t like to rehearse scripts, but I do like to rehearse characters, in many different ways.”

Is it true Barbra Streisand visited the set?

“Yes, she came twice, and Kris Kristofferson also came, and they were so lovely and a big morale boost for everyone. And Clint showed up the first day, so it was like this big seal of approval for us.”

What were the main challenges in pulling it all together, and how tough was the shoot?

“We only had a budget of $38 million and just 42 days to shoot it in, which is not a lot for a movie like this, so that was tough. We started integrating post and all the VFX right away but there weren’t a whole lot of VFX. We had a few companies, like Hollywood Visual Effects, Ingenuity Studios, Crafty Apes, MTI and Lola do stuff, but it was mainly clean up and doing period signage. All the concert scenes were done for real on real stages. We shot at Glastonbury, the Forum, the Greek, at the Stagecoach festival, and Coachella — often in between sets at real concerts, and my DP Matty Libatique shot a lot of handheld and Steadicam, and we focused on the performers’ point-of-view, not the audience. Matty worked very quickly, and we were really prepared and the crew was really on it. I don’t watch playback, there’s no video village. It was all about keeping the energy and rhythm going.”

Where did you post, and do you like the post process?

“We did all the editing in the basement of my LA house, along with recording some of the music. I’ll always do that if I can, as where you edit’s as important as editing itself, I feel. Jay lives close by, so we saved so much time that way, and we pulled many 16-hour days. Post is my favorite part of filmmaking, as it’s where you make the film, and time really does stand still in post. You blink and it’s 12 hours later. That’s when you know you’re having fun. But it’s also scary. You go down the rabbit hole and come up with nothing sometimes, but you’re learning every day of the marathon.”

What were the big editing challenges?

“We’d cracked how we’d shoot all the concert scenes, and that was the conundrum as we sang it all live, but it was all done to click tracks and the same arrangements for every take, so that turned out to be much easier to cut than I’d thought. It was more about finding the right rhythm for the whole movie, and the right tone, and they’re so inter-connected.”

Talk about the importance of sound on this. 

“It’s everything, and we spent so much time mixing, and in so many different formats — 7.1, 5.2, Atmos and so on. I went crazy! I had a great sound team with guys like Alan Murray, our supervising sound editor who won the Oscar for American Sniper. One of the film’s themes is fame, but I didn’t want the usual paparazzi and so on in the film. Instead, I thought, ‘What’s fame like sonically? It’s a cacophony of noise, and then utter silence. Two extremes. And that’s how the movie opens and it informs the rest of it.”

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?

“At Company 3 with colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld, and I loved the DI. We colored to Dolby Vision, and the blacks are so black and you have so much more room to play with colors.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

“It did, exactly, which was a huge relief!”

Do you want to direct again?

“Definitely. I can’t wait. Ideally I’d spend the next few years writing and then directing another passion project. This was the most fulfilling artistic experience I’ve ever had.”