When three-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper was looking to get behind the camera, one might reasonably have expected Cooper to tackle something small — maybe adapt a short story or do an intimate, character-driven piece.
In a way, Cooper did go with a character-driven piece. And there are moments when his first feature feels intimate. But this is “A Star Is Born,” the very definition of a Hollywood staple and not the kind of vehicle you’ll see up for Independent Spirit Awards.
This is the fourth major telling of the tale, starting with the 1937 original (which was about actors and was not a musical), the 1954 version with Judy Garland and the 1976 edition with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.
This generation’s “A Star Is Born” has Cooper as the successful and infamously self-destructive rocker Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga as the unknown but breathtakingly talented singer-songwriter Ally, who is discovered by Jackson and becomes his lover and perhaps his last chance at salvation.
In the weeks leading to its Oct. 5 release, “A Star Is Born” has garnered rave reviews and been stamped an Oscar front-runner.
After a preview screening in Chicago, I interviewed Cooper before a live audience. An edited transcript follows.
Question. You took on one of the most legendary and well-known stories in Hollywood history for your first movie. Tell us about the genesis of that.
Answer. When you say it like that, I’m terrified. I was getting older, and I knew I wanted to direct. And people said, “Why don’t you just get your feet wet, direct a pilot, something like that?” But there were characters and themes rolling around in my head, and then this property Warner Brothers owns [became available], and it was the perfect structure and platform where I could experiment and investigate all those things.
It is actually a very personal movie. But music is involved, and the characters are larger than life.
Q. We’re never “in the crowd,” so to speak, in this movie. Did you look at some great music documentaries as preparation to make the music scenes authentic?
A. Absolutely. Actually, “Woodstock” was one of the films I watched obsessively. That was a major influence. …
You’re right, we’re never in the crowd in the whole movie because I wanted people to see how exciting it is to be onstage … and even the journey up through the bowels of a stadium. …
And I kept thinking about the sonic element of fame, where it’s this [makes explosion] sound — and then you’re just alone. That influenced the cutting of the movie.
Q. Is that why you have Jackson Maine experiencing hearing loss?
A. This guy’s fame isn’t dwindling. I wanted to explore it more like he was a prizefighter toward the end of his career, and that loss of hearing — you talk to a lot of musicians, and that’s what they really fear, losing their hearing.
Q. You had never performed music, and Lady Gaga had never acted in a traditional sense in a movie. So you’re both taking a leap here.
A. Absolutely, we both took that leap of faith. It was great for both of us to be in the foxhole together. And there was a lot at stake for both of us. This is a big swing — and that breeds a work ethic, which she already had, but it upped the ante for both of us in a way.
Q. You filmed all the music scenes in real settings? Was that a way of giving the movie a big-budget look without necessarily having a huge budget?
A. We were at Coachella, Stagecoach, the Forum and Glastonbury — and “Saturday Night Live.”
Q. That was the actual Studio 8H where they shoot “SNL.”
A. And that was the real control room, and that’s the director of “SNL.” We literally shot that on a Saturday. I think the Rock was upstairs, waiting to come down.
Q. Adding to the authenticity, you’re singing and performing live.
A. [Laughing] Yeah, sometimes Jackson’s off-pitch. The musical numbers aren’t just little interstitial moments, they’re stories.
My favorite acting of Gaga’s in the whole movie is the last scene. I don’t think it would have worked if she was lip-syncing to a recording of her voice.
And, at Glastonbury, this legendary music festival, they said, “If you can get someone to take a few minutes off their set, we’ll allow you to film.” Kris Kristofferson just happened to be playing … and he was kind enough to give us a few minutes [from his time]. So I got to sing one song. And the best part: I was then able to say, “Ladies and gentleman, Kris Kristofferson,” and walk offstage as he walked onstage.
Q. Did acting come naturally to Gaga? What kind of conversations did you have about her performance?
A. There were tons of conversations. She was so open, so available. It was about creating an environment where she felt safe. She’s taking a risk in almost every scene she’s in. And, as Clint [Eastwood] would say, I never caught her acting.
Q. Talk about the challenge of acting and directing simultaneously.
A. It would have been harder if I hadn’t been acting because that’s all I know. So it was easier to be on the field, with the actors and with the story. I was able to make adjustments and keep the rhythm. Now, I prepped the heck out of the movie … and because it came from such a personal place, that made it easier. …
And for the other actors, my hope was they felt I was with them, I was risking along with them. So I hope they felt I was willing to jump off that cliff with them.
Q. “A Star is Born” is a showbiz story, but it’s a universal story, in that we all, unfortunately, know someone like Jackson Maine who is struggling with addictions and other demons, and we know someone like Ally, who is wondering if life is ever going to take off for her …
A. My hope is [audiences see this], and you connect to these people and relate to them. It’s cinematic because they’re singing, and they’re living in a heightened world, but what happens to them is what happens to a lot of us as humans…
What happens when you think you have something to say and the world is telling you that you don’t, or you don’t look good enough, or your voice doesn’t matter? And then what happens when one person says your voice DOES matter, and what do you do with that?