Jeff Bridges - A triumph against all odds

That Crazy Heart was made at all is a miracle. And now its star, Jeff Bridges, is hotly tipped to win the Best Actor Oscar. Guy Adams reports on how it happened

Here, according to Hollywood protocol, is how to make a film that sinks without trace: first, take an unknown novel, long out of print, and get an obscure actor to turn it into a screenplay; then hire the same actor, who has no experience behind camera, as your director; finally, when the movie's eventually finished, sell it to a distribution company which promptly goes bankrupt.

This, give or take, is what happened to Crazy Heart, the tale of a washed-up former country-music star called Bad Blake [Jeff Bridges] who meanders across the American West in a tattered estate car, performing at small-town bars and bowling alleys, getting sozzled in shabby motels, and aimlessly jumping into bed with a dodgy succession of ageing groupies.

The film, in which Blake falls for a local journalist who comes to interview him, should really have never been made. Its plot sounds wearily familiar. Its setting feels parochial. And its narrative arc, which follows the singer's struggles with alcoholism and efforts to turn his life around, seems more than a little ponderous.

More significantly, Crazy Heart's commercial profile raises a huge red flag. It's an independent film, which cost several million dollars to make. On paper, its potential audience is niche, rather than mass-market.

But against the odds, Crazy Heart was made. And it has gone on to cut an unlikely swathe through the Hollywood awards season, winning two Golden Globes, getting nominated for two Baftas and three Oscars, and creeping remorselessly up America's box-office charts.

The reason for its success is simple: a staggeringly brilliant, career-defining performance by Bridges in the lead role. His portrayal of Bad Blake is so tenderly balanced, and so note-perfect, that it has made him all but a shoo-in to win his first-ever Oscar, after 40 years in the business, for best actor.

You'll be able to see the performance next week, when the film premieres in the UK. You'll also be able to appreciate fine turns from Maggie Gyllenhaal (up for a best supporting actress Oscar as Blake's love interest, Jean Craddock), and a surprisingly compelling Colin Farrell, as Blake's younger, more successful former protégé.

The against-the-odds story of how Crazy Heart made it to the big screen began three years ago. A friend gave Scott Cooper, the film's 30-something writer/director, a jobbing actor with small roles in mostly unsuccessful films behind him, an old copy of Tom Cobb's out-of-print 1987 novel. A lifelong country-music fan, he fell in love with it, and for a few hundred dollars bought an option on its film rights.

In an industry where generations of young wannabes have paid top dollar to get a film-school education, Cooper, who had no formal training, decided to simply bash out a script. "I was just naive enough to think I could do this," he recalls. It took him just under four months.

The key to actually turning the Crazy Heart script into a film, rather than having it sink without trace, like so many would-be Hollywood hits, lay with Robert Duvall, the member of Hollywood royalty with whom he'd on four previous films.

"I remembered that Mr Duvall had won an Oscar for Tender Mercies, as best actor, in a role not unlike Bad Blake. So I hesitantly sent it to him. A few days later, he called me back, and said: 'let's make it! What do you need?' I was, shall we say, pleasantly surprised."

Cooper signed Duvall for a supporting role, before asking his advice in making two crucial hires: T Bone Burnett, the famed music producer, to write the soundtrack, and Bridges, who is famously tricky to pin down, for the lead role. "Mr Duvall said 'go after them, write them impassioned letters.' So I did."

He eventually got both men, but only after Bridges had initially turned the film down, on the grounds that there was at that point no music attached. The actor, who is an accomplished guitarist and obsessed with country music, changed his mind after realising that at the age of 60, he might not get another chance to take on a film that would allow him to showcase those talents.

"I'm at this time in life when I have to take the opportunities I have left," he says. "You know, I scattered my mother's ashes this Thanksgiving, where we'd scattered my Dad's a few years before. So I'm up next. I'm in the batter's box, you know? Life's picking up speed. It's passing me by, and I have a limited time left to strike."

With both men on board, it was a relatively simple matter to raise the film's budget, of around $4m, even if one potential backer insisted that Crazy Heart should be shot in Canada, to save money. Cooper turned them down flat in favour of New Mexico, which he thought would better suit Blake's character.

The film was shot in just over a month. "I was just smart enough to know that I needed to surround myself with geniuses, so I could make the film director-proof," said Cooper. "I wanted the film to feel like it was invisibly made and edited. I wanted it to be all about the behaviour and character of the actors."

The effect can be seen in the economical, almost understated tone of Crazy Heart, which is full of sweeping panoramic views, and sparsely edited dialogue. "I wanted it to come out of an era that I think to be the best decade of cinema in America, the 1970s, in which an actor's character and behaviour were more important than plot," he adds.

Crazy Heart was very much a group effort. Duvall said the script was constantly changed, through improvisation, and that the resulting movie is better for it.

"I always say 'why not just veer away from the script?' Some directors will almost storyboard an entire film mentally. You do something and they'll say 'that's not what I wanted'. To which I say 'well you put on my costume, you play my part, OK?'

"This guy, Scott Cooper, was the reverse," said Duvall. "He's a first-time director, and he wasn't precious. You could have stood on your head, changed a line. He didn't care. In fact, Jeff told me he was one of the best directors he ever worked with."

Even then, Crazy Heart had a tricky route to cinemas. Having been financed by Paramount Vantage, a distribution company, it seemed destined for obscurity when that firm collapsed. But then Fox Searchlight, the specialist division of Fox responsible for saving Slumdog Millionaire from the scrapheap last year, stepped in with a chequebook.

The more people who saw the film, the more convinced everyone was that Bridges's performance was a serious Oscar contender. As a result, the film was rushed early to cinemas.

The result has been a boon not just for Bridges, who for years had been living off the old glories of playing the Dude in The Big Lebowski, and for Cooper – suddenly one of Hollywood's hot young properties – but also for the whole institution of independent film. Crazy Heart shows that with a bit of good luck, the small guys can still compete with big studio projects.

"I've been joking that this is the last independent film ever made," is how Gyllenhaal puts it. "I've made a lot of indie movies. When I started in this job, you could take a good script, a couple of actors, get three million bucks, and get it made. That business model doesn't exist any more. You can't get finance. And if you can, you can't get distributors."

"I think it will change. It has to. I'm not a banker so I don't know what it'll be, but there are just too many interesting people out there who want to make movies for it not to." Until then, films like Crazy Heart will feel all the more precious.

'Crazy Heart' opens on 19 February