One of the most impressive takeaways from the new music-drama A STAR IS BORN is that it’s the work of a first-time director. Bradley Cooper, who has been acting on screen professionally since 1999 — collecting three Oscar® nominations in that timeframe — chose to make his directorial debut with A STAR IS BORN.
But make no mistake: This movie doesn’t look like a first-timer’s effort at all. Cooper shows remarkable control and wonderful restraint when telling the tragic story of seasoned musician Jackson Maine (a role he chose to play, as well) and fledgling singer-songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga). As it turns out, Cooper was learning from every filmmaker he’d previously collaborated with, soaking up information and techniques while working on multiple film and television sets. David O. Russell, Todd Phillips, J.J. Abrams, Cameron Crowe and Clint Eastwood are just a few of the directors who’ve shared their secrets with Cooper over the years, and while speaking with us at the Toronto International Film Festival — where A STAR IS BORN premiered — Cooper talked about how his directorial debut benefits from all of the movies that arrived before it.
“The movies that I love, and the filmmakers I love, it's always ‘form follows function,’” Cooper told us. “I'm not watching a Martin Scorsese shot and saying, ‘Oh, that was all one take.’ It's sort of an afterwards. After you go through the emotion of it, you go, ‘Oh wow, that's why I felt that way. Because he did that, or some sonic variation.’”
A STAR IS BORN isn’t filled with overly creative camera tricks. No one is going to mistake Cooper for the next Alfonso Cuarón. But he does use his camera’s point-of-view to immerse us in Ally’s remarkable journey from underappreciated waitress to stage-dominating popstar. And Cooper told us that he figured out, on A STAR IS BORN, how to make the camera invisible to the actors, and yet important to the audience.
“I love filmmaking, and I've always loved film,” Cooper explained. “And I think I'm definitely a visual-audio person. So every shot and every close-up has to do with where the character is. It's not like, ‘Oh, here's a cool shot.’ Jackson is constantly avoiding the camera at the beginning of the movie until he can't. He has to face it. … [Ally] is the opposite. She's not even aware that the camera's there. … These are all just sort of things that you hope that the audience is feeling without recognizing the manipulation of what you're doing.”
Lady Gaga’s biggest collaborations with Cooper actually took place off screen, before the movie even started rolling. The movie doesn’t work unless the songs are effective, and in Toronto, Gaga told us that she was most impressed with the time and dedication Cooper put into the songwriting of the original tunes, to make sure that they connected with the audience and enhanced the film.
“Bradley was in the studio all the time working with us and helping to craft the soundtrack and the Jackson sound. Who he is as an artist completely came from [Bradley],” Gaga told us. “It was so exciting for me to watch as a musician. I remember he came into the studio one day, and we were working on something for him, and he was like, ‘This isn't Jackson’s sound. [laughs] This isn’t what he sounds like.’ And I thought, ‘Okay! I got a musician on my hands!’ And so, it provided for such an inspirational experience. I mean, he had his hand in absolutely every single thing that was a part of this movie. It was … just an honor to watch.”
Sometimes, actors panic working for a first-time director. The storyteller’s vision might not be entirely clear. Or the set could be chaotic, as the director hasn’t yet learned how to manage an active set, with all of the moving pieces. But in Toronto, A STAR IS BORN co-star Anthony Ramos talked about how Cooper’s background as an actor enhanced his approach to directing, making the entire cast feel like a collaborative family on set.
“Yeah, I saw stuff on the page. And I said what was on the page half of the time,” Ramos said. “But that was only because Bradley was like, ‘Yo, let’s forget about the script. Let's just, let's try this.’ And it was like leading with the heart. The words are here. We're gonna say this. But if something feels like it wants to do this, let's go there. Let's just try that. And let's do that.”
Ramos plays Ramon, Ally’s closest friend and the catalyst for Jackson Maine even hearing Ally sing in a drag bar in the first place. As Ally’s star begins to rise in the music industry, she keeps Ramon close, because to her, he’s the only real friend she has in the otherwise self-serving entertainment world.
Ramos also recalled how giddy Cooper would be on set, plunging into scenes with his actors as he fought to get the best possible takes, each and every time.
“We were shooting the scene with [Andrew Dice Clay] and Stephanie [Lady Gaga] on the steps outside the house. I think it was one of my first days on set,” Ramos remembered. “I’m nervous. I'm on set with these incredible actors and a director. And Bradley's like, behind the steps, with the monitor, and we cut, and he's like, he's all up in it! Like, ‘Feel her, feel her! She's leaving, man. She's leaving!’ … You can feel your director. Your leader. When you feel your leader there with you, you feel safe. You feel safe enough to just run around like a kid. It's like a parent with their kid, and they're just like, ‘Here, play. You can just do your thing, but I'm right here. I'm watching.’ And when, when you have that, it's like you can fly. I can do anything.”
The passion Cooper showed on set with his cast and crew is reflected in A STAR IS BORN, which is a magnificent directorial debut and a surefire Oscar contender. Get your tickets today for the October 5 release.