August 10, 2008

On the Hollywood Trail

By Philip Marcelo

For 20 years, the routine had been the same.

A screenwriter, a producer, or an ambitious actor would come along and purchase the exclusive rights to develop -- in Hollywood parlance, option -- the novel.

For two years it would remain the intellectual property of this Somebody or that Somebody from the West Coast. Then nothing. The option would expire. Off it would go to the next Somebody for another two years. And so on.

But something miraculous happened this past June.

The latest Somebody had held the option for two years, and its expiration was fast approaching, as Rhode Island College Prof. Thomas Cobb recalls.

"I expected that this option would run out like all the other options and that that would be the end of it."

Then a check came in the mail: The book had been optioned for a third year.

And that's when Cobb, 61, knew: his debut novel, Crazy Heart, published in 1987, was being made into a Hollywood movie.

Crazy Heart will star Jeff Bridges, Robert Duvall and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The projected $7.6-million-budget film is being produced by Duvall's production company, Butcher's Run Films, CMT Films and Informant Media. Filming is scheduled to begin this month in Santa Fe, N.M., and a theatrical release is aimed for the middle of next year.

The man who has held the option for the novel for the past two- plus years is Scott Cooper, a 30-something actor whose most notable role was in Broken Trail, a miniseries co-starring Duvall that premiered on AMC last year. Cooper is writing, directing and producing the film.

Cobb will have little say in the big-screen version of his first major work. But at least now, after years of silence, he will finally talk about what it took to get there. It's a long tale, with everyone from the former Lois Lane to the Gong Show host trying to make a go of it. Still, even in the most uncertain times, Cobb says he believed Crazy Heart would make it to the silver screen.

It's a surprising feat, considering that Crazy Heart sold no more than 20,000 copies in its first release (HarperCollins is expected to reissue the novel in conjunction with the movie.)

"The trick," says Cobb, "is to have hope -- but you shouldn't have expectations."

Crazy Heart is about a down-and-out country and western star named Bad Blake, who has been reduced to playing bowling alleys with backup bands consisting of teenagers who barely remember his name. The title comes from a song by Hank Williams.

A broken-down drunk with four ex-wives and an estranged son, he tries to turn his life around after striking up a relationship with a young reporter and her son.

"He's looking for respectability," says Cobb. "A sense of worthiness to be in this life with this woman and this boy. He wants to find the things that he missed, like family life."

Ultimately, in the novel, Bad's flaws get the better of him, and he ruins his relationship with the journalist and her son.

"He searches for redemption and he can't find it," says Cobb. "It happens to a lot of people. Especially late in life. They try to turn it around but they just can't do it."

The novel is a meditation on the "fragility" of relationships and finding self worth, says Cobb. "At some point, you can't make a mistake. One mistake can throw you."

It's unclear how much the movie will draw from the book. CMT and Butcher's Run, the producers of the film, declined to comment for this story.

According to reports from Variety, Bridges will play Bad and Gyllenhaal will be Jean Craddock, the reporter. Duvall will play Wayne Kramer, Bad's best friend, according to the Internet Movie Database.

Since music figures heavily in the plot, composer and producer T- Bone Burnett will produce original music for the film and soundtrack. Burnett struck gold in 2000 with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which drew on traditional American folk and bluegrass music and earned him a Grammy.

Cobb wrote Crazy Heart as a doctoral candidate in creative writing at the University of Houston back in 1984. The novel's first draft eventually became his thesis.

At the time, Cobb was 30 years old and working part-time as the country and western music editor for Newsreel, a now-defunct music magazine based in Tucson, Ariz., his hometown. From the job came the intimate knowledge of the country and western music scene that informs the novel.

"I spent a lot of my nights in some bar someplace listening to bands," says Cobb. "I knew what the life was like."

Bad Blake is a composite character, inspired in part by the real- life country and western star Hank Thompson and Cobb's own writing mentor at Houston, Donald Barthelme.

Cobb recalls seeing Thompson open for popular country singer Conway Twitty while on assignment for Newsreel.

"Hank Thompson had been a star in the 1950s, and it was sort of humiliating that here he was opening for Conway Twitty. Everybody, it seemed, was politely waiting for him to go away. It was clear they weren't much interested."

But Thompson, who died last year at age 82, had never been a falling down, penniless drunk, at least as far as Cobb knows.

Blake was also partly based on on Cobb's mentor, Barthelme, an acclaimed post-modern writer in the twilight of his career. At 56 and married four times, Barthelme struggled with alcohol as he came to grips with the fact that his writing style was no longer relevant, according to Cobb. He died in 1989.

Barthelme encouraged Cobb to develop his own style, which Cobb describes today as "basic psychological realism." And it was Barthelme who passed on Cobb's thesis to an editor at Putnam. The manuscript landed at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row), and was published in 1987.

By then, Cobb was 40 years old and one year out of graduate school. He had just taken a teaching post in Rhode Island College's English Department, where he still is today.

Cobb took the $60,000 advance from the publishing house and put it into the first home he and his wife bought, in Coventry. Today the couple lives in Foster.

"It all happened really fast," says Cobb. "I just thought: this is the way things happened. It never occurred to me how miraculous it was."

Nothing, not the subsequent novels he would work on, nor the making of that first novel into a movie, would be as easy.

Crazy Heart was released to generally positive reviews.

From The Providence Journal to the New Yorker (there was even a full-page ad in that magazine, says Cobb), critics lauded the writer's unembellished and heartfelt prose.

But sales were disappointing. The novel sold 12,000 copies as a hardcover and 8,000 as a paperback. Cobb says that part of that was a change in direction at the publishing house, which at the time was being bought out by media mogul Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Still, Hollywood took interest. Though a movie version was never part of his plan for the novel, says Cobb, he can see why it works.

"It's cinematic," Cobb offers. "I learned narrative by watching movies and television, as most writers do now. And the book is character heavy. It has good dialogue. A simple plot. All good things for a movie."

Chuck Barris, of Gong Show fame, took the first option on the novel, back in 1987, Cobb says. He had a screenplay written by Robert Towne, the screenwriter for Academy Award-winning film Chinatown. Jim McBride, who directed the film noir The Big Easy, was set to direct.

"It seemed fast-tracked," Cobb says.

Then Barris went AWOL. He decided he wanted to sail his yacht. He left the movie industry for good, and the project died.

An assortment of Hollywood types kept the novel afloat for the next 20 years. Cobb can't recite all the names of the people who have held rights to the novel over the years, but some stick out.

There was the cinematographer John Bailey, who had a two-movie deal with Orion Pictures. One of those was to be Crazy Heart. Bailey's first movie, the neo-noir China Moon, tanked at the box office in 1994, but it didn't matter: Orion had filed for bankruptcy three years earlier.

There was an actor that Cobb declines to name who he says took an option on the novel and then ended up ripping off the plot for an episode of L.A. Law. Cobb considered filing a copyright infringement lawsuit. (He didn't: "No one ever wins those things.")

Margot Kidder, who starred as Lois Lane in the live-action film versions of Superman in the '70s and '80s, envisioned Bad Blake as a woman. Then there was the African-American actor who wanted to play a black version of Bad, fighting against the oppression of the white- run music industry.

"It was so far from the idea of this self-destructive man," Cobb says, shaking his head.

Cobb let his agent deal with the movie producers and actors wanting a piece of Crazy Heart. He tried not to get caught up in the buzz. Save for his wife, Randy, and a few close friends, he rarely talked about the process.

"Even under option, it was still a long shot. I did my best to ignore it," he says. "There are a lot of people in Hollywood with a lot of big ideas."

Instead, Cobb threw himself into other writing projects. In the early 1990s, he toiled on a novel set in a prison. (Before graduate school at Houston, Cobb taught English to convicts at Arizona State Prison.) He says he rewrote that novel more times than he could remember, but it was never published.

He also wrote a collection of short stories, Acts of Contrition, which was published in 2003 by Texas Review Press and won the George Garrett Fiction Prize, an award given by Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, Texas.

But the bulk of those years were spent researching, writing, then rewriting Shavetail, a novel set in late 19th-century Arizona that traces the personal growth of a 17-year-old Army recruit from Connecticut in the rugged desert terrain. Shavetail was released by Scribner this February.

Cobb says he's thrilled that Crazy Heart is finally being made into a movie, although he hasn't seen the screenplay yet.

When principal photography commences (that's the start of filming), Cobb will get his standard writer's cut off the top (about $100,000, he says), with some residuals from DVD and television runs later.

But he's more thrilled that the novel is being rereleased. Cobb hopes this time it'll reach a wider audience. He also hopes the exposure will boost sales of his other works, particularly Shavetail, which he has been promoting steadily.

But as for the movie version of Crazy Heart, Cobb says he'll steer clear until its premiere.

"The movie is going to be what the movie is going to be," Cobb says. "It's their vision now. I wrote the novel, and the movie is not going to change that."

Thomas Cobb, who has a country and western background, with one of his guitars in his writing studio in Foster. The Providence Journal / Bob Thayer

Writer and Rhode Island College Prof. Thomas Cobb near the pond in his backyard in Foster. The Providence Journal / Bob Thayer [email protected] / (401) 277-7493

Originally published by Philip Marcelo, Journal Staff Writer.

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