Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga fuse their considerable talents to depict the raw and passionate tale of Jack and Ally, two artistic souls coming together, on stage and in life. Theirs is a complex journey through the beauty and the heartbreak of a relationship struggling to survive.
Putting his own stamp on the tale with his contemporary take on A STAR IS BORN, director/writer Bradley Cooper strove to make something that speaks to the timeless nature of human feelings and failings, mixed with today’s diverse world of music. In the film, a powerful soundtrack of original songs underscores every emotion, and an intimate lens captures each look and every touch. The sets reveal an authentic world behind the lights.
“ I always wanted to tell a love story, because it feels like something everybody can relate to—the love, the loss of it, the high of it. It’s the thing that makes you feel the most alive.”
Cooper turned to celebrated Cinematographer Matthew Libatique to capture both the intimacy and the spectacle of Jack and Ally’s world, and to Production Designer Karen Murphy, Set Decorator Ryan Watson SDSA International and costume designer Erin Benach to bring it to life.
“One thing I’ve learned is that when you’re creating any kind of art, if you’re in the moment, you trust your instincts but can be flexible, too, you can make something that might shift someone’s way of looking at their world a little bit,” Cooper reflects. “And when your whole crew goes there with you? That’s a wonderful feeling. That everybody trusted my vision was exhilarating and, I think, gave me the confidence to keep at that daunting task every day.” --Warner Bros. Pictures
Director/Writer/actor Bradley Cooper has more to say in a delightful informal conversation with SET DECOR...
--Karen Burg, Editor
SET DECOR: We hope to talk about the sets and the unsung heroes who bring them about...
Bradley Cooper: I can talk forever about Karen Murphy...
SD: It’s easy to see why you would choose her to work with you after her work on Derek Cianfrance’s THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS...that kind of experiential cinema...
BC: Exactly, yeah.
SD: That’s one of the wonderful things about this film, that it is so immersive and authentic feeling.
BC: Good. Yeah, that was the goal.
SD: It definitely worked!
Tell us about Karen, where you came from first in your approach about things...
SD:...and also Ryan Watson, the set decorator.
Well, I was on a movie with Derek called A PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, and his commitment to authenticity was something I knew I wanted to adhere to, particularly if I would be lucky enough to have someone to work with me on this movie who would be an actual singer. There’s always a meta-element to this property that I never thought about getting into, and once Lady Gaga agreed to do it, I just knew that not only did my character, but the whole movie had to rise to her level of authenticity.
And Karen just seemed like the perfect person to just talk to. At first, it was just the phone conversation, and then she came to LA and I met with her at my house. You know, energy is such an important thing, too. Once you get the whole of somebody involved on a project like this...like it is on any movie...it really is that personalities and energies are just as important as talent. Almost intertwined. And I just loved how we worked right off the bat, just talking about the work and ideas.
I would say things like,
“You know, Bugs Bunny, when he walks into the teepee in the cartoon and walks through the other side and it’s like a mansion? You understand what I’m saying?”
She was, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“Well, I want that to be the drag bar...”
You know, we could talk in those weird ways, and she’d know exactly what I’m saying.
The other thing that is very unique to her, I think, is that she will go for authenticity over she “can design the whole thing”.
Even from early on, when we constantly kept vacillating, she was vocal about going for the real.
It was a very small budget...given the scope of the movie at the time, a $38 million budget for a 40-day shoot was nothing. And we were trying to figure out how to shoot these stage things. We looked at renting and at erecting sets...Location scouted these sort of grassy knolls...but would it have looked like a joke. And then, I just started hustling, with the other producers, trying to get on real stages. Karen was so vocal from the beginning, saying, “Listen, we have to go to the real places. We HAVE to go to the real places.” And I just thought that was such a selfless act on her part.
BC: That shows a person who cares about making the best movie, rather than [showcasing] what they’re personally doing, and I hope if I ever get to make another movie, I will work with her in tandem, and for the rest of my career, because I just loved her.
And then, on the sets, Ryan was just incredible. It was such a quick shoot, and I’m not a fan of reshooting at all. I really do believe that once it’s done, I think it’s very hard to go back and reshoot something, for many reasons and specifically for this movie. So I was constantly calling on the crew to make audibles throughout the day in many ways, and from a set dec point of view, that could be very trying. [He laughs]
SD: Well it certainly is challenging!
BC: [Smiling] Yeah...but I felt like it was such an inspiring experience for all of us, because we really felt like we were working at a very high velocity, and certainly set dec was a major component of that.
SD: It’s great to have somebody actually state that. Thank you. The idea of the detail of set decorating is to give more credibility, more authenticity, but also to kind of story-tell in places, particularly in peoples homes...
BC: Oh for sure... Ally & her dad’s house, her bedroom, the kitchen—the fact that they have the big tub of butter, they would go to Costco—you know, all these little things...the type of ashtrays...my grandparent’s wedding photo in the hallway...
SD: Oh, don’t you just love those!
BC: My grandmother made that wedding dress in the photo, yeah I do.
SD: What a meaningful inclusion. From the filmmaking aspect, usually the more revealing sets are often towards the beginning of the film, so you get to know more about the character early on, but in this one, while that does happen with Ally, we don’t see Jackson’s place until later. We see him first defined through hotels and bars and stages...
BC: Yeah, exactly. And I have to say, because of the rigorous schedule, the fact that Karen and I developed a shorthand so quickly, even visually, made such a difference...
I had made the stupid decision of wanting the Ennis house for Jackson...the Frank Lloyd Wright designed house...I’d been to a dinner there about a half-year earlier, and I thought, “Oh man, this will be great.” And thank God, we couldn’t afford it. It would have been a nightmare. But then talking with Karen, when we started talking about Arizona, where he’s from...clearly, it’s all story. And that’s what I love about her, it’s all story-based. Form always has to follow Function. Of course Jackson wants to be in that place where he was a kid before the trauma, which meant the outdoors, more open space, something that’s more natural.
So Karen and the location manager found this house in Calabasas. And then I went to see it.
I had told her that I love Cassavetes’s movies, the staircases and hallways, and that I wanted a house to have hallways, so I could shoot down the hallways.
And they just found the perfect house.
I also had talked about wanting a “chapel” in the room when Jackson comes home after he’s almost profaned Ally. He thinks this will get him sober—he’s doing it for her, not for himself, and that’s why the La Vie En Rose is almost like an altar. He’s like praying to this idea that’s fantasy, rather than the work he really needs to do.
We were able to tell that story all visually with the house...putting a composition where he’s almost walking into a church when he’s coming back from rehab. And we could do all of these things because Karen and Ryan created a space that allowed that...always thinking about story.
And that house became a breathing embodiment of Jackson, and then of Jackson and Ally. It was just perfect. And, we shot the shit out of that house. [He laughs] We used every aspect of that house.
SD: And the great room, the main room is not that big.
SD: That they lived so much in this one room, as you say, it’s not what we would expect with these music stars...the usual gigantic rooms, huge scale. It had such an intimate sense...
BC: That’s right, exactly. You’re like, “Oh, of course he lives here.”
SD: Yes! Absolutely, it’s so natural. And of course, Ryan bringing in all the textures...
BC: Oh my God...
SD: The rugs, the leather sofa...
BC: Yes! And I remember even...I remember this specifically, there’s a whole liquor bar area, and then we take it away when he comes back from rehab. And it’s not anything that anybody would notice, unless they were really intently watching the movie, but you know, little things like that...
SD: They’re essential. Ryan says that they had found in their research looking at a lot of photos of musicians’ homes or studios, that they would often have a sofa without feet because it would make you feel more like you were sitting on the floor playing the guitar. So he did that in Jackson’s music room/study.
BC: Yeah, that low couch was amazing. The legless couch.
SD: Amongst the sculptures and books on the shelves there in the music room/study, Ryan also placed single-reflex cameras of different ages. Thinking most artistic people had at sometime taken up photography, he felt those belonged to Jackson.
BC: Yeah, that was really beautiful. All of those, really.
I even loved the posters they came up with for the hallway that she winds up in. They were wonderful.
Also, I remember, speaking of that music room that has the little 4-track, a 2-track...
I remember on the day thinking I hadn’t conveyed properly what I wanted on the coffee table, and in about 5 minutes he was able to come up with the whole idea that we were talking about. And again, the agility, the dexterity, the quickness...the lack of ego on everybody’s part. Everybody serving the story.
I mean, that’s when you know it’s special. And you want to work with people like that for your whole career. It was very fulfilling.
And I hope he felt like he had creative autonomy. He was creating constantly...and that is the key, to work with people that feel that they’re accessing all of their talents.
SD: That’s a really important point. As is you offering this environment to everyone, respecting their talents and respecting their POV, giving yours, and letting them become immersed in it, and then bringing us into it...because they’re living it, too.
SD: So he’s making decisions about Jackson because a part of him is becoming Jackson...A part of him is becoming Ally.
BC: That’s right.
It has to be that way. I mean, they’re onscreen. He’s just as much onscreen, in terms of the physical frame as other people.
SD: Yes, in fact, we often talk about how in some films, you get all kinds of clues to the character before they’re actually onscreen, just from that opening shot.
BC: Oh yes.
All over the place.
SD: Well, we’re definitely in agreement on that!
[Laughter] With all of the arenas, there’s not a lot in terms of amount of set elements, but there’s always some ritual element on the backstage...a table with things, a shot of alcohol, a good luck piece, perhaps...a lot of artists have something they touch or do. For Jackson, it was probably a drink, but did you have any talismans there for Jackson?
BC: As an actor, you mean, that’s not on camera?
SD: Well, both actually.
BC: It’s a very good question. You know, in acting terms, you call it a personal object that you’ve endowed that keys you into the character. For me, as Jackson, I have to say, it wasn’t a physical thing, it was voice. Every morning, I would start to do exercise. And once his voice came to me, I was off to the races. And I would say that his hat meant a lot to me. He hid behind it in public, but took it off to sing. There’s something about singing that’s so honest, you can’t hide at all.
But in terms of the backstage, the truth of the backstage, the truth for all of the stage work, and this is again because of the lack of ego, when a person knows more, we go with the truth of experience.
Eric Johnson, who we hired as the music consultant...Eddie Vedder had told me he’s the best, and Cameron Crowe had worked with him...Eric and his partner Robbie were just absolutely invaluable. They knew things about the kind of plug to fit in or how far away the drum kit should be, and if I say, “Listen, I understand it should be that far away, but this is the shot I want, so how can we then adjust it?” We’d figured it out. And maybe it’s not the right rug, so it would get changed out...everybody was working together for those arena portions.
And then on the backstage, right before Ally sings Always Remember Us This Way, it’s nighttime and Jackson talks about the encore. He’s lighting the joint and he says, “Okay, we’re going to do it.”
I always wanted that to be in total darkness. And you just see the cigarette light.
There’s another example of commitment, because all of that set dec they’ve just created is not going to be seen!
SD: Yeah, that’s typical, isn’t it?
BC: We’re all serving one thing, but you know, that could have been a conversation, or someone could have gotten upset. But it never happened.
The best example, I have to say, and it was my inability to communicate. The [film's] final song, when we got there, it really wasn’t the way it needed to be, and we just all hunkered down and fixed it. You know, I think if it were another group, that could have been a complete meltdown. And I’ve got to say, that was a huge day. She’s singing the final song and we’re in the Shrine Auditorium that they had already brilliantly converted into the Grammys...I mean, that’s the other thing, taking the same space and rejiggering it to be a different huge set piece. And when you watch the movie, you never think it’s the same thing. And very little of that was done digitally. All we did digitally was add people in the balcony and change a little of the sides. Everything else was all in the camera.
SD: So cool. And when you talk about how whole sections will be cut or not really seen after all the work put into them, there’s also the fact that, for both the director and the actors, the set decorator will often put things in a drawer or in a cupboard that the camera is not going to see...
Oh yeah, yes. There’s a scene where Jackson comes back from rehab that’s not in the movie. He’s picking his clothes up and putting them in the drawer, and he sees that all the drawers are filled with her clothes, and he gets upset. He didn’t realize that she had actually bought another piece that’s on the other side of the room for all of his stuff. And I remember when I first came in when we were shooting the scene, and I’m opening my bag and I’m opening the drawer and I actually see all of her clothes in there! I didn’t even...I mean, I figured it would be empty because we can’t see it.
I know it’s a very simple thing, but man, it did fuel me.
It was all placed in, and that feeling of not being a part of, which what I wanted Jackson to have, they provided that.
SD: It is a twofold that the set decorator is doing both for the audience and for the director and actors to bring to the audience. Again, collaboration. You’re all part of this team and it’s a magic that you are all participating in.
Another significant personal space was the bathtub...in fact, more than one scene with the bathtub. Is there a particular reason you chose this, was it because it’s a more intimate space?
BC: Yes, two things. There were certain homages that I wanted to pay to the other movies...the ’54 and the ’76...the bathtub is in the ’76. So I knew I wanted a bathtub scene. But more than that, I always remember the idea of family in a small space, that you can have joyous moments in a kitchen or a bathroom and in that same space, you can have horrible moments. And I wanted two moments in this space: when we first see them in the bathtub, it’s this utter joy and intimacy, and in that same space, you see a horrible scene.
SD: Yes! Ugly...
BC: UGLY. And I wanted to have 2 scenes which are polar opposites inhabited in the same space. That’s what that was about.
And by the way, I will have to say to Karen and her teams, the one minus of that house, it was not a great bathroom! So we really had to make that work. [He laughs]
Hey, can’t Jackson redo the bathroom?
SD: Speaking of bathrooms, it’s not a big scene, not a big set scene, but it is significant ...the opening scene where she’s breaking up with the guy in the black and white bathroom... She’s in the black and white outfit and her whole world is black and white.
SD: We usually talk about palettes in the films... Can you tell us a little about that?
BC: Oh absolutely.
So early on, I wanted...talking to Matthew [Director of Photography Matthew Libatique] and Karen and Erin, the costume designer...I always saw Jackson inhabiting a blue color and Ally inhabiting a red color in their talent.
When we meet her, she is not in her talent.
The movie is trying to find her.
The whole thing about this in terms of the point of view of the film itself...like the actual camera, what it’s doing...it’s unearthing this person who doesn’t even realize that she’s already a star.
So we find her feet first, which is also an homage to Judy Garland [star of the 1954 version] and THE WIZARD OF OZ, where you see the witch’s feet under the house. Ally comes out of the stall and she’s in the middle of the frame, the bathroom becomes almost a stage, and she doesn’t even notice. She’s constantly on a stage...even in the scene in the parking lot with the grocery store behind her. I love that space, because, again talking to Karen, I want it to look like she’s on a huge stage. It could have been Coachella.
SD: That had such a great effect.
And I wanted it [the first scene with her] to be in black and white because she was lost. We shot at the Biltmore...at the bottom, so she’s in the bottom of this building in the basement of the kitchen and it’s all just black and white. When she starts to come out by the garage, you see these two columns of red and then she’s coming through the [hanging] plastic tarps, throwing the trash, and it’s a little hint of red because she’s starting to sing. She’s humming the preamble to Somewhere Over The Rainbow and that’s the beginning.
And when we meet her at the Virgil, which is where she’s singing, now she’s in her light where it’s this red light, so that was the idea of the black and white into her primary color.
SD: Love it! And then Jackson is in those blues, the beiges, the earthy one...
BC: Yeah. The idea of him was there’s something cool about blue. It’s also my favorite color, and I just love that idea of the blue and the red coming together.
SD: It’s brilliant, we’re talking about the two primaries of life in terms of color.
Yes! And she illuminates their house in red with the La Vie En Rose, and that’s where the camera’s going.
Red can be seen as a lot of different things. To me, it’s almost her fire of life, which is endless how bright it can burn.
SD: And that neon of La Vie En Rose was a beautiful red, bright but not harsh neon...
SD: In the bedroom, there’s also an abstract painting that has red in it. We see it at the point where you, as Jackson, your character, thanks her for making his place a home.
BC: Yes. Wow that’s very smart.
They decorated the house pre-Ally and post-Ally. And there are differences all over the place.
SD: It absolutely does come through. And the thing is, on a film like this, one can’t help but want to see it over and over again, so people will discover these little moments over time. And it will just enrich it for them.
BC: I mean, that’s what I love about movies. The movies I love, I’ve watched 30 times, and each time...
The master of that was Stanley Kubrick...
I really got from EYES WIDE SHUT, Tom Cruise and Nichole Kidman’s characters, the blues and red. What he did with those two colors in EYES WIDE SHUT completely influenced me for this movie.
We hit upon this a bit, but when you first came onto any of the completed sets, was there anything that surprised you, having been very involved all along?
BC: It was a completely collaborative experience for everybody, so we were always communicating, including sending photographs via text, as I’m somewhere else.
I loved everything that they did, but I will say this, that idea of Bugs Bunny walking into the teepee...the Virgil, the drag bar. If you walked into that bar today in East LA, you would never in a million years think that was the drag bar we shot. What they did with that, with the reflective streamers everywhere, with the lighting, it was just incredible. How they turned that into the stage, it was like magic when I walked in there.
But I felt that way every day when I walked in. I just felt so happy every time I walked onto the set. Because it’s one thing as a director, you know [up to that point], you’re talking through pictures, and then you walk onto the set ready for camera and it’s just seamless. And you could breathe easy. That’s just beautiful.
That’s what you hope for, you just pray for that. And when you’re constantly vacillating from real life places, like we shot at SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, to a makeshift Grammy awards and it feels equally authentic, that’s very emblematic of what they were able to do.
SD: Yes, and Dave Chappelle was saying, as did everyone, about this wonderful culture on your set, this environment that you created for everyone to not only be collaborative, but as he points out, to be able to trust. And it came back around from you trusting all these and always going for the truth. So what a wonderful circle you’ve created.
BC: Oh. It was beautiful. I just hope to do it again.
There’s a line in the film that Jack says to Ally,
“If there’s one reason we’re supposed to be here, it’s to say something so people want to hear it.”
I hope that’s what we’ve done.