From the very moment Lady Gaga filmed her screen test for A Star Is Born, she realised what she was in for. As she walked down the stairs in her house, there was Bradley Cooper, her director and co-star, holding a make-up wipe. "He put his hand on my face, and he went like this," she says, gesturing a tiny motion, "and there was make-up … just a little bit. He said, 'I want no make-up on your face.'" She smiles. "That was very important to Bradley."
It might sound like nothing, but for a Grammy Award-winning pop star like Gaga, being stripped of your armour is disconcerting. It was all about Cooper enticing a very raw, real performance from Gaga, who has no experience of taking a leading film role. “This vulnerability was something he brought out of me,” she says. Whatever he did, it worked.
Gaga plays Ally, a waitress who has given up on her dream of singing. And hers is one of the standout performances of the year.
Co-scripted by Cooper, the Oscar-nominated American Sniper and Silver Linings Playbook star, has been planning this as his directorial debut for years. The project – the fourth remake of the story that originally began life as George Cukor's 1932 film What Price Hollywood? – was developed by Clint Eastwood initially with songstress Beyonce pegged to star. When Cooper, 43, took over, he decided to cast himself as troubled rock star Jackson Maine.
Jackson is not a failure on the outside; his career is in rude health when the film opens and he's performing at a sold-out venue. "You may expect to see him filled with elation after just coming off this very bombastic opening, but he seems quite melancholic and takes a swig of a bottle in the back seat," says Cooper. "If he'd got his own mind straight and worked on himself, he could've continued to perform and be very successful."
He almost fills the void when he meets Ally, who has an untapped talent he recognises. “At the beginning of this film, Ally has completely given up on herself,” says Gaga, who admits that she was fortunate to feel differently to her character. “When I decided I wanted to be a singer and go for it professionally, I was 19 and I hit the ground running. I was dragging by piano from dive bar to dive bar, trying to get a job so I could sing and perform for people. I really believed in myself.”
Gaga, 32, who was born Stefani Germanotta in New York, took the music scene by storm in 2008 with her debut album The Fame. "I was always very strong at the beginning of my career that I had to take a left turn," she says. "No matter what they asked me to do, I always had to make sure it was done my way. I never wanted to be viewed like other women. I wanted to be my own artist and have my own vision."
It’s the same advice that Jackson impresses upon Ally, after he brings her on stage to sing at a concert and her performance goes viral. Like Gaga, she’s lured into the music business with offers of record contracts. “She’s navigating her career and trying to find her place as she transforms,” says Gaga.
All of this arrives on top of her blossoming love with Jackson, a romance threatened by his self-destructive substance abuse. “It’s a story of what Bradley refers to as the human fight.”
A quest for realism
When it came to showing Ally and Jackson singing on stage, Cooper was insistent on putting the camera – and therefore the audience – right there. Creating this immersive and subjective viewpoint, all stemmed from the moment Cooper met Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, who invited him to a concert. “I’d always been in the crowd before that … and we were behind the drum kit and I saw the scope of it. I think that was the first time I thought, ‘This composition is incredible. It’s not what many people feel.”
As part of this quest for realism, Cooper filmed at world-renowned music festivals like Coachella in the United States and Glastonbury in the United Kingdom – ironically, taking to the stage shortly before Kris Kristofferson, star of the 1976 version of A Star Is Born, alongside Barbra Streisand, was due to perform. Cooper certainly impressed his co-star. "He's such a tremendous singer," Gaga says, recalling the first time she heard him. "He starts to sing and I stopped and said, 'Oh my gosh! Bradley you have such an incredible voice.'"
For Cooper, earning the respect of Gaga was "very emboldening", he says. "She made me feel so comfortable from the first day we met." The director and his crew had the added bonus of watching the Poker Face singer do what she does best every day. "We all sat back and forgot we were doing a job every time she sang. We were sitting there watching and feeling very grateful that we were there, at this moment, to watch this incredible artist … that never got old."
Cooper also pays homage to the earlier versions of A Star Is Born, particularly the 1954 film, when Cukor took on the story for a second time, casting Judy Garland and James Mason. "That movie slays me," he says. The shot of Gaga singing the prelude to Somewhere Over the Rainbow at the beginning of the film, with the old-fashioned titles, is a nod to Cukor's movie. The scene is shot in Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium, which also featured in Cukor's production.
Cooper’s movie is being hailed as one of the favourites at this year’s Oscars; it may even top the 1937 William Wellman-directed version, with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March as the leads, which received seven Academy Award nominations and one win (two if you count the honorary Oscar it gained). Whatever happens, it’s been a tremendous learning curve, Cooper admits. “You really need to face your fear. Learning usually comes with facing fear. I certainly faced it singing, directing and writing a movie.”
A Star Is Born is in cinemas across the UAE from October 11