To play the 71-year-old Bernstein, Cooper sat in the makeup chair for prosthetic makeup artist Kazu Hiro for five hours with prosthetics made for his arms and shoulders and a bodysuit that changed Cooper’s posture.
It’s one thing to screen your feature directorial debut for Steven Spielberg. It’s another thing to screen your feature directorial debut for Steven Spielberg as part of a job interview.
But that’s where Bradley Cooper found himself in 2018, when he was attached to star as famed composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein. It was in the spring of that year when Spielberg, who had been developing a film about Bernstein for years to direct himself, called to tell his leading man that he would no longer be directing the film, instead focusing on his long-gestating West Side Story remake.
For most projects, this is the moment when it’s shelved, but Cooper, a self-professed lifelong classical music fan who would conduct imaginary orchestras as a child, had an idea: What if he directed the film, which would come to be called Maestro, himself?
“Bradley said to Steven, ‘OK, well, if you’re not going to direct it, I just finished mixing A Star Is Born, and if you want to come see it, I’ll show it to you right now,’” Maestro producer Kristie Macosko Krieger recalls. “‘If you like it, I’d love to throw my hat in the ring to direct.’ ” Spielberg, Krieger, Spielberg’s wife, Kate Capshaw, and screenwriter Josh Singer, who at that point had been working on the Bernstein biopic for years, headed down to Los Angeles finishing house Company 3 to screen Cooper’s directorial debut. “Twenty minutes into the film, Steven got up from his chair and Bradley thought, ‘Oh shoot, he’s leaving,’” says Krieger. “Instead, Steven walked right over to Bradley and said, ‘You’re directing this fucking movie.’”
Singer, who wrote the screenplay for Damien Chazelle’s First Man, which was in post production and set to open the week after A Star Is Born, recalls having some mixed emotions as he watched Cooper’s helming debut. “Within 10 minutes I went, ‘Oh my God, I have a great director [on Maestro].’ Then my heart sank because there was this great movie that was opening the week before First Man,” he says with a laugh. “I think I called Damien and was like, ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news is for me, and the bad news is for me and you.’”
A Star Is Born would go on to earn $436 million at the global box office and rack up eight Oscar nominations, including for best picture.
Five years later, Cooper’s version of Maestro largely eschews Bernstein’s conducting career to focus on his marriage. Shot in both the U.S. and U.K. (including on location in Carnegie Hall and Ely Cathedral), the film is a big swing: Bradley shot on celluloid, mixed black-and-white and color, and recorded the orchestra live on set while he himself conducted.
Even before Cooper had gotten off the awards campaign trail for A Star Is Born, his mind was on Maestro. While doing press on Star, Cooper ran into Krieger. “He was like, ‘Can I pitch you my idea for the opening of the film?’ He pitched me, shot for shot, what we actually now see in a film in 2023,” says Krieger. “He thought about the movie for six years, nonstop. I would hazard a guess to say that I’ve probably received 3,000 texts from him, easily, over the course of us making the movie.”
Adds Maestro cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who worked with Cooper on A Star Is Born: “He will say, ‘Let me walk you through this scene.’ And it’s in his head and he won’t deviate from that.” He also notes that the actor-director isn’t a fan of storyboarding or shot lists.
“What I always do is play the movie shot for shot in my head from the very beginning, [thinking,] ‘How far can I get?’” says Cooper. “And I don’t start a film until I could go through the whole movie shot for shot in my head.”
Speaking to Cooper’s cast and crew, they all comment on the extraordinary amount of prep — years’ worth — Cooper did for Maestro. The result is a very specific vision for the story and look of the film.
Early drafts of the Maestro screenplay adhered to the more classic biopic mold, centering on Bernstein, his upbringing and ascent to the highest echelons of both his artistry and popular culture. His wife, Felicia Montealegre — played in the film by Carey Mulligan — was a secondary character, but Cooper saw the marriage as the primary driving force of his film. He and Singer reworked the screenplay, centering it on Montealegre and Bernstein’s marriage, told over multiple decades, from the ’40s to the ’80s.
As for the look, Cooper wanted the film to include some key scenes in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, a squarer look as compared to the common 1.85:1 of modern filmmaking. The practical reason for this was that Cooper’s hand, when fully extended and upraised during conducting scenes, could easily be cut off in a more horizontal aspect ratio. The more thematic reason? “Because of his relationship to his destiny and God and the propulsion of going forward,” says Cooper.
“He just kept ratcheting up the stakes on how we were going to accomplish this,” says Krieger. “It’s like we’re going to jump. And I’m saying, ‘How high?’ And he’s saying, ‘Really high!’”
When it came time to find a studio partner, all the aforementioned creative choices, to which Cooper was 100 percent committed, made things difficult. “Trying to sell it to all these studios, a movie about marriage with people who are not young for the most part, and it’s classical music and half of it’s in black-and-white and it’s in an aspect ratio that changes. That was a hard sell,” says Cooper. A couple of the major studios passed on the movie, including A Star Is Born studio Warner Bros. But streaming giant Netflix signed on.
Finally, Cooper had the vision, the team and the backers, but he still had to put off filming for another year because the COVID-19 pandemic meant an orchestra would be unable to sit close together for a shoot. “It’s what we had to do to allow the musicians to breathe near each other,” explains sound mixer Steve Morrow.
The delay came with some upsides, with each department head and the acting leads having more time to research and prepare for the eventual 52-day shoot.
In all, Cooper spent six years learning to conduct — often soliciting the help of conductors and music directors — while also perfecting Bernstein’s singular style.
“He was the first conductor on the podium who allowed himself to completely embody the music and not just be this taskmaster with a stick in one hand, directing traffic,” says Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director of the Metropolitan Opera who worked as Cooper’s conducting coach. “He lived the music in every part of body. His eyebrows were conducting just as much as his hands.”
Nézet-Séguin would add voice overs to videos he would send to Cooper of Bernstein conducting, counting the beats and explaining Bernstein’s movements like a play-by-play on Sunday Night Football. He would rehearse in person with Cooper, and during filming would talk to the actor via an earpiece to remind him where to land the beats. “His commitment to authenticity was not only so it was right, but it was also to generate the right level of emotion and intensity,” says Nézet-Séguin. “True conducting and true music-making — there is something unique about it.”
For Mulligan, the extra time for prep was a welcome opportunity to perfect her character’s distinct accent, a result of the fact that Montealegre was born in Costa Rica to a Costa Rican mother and American father, later educated in Chile, and eventually landed in New York. “When I first heard her voice, I thought, ‘I absolutely love the way she speaks, and I have no idea how I’m going to do it,’” she says.
In addition to working with a dialect coach, Mulligan took up painting. “[Montealegre] used to be a painter. It was a great love of hers, and so I thought, ‘Well, I have to have a go at painting, because I haven’t painted since I was about 5 years old.’ I made two of my friends do it with me, and we did art lessons once a week for about three months. I absolutely fell in love with painting.”
Mulligan would also travel to Chile to meet with living family members, walk the neighborhood where Montealegre grew up and visit her childhood school. As she was leaving the country, she tested positive for COVID-19 and had to quarantine for 10 days. “I was isolated in my hotel room, and Netflix said, ‘What do you need to survive this?’ I said that I just need a canvas and some paints and an easel. I sat and spent 10 days doing Felicia’s paintings.” Production designer Kevin Thompson would use several of these paintings to set decorate the Bernstein family apartment in the film.
As for the crafts, the extra time was appreciated given that the film is not only a period piece, but one that spans four decades.
Thompson and his team were tasked with making period-accurate musical accoutrements that were also practical. Sheet music, music stands and chairs were created for the live orchestra that allowed the musicians to play to the best of their abilities. Thompson’s team Frankenstein-ed together chairs that had period legs and backs for the camera but modern cushions to enable the orchestra to play unencumbered.
Looking at old interviews and a feature in Architectural Digest, Thompson reconstructed the Bernsteins’ New York City apartment in the famed Dakota on a soundstage. Particular importance was placed on the pianos, which changed in style and model depending on the scene. The set decorator and prop department head created a piano schedule (think: a call sheet, but just for pianos). Explains Thompson: “It had what the piano model would be for each of the locations depending on the time period.”
Libatique used the production delay to source the equipment needed to achieve the look of Maestro, which was shot on 35mm film on a Panavision Millennium. “It would have taken a lot of work to try to achieve the texture in digital,” he explains. “The look of the film was embedded in the film stock.” But film, especially black-and-white celluloid, requires a kind of light that modern LED lights, which are lightweight and easy to manipulate, do not emit. Libatique and his team would have to use older tungsten lights. “It was a harsh reality for me to realize we had to go back to what we used to do, which is a lot bigger and hotter. I was just happy they still had them,” says Libatique, who scoured the back rooms of rental houses to cobble together the right lighting equipment.
The look for the actors would be similarly challenging. “There was a lot of trial and error,” says costume designer Mark Bridges of making the tailcoats that Cooper would wear while conducting. The trick was creating a garment that allowed for Bernstein’s trademark gesticulation but still hung like a traditional coat. “Bradley would do his movements in great form during the fittings and we would find out right away if it was going to work or if it wasn’t going to work.” As for Montealegre, Bridges worked with Chanel to re-create a classic suit that was a favorite of hers, with the fashion house providing period-appropriate fabrics, buttons and trim.
Prosthetic makeup artist Kazu Hiro built out Bernstein looks for several different stages of his life. For the Bernstein of the ’40s, there were prosthetics for the nose, upper and lower lip and chin, with Hiro experimenting with various medical tapes to lift Cooper’s jawline. Into the ’60s, chin, cheeks, neck and earlobe prosthetics were added. The final look, for Bernstein at age 71, included prosthetics for the arms and shoulders and a body suit that changed Cooper’s posture and shape.
(When the first teaser trailer for Maestro was released, some online observers questioned the film’s use of a prosthetic nose to make Cooper, who is not Jewish, look more like Bernstein. Bernstein’s children, Jamie, Alexander and Nina Bernstein, who were consulted throughout the filming process, supported Cooper and the production. “It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose,” they wrote in a statement on X, formerly Twitter. “Bradley chose to use makeup to amplify his resemblance, and we’re perfectly fine with that. We’re also certain that our dad would have been fine with it as well.”)
In all, the prosthetics for Cooper took anywhere from two to five hours to apply on each day of filming. Given how long it took to be outfitted as Bernstein, and because he was pulling quadruple duty on the film as director/actor/producer/co-writer, Cooper adapted to directing while in full makeup and costume. “He was amazingly adept at directing me as Lenny,” explains Mulligan. “The way that he would play a scene would inform the way that I played a scene. He would have an idea of the direction he wanted it to go, so instead of giving me a verbal note off camera, he would just play Lenny in a way that would elicit a certain response from me.”
The culmination of the cast and crew’s work is perhaps best seen in the sequence that takes place in England’s Ely Cathedral, where Bernstein conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in the ’70s to great acclaim. For filming, Cooper, too, would be conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
Thompson and his team had removed the cathedral’s modern pews to replace them with seating that was in the church in 1976. Nézet-Séguin was on hand to warm up the orchestra and to be in Cooper’s ear as he conducted.
Recording the music proved to be a challenge. “The question becomes: How do we capture that technically?” says Morrow. The answer: 61 microphones. Recording sounds for Dolby Atmos meant microphones — many, many microphones — were placed throughout the cathedral. This included hallways, next to the violins, in the middle of the horn section and on the opera singers. And because these microphones took hours to set up, they could not be moved between takes.
They had two days to film the sequence. “We were conducting it live there, and the whole first day I had three cameras, five setups, and I messed up everything,” Cooper recalls. The second day, he arrived in the morning and went to Kazu to have Lenny’s hair and makeup applied. Having finished before the crew’s call time, he walked the halls of Ely Cathedral. “I realized what the movie really needed, and it’s got to be done in one shot,” he says.
Originally, Cooper had planned the scene with multiple cameras and setups, figuring that if he made a mistake with his conducting, he could cut together a cohesive performance in post. Then he began to question that approach: “I designed that whole sequence out of fear that I couldn’t pull off the conducting. That is the truth.”
When Cooper decided the sequence needed to be done in one shot, he moved the cast, including many extras, outside while he and the crew set up the new shot. “We had a Technocrane waiting outside for the exterior shot, and I brought it inside. I asked everybody back in and just said, ‘I’ll do one fearlessly.’ And at least if I messed it up, then I did everything I could,” he says. “And for whatever reason, I didn’t mess up.”
Says Nézet-Séguin, “In the end, it was Lenny’s spirit that was with us.”
Cooper faced a similar dilemma for a climactic Thanksgiving Day fight between Lenny and Felicia in their Dakota apartment. It’s a powder keg of a scene that lasts several minutes and plays out in one locked-off shot. But that wasn’t always the plan, with Cooper initially opting for several setups’ worth of coverage. But, he admits, “I was only going to do coverage out of fear.”
After three takes in which Mulligan and Cooper played the entire scene from start to finish in a wide shot, everyone broke for lunch. “We came back and we were still setting up for coverage, and Bradley came over to me and he said, ‘Watch this take,’” Krieger remembers. “And I watched it all the way through to the end and he goes, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘It’s fantastic, I love it.’ And he said, ‘I’m not covering it.’” Krieger agreed with his choice but also knew that having coverage was the safer bet to guard against possible studio notes.
“It was kind of like hedging my bets,” remembers Cooper of planning the coverage. “But in the third take, I really felt like we got it, so much so that I thought we didn’t even have to do coverage then. I think Netflix probably lost their minds.”
He knew he was taking a risk, but it was a calculated risk.
“They could have fired me and had somebody else shoot it. But the only problem was that I’m playing Leonard Bernstein. I kept thinking that the whole time: I’m also Leonard Bernstein, so I definitely have a leg up. Otherwise maybe I would’ve been fired. Of course, there could also have been another [person to play] Leonard Bernstein. But then continuity would be a problem.”
Looking back on that day, Cooper once again returns to the idea that the film forced him to overcome his doubts.
“Most of the movie I was able to make fearlessly,” he says. “Any time I made it with fear, the movie sort of spit it back out.”