After spending a decade acting in film and TV projects, writer/director Scott Cooper made his feature film debut in 2009 with Crazy Heart. In addition to being a great success at the box office, the film won Oscars for Best Actor for Jeff Bridges and songwriters Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett for “The Weary Kind.” Cooper won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature and was nominated for a Writers Guild Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
For his second outing, Cooper has made one of the most intense, challenging, and violent films of the year with Out of the Furnace. The film may best be thought of as the lovechild of The Deer Hunter and The Grapes of Wrath, providing an unflinching look at working class America in the era of soldiers returning home from overseas and the death of America’s once booming blue collar culture. The film features some of the year’s best performances, including Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) as a Veteran who resorts to bareknuckle fighting, and Christian Bale (The Fighter) as his brother who after being released from jail must take justice into his own hands.
Out of the Furnace opens on Friday, December 6th, and in anticipation I recently enjoyed a robust chat with Cooper about writing and directing the film. Here’s what Cooper shared with me about making a risky second feature, filming on location in Braddock, Pennsylvania, and crafting Out of the Furnace.
Jackson Truax: What was the biggest impact the success of Crazy Heart had on your life or career?
Scott Cooper: Apart from living with the burden of expectations that you place on yourself – When a movie like that touches people from all walks of life, who come to you and tell you how much that film means to them, the next time you go out, you want to make a movie that engages people, moves people, provokes people. And lingers with their consciousness. I probably could have taken a more awards-friendly path with my second film. One that was probably a little more palatable, digestible, and uplifting in a general sense. But I chose to tell yet another personal story. One from deep, personal experience. That I hope resonated in a way that made you feel like what you were seeing was what America has felt these last five turbulent years.
JT: One of the things that links Out of the Furnace and Crazy Heart is that they’re both very no-holds-barred looks at blue collar characters trying to pick themselves back up and get a hold on the American Dream. What attracts you to these types of characters and themes?
Cooper: Those are the people I know. I can’t write about the wealthy. I don’t know them. I grew up the grandson of a coal miner in a small town in Virginia. I’ve always been drawn to those that were dispossessed. And who live on the margins of society. They tend to be either exaggerated in cinema, not authentically portrayed. Or they’re mis-and-underrepresented. I want to tell their stories truthfully and with dignity.
JT: Crazy Heart was a bittersweet story, with a wistfulness to it and ultimately a lot of hope. Out of the Furnace is a bit less-so. Was that part of you wanting to take some of those risks on your second film?
Cooper: As the great Francis Ford Coppola would say, “If you aren’t taking the highest artistic risk when you make a film, then why are you doing it?…” I chose to tell [a story] that’s personal. That I knew would move people in ways that they hopefully hadn’t been moved… You don’t make Crazy Heart thinking about going to the Oscars as your first film. Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar. And those two are masters. So I don’t concern myself with that. I concern myself with telling a very truthful portrayal of someone’s life.
JT: When the Out of the Furnace premiered at AFI Fest, you said that after the success of Crazy Heart you had a stack of scripts staring you in the face. Brad Inglesby’s script existed and had been with Relativity before you were involved. In what stage was the script when you got it, and how did it evolve from there?
Cooper: The truth is, I was offered that script. I thought it was well-written. And I declined to direct… They came back to me and said, “Can you just have carte blanche with the screenplay of a man who’s getting out of prison to avenge the loss of his brother?” I then wrote a very personal narrative. One that came from life experience. Of people that I knew. Of a world that I knew. Out from that came Out of the Furnace.
JT: The film is very violent and very graphic, in addition to being a viscerally intense and challenging cinematic experience. How much of that was in the original screenplay? And how much of that was your take on the material first as a writer then as director?
Cooper: None of that was in the original screenplay. None of the bareknuckle fighting, the location, the characters, etc. I did not want it to be shocking. I did not want it to feel gratuitous in any way. But I wanted the violence to feel realistic. Because I think we’ve become desensitized to violence. You see it in all kinds of PG-13 films. I wanted to show it as realistically as possible. But I also feel a sense of responsibility for that. Having explored bare-knuckle fighting, having explored steel country, and having explored a way of life up-and-down the Appalachians… It all came from personal experience.
JT: For any writer or director, the first scene is always challenging. You went in a very specific direction with your first scene in Out of the Furnace. How did you decide on that approach? And was it a difficult choice to make?
Cooper: It was an easy choice… I wanted to make it, much like in Jaws, when this man was on-screen, you knew that this bedrock of menace hovered around. I wanted to show an actor whom we have loved for twenty-twenty-five years, who’s a very thoughtful, and kind, and charming actor in Woody Harrelson (The Messenger). And who has a great deal of humanity and humor. I wanted to see him in a way that we had never seen him. And I wanted to see that as soon as the film opens. So that you understand the tone of the film. And the world in which this movie is set. And that every time he comes on-screen, something unpredictable and exciting might happen.
JT: I had the pleasure of interviewing Casey Affleck about this film. He talked about your level of confidence in all of your artistic choices, and they being what makes you a unique talent. Where does your confidence in your choices come from?
Cooper: My father, who was an educator at one time, was taught by William Faulkner, English for two years at the University of Virginia. From a very young age, I was steeped in the works of Faulkner and Hemingway and the Russians. There was a great deal of realism that I understood from those men. I understood what I was writing. From a very personal place. I think that gave me a lot of confidence in making the choices and the decisions that I made and a very bold film. But when you have a cast that’s as remarkable and spectacular as this one, that also instills a great deal of confidence.
JT: The film was shot on location in Braddock, Pennsylvania. How did you come to pick that location?
Cooper: I wrote it for Braddock, Pennsylvania specifically… I wasn’t going to make the film if I couldn’t shoot it there… It reminded me the small towns that I lived in and moved around in in Southwestern Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. Coal towns, steel towns, I knew those people. It reminded me of Barbara Kopple’s landmark documentary Harlan County U.S.A… I felt a great deal of confidence in portraying those people. Because I knew those people. When I was touring with Crazy Heart, I had been reading a lot in the New York Times about Braddock, Pennsylvania’s sense of loss. And their economic plight, that many towns were undergoing at that time, and still are. I drove around that town. And was just so moved by it and the people there. Their sense of courage. And it dripped with atmosphere. I knew that would be a great location for a setting. I wrote very specifically. I wrote for that particular house. I wrote for the Carrie Furnace where Casey first engages in bareknuckle fighting… I wrote for the bar. I wrote for every specific scene.
JT: What did shooting in that location add to the experience of being on-set and ultimately to the final film?
Cooper: It imbues the actors. It imbues the caterer, the production designer, the cinematographer, the director, with a level and a sense of authenticity that you can’t get anywhere else. Whether that works on a subconscious or a conscious level, it’s critical to the way that I work. I wrote Crazy Heart for Santa Fe, for Texas, for Los Angeles. I shot in every location. I did the same here. It just makes the location feel like another character.
JT: Another really specific choice you made as both a writer and director was Casey Affleck’s character’s experience with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a veteran returning from serving overseas. Was that something that was familiar to you? Or did that come from your research?
Cooper: I knew about it. I did a lot of research about it. It really angers me that we aren’t doing enough for those soldiers who are returning and who can’t assimilate back in life… Sunday night, I screened the movie at the Directors Guild. William Friedkin was the moderator, which was a real career highlight. At the end, when the screening broke up, a Vet, a soldier came to me and he said, “Scott, I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have violent tendencies. I can’t sleep. Every pore, all of my marrow, I feel from Iraq and Afghanistan. What you’ve done makes me feel like I want all of my brothers and sisters to see this film. So that they can understand that what you’re doing is a realistic portrayal.” That meant more to me than anything.
JT: While one level Out of the Furnace is a revenge story, did you ever feel in writing or directing it that you were making a social or political film?
Cooper: You tell me. Because it’s been a very tough five, six, seven years that we’ve endured. I think that we all have a sense of hope that America can regain its values. We have a very partisan congress. It’s very dysfunctional. We have almost defaulted. We seem to not be able to make decisions as a nation. You feel ashamed… As a filmmaker, you want to shine a light on what we as Americans have experienced. My nature is as a very positive person. I really hope that we as a country, in the next several years, can get on the right path. And we can help these men and women who’ve suffered. And we as a nation can come together and make this the great nation that it’s been in the past. The final scene in the movie is a man who’s sitting at his dining room table, where he’s taken most of the meals in his life with his departed father, and his departed mother, and his departed brother. He isn’t in prison. But he’s in his own prison. For a man who’s battling his soul and living with the consequences of violence. However, as a very positive person, I think that’s a man that at some point, maybe not now, maybe not six weeks, six months, six years, but I think at some point this man is going to find hope and content within his life.
JT: Why should discerning audience members make a point of seeing Out of the Furnace? And what does it have to offer that’s unique?
Cooper: I think it has to offer a very unique and personal artistic worldview on a world that we’ve experience these last five years. In a very honest and truthful manner…. If they want to see a very emotionally truthful and charged experience, and an intense experience, and feel like you’re getting your money’s worth, than this is the film to see.