Director Scott Cooper takes moviegoers on an intense psychological journey into the heart of a fading American dream in “Out of the Furnace,” as fate, family and loyalty drive a man to take extraordinary measures to fight for those he loves.
A native of Abington, Va., Cooper knows the region and the hearty men who live there. As he did with his first film, “Crazy Heart,” Cooper explores some of the darker corners of the American psyche, this time through the eyes of Russell and Rodney Baze (played by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, respectively).
Russell is a steel worker who has taken responsibility for his younger brother since they were children. He accepts the hardships that his life has dealt him, but over the course of the film, he has to make decisions that will define who he is in a story both tragic and inspiring. Younger brother Rodney refuses to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, but can’t really figure out what to do after completing four tours of duty in Iraq. With mounting gambling debts, he hopes to earn money by entering bare-knuckle fistfights. He unfortunately crosses paths with a ruthless New Jersey crime boss (Woody Harrelson), and when he goes missing, his brother takes it upon himself to find him.
Cooper, who wrote as well as directs this grim and provocative drama, spoke about his inspiration for this latest effort and working with his high caliber cast.
Q: How did the Pennsylvania steel country/mountain setting inform the story and characters and performances?
Cooper: I grew up in a small town in Virginia along the same Appalachian mountain range. As the grandson of a coal miner, I have grown up with these people and have spent a lot of time in small town America. While I was touring with my first film, “Crazy Heart,” I had been reading a great deal about Braddock, Pa.—Brad-DOCK, as they actually say in there—and what the town had undergone over the past 5-7 years, dealing with economic turmoil and the loss of the steel industry really touched me. It was important to me to really shine a light not only on small town America like that, but also what we as Americans have undergone the past five turbulent years. That blue-collar milieu was something that I really understood and resonated with me and I thought was underrepresented in American cinema. It was very prevalent in the 1970s films that have very much influenced this movie and “Crazy Heart,” and I wanted to see that represented on screen again because I knew these people very well and I knew their morays and their values and hope to think that I knew about their world view. It was important to weave all those themes into a narrative in a very personal way.
Q: With regard to Christian’s character, he’s seen in church in a few scenes. Is there a back-story to Russell seeking faith and religion to get through his difficulties?
Cooper: This is a man who, as I was writing this character, I always thought of as a very good man who is beset on all sides by a relentless fate. It was based on someone in my life who has suffered a great deal of tragedy and pain and loss and who is one of the most positive people I know and is someone who has given me a great source of inspiration. That particular man’s faith has carried him through – whether he’s asking for absolution or redemption or whatever it is he’s asking for in those very quiet and personal moments – and in these small communities throughout America and I’m certain around the world, people all pray to different Gods and they all look for different things when they go to houses of worship and spirituality. It was important for me to have Russell Baze ask for that type of spirituality and faith, as he’s certain he’s doing things that are very morally questionable and things that have happened in his life that, through twists of fate and circumstance, have put him in the position he’s in.
Q: Woody’s character in this is pretty intense. How did he handle being such a coolly psychotic character?
Cooper: The very last shot of the film was the very first scene that we shot at the drive-in. When we wrapped, Woody walked over to me and hugged me and he said, “I have never wanted to shed a character so badly in my life.” And truly, for me, I wanted Woody’s character to represent the very worst of America, and Christian’s character to represent the very best of America, that kind of dichotomy. I hope we succeeded. But I just want to really quickly say, as someone who’s had a very unremarkable career as an actor, you quickly realize, if you feel like you have a little bit of talent as an actor, that once you see these four actors and you see the work and you see the other side of the lens, that you quickly realize there’s a difference between being very modestly talented and gifted as they are. It’s a real treat to direct these actors, I have to say.
Q: Elaborate on what it’s like to actual be able to tell this story with such a talented group of actors?
Cooper: Directors go their whole careers without being able to tell personal stories and to work with a cast as talented as they are. I don’t even consider it work; I honestly and sincerely consider it a privilege to see the type of work and the preparation and the care that these actors put into helping me realize my vision. There was no ego on the set. They were always questioning. They were taking a script that was decently written and elevating it in every way and making me a better filmmaker and making me really understand more about who I am as a person. And after the modest success of my first film, I found it very daunting to have to live with those kinds of burden of expectations. For someone who grew up with very little money and who had very little money after “Crazy Heart,” you can get tempted to make movies for the wrong reasons. When you have two little girls who want you to make that movie—or need you to make that movie—and you just can’t. You have to be true to yourself and to your artistic worldview. I chose to tell a personal story. When you tell a movie like this that’s emotionally charged as this is, it’s a risk, certainly. I could have taken a much less risky path after the success of my first film, but as one of my great cinematic heroes, Francis Coppola, would say, “If you aren’t taking the highest, greatest risk, then why are you a filmmaker?”
Q: Casey and Christian have some very dynamic scenes together. Did they know each other before this? Or did you have them do anything to develop brotherly chemistry?
Cooper: What you see between these two actors isn’t something you can learn in the Lee Strasberg Institute or with Stella Adler. That is these two actors doing a great deal of investigative text work before, but they’re also as talented as two actors of my generation, simply put. That’s not the type of thing that you as a director can really manufacture. They really are two actors at the very height of their skill level, quite frankly.