Scott Cooper opens up about the deep, personal losses that fueled Out of the Furnace, a tragic tale of brotherly fidelity set amid the rusting steel mills of Pennsylvania.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
(December 13, 2013)
In Scott Cooper’s new film, Out of the Furnace, the monolithic, mostly abandoned steel mills of Braddock, Pennsylvania become a part of the drama – silently looming like a rust-frozen, post-industrial Greek chorus over the human tragedy played out beneath their towering stacks.
Having grown up in the coalfields of Virginia, Cooper found a familiar, relatable starkness to Braddock that was a perfect setting for the personal story he wanted to tell. In 2009 Cooper won raves for Crazy Heart, which he wrote and directed. The film garnered several awards, including a Writers Guild Award nomination for Adapted Screenplay and a career-first OscarTM for its star, Jeff Bridges. Cooper wrote and helmed Furnace from the seed of a revenge script by Brad Ingelsby. The resulting movie is an intimate, tragic character study, a tale of revenge and a commentary on America’s violence and eroding heartlands. It stars Christian Bale as a loving son and older brother to Casey Affleck, an Afghan war vet being slowly swallowed in the quicksand of combat trauma.
Cooper spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his deep personal connections to the story, how the film brought musical contributor and grunge legend Eddie Vedder to tears, and why he wants his writing to be “invisible.”
How did you come to this project?
I was offered a script called The Low Dweller [by Brad Ingelsby]. It was a well-written piece but not something I wanted to film. The themes weren’t what I wanted to discover, and I politely declined. They came back to me and said, “Why don’t you take this seed of a man who gets out of prison and avenges the loss of his brother [and write a new script]?” From that seed which existed in The Low Dweller, I wrote a personal narrative, and at times, autobiographical as a grandson of a coalminer and as someone who has lost a sibling and had a family who has endured personal loss and tragedy. I thought I could weave that into a narrative that would interest me and would be something that I wanted to film… From that emerged Out of the Furnace.
Photo: © 2013 Relativity Media
Casey Affleck and Christian Bale in Out of the Furnace.
I knew you grew up in Virginia, but I didn’t realize you were the grandson of a coal miner.
Yeah, I grew up in the coalfields of Virginia. I wrote [this film] specifically for Braddock, Pennsylvania after having visited Braddock because it reminded me of home, and it’s extremely cinematic.
This film is unique in the sense that it’s kind of got this post-millennial take on the revenge pic – it is a revenge pic, but this ain’t your daddy’s Death Wish. You handle it differently. Can you tell me how you wanted to approach it?
Yeah, you know, it’s funny, I never set out to make a genre picture at all, and it’s only a revenge picture at the very end of the film. As I recall from Brad’s script his brother maybe died in the first few pages and then the protagonist was trying to avenge that death for the [rest of the film]. Clearly that doesn’t happen in mine. Casey [Affleck’s] character is a big part of the storyline and lives through half the film. It was important to me just to show it as truthfully and as realistically [as I could]. It was painful for me to relive some of that stuff, so I don’t even think about the tropes or the formulas of genre or a revenge picture. I mean I don’t even watch many revenge pictures. I just wanted to have that be one of many themes and strands of the narrative.
Well this is definitely way more of a character study and a drama, but just from a mechanical, script writing standpoint, the actual act that spurs the revenge happens late in the second act.
Most screenwriting manuals will probably have you do it in the first 10 pages, right?
Right, of course. Tell me why you protracted it…
Well, because I wanted us to care. Couple things: on the whole film was really about America and these past five turbulent years, a crumbling economy, fighting wars on two fronts, solders returning from Iraq and Afghanistan having a very difficult time assimilating back into civilian life – many suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – and the fact that we live in a very violent nation. I also wanted to show that this man who was tormented by his time in Fallujah or Tikrit or Baghdad would come home and was struggling to survive. The only way he could survive was [to do] what he’s been taught by the U.S. Government for 10 or 12 years, and that’s to fight. What you can’t show that in 10 pages... You need to show that over the course of an hour, and we have to understand, without being too pointillistic, the pain this man has undergone much like the pain America has undergone and how we’re all fighting to survive. You just can’t do that in a short amount of time. It was critical that we love this character, that we understand his pain and his torment and the fact that you need to have a very strong connection between these two brothers. We know that Christian Bale’s character is a very good man who is beset on all sides by this relentless fate and only when he has no other options does he do what he does.
To that other point, Bale’s character is almost messianically good.
Yeah, right, he’s based on someone very dear to me that suffered a great deal of loss and tragedy and is the most positive person that I know. So again, this does not resort to tropes and formulas or what people think should happen to a character, but this is really what’s happened to someone that I know. You can say messianic and, yeah, I think that’s the truth.
He’s a good dude beset by absurdly tragic events. Were you ever tempted to dangle him a little more in darkness, despite the inspiration of the friend the person you were modeling it after?
No, because we’ve seen that, and that’s too easy. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in seeing a man who is a very, very good man who, through fate and circumstances, finds himself in the position he’s in and only as a last option takes recourse. And only after asking for absolution, as we see in the film, does he take the steps necessary to do what he does. The final shot of the film is a man who’s sitting at his dining room table where he’s taken most of his meals with his deceased father, deceased mother, deceased brother, and he’s living with the consequences of violence, and he’s battling his soul. Although he isn’t in prison, he’s in prison for the rest of his life.
I’m much more influenced by European filmmakers and filmmakers from the ‘70s, whether it’s Friedkin or Scorsese or Malick, but I’m just as easily influenced by the Dardenne brothers.
Those are pretty good influences.
Yeah, right. I mean, look, you steal from them all. I couldn’t afford to go to film school so my film school is sitting and watching their films over and over and over on laser disc and VHS and DVD.
It really comes down to the fact that I wanted this to be an unorthodox screenplay and an unorthodox film… Because we all want it to be something familiar, or most people do, they’re upset when it isn’t.
Speaking about that ‘70s style where all the ribbons are not tied up in bows and there’s patience to let dramatic truth and resonance occur, did you struggle in the opposite direction here with not over-tidying or over-explaining in this script?
Well, it’s difficult… I honestly believe that American and world audiences are overfed information in films. I like ellipses and I like the audience to lean in. Let them fill in the blanks that after a man has had a couple of drinks and a lady pulls out in front of him and he kills a child and the child’s mother that we don’t see the trial, we don’t see him with an attorney. Next thing you see, and it’s written in the script, is the hard cut to a man who is welding, and he turns around and you see Department of Corrections on his back.
It’s a great visual advance in the narrative there.
Right, and that was written in the script as were many of them. So I think we don’t give the audience enough credit. I thought that I could do it in a very lean style, and if people don’t like that then they can go see a movie where it’s something’s over-explained.
Tell me about the loss that you suffered with a sibling that related this story, if you’re comfortable with it.
He died at a young age, and you see your other sibling and your family never recover from that. As a father of two girls, I don’t fear my film not working or my film being criticized or not opening. I really only fear the loss of a child, and that is it in my life. That’s very liberating, but it took a great deal of pain to go through that. Or having Woody Harrelson’s character be based on someone who murdered your uncle’s fiancé... Those sorts of things live with you, and other things that I won’t go into, but [are] all very personal. That did not exist in The Low Dweller or anywhere else. They unfortunately came straight from…
Deep veins of personal…
Real life. As Eddie Vedder said, “Scott, if you don’t write that stuff down, it will eat you alive.”
Wow. You spoke with Vedder about the script before you’d written it?
No, but I write for music from a character point of view, and I ask myself what would Russell Baze, Christian’s character, be listening to? He’s 38 years old, he was probably forming his artistic worldview, musical world view in his late teens, early 20s. What was that music? Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam. This is a man who has lost his father – the song “Release” is about Eddie Vedder losing his father. I had that in an early cut. I also listened to a lot of Ghost of Tom Joad and Nebraska from Springsteen.
As it turned out when I finished, that song was so critical to the film I had someone from the studio ask Eddie Vedder’s managers if I could use the song, and they replied, “Well, the song has never been used for commercial purposes, it’s Eddie’s most personal song, and he would have to see the film.” As it turns out he was a fan of Crazy Heart. I took the film up and screened it for him in Seattle, and he emerged from the theater shattered. He was visibly moved, moved to tears, and he said to me, “Not only will I give you the song, Scott, I will re-record it for the first time in 23 years.” Then he went on to write two or three other very personal songs for me that aren’t in the film and only he and I will share. He sang the song “Release” on Saturday night at the L.A. Sports Arena with the lyrics from our film and gave me a shout out, tossed a tambourine to Casey Affleck, so it came full circle. A remarkable experience. As I said to you when we started this conversation, the reception to the film – whether it’s been William Friedkin or Michael Mann or Robert Duval – the things they’ve said about the film I’ll take to my grave.
When and how do you write? What is your sort of writing ritual or routine?
I write in a very, very spare office with no distractions, very little furniture, a desk my wife gave me – a Knoll partners desk from the ‘50s that I cherish – and I sit at that desk with no distractions whatsoever apart from music. I listened to a lot of Enrico Caruso as I was writing this, all the way to Tom Joad and, of course, Pearl Jam, and a lot of cello – that kind of mournful cello. I sit with that blinking cursor staring at me, and I will write from nine o’clock until one, I’ll have lunch and come back and write ‘til six or 6:30 straight through without any phone calls, without any checking e-mails, without any texts, and I treat it as though its work because, Dylan, what I do, I don’t consider work. It’s a privilege, and I mean that sincerely. I try to work as hard as I can and treat it as though I’m boring for coal or for steel.
You’re a coal miner of the script.
Yeah, right, in a sense. The grandson of a coalminer who writes a very personal story about the steel country.
The final question comes with a big spoiler alert – I have to ask you, at the end, when Harlan DeGroat [Harrelson] goes down in a field outside an abandoned steel mill, and he realizes that Baze is the brother of the man he executed, he smiles and says, “He was a tough kid,” then pauses to say “You hear those birds?” It’s a great line. Did you write it?
I was sitting with Woody and anytime a character dies like that it’s an intense moment for an actor. It was for Casey Affleck, it was for Willem Dafoe, and it was for Woody. We were just sitting in the field together, and I said to Woody, “Do you hear that?” He looked at me and said he didn’t. Then you could just hear this whistling. I said, “You here those birds?” That’s all it took. We went back, and he did it.
It’s a great moment.
Yeah, small moments but hopefully powerful, whether they’re conscious or subconscious, you feel them. I never want people to feel my writing, feel my camera, I want all of that to be invisible. I want the performances to be invisible, the editing, costume, the score. It’s not about Scott Cooper the writer and director, it’s about creating a world in which you feel like you’re spying on them.