/Film Interview: ‘Out Of The Furnace’ Director Scott Cooper Talks “Directing With Ellipsis,” ‘The Stand’ And Rural Noir
Posted on Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 by Germain Lussier
Scott Cooper isn’t a director with mainstream interests. His first film, Crazy Heart, was about a grizzled old musician; it won an Oscar for Jeff Bridges. His second film, Out of the Furnace, tells a methodical story of crime and revenge set in and around a blue collar Pennsylvania town during 2008, just as the American economy began to crap the bed. Christian Bale stars at Russ, a man with plenty of hardship in his life, who is forced to deal with even more problems when his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) disappears. Throughout, Cooper is interested in the setting and characters, and subtly suggesting information to an audience, instead of huge setpieces and obvious reveals.
We spoke to Cooper about the difficulties of bringing a smaller story like this to the big screen. We also talked about how he changed the original screenplay, the rising trend of rural noir, some of the film’s questionable decisions and ultimately why he decided not to make The Stand. Read the full interview below.
/Film: Reading the press notes, it said the film’s screenplay was quite different when you came on board. Just how different was it?
Scott Cooper: It doesn’t share many similarities to that one at all. The studio and the producers offered me a script that was a really well written piece, but I didn’t really have any interest in filming that screenplay, so I politely declined and they came back and said, ‘Well would you consider writing a screenplay of a man who gets out of prison and avenges the loss of a sibling?’ And I said I would if I can really personalize it, because I’ve know people who have spent time in prison, I lost a sibling myself, and I wanted to tell a story about these very five turbulent years we’ve lived in and dealing with themes of, well, that fact we live in a very violent nation. We have soldiers who were fighting wars on two fronts and return with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and had a very difficult time assimilating back into the fact we have lived through a great deal of economic turmoil. So I said ‘If I can use those themes and kind of write a personal narrative, then I certainly will do it.’ And they agreed. And you face that blinking cursor, and you pull a very personal life experience onto the page that’s both harrowing and ultimately cathartic.
I grew up in suburban New York, but I was very unfamiliar with the characters Woody Harrelson’s character represents. What was your inspiration for the mountain people?
Well you know, I know much more about the people who grew up in the still country of Pennsylvania. I’m the grandson of a coal miner and I grew up in the coal fields of Virginia. I’ve always been interested in kind of the blue-collar milieu or people who are disenfranchised who live on the margins of society. But I also wanted to tell about a place in New Jersey that not many people knew existed. Unfortunately, for all the people I know who kind of know about New Jersey, it isn’t just a gorgeous mountain region. It’s part of the whole Appalachian mountain chain, and I grew up in the shadow of the Appalachians, I hiked on the Appalachian trail. I mean, look, the people in the film could just as easily have been Virginia or West Virginia or Spain or wherever. I just happened to choose that location because it’s so close to Manhattan and people didn’t even realize it existed. And it was also about 5 or 5 and a half hours from the Pittsburgh region to give it a sense of feeling almost foreign to the people in Pittsburgh, in Braddock, where I wrote the piece. So I’m not making any pejorative statement about people who lived in the mountains of New Jersey. I don’t want it to come across their way.
But Woody Harrelson’s character, I will say, Woody’s character is based on someone who did touch my immediate family in a very tragic way, and you know, it’s difficult to write about those sort of things. I lost a sibling at a young age and have known soldiers who have come back and lived through those horrors that they’ve seen that you and I can only imagine. A difficult time assimilating back into life. So, you know, it’s a very unconventional screenplay. In most screenplays, you know Casey’s character would die on page 9 and Christian would be revenging him for 90 minutes. I had no interest in that. I have no interest in a genre picture. I just wanted to tell a very truthful story about a man who’s pushed to the very limits and what would you do in that situation.
A man, based on someone very close to me, who has suffered a great deal of loss and tragedy, and but is one of those very positive people I know, and Christian gives, I hope, a very soulful performance.
You mention genre. And while this film doesn’t really adhere to one genre, along with other films such as The Place Beyond the Pines, Winter’s Bone, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, is part of a new set of almost rural noir, or American Folk Noir. Any thoughts on that?
Oh good, well that’s interesting. Yeah, I mean this could almost be, I guess, an Appalachian noir. Those films you mention, I’m fond of all of them and the filmmakers bring a real point of view to them. I also wanted to tell a story about people that are either misrepresented in American film, underrepresented, maligned, a lot of times you see them in film. They are exaggerated or stereotyped, and that is bothersome to me, because I know I have conversations with people who are after certain filmmakers who also are from those regions, and see these people portrayed in very outrageous ways, and I wanted to show them as truthful as possible even though it is painful at times for people.
Does this film, together with Crazy Heart, represent something you might consider a signature style?
Hopefully, if you find any signature, it will be in the way that I photograph landscapes and have a great deal of reverence and respect for my characters. I’m influenced by the work of Walker Evans, or Dorothy Elaine, or Robert Frank, and I think it’s important that my work and my fingerprints are not on the film. I wanted my work to be as invisible as possible, the performance is to be invisible, the editing, the score, all of those things so that, if they’re invisible, we’re more readily available to believe what we see on screen and really care more about the characters. I mean there are filmmakers who are far more technically astute than I am, but a lot of times their movies leave me a little emotionally cold and distant, and I think if my fingerprints are invisible on the film, then you can really embrace Christian’s prevail and that you can really understand Casey Affleck’s torment and understand that there are people who walk this earth who are very similar to Woody Harrelson because I happen to know them. You’re just more invested on an emotional level.
So that’s probably my signature if I have one.
*** Potential spoiler ahead ***
There’s very little technology int he film, which seems like a conscious choice. But there’s one major plot point that really does rely on technology. Can you talk about breaking that scene –did you ever try to do it in any other way?
Yeah, I did, because you wouldn’t believe the amount of times people ass-dial me. It happens all the time and I sometimes will pick up my phone that’s in my pocket and realize that I had been on the phone for 3 or 4 minutes and you think to yourself, ‘Oh god I hope I didn’t say anything.’ But here you want another person to hear. But it felt like, that it had happened to me so frequent, and I hope I’m not the only person, because we’re so attached to that. We’re so attached to our phones it’s become the fabric of life. You can’t walk down a street in Manhattan or you can’t go to a Starbucks, you can’t sit in an airport and not have people be completely invested in their phones. And it’s also a little bit saying, even these people who are in the rural mountains of New Jersey or who lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania also realize that that’s such a part of their life. Because I wanted it to feel timeless, but for that particular moment. It’s almost a commentary on the world.
About technology, I see.
It’s infiltrating our lives in a way that a film like this that is more measurably and deliberately paced. You know people are so attached to our phones that I think we want instant gratification and that isn’t quick enough. So hopefully people will be patient enough to relax in this film, understand these characters’ plights, their moral values and not have it so quick cut and edited in a very MTV-stylized way. [I hope] they can be patient with the film; if I were to put them in front of The Deer Hunter with a 54-minute wedding sequence, I wonder if people would pull their hair out.
*** MAJOR SPOILERS COMING UP ***
The story here isn’t thrown in our face. The way we find out why Russ is in prison, for example, or the pregnancy conversation, where the dialogue is completely different from what the scene is actually about. Do you still have to fight for the way you want to make this film?
Oh for sure, man. I mean, we tend not to give audiences enough credit. I like to write and direct with ellipsis, a man plows into a car, he’s been drinking, he kills two people. Well, we then see him welding, but I wrote into the script that very hard cut of a man who turns around and it reads “Department of Corrections.” We don’t need to see him at a trial, in a courtroom, we’ve been there we’ve seen that, that’s not necessary. Nor is it necessary for us, the very final moment of the film, to see a man who is at his dining room table that we’ve seen three or four times in the film before. Taking a meal at a table with his deceased father, deceased mother and deceased brother, right? A man who’s battling his soul and living with the consequences of violence. We don’t have to make that. I mean you make the leap that Forrest Whitaker didn’t turn him in, he’s seen him suffer enough, right? And you want to give the audience an opportunity to really engage. If we tell them too much through dialogue, then I think they tend to sit back too much, and I thought it was important to kind of write and direct with ellipsis and hopefully allow people to engage and come to their own conclusions.
*** END SPOILERS ***
And it’s not easy to get made in Hollywood. I mean it’s very difficult and it’s unconventional and people may say, ‘Oh well god, well then he didn’t tell us enough or it’s too simply developed.’ Well then they can see a very talky-verbose film which everything is explained through writing and through visual measures and I won’t see it. If that makes sense.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about the real star of the film, which is Willem Dafoe’s mullet.
Oh I know right? That perm.
Where’d that come from?
Oh it was great. He and I discussed it. Willem is one of my favorite actors, you know, the man who, who’s played Jesus Christ with the face of the devil and you never know what he’s going to bring in every scene. And he has these very haunting eyes that are always hiding something. And this is a character whose name is John Petty.
But when he came over with his family, it was probably John Petrovich, from somewhere in the eastern block. Why did this man, unlike everybody else, why did he decide not to go work at the steel mill, right? And he’s still kind of living in that eastern block with his style, with those turtle necks, with a leather coat, right? With those permanent press pants that have a nice crease. This is a man who cares about his style but his style hasn’t evolved and neither has his hairstyle. He has a perm because one of his early girlfriends said to him: ‘That really looks good on you.’ And he thinks he feels good and sexy and it’s bold.
I mean the whole film is bold and I could have chosen a less risky path after Crazy Heart, for sure. But it was important to me to try to show actors in ways you’ve never seen them before. Of course there’s Christian, with vulnerability and a sense of gentleness and soulfulness that you haven’t quite seen, combined with his courage and strength. Or Casey, who’s living with this type of torment and who’s a live wire. Or the very kind and warm Woody Harrelson playing a very horrifying and despicable human being. And Willem with a hairstyle you’ve never seen.
Why choose Midnight Meat Train to play at a drive-in for that first scene?
Well it’s an obscure film for most people because they ask me what that is. I recut it to just for certain images that I wanted to show, but it’s also, ‘What movie would get Harlan DeGroat out of his lair to see at a drive-in?’ Not a Fellini retrospective, it’s not like McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He sees the title “Midnight Meat Train” and he’s like “shit, I’m want to go see that.” Right?
That’s true, yes.
And the imagery is striking, yet I didn’t want something that would be so distracting you’re more interested in watching the film on the drive in than Scott Cooper’s film.
And typically, most filmmakers would start a film with the protagonist. But I thought it very important to start with the antagonist to not only subvert expectations, but to allow people to know that this is a film that will have a bedrock of menace close to the surface at all times.
That first scene leaves such of a sense of foreboding. For the next twenty minutes we wonder what that is telling us. It creates a sense of fear.
And every time he comes on screes, you know that if a man is going to beat another man who is trying to come to the aid of a woman in public that he’s capable of anything.
And that’s a really risky way to start a movie. I’m sure people probably will, I don’t know, get up and walk out but they can walk into the next theater.
I’m sad to hear that you’re off The Stand at Warner Brothers. What is the biggest hurdle to get that movie to the big screen?
Well I think so many people have picked over the film and a lot of the things that made [the book] special in 1978, we’ve seen, whether it’s in I am Legend or The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later. I think I wrote a very harrowing and compelling script that’s also tough to condense into one three-hour film, or into a couple of films. It really, I think, needs the treatment of a longer block of time. But I will say, my style has kind of a searing realism, while I think would be compelling for that type of material, the film’s an expensive film to make and my style would probably make it a risky endeavor for all involved. But somebody will make it. I’m sure somebody will crack it.
Out of the Furnace is now playing.