The Pale Blue Eye Director Scott Cooper On Writing For His Closest Pal, Christian Bale [Exclusive Interview]

The opening image of "The Pale Blue Eye" reveals "a young cadet who has met his maker hanging from a noose on a tree next to the Hudson River." That's how filmmaker Scott Cooper describes the shot from what he calls his most accessible film, a gothic murder mystery set in the 19th century. The director behind "Crazy Heart," "Hostiles," and "Out of the Furnace" is no stranger to bleakness, but in the case of his latest film, he gets to play with Edgar Allan Poe's macabre sense of humor to make a movie that is, in fact, his most conventionally entertaining movie. 

Based on Louis Bayard's novel, the story follows a young Poe (Harry Melling) and a weary detective, Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), joining forces to solve a series of murders in West Point, New York. Often, "The Pale Blue Eye" plays as a buddy comedy between the two men, both similar and different in their views of the world. The Netflix release is unmistakably a Scott Cooper film, but as he told us, he got to explore plenty of new territory in his latest collaboration with Christian Bale.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'He was always in search of companionship'

This is a pretty full-package movie. You got a murder mystery, a buddy comedy, and this gothic horror tale.

Thank you, Jack. It's a film that I've wanted to make for quite some time. I spent my formative years in Virginia, much like Poe spent his. My father taught English and literature, and there's a lot of Poe in my house.

After I made my first film, "Crazy Heart," my father said to me, "Wow, I've read the most ingenious novel in which a young unformed Edgar Allan Poe is a cadet at West Point, and he's at the center of a detective story," which of course he bequeathed to us.

I read it and I thought, wow, this really could make for an interesting film. It allows me to make a whodunit, this father-son love story, and then ultimately an Edgar Allan Poe origin story because we're so entrenched in what we think we know about Poe from his work, from "The Raven" and "Tell-Tale Heart," "Premature Burial," a man who's obsessed with the Satanic and the occult, or someone who is driven by paranoia.

But what I'm saying is that we're taking this young unformed Poe, who's warm and witty and humorous, and by all accounts a great companion as he was thought to be at this age. Then the events in this film inspire him to become the writer he became, that bequeathed to us. It's a real challenge, but one that I thought would maybe play against the tropes of what we think Poe ultimately is or who he is.

We're both from the DMV area, and if you grew up around there, you heard a lot of stories about Edgar Allan Poe. The image we have of him is obviously legendarily doom and gloom, but you really show this childlike curiosity.

[Those stories are] not really how Poe was. All the research that I've done through his journals and spending time at the Poe Museum in Richmond, well before this film, and understanding that Poe was really rootless and he was always in search of companionship because he was an orphan from three years old, and he had a very difficult relationship with John Allen, his benefactor from Richmond. He was always looking for a connection. He found that in this film with Augustus Landor, Christian Bale's character.

You grew up in a very cinematic part of the country. How did the environment you were raised in inspire you as a filmmaker?

Incredibly so, incredibly so. Because all of my characters' surroundings tell as much about them as the character itself. Much of that is owed, I think, to where one grows up and where one spends his most formative time. Whether it's the Blue Ridge Mountains, which I grew up, or if it's in pastoral Charlottesville, the Richmond area.

Living in Virginia and growing up in Virginia is kind of a double-edged sword, because it's an incredibly beautiful state populated with wonderful people, but it has a very tragic past, as we know. Both in our incredibly horrendous treatment of the Native Americans as well as our past of slavery.

It's a land in the Civil War that is soaked in blood and tragedy and sin, and I've never forgotten that, which I try to somehow weave into my work, hopefully in subtle ways. But there's no question that we're all surrounded and motivated, I think, by where we grow up, and ultimately the people that we meet and that really shape who we become. I think it's incredibly important and certainly an important part of my films.

'People don't understand this, but Christian has a great sense of humor'

You and Christian Bale talked about making this movie for a long time.

Since "Out of the Furnace."

Over a span of years, how do you build a character with him?

Well, what's interesting about the way Christian approaches character, and the way we've discussed Augustus Landor, is this is a man who's a legendary but world-weary constable who's suffered, as we find out, a great deal of loss and pain and ultimately regret and shame — all the sort of things that course through this film.

Landor is a man who's seen every type of character as a legendary constable in New York City that we find out about early on in the film. I think he's really taken and amused by Poe's poetic and romantic musings. He quickly realizes that he has a kindred spirit in someone who sees life a certain way.

He understands Poe has a very keen wit, but also keen observational tactics that allow him to become Landor's partner in this. Observational skills that I think suit a detective. I just think he's amused by this young man who's very different from all of the other cadets. Because these are two men who are loners in life, who live on the margins, they're both looking for connections and I think they found it.

He's surprisingly funny in the movie.

Oh, Christian ... look, people don't understand this, but Christian has a great sense of humor. I certainly don't write for that humor, but you can see it in David O. Russell's work with him, probably Adam McKay's work. Christian and I have a different working relationship and friendship, and I write for a specific facet of his personality. But he's an incredibly funny guy and laughs easily.

But I do think you have some of it in this movie, just in his amusement of people. 

I think there's some humor in this film, and I think that it's an accessible film, maybe one of my most accessible films. But it was really, my quest was what drives someone to madness? How much pressure has to build before they explode in violence? And what causes morality and decency to erode in otherwise decent people? Poe probed all of this in his writings, and I wanted it to course through our narrative.

You write for Christian Bale, so what skills do you keep in mind? What do you discuss specifically about choices he'll make?

All of the eternal dialogue about building a character. Who is this character? Why is he the way he is? Why is he dressed the way he dresses? How does he walk? How does he see? How does he talk? Does he walk into a room and just look at who he's talking to? Does he walk in a room and he doesn't look who he's talking to, because he wants to check out where the exits are in case he has to leave in a hurry? We see it very differently depending on who we are. What's his philosophy about life? 

Those are sort of things that he and I discuss because his work with David O. Russell or Adam McKay is larger than life and witty and fun and humorous. For whatever reason, I don't quite have that gene, and I tend to write for Christian's internal life because I spend a lot of time with him off set. I know, as my closest pal, the kind of person Christian really is, and I like to write for that, the cinema of human beings who are trying to convey emotional and psychological experiences to another human. I think that Christian does that as well as anyone. He's a remarkable non-verbal actor.

He doesn't have to do or say much to be captivating. He's very still in this movie.

That's exactly right. I think a non-verbal performance like Christian often gives, and a searing internal performance, draws the viewer in, in a much deeper way. On an emotional level and psychological level. Sometimes that's uncomfortable for people. But Christian believes, and I do, that you bring your emotions you've experienced throughout your life to your films.

I try to keep the dialogue, except in this film, as spare as possible, and advance the narrative as much as possible with the images. Because in my other films, in a certain sense, dialogue is insignificant, and it's really important to understand a character's motivation, his internal motivation, and nobody really does that better than Christian.

'We are creating a performance for a first and a second viewing'

How is it editing one of Christian Bale's performances? What's unique about that process?

Well, this one was more difficult because we are creating a performance for a first and a second viewing, if someone wants to view this a second time. One can see that the actors in this film all leave the breadcrumbs that lead to the denouement. If you watch it a second time, you'll say, "Oh my God, I missed that the first time."

Christian and I talked about that with every line of dialogue, every glance, every non-verbal movement. Every gesture, every piece of behavior. We say what can't be put into dialogue, tell this through a gesture and behavior. What's the logic of every scene? I mean, he's really remarkable. He's been doing this since he's 12 years old.

He makes a certain third act reveal surprising, even though as an audience member, you know in detective stories that two cases are often connected.

Oh, good. Then you discovered what happened along with everybody else?


Oh, that's so really great to hear. Hopefully you'll see it a second time, and I really think this film will be enhanced by a second viewing. It really kind of requires careful viewing, but I think on a second viewing, it might even be better than the first watch.

The opening image of this movie and the final image are so intertwined.

They are.

But you often shoot multiple endings for your movies. Was that not the case here?

No, not in this case. I was very clear to say with the opening of this film where we find a young cadet who has met his maker hanging from a noose on a tree next to the Hudson River. Then the final image, which I won't spoil in this film, perhaps people will find is a real cliffhanger. It's ambiguous.

I'm still not entirely certain of its meaning.

Good. Well, because so often it will mean different things to different people. Just in the interview I had before this, a particular journalist felt for sure she knew what had happened. Yet she said the other person who watched the film with her felt the complete opposite.

That's always, I think, kind of interesting if you can leave a film with ambiguity and give the audience something to really take away from it. Because the ending of a film is the most important thing, because it's the last thing that you remember. It's the last thing where hopefully everything comes together, and it's the last thing that the audience takes away from the film when the film ends.

"The Pale Blue Eye" is now streaming on Netflix.