Out of the Furnace director Scott Cooper tells Shelley Marsden why he will always go against the grain when it comes to Hollywood’s love of quick gratification
“It’s the feel-good movie of the year”, laughs Scott Cooper somewhat drily when I ask about his gritty new film Out of the Furnace. I’d call it harrowing.
The intense actor-turned-director from Virginia, who has Scots-Irish roots, shot from being a total unknown to the top echelons of the film industry with his sophomore offering Crazy Heart – the 2009 Oscar winner starring Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhall and Colin Farrell.
About a faded country music musician (Bridges) forced to reassess his dysfunctional life during a doomed romance which also inspires him, it won a shock two Oscars and was nominated at almost every film festival going.
Scott admits his life changed overnight. “I have access to better material, the best actors on both sides of the pond and that’s what it’s all about. I have such reverence for actors having been one myself. You speak the same language – and how to help them when they’re in trouble. I need to work with people that are like-minded, ready to explore things that are darker than most other films.”
He was offered countless projects after Crazy Heart, some good, some woeful (including a “men in tights film”) but the intense director turned them all down, wanting to be the author of his own script – until he was offered a dark story which gripped his imagination.
Says Scott: “This particular story is a very personal one, and those are always more difficult to tell. Writing it was painful, but cathartic. I took my time after Crazy Heart, knowing that with my second film I needed to express myself more fully in terms of theme and tone, but also in the way I saw the world. I think I’ve done that.”
Scott took the screenplay, about a man who comes out of prison and avenges the loss of a loved one, and basically rewrote it from scratch.
The result is the story of Russell Baze (Christian Bale) and his younger brother Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck), who live in the economically-depressed Rust Belt, with dreams of escaping and finding better lives.
But when a cruel twist of fate lands Russell in prison his brother is lured into a violent and ruthless crime ring in the Northeast – a mistake that will cost him everything. Once released, Russell must choose between his own freedom, or risk it all to seek justice for his brother.
“It doesn’t bare any resemblance to the original… I’ve known many people in prison and, like the lead character, I also lost a sibling when I was younger, which factored into the storytelling. I said to my producers Mr Di Caprio and Ridley Scott, if I can tell this story in a very personal way, I’ll do it. And they said go for it.”
The 43 year old took a big risk by writing his script with very specific actors in mind. For the main role he envisaged Christian Bale, but there was no guarantee The Fighter star would come on board.
“I didn’t know Christian, but I wrote it with him in mind, much like I wrote Crazy Heart for Jeff Bridges when I’d never met Jeff. I’d long admired Christian’s work and thought I could tease out factors of his personality I’d never seen on screen. It’s risky writing for an actor. I don’t recommend it because eventually someone will turn you down! But Christian embodied everything I hoped, I think it’s his richest, most humane performance to date.”
One of the film’s most disturbing characters is good old-fashioned thug Harlan DeGroat, played by Woody Harrelson (Scott describes him as “remarkable”). In the opening scene alone, Harrelson swings open the car door, falls out of the driver’s seat and throws up copiously, before forcing his sidekick to swallow a hotdog whole, and then beating up the poor man that comes to her aid.
Known in Hollywood as a warm, humorous guy, the director convinced Woody to go to a very deep, dark place with this role, which is exciting for an audience. It was against his wife’s wish for him not to take it on, she found it so disturbing.
“When you see him, he places a horrific character, but does it believably, and scarily”, says Scott. “He’s a violent, misogynistic, sociopathic man who was based on someone in my immediate family – that man is now dead.
“But Woody was able to bring that out and also, in a couple of moments, flickers of real humanity. He’s an indelible character, you won’t forget him. Woody had to live in that headspace for two months, and that’s never easy.”
Casey Affleck, arguably one of the best actors of his generation and one who seems to be generally underused (according to Scott it’s because he turns down most offers) plays a vulnerable, tormented man in this film, bringing out the human face to the horrors of what soldiers have witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan, coming back to the US and having no way to assimilate back into life.
It was a critical element, says Scott, but he wanted to avoid a ‘message movie’: “I wanted to touch on the things America had been going through, and much of Ireland and the UK has been going through too in the last five years; a crumbling economy, fighting wars on two fronts, our soldiers returning and suffering PTSD.”
Scott has managed to pool some of America’s greatest acting talent for this film, and it continues with Willem Dafoe, who plays John Petty.: “He always has a sense of mystery. Here’s a man that’s played Jesus Christ with the face of the devil. He is extraordinarily smart and understands character and story in a way other actors don’t.
Sam Shepherd (Gerald ‘Red’ Baze), a literary hero of Scott’s, “represents a sense of masculinity in America” and finally he praises Forrest Whittaker (Wesley Barnes) “who whether he’s playing Idi Amin or a captive British solider alongside Stephen Rea [The Crying Game] is incredible.”
A former actor himself, Scott seems in awe of the talent he has managed to attract. His thoughtful, low-key debut revealed him as a force to be reckoned with, but one that refuses to turn out ‘easy’ movies. And Out of the Furnace, like Crazy Heart, also reveals its plot painstakingly slowly.
He explains: “Most people are so addicted to their iPhones and Blackberrys that they want they’re information immediately. Sometimes instant gratification isn’t quick enough, so they don’t have the patience to sit and watch a Ken Loach film, or a John Kassevetes film, or a David Lean film, or Terrence Malick. They want it quick, disposable and to move on. You can’t do that with Out of the Furnace.”
That he got it made at all is what has surprised him the most. It unveils a bleak side of humanity. Most people tend to prefer going to see movies that make them feel good when they leave, that make them feel uplifted, but Scott is the first to confess his doesn’t, “and that can be tough to take.”
What elements if anything would the filmmaker say represent the Scott Cooper style? “I like to explore the dark crevices of humanity. I’m drawn to the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, those who live on the margins, who struggle on a daily basis and represent both the best and worst of society.”
In both of his films, addiction rears its head; for Jeff Bridges it’s to alcohol, for Woody’s character it’s methamphetamine. And both Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace utilise their landscape to beautiful effect to inform the characters and sense of place.
Scott must have moments when he wishes he was being offered the parts he’s now giving the likes of Bridges and Bale. Of course, but he has discovered that he’s a better director.
“Are you kidding?! But no, I realised pretty quickly that these guys are gifted – and there’s a difference between talented and truly gifted. The stage is an actor’s medium, film is a director’s medium and I couldn’t have been more lucky in finding what I’m best at.”
Scott never went to film school, learning his craft by watching movies, particularly documentaries, and simply “being a human” – something he describes as the most difficult thing you’ll be on a daily basis. “If you understand human behaviour you can understand performances. I don’t really care for plot-driven films; I’m into characters and exploring psyche.”
The incredible thing for Cooper since he swapped being in front of the camera to behind it has been the reaction from actors and directors that he grew up idolising –giants of film now giving him the stamp of approval.
He says: “Having my cinematic heroes see Out of the Furnace and embrace it in ways I’d never have hoped, be it William Friedkin or Michael Mann, is mind-blowing. Friedkin said it ‘renewed his faith in American cinema’.
Robert Duvall, who is something of a long-time mentor of Scott’s, a close friend who “always tells me the truth” said Out of the Furnace was one of the best films he’d seen.
But Scott’s style is atypical of the stuff being churned out by Hollywood in recent years, and the director continues to marvel at the kind of movies that get celebrated in his home country.
“It’s lost on me”, he says. “Stephen Soderbergh said it best when he said that since 9/11, America is suffering a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder. We like our movies digestible and palatable and easy. Unfortunately, they are not the films I like to see and they’re not the films I care to explore.”
Clearly. Scott tells me one of his new projects is an epic story which explores the Great Depression in 1933 in California, which Leo Di Caprio has signed on to produce and Scott will direct (“it could be my next movie”).
He’s also been busy writing an adaptation of William Styren’s Lie Down in Darkness, about the disintegration of a Virginian family.
“As my editor says, it makes Out of the Furnace look like Mary Poppins…”
Out of the Furnace is in cinemas from Wednesday January 29.