Director's Cut: Scott Cooper ('Into the Furnace')

You don't have to be Nikke Finke to sense that "Out of the Furnace", director Scott Cooper's follow-up to the lovably gruff "Crazy Heart", is doomed to be lost in the seasonal shuffle of prestige pictures and blowout studio tentpoles (but Nikke Finke knew it first, dammit, and she will destroy you for suggesting otherwise). And despite the film's high-profile and thoroughly excellent cast it's not hard to see why it's in imminent danger of being overlooked. For one thing, Cooper's portrait of a blue-collar Pittsburgh suburb beginning to feel the impact of the recession in 2008 is pretty grim. Like, hyper-violent meth addict played by Woody Harrelson publicly chokes a woman with a hot dog in the first scene, grim. For another, the film's tense and lucidly told story is difficult to pitch without revealing the direction in which it pivots.

Christian Bale, here delivering one of his most nuanced and soulful performances, is Russell Baze, a challenged but earnest factory worker trying to get by in a town that's due to lose its factory. His brother Rodney, played by Casey Affleck, has recently returned home from his fourth tour of duty in Iraq, and is beginning to make ends meet and grapple with his burgeoning PTSD by fighting in brutal underground street fights. What begins as a curiously warm study of a society in decay soon sparks into something else thanks to Woody Harrelson's Harland DeGroat, whose sudden interference with the Baze family results in all sorts of flared testosterone.

A sober and serious film that also manages to operate as a bleak but broadly entertaining night at the movies, "Out of the Furnace" is a worthwhile reprieve to the incoming glut of Oscar bait. Last week I spoke to writer / director Scott Cooper about what it's like to be in charge of such a terrifying cast, and how his movie is part "Jaws", part "The Godfather", and part... "Midnight Meat Train".


SCOTT COOPER: Hey, how’s it going?

FILM.COM: Hi there.

Where are ya calling from?

I’m calling you from Brooklyn, right now.

Oooooh. The hippest place on Earth, I’m told.

How’s it going out in LA?

Well I’m going to New York, which I’m excited about. My wife and I talk ad nauseam about moving back to Manhattan, it’s just... who can afford to live there?

Certainly not me.

[Laughs]. Well, I’m glad you saw the film.

As am I! And I definitely responded to it. I think my first question has to be about your cast, which is comprised of some of the most iconic and untamed male actors around. I can’t imagine how any filmmaker, let alone someone who’s only making their second feature, wouldn’t be intimidated and scared s**tless by some of these guys. Were you at all afraid to wrangle them, and is there a chance that any possible fear might have worked to your advantage in helping bring out their characters?

You know, it might be inexperience and naïveté, but I wasn’t intimidated at all. As an actor, or a former actor, I’m able to speak the same language that they have, and these actors... there’s just a dearth of really strong, emotional, complex characters for them to play, so they run to set when they have something like this. And it’s such a joyous process. A friend of mine who’s a very prominent director said to me, “Scott, when I see your cast it gives me heart palpitations.” But it really excited me, because the actors cared so much for the finished product. There was no ego on set whatsoever, and these actors are just the best of the best. And it makes directing so pleasurable, when they’re reciting what you’ve written and they care so much about a very personal vision for me... I just can’t tell you how exciting that feels.

And you get that success right off the bat in the first scene. This might seem like a strange comparison, but for me the first scene played kind of like the first scene in “Jaws”.

[Laughs] You know that’s exactly what I wanted! I can’t believe... you’re the only person to say that, that’s exactly what it was. 100%, because then you know, whenever that person or animal is around, that nothing good is going to come of it.

Yeah, and it sets this general bedrock of menace so that all of the somewhat lighter scenes that follow are undercut by this feeling of doom in the air.

And also, because for years we’ve all grown and loved Woody Harrelson. From Cheers to White Men Can’t Jump and on and on and on we’ve seen him in a certain light, and I wanted to show him in a way that we’ve never seen him before. Not only are you marveling at an actor doing his finest work, but also precisely what you just said.

Can you talk a little about how that scene came to be?

Well it was the very last scene we shot in the film, and Woody said to me at the end of the movie that it was one of his great experiences, but that he’s never wanted to shed a character more than that. For two months he’d been living as Harlan DeGroat, and you know how difficult that is on an emotional and psychological level, and he had to go to some deep and dark places. And he had to finish with that scene in a very misogynistic and violent fashion, and it was very tough for him. But he never wavered, he came in with confidence, and it’s a very layered and menacing, but at times very human performance, like when he’s about to kill Casey Affleck and he says “Look away from me, don’t talk to me.” Or lying in the field when Christian says that he’s Rodney Baze’s brother and Harrelson responds, “He was a tough kid.” All those sorts of things. He really gives a rich, rich menacing performance.

Naturally, the most important question that can / almost has to be asked about that first scene with DeGroat at the drive-in ... was that “Midnight Meat Train” he was watching?

Yes. Because if Harlan DeGroat is going to leave his house to go see a movie, he’s not seeing a retrospective of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”. He’s seeing something that’s violent, and hey, “Midnight Meat Train”, well that gets me out of my house. So you have to always be thinking from a character’s point of view.

I love that thought of Harlan DeGroat sitting at home, flipping through the newspaper, and just lighting up at the sight of an ad for “Midnight Meat Train.” [Laughs] But really, the DeGroat part that stuck with me most is when he says that he “has a problem with everybody.” Because there’s a real self-awareness there, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how aware these characters are of their circumstances.

Very aware of their circumstances, because we’re all influenced by our circumstances. What in Woody Harrelson’s character’s life lead him down this path? What was it? Was it an unhappy childhood? Why does he have a problem with everybody? Why is his life this bedrock of menace? Christian Bale’s character is very self-aware, he understands much like we as Americans that the American Dream is faltering and crumbling just like the American economy, and these men are touched by it. The final scene of the film is Christian Bale at his dining room table, where he’s eaten the majority of his meals, but a man who’s living with the consequences of violence, and in his own prison and battling his soul. Potentially, and hopefully, this is a man who can find peace and contentment at some point.

That’s really interesting, because I was going to ask you about this decision to cut back to this non-linear moment at the end of the film. Can you flesh out this idea of Christian’s character returning to a different kind of prison?

When he calls Woody’s character to settle those debts, he doesn’t know if he’s going to meet his maker or if he’s going to prison or what’s going to happen. It’s the ultimate sacrifice for his brother, and then when faced with the opportunity to rid the world of the devil, he takes it. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him, but when he takes that breath and exhales, this is a man who is content. However, I cut to him months later, weeks later, a year later, and he’s still living with those consequences of violence. Much like Michael Corleone was in “The Godfather: Part II” in the final moments after Fredo is murdered on Lake Tahoe and he’s living with that for the rest of his life.

Sure, and there’s a very spiritual quality to this final scene in your film because it’s sort of lost in time. You don't know exactly when this glimpse is taking place.

Nor should you nor would I want you to. It’s a portrait of a man’s life, both literally and figuratively.

Something that you mentioning “The Godfather” made me think of is the use of parallel editing that crops up in your film as well. There’s one scene where you cut between steel being made and heroin being cooked. It made me question if industry in America is evolving faster than society and its laws can keep up with it.

Precisely. It was written in the script that way, and I cut it that way as well.

Well, given the film’s focus on the consequences of the recession and the human fallout of our economic collapse, I’m curious as to – overall – how you feel Hollywood’s response has been to this? Do you think they’ve dodged the topic?

Well I’m sure there are filmmakers who want to shine a light and look at what America has undergone, unfortunately studios and some independent financiers who are bankers don’t want us to make those films. I was fortunate to have executive producers in Leonardo DiCaprio and Ridley Scott, and Christian Bale as a star, who really pushed to get this financed and released, and the studio could not have been better partners. From fade in to fade out this was my cut, and that’s a rarity. You want to see more movies that represent our society and unfortunately there are too many safe movies and sequels. And if you look at the great movies of the 1970s, many of them were unafraid to look at these things. Whether it was America’s paranoia, or The Vietnam War, or class struggle like you see here, or civil rights. And unfortunately I feel like we haven’t done our duty, but it’s still early. Hopefully more films will be made that touch on this, and hopefully in a better fashion than I have.

One of the things I liked about the film was that I thought it walked a fine line between having a sober perpsective on these ideas, but also functioning as entertainment, and that balance is personified by DeGroat’s character. How do you balance those two sides?

Very carefully. From the script stage, writing the tone, and when you’re directing the actors and cutting the film, I don’t want anything to feel like condescension or irony. This is all very fair, very naked and realistic. This is a movie about us. I wanted to make it as truthful as I could while also making it entertaining. And hopefully I’ve done that. Clearly it’s an intense experience, and it moves you and provokes you, but I want it to be entertaining, because people do want to escape to see films, because many of them do have very tough lives.

My last question is kind of a loaded one, but this is such a testosterone-driven film, so loaded with male pathos, and I’m watching it and thinking – not for the first time – “Are men a disease?” At least in this country?

That’s a very good question, because many women, believe it or not, have embraced this film. I’ve been surprised how many women have come up to me after screenings and said how representative it is of the world, and how Zoe Saldana’s character represents their femininity. And it’s tough to say, only time will tell.

"Out of the Furnace" opens in theaters this Friday, December 6th.