43-year-old Scott Cooper didn’t direct his first feature film until he was 37. 2009’s Crazy Heart scored Jeff Bridges his first oscar, and it also made Cooper a director on the rise. The film cost only $7m and went on to earn more than $47m worldwide, making it both a critical and financial smash. That’s not a feat we see often, but for Cooper, he couldn’t have asked for a more welcoming result for his debut. His follow-up, Out of the Furnace, is an entirely different kind of film, featuring an ensemble cast, life and death stakes and suspense.
Before it premiered at AFI Fest last month, one of the producers compared Out of the Furnace to The Deer Hunter, inferring that they didn’t set out to make a film that goes down easy. The talent in attendance clearly stated their intention: they wanted to make a movie about America. Not the big booming cities, but the small towns that have been left in financial turmoil. That wasn’t the story Brad Ingelsby‘s set out to write in the beginning. “The original screenplay was based on the idea of a man who gets out of prison and must avenge someone,” says Cooper, delving into the film’s subtext. “The rest all comes from a very personal experience. As I said in those opening remarks [at AFI], I wanted to show the turbulent world we’ve lived in the the last five years. I thought it was important to express my personal and artistic worldview through that lens, and out comes Out of the Furnace.”
The final result is a movie that negates the claim that “they don’t make ’em like they used to.” This has been a quality year for these kinds of pictures — Mud, At Any Price, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, The Place Beyond the Pines — but the cineplexes aren’t exactly crowded with such old-fashioned stories. Cooper wanted to take a page from that golden age of cinema’s playbook by showing today’s world in a film ultimately about family. “In the 1970s, of course, these masterful directors were experiencing government paranoia, Vietnam, civil rights, violence in america and decay in the American cities,” he reminds. “Those movies have always influenced me.” That influence is apparent in the way Cooper captures Braddock, Pennsylvania, where the film takes place. That “decay” Cooper mentions is seen on every street, back alley and boarded up house in Out of the Furnace.
The atmosphere is one of dread, unlike Cooper’s last picture, which was filled with beautiful locations. “You never want to repeat yourself as a filmmaker,” he says. “Crazy Heart had a lot of warmth, humor and redemption, but I don’t want to continue to tell the same story.” Whether audiences respond to his new story or not, they certainly can’t argue he didn’t aim for the sky. “The fact is, you always want to take great risks,” he explains. “Francis Coppola says if you’re not taking the high artistic risks, then why are you doing it?”
Coppola is an apt name to bring up. As the interview started, I told Cooper we “generally liked the movie” here at FSR. Later, he referenced that comment by wishfully saying, “The people that generally like the movie hopefully like it more in 20 years.” Time has always played a major part with Coppola’s films, and after a divisive critical response to Out of the Furnace, Cooper hopes for a similar shelf life. “This movie generally stays with people for days,” he says. “I’ve had that experience, having screened it for a number of people.”
The final shot of Out of the Furnace has gotten a rise out of some people. It ends the film on a note that you can’t quite make out. Does Russell Baze (Christian Bale) deserve that ending? Is he a good guy? Is he a bad guy? Is he an anti-hero? Those are the questions Cooper wants to hear. “All the great philosophers have discussed we all have good and evil in us,” he says. “At what point is it going to rear its head in your life? How far would you go for those that you love?” Cooper forces Russell to battle Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) and, more importantly, “an evil within himself.” He has to make tough decisions, ones that’ll change the course of his life.
The result of Russell’s killing Harlan is he becomes a man in his own self-made prison. “A man sitting around the table at his home, where he shared meals with his deceased father, deceased mother and deceased brother” is how Cooper breaks down that final shot. “Though he isn’t in prison, he’s in prison for the rest of his life. He’s living with the consequences of violence.” Initially, Russell faced those consequences in different ways.
In the trailer for Out of the Furnace we see Wesley (Forrest Whitaker) with Russell and Harlan in that field, plus more officers surrounding them. In the final scene, Cooper and Russell confront a loaded question: is it worth dying to kill the man responsible for your brother’s death? Both sides can be argued, but that’s not the question the movie goes with. Cooper did shoot that very ending, along with one other alternate version. “Sometimes I shoot two or three endings,” he confesses. “I choose whatever I find to be the purest ending.” In Cooper’s eyes, the more honest confrontation is the one featuring two men, Russell and Wesley, torn by the same woman and the devil, Harlan, making the scene more intimate.
Out of the Furnace is a film where all of its characters are trapped by something, whether its their past, their family or their financial situation. What expresses that intention best is none other than American badass Sam Shepard, who plays Russell’s uncle. One of the most prolific writers and actors alive, Shepard is an ideal candidate to convey a crumbling part of our country because he’s an all-American icon watching his family fall apart. It’s inspired casting, and from the sound of it, Shepard was easily roped in by the project. “One of the first things he said to me was, ‘Wow. This is one of the best titles for a film I’ve read in a long time,'” because, as Cooper says, speaking for Shepard, “‘It reveals itself over the course of the narrative,'” meaning Russell is emerging “‘figuratively and literally out of the furnace.'”
Shepard was a fan of the writing and the non-writing, and the non-writing is what stands out about Shepard’s performance. It’s quiet and observant. When you have Shepard’s character standing next to his brother’s tombstone, you don’t need him to say anything. His face says it all. Not only does that weary face provide drama for the film, but it also makes the set all the more relaxing. “Sam Shepard makes the job easier. He is the most delightful, warmhearted, and brilliant dude,” says Casey Affleck, who reunites with the actor after having worked with him on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. “When people are super brilliant they always seem the most relaxed. When people aren’t the most brilliant and want to appear brilliant they are much harder to get along with it.”
Thankfully, Affleck thinks of Shepard as “your favorite uncle,” but also the best kind of actor: someone who isn’t acting. “He never seemed like he was playing anything,” Affleck adds. “Whatever he was doing, he was just doing it. I think there’s an old book called ‘No Acting, Please,’ and he’s a perfect example of someone never acting. If he drinks the water, he’s going to drink the water.”
Willem Dafoe plays John Petty, a low-rent gangster who sets up fights for Russell’s brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). And despite a minimal amount of screen time, he put much thought into Petty’s heritage, his European outfits and his place in the economic ladder. For Dafoe, the little things matter, and as he tells us, the same goes for Cooper’s attention to detail: “He had the good sense to find those locations and incorporate those elements into the script,” speaking of the film’s setting of Braddock, which made a powerful impression on the filmmaker.
Even the bar Petty runs is a real bar, which is an important factor not only for Cooper but also Dafoe, who believes, “Where we shot the film, those locations informed us, because when you’re in that area and around those people, it makes you keep asking, ‘Is the world complete? Are we Hollywood-ing it up?'” Dafoe concedes that certain elements are elevated, like the bare knuckle fighting, for “dramatic purposes,” but that “the clothes, the houses and the way people behaved” were taken from all around them.
Those locations and performances make for a specific energy that Cooper wanted to achieve. In an effort to maintain that intensity, Cooper went as far as dropping songs Eddie Vedder wrote and recorded specifically for the film. A 1991 track of his with Pearl Jam, “Release,” is featured in Out of the Furnace, but don’t ever expect to hear the “very personal” new tunes. The key issue was they are too beautiful, taking people out of the narrative. Vedder’s music worked magic for the film Into the Wild, but Cooper explains, “In Into the Wild those songs had so much air to breath in a big expanse. A movie like this needs to be intense.”
From the sound of it, those songs, within the framework of the movie, would call attention to the filmmaking. “I didn’t ever want this to feel ponderous or pretentious, where you feel the hand of the director,” Cooper says. “I want everything I do to feel invisible,” from the costumes, the locations, to the performances. He rejected anything that wasn’t authentic.
The movie does conform to numerous genre conventions, but for Cooper genre wasn’t ever a concern or discussion. If those tropes fit his world, then they’re more than welcome. By building that reality, he formed an ensemble of the highest caliber and delved into his own past for inspiration. Out of the Furnace may come off as more of a revenge film, but for Cooper it’ll always remain his shot at capturing a time in America that he and Braddock, Pennsylvania, won’t ever forget.
Out of the Furnace is now in theaters.