Best known for writing, directing and producing 2009’s Crazy Heart, a film that garnered multiple awards including a Best Actor Oscar win for Jeff Bridges, Scott Cooper returns with his new drama Out of the Furnace. The film features Christian Bale and Casey Affleck as a steel worker and PTSD stricken ex-soldier facing their new fates in the economically failing middle America. After a series of unfortunate events, Russell finds himself in jail and Rodney is led astray by thug Harlan DeGroat, portrayed by Woody Harrelson. We sat down with Cooper to talk about Out of the Furnace, the characters, story, his unique style, and middle America.
NERDIST: The movie captures the work ethic of people that live by a moral standard. It’s something that gets glossed over in a lot of conversations about the Midwest. You get a reality check when you see a movie like this. Explain the dichotomy of characters in the way you saw it.
SCOTT COOPER: When I was approached to write the screenplay, I wanted to tell the story about a very good man who was beset on all sides by relentless fate and through circumstance did he meet Woody Harrelson’s character and these people; a man who would endure, who was based on someone really close to me, a great deal of personal tragedy and loss but emerge stronger, much like steel emerges stronger through its process, through extreme heat. I wanted to do that while at the same time shining a light on what was happening in America, the crumbling economy, soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder having a very difficult time settling back into society, and the fact that we live in a very violent nation. I strove to weave a very subtle narrative about all of those themes into a narrative about a man who, when released from prison to avenge the loss of his brother, a very good man, how far will he go, because the great philosophers have long discussed that we all inherently have good and evil in us. Woody Harrelson’s character is the personification of evil, which is why I opened the film in the way that I do. I wanted to see two polar opposite characters, a man who’s hard working that represents the very best of America in Russell Baze, and a man who represents the very worst in Harlan DeGroat.
N: So there are a couple of things going on in the movie where if some of the events had happened quicker in succession, you wouldn’t have been able to process them. That’s why I could understand the pacing in this type of film — it’s very nontraditional in speed.
SCOTT: Because of [cell phones] and because of the Internet, we want our information quickly and disposably, and instantaneous gratification is not fast enough. If you look at a 54 minute wedding sequence in The Deer Hunter or the 23 minutes wedding sequence in The Godfather, most people today could never stand that. They would turn it off or leave the theater, because we’ve become so conditioned to having everything so quickly that I wanted this to be a slow burn and for us to really and slowly realize who these characters are, their tragedies and how they overcome them. It’s a very nontraditional way that doesn’t really fall prey to tropes and formulas.
N: Zoe Saldana really killed the scene at the bridge. That scene, the look on her face of utter shock that someone could be that kind was quite something. It is shocking to see people have a reaction in these things anymore, especially with the stereotypes that we have of Middle America. How important was that for you to humanize people?
SCOTT: Critical. That scene is critical for a number of reasons. One, it also shows a man who would face the love of his life, that we learn earlier on that she wants a child with him, they’ve discussed it ad nauseam. For her to be having a child with another man that through fate and circumstance, lost this lady, the love of his life. He yearns for her to come back but when she tells him this news, you see him as man, he’s so gracious and he’s so happy for her that it’s killing him inside and I had hoped you’ve never see Christian Bale that vulnerable ever, in terms his performance. From that point on, we know, but even earlier, what a good and caring man he is and is based, again, on someone from personal experience, that when faced with this type of tragedy, turmoil and loss, he has really emerged stronger as one of the most positive people I know.
N: One question I had about the business side of casting a movie like this, you got some stellar choices, like Casey Affleck was great, but Forest Whitaker, how did you come to him?
SCOTT: I have long admired Forest’s work – he’s a wonderful director and clearly, an incredible actor. Whenever I see him on screen, he’s got a great sense of humanity and warmth about him. I never wanted that character to be an object or derision from us or one who we never really like because he took this woman. Also, when faced at the very end of the picture, a man who says to Russell Baze, “Let me make this right,” as Russell Baze is pointing the rifle at Harlan DeGroat. He’s a very good man, or so his character says in the kitchen scene, he says, “Russell, Wes is a very good man.” Forest is the epitome of that. I also feel like African Americans or Cuban Americans or Hispanics are underrepresented on screen when they could be more realistically portrayed, and this particular town has a very high percentage of African Americans, and I wanted that to be fully represented in the screenplay and of course, on screen. Forest is a guy who I’ve long admired and wanted his gracious presence to be a part of this because he is also a commanding presence and serious, and I thought he would just lend a great deal of weight and kindness to the film. That’s he kind of guy he is, you care for him.
N: Was there any discussion between you and Forest, because there is a line of dialogue that says this, but he plays it so well and I’m curious where that came from, where you just get the impression that this guy knows he doesn’t deserve the girl.
SCOTT: He says, “Look, we don’t have the fire and flame but we have something good.” He knows that Lena and Russell did. He knows that through circumstance he’s the father of her child, that they’re together but we’re in a small town of 2000 people, we have to put this past us. We have to live together. I hope that people find really authentic characters in this picture that resonate with them.
Out of the Furnace is in theaters now.