When Scott Cooper, the actor-turned-writer/director who led Jeff Bridges to Oscar glory with 2009’s “Crazy Heart,” found himself in the position to make a sophomore film, he knew the downfalls, the expectations. “I had this pile of scripts that were daunting and beautifully written, some of which have come out this year and last, but I didn’t really feel an emotional connection to them,” he said.
One of those scripts was Brad Inglesby’s “The Low Dweller,” a well-regarded entry on the 2008 Black List. But as Cooper explained, the producers came back and offered him the seed of the script and carte blanche with a rewrite. “From that point I wrote a very personal, at times autobiographical narrative,” he said. Instead of making a movie that Cooper predicted as “digestible, palatable, and uplifting, but not as truthful,” he chose to create “Out of the Furnace,” a penetrating look at cycles of violence in the Rust Belt, and an intimate tale at two brothers (played by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck) at its center (our review here).
We recently got the opportunity in L.A. to find out just how much changed in the film’s transformation, his approach to narrative, and more on his upcoming William Styron adaptation of “Lie Down in Darkness” (beware, major spoilers ahead for “Out of the Furnace”).
Brad Inglesby’s script is much more upfront with the core concept of the film, which is “brother vows revenge on his brother’s killer.” You get that sense straight away, whereas your film hides that aspect, and is many things before it finally hits that beat.
I wasn’t interested in [the revenge angle]. In most film’s, Casey’s character would be dead on page 10, and Christian would be avenging his death for the next 90. And I really had no interest so much in genre, but just trying to tell a story as searingly realistic and truthful as possible, and not resorting to tropes or formulas like that, and as T.S. Eliot said in “The Wasteland,” not to go out with a bang but a whimper.
In so many movies you expect to have this big emotional or thrilling conclusion and I didn’t want that. I wanted it to be steeped in two men, and I wanted the final shot to represent a man sitting at his dining table, where he’s broken bread with his father and brother who are both deceased and the woman whom he loved who is no longer with him. For a man who is living with the consequences of violence, and who’s battling his soul, because though he’s no longer in prison, he’s in his own prison. He’s a man who I hope six months, six weeks, six years down the road, can find peace and contentment in his life.
I noticed you shortened or prolonged certain story beats that you expect to see in this kind of film in a really interesting way.
I try to play with time in film. Claire Denis is one of my favorite directors, the Dardenne brothers, Jacques Audiard, Michael Haneke—those are the masters. And because I wasn’t able to toil away in obscurity after the success of “Crazy Heart,” which I embraced, you live with that burden of expectations. It’s very difficult as a filmmaker, and in an era where not only film writing but writing in general seems to be cynical and bitter and less people have really directed film they have no idea the type of choices you have to make as a director and I wanted that final shot to mean just what I said: a man battling his soul and dealing with the consequences of violence. It’s also an homage in a sense to “The Godfather II” when Corleone sits in a chair just after he’s just had his brother Fredo murdered on Lake Tahoe. He’s living with those consequences for the rest of his life.
Well, I actually did take it to mean something different, but how intent are you on keeping the mystery in your narrative?
Because of our phones, we want our information instantaneously and we dispose of it just as quickly. Instantaneous gratification isn’t quick enough for us today. If I sat someone down in front of “The Deer Hunter” and its 54-minute wedding sequence, you’d probably pull your hair out. You have to be patient with film, otherwise why did you pay your thirteen, fourteen hard-earned dollars do you want that experience over in 89 minutes? I want you to live with these characters in a very intense way. From the moment that we see Woody Harrelson onscreen to the moment with Christian Bale sitting at his dining room table, and then hopefully the film lingered with you, and then you thought about it the next morning. Whether you embraced, or disdained the film, I don’t want you to be indifferent.
Speaking of a fluid narrative, are you taking that same approach when it comes to “Lay Down in Darkness”?
Yeah, it’s one of the most difficult adaptations that anyone or I could attempt. It’s about the disintegration of a Virginia family, and is almost a stream of consciousness novel from Peyton Loftis’ point of view [a role previously rumored for Kristen Stewart]. Fortunately the screenplay struck a cord with many people who want to be in the film, but I have to find the right time to make that. It’s a very tough film with very difficult themes. But it’s something I vow to make; it’s a beautiful, evocative look at this world and coming from Virginia I know it all too well.
What aspects tell you that a certain film is ready to go?
Actors, the right schedule, how I feel about a particular movie at that specific time, I’ve written a couple screenplays that I’m very fond of, and I have to feel like that’s what I want to say at that time, and I’m very actor driven, and there are only really a handful that I want to work with. If they’re unavailable at the time I want to go I won’t make it. I wouldn’t have made this one without Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, and I wouldn’t have made “Crazy Heart” without Jeff Bridges. You have to be very clear with what you want. From Fade In to Fade to Black, this is exactly the film I wanted to make.
All these people whom I admire greatly, when they embrace the film in ways that I could have never dreamt, or a young soldier who came to me after the DGA screening and said to me, “This is exactly what I’m living with, and thank you for making it. I want to show it to all of my brothers and sisters who can’t sleep or who have violent tendencies who have no outlet and way to assimilate back into life.” That’s why I do it.
Do you have any other upcoming projects that are a certainty?
One is a Depression-era crime drama.
Would that be “The Road Home”?
It isn’t titled that, but yes. It’s a novel [by Michael Armour] that is yet to be released something that deals with racial inequality during the Depression, crime, the opium trade, and murder. It spans from 1918 France to California in 1932-33, and would be [my first period film]. But it won’t feel like it; hopefully all the details will blend. There’s nothing worse than seeing a period film that scream “period,” like a gleaming Ford or an impeccable costume.
“Out of the Furnace” opens in theatres December 6th.