In his new film, “Out of the Furnace,” filmmaker Scott Cooper explores some of the darker corners of the American psyche as seen through the eyes of Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a quiet, contained man and stalwart steel worker, and his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq war vet unable to find emotional or financial footing in the town in which he grew up. Opening in theaters on December 6th, the gritty crime thriller set in the heart of steel country boasts an impressive cast that also includes Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Bale, Affleck, Harrelson, Saldana and Cooper talked about the story and the emotional complexity of the characters, the challenges of playing roles that require intensity and a high degree of physicality, how Bale and Affleck collaborated to establish a genuine chemistry between their characters, why the quiet drama of real life often takes center stage in Cooper’s films, and how shooting on location in Braddock, Pennsylvania helped him bring his vision to life and inspire the actors’ very raw and real performances.
QUESTION: What inspired you to pick a location like steel country in Braddock, Pennsylvania at the foot of the Alleghany Mountains right there at the Monongahela for your script and your setting?
SCOTT COOPER: I grew up in a small town in Virginia along the same Appalachian Mountain range, and as the grandson of a coal miner, I have grown up with these people and have spent a lot of time in small town America. While I was touring with my first film, “Crazy Heart,” I had been reading a great deal about Braddock, Pennsylvania. What the town had undergone over the past five to seven years dealing with economic turmoil and the loss of the steel industry really touched me. It was important to me to really shine a light not only on small town America like that but also what we as Americans have undergone these past five turbulent years. That blue collar milieu was something that I really understood and resonated with me and I thought was underrepresented in American cinema. It was very prevalent in the 1970s films that have very much influenced this movie and “Crazy Heart.” I wanted to see that represented on screen again, because I knew these people very well and I knew their mores and their values, and I hoped to think that I knew about their world view, and that it was important to weave all of those themes into a narrative in a very personal way.
Q: For the actors, how did it inform your performances being steeped in that history of our country?
CHRISTIAN BALE: It helps so much being on location, if you understand what I mean. It’s like the difference between performing for the rectangle of the camera versus a world being created and then the camera finds things within that. There’s a huge difference in that, because what it takes away is performance. You don’t feel like performing. You’re just kind of doing it. You’re existing.
CASEY AFFLECK: I think he summed it up pretty well. Especially in a place like where we were, there’s a real story just in the way that it looks to see a place that was once one thing and is now something else. It has a lot of atmosphere. If there’s a lighting set-up that takes 20 minutes, you can go into another room and you’re not just staring at the back of a bunch of plywood. You’re actually in another room in your own house where you’re supposed to be, and it helps to ground you and keep you.
WOODY HARRELSON: I’d like to say ditto.
ZOE SALDANA: You walk in with this fear, wanting to see something that you can imagine being so heavy, and what you learn and you take from it is the strength that you’re able to absorb from these people. It’s very easy to leave when things go wrong, but to stick around and to basically give life to a town because of everything that it gave you generation after generation after generation, that to me is what defines a true American. It’s sticking together when it gets really rough. It is a town that has been hit very, very hard to an extent that I’ve been to places around the world that leave you with a big knot in your stomach and you feel like an elephant has just sat on your chest, and Braddock was definitely one of those cities. But once you sit down with the people, you kind of wish you had an ounce of the strength that they possess every single day by sticking around. That was something that I really was very moved by.
Q: Woody, you were extremely intense, but at the same time you were cool and calm, which is a rare combination. Did that come naturally to you or is that a technique that you’ve developed over the years?
HARRELSON: I think it’s important when you’re acting to be as relaxed as possible even if you’re doing something intense. You’re basically in a state of dynamic relaxation. I think that these other actors might agree with me. I didn’t feel there was anything natural about playing Harlan DeGroat. (to Scott Cooper) What was it you told me when we finished?
COOPER: The very last shot of the film was the very first scene that we shot at the drive-in. When we wrapped, Woody walked over to me and he hugged me and he said, “I have never wanted to shed a character so badly in my life.” And truly, for me, I wanted Woody’s character to represent the very worst of America and Christian’s character to represent the very best of America. I wanted that kind of dichotomy and hopefully we succeeded. I just want to quickly say that as someone who’s had a very unremarkable career as an actor, if you feel like you have a little bit of talent as an actor, that once you see these four actors, and you see their work, and you see it on the other side of a lens, that you quickly realize there’s a difference between being very modestly talented and gifted as they are, and it’s a real treat to direct these actors, I have to say.
BALE: But that being said, you need the right environment and he still creates that environment. It doesn’t matter.
SALDANA: That’s true.
Q: Zoe, your character is torn between these two guys. The scene on the bridge was really amazing. How did you wrap your head around being involved and loving both of these men?
SALDANA: I think Lena has been torn by her life. She’s probably had a rough life. I needed to build that for her and to understand that. I had endless conversations with Scott and we came to that conclusion that she hasn’t had it easy. I needed to know why she just couldn’t stick by the person that she truly loved and she went with somebody that worked in law that symbolically is going to keep her safe. It has to do with her inability to cope with danger and pain. And so, I think that being torn between two men that have been really good to her is small potatoes in comparison to the torture that she has to live with herself knowing that she just has to make decisions that are going to protect her physically.
Q: For Scott, I thought it was interesting how Bale’s character, who is going through such dark things, is shown in church seeking help. What motivated you to have the character be that way?
COOPER: Indeed, this is a man who as I was writing this character, I always thought of him as a very good man who is beset on all sides by a relentless fate. It was based on someone in my life who has suffered a great deal of tragedy and pain and loss, and who is one of the most positive people that I know, and is someone who has given me a great source of inspiration. That particular man’s faith has carried him through, whether he’s asking for absolution or for redemption or whatever it is that he’s asking for in those very quiet and personal moments. In these small communities throughout America, and I’m certain around the world, people all pray to different gods and they all look for different things when they go to houses of worship and spirituality. It was important for me to have Russell Baze ask for that type of spirituality and that faith as he’s certain that he’s doing things that are very morally questionable and things that have happened in his life that through twists of fate and circumstance have put him in the position he’s in.
Q: You talked earlier about what appealed to you about telling this story. I wondered if you could elaborate a little bit on what it was like to have the opportunity to bring it to life on the screen with such a talented group of actors?
COOPER: Directors go their whole career without being able to tell personal stories and to work with a cast as talented as they are. I don’t even consider it work. I honestly and sincerely consider it a privilege to see the type of work and the preparation and the care that these actors put into helping me realize my vision. There was no ego on the set. They were always questioning. They were taking a script that was decently written and elevating it in every way, and making me a better filmmaker, and making me really understand more about who I am as a person. After the modest success of my first film, I found it very daunting to have to live with that kind of burden of expectations. For someone who grew up with very little money and who had very little money after “Crazy Heart,” you can get tempted to make movies for the wrong reasons. And when you have two little girls who want you to make that movie, or need you to make that movie, you just can’t. You have to be very true to yourself and to your artistic world view. I chose to tell a personal story. When you tell a movie like this that’s as emotionally charged as this is, it’s a risk. Certainly, I could have taken a much less risky path after the success of my first film, but as one of my great cinematic heroes, Francis Coppola, would say, “If you aren’t taking the highest, greatest risk, then why are you a filmmaker?”
Q: Casey, as the veteran returning home from Iraq, I thought you gave a very raw, real performance particularly in the scene where you’re describing all the things that you had seen over there. Was there any special preparation that you did for that role?
AFFLECK: Well, not anything special, but I did some preparation. That preparation starts just with reading the script over and over and trying to absorb it and then talking to Scott a lot about where he’s coming from because it’s not really a part of the movie. It doesn’t delve into his history too much which is good. And then, watching some documentaries and things like that. And then, talking to some veterans and just trying to piece together as much as you can what that experience might be like for somebody and for a lot of these guys. These guys now, in these wars, have done more tours than the average soldier in other wars just because it’s not a volunteer army and they’re careerists. They spend a lot of time over there with a constant level of anxiety and understanding what those symptoms are when they come back with some post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s the depression, the frustration, the alienation and feeling like people don’t want to hear what their experiences were and how lonely that could feel. And then, you have to forget about all that stuff and just be in the living room. There you are talking about cleaning the bedpan or something. You just hope that all that stuff imbues whatever moment you’re in and not try to bring it to every little scene, because you don’t carry around your history in that way. It’s just background noise and you hope that whatever research you’ve done bubbles up to the surface at the right time when you’re playing a scene that’s an argument about beer and then suddenly you’re sharing some experience that you weren’t planning on sharing. You’ve done the work and so you just hope at the right moment it clicks and makes sense.
Q: For Casey and Christian, your scenes are amazing and it genuinely feels like there is a family relationship between you. Did you know each other before this? Did you do anything before the movie started to establish that chemistry?
BALE: Not really. It just happened to me. I didn’t even know what had been going on. I’d been saying, “We want Casey for the role.” There were a lot of conversations about that, and Scott and I just kept saying it, and eventually we were saying, “We’re not doing it without Casey.” I didn’t actually meet Casey until we were doing that little camera test in Pittsburg just a couple of days before we started. (to Scott) All of the prison stuff was done in two days?
COOPER: The very first two days.
BALE: The very first two days of filming, we did all that prison sequence stuff. We had just gotten thrown into the deep end which was nice. No. That was it. It just happened. Casey’s a fucking great actor and he was wonderful to work off of and it just came good.
Q: What about you, Casey?
AFFLECK: (joking) We spent weeks and weeks together. (Laughter)
BALE: I forgot all of that. I was just lying. It blasted off my head. No. I did. Sorry mate, I forgot that.
AFFLECK: No. It was like you said, but I don’t know, sometimes it works. It’s awkward to say because he’s sitting right there, but I think he just makes everyone better around him and is an anchor of reality. If someone’s in a scene with you and they’re listening to what you say and they’re looking at you in that way, then you’re having a real conversation and there are real feelings and relationships. The whole thing feels a little bit more real in some way. I would have to attribute whatever apparent chemistry or relationship there is to that. And those first couple day in the prison, those were hard for me. It’s always hard to get right into something. I’m usually terrible the first week. On the very first day or two, we were doing those scenes and Christian was very patient. I did and said some things that just immediately made me trust him and then it just went smoothly from there.
COOPER: What you see between these two actors isn’t something that you can learn in the Lee Strasbourg Institute or at Stella Adler. That is these two actors doing a great deal of investigative text work before. They won’t say that, but they’re also as talented as any two actors of my generation, simply put, and that’s not the type of thing that you as a director can really manufacture. They really are two actors that are at the very height of their skill level quite frankly.
Q: This is not a movie that has hero punches. Everything is very realistic and therefore a lot scarier. I’m wondering for the actors, is there an added level of trust that has to be there between you so that Woody could be as scary as he needed to be but Casey still felt safe?
HARRELSON: I was worried about him eating my face. (Laughter) We were just talking about that before because I was saying that working with Casey is kind of like working with a wild animal. You really don’t know. Is he going to bite you? Do I want to be petted? It was a really great experience. And Christian is one of the greatest actors who ever lived. There’s a level of confidence in the actor you’re working with that really helps a lot. It makes all the difference.