If there’s a writer/director that strives to live by the adage of “keeping it real,” it’s Scott Cooper. The former actor burst on to the directorial scene with 2009’s country music drama “Crazy Heart” to rave reviews and two Oscars for Best Actor Jeff Bridges and Best Original Song by Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett. Cooper may have left the New Mexico locale of his debut effort behind, but the gritty honesty of his storytelling remains. The Virginia native uses the Rust Belt and the Appalachians to tell a story of revenge, retribution and struggle in “Out of the Furnace.” He recently sat down to discuss working with a new slate of A-list actors, the complexities of being a writer/director and his collaboration with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.
What was it like working with A-list talents such as Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Willem Dafoe in only your second film?
SCOTT COOPER: When you work with actors who fully realize their characters as these did and care as much as they do about giving three-dimensional performances, it’s truly about as good as it gets as a film director. You become very spoiled, because they’re so good and so passionate about what they’re doing and, ultimately, the finished product. It’s very, very gratifying.
How important was it to film on location in a place like the mountains of Pennsylvania?
SCOTT COOPER: It was critical on location. I wrote it for Braddock, Pennsylvania and I wasn’t going to make it a film if I didn’t shoot in that small town. I also wanted to conversely show the mountains of New Jersey, which are the shadow of the Empire State Building. I wanted to show two worlds that are very underrepresented in American cinema – the type of blue collar milieu and very honest, hardworking people that are too often overlooked in films today. It was critical that I shoot where I wrote the film for. Much like I did for “Crazy Heart.” I wrote it for Santa Fe, L.A. and Texas and was able to shoot in all three places. It was very important that I shot in Braddock.
As a writer, do you have a personal attachment to the material that makes it difficult when you go into editing?
SCOTT COOPER: As William Faulkner would say, “You’re killing your darling.” He would kill certain paragraphs or chapters. His stories still held up and he knew it was the right thing to do. You’re always doing that as a filmmaker, as a writer, and as you rewrite and in the cutting room. But it’s really important that you make those decisions with a great deal of thought, because I never do anything wantonly and I become obsessive. But I always simply want to tell the truth. That’s what I’ve done with this film, and shined a light on what America has gone through in these last five very turbulent years, and portray honestly and sometimes very brutally and truthfully.
Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the producers. Was he very hands-on in regards to the making of the film?
SCOTT COOPER: Yes, Leo has been a big supporter of the picture. His take on the material has always been very valuable. He’s made many, many films, and while he’s not a director, he’s spent a lot of time in cutting rooms. When you’ve spent time in the cutting room with Martin Scorsese, you get the best film education that anyone could hope for, so Leo has been a very valuable asset.
How did you make the transition from acting to directing?
SCOTT COOPER: It was Robert Duvall who saw some talent of mine as an actor and helped nourish that and became a mentor and close friend. He came to me and said, “You should do what I’ve done,” which is write personal stories and directing. He did that with “The Apostle” very beautifully. And I wrote “Crazy Heart” based on that type of personal experience, and the rest is history. For me, it’s much more enjoyable to be a film director than an actor, because you’re able to put forth your world view in a way that you can’t as an actor, because you’re always beholden to the writer and the director. In this case, I’m both writer and director, and if I’m fortunate enough to get my films made based on what I have to say, then all the better. It certainly isn’t work. It’s a privilege to do what I do.
And you get to yell at the directors without being thrown off set?
SCOTT COOPER: Correct. (Laughs) That’s exactly right, because when you’re writing from a very personal place and you’re open to criticism, it stings, of course, but you try to be truthful and make the very best picture that you can make and try to surround yourself with the best actors, designers, cinematographers, editors and composers, and you’re all pushing that rock up the hill and hopefully aiming for the same goals.
“Release” is one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs. It’s featured prominently in the movie. Did you always have that song in mind?
SCOTT COOPER: That particular song release was very important, because it’s about the loss of his father and one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs. I was listening to it a lot when I was writing it, as I was “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen and the “Ghost of Tom Joad,” but that song… Eddie had never allowed it for commercial purposes. So, I asked if I could use it and Eddie, who liked “Crazy Heart,” said “Why don’t you bring the film up and we can meet and take a look at it?” I screened the movie for him and he walked out very visibly moved and said, “Not only can you have the song, but I’ll re-record it. I haven’t recorded it since 1991 and I’ll personalize it for the film.” And he did. What you hear in the closing moments and the closing credits of the film is his re-record. Hopefully, you find it haunting and moving.
With a movie so heavy, was it possible to have fun on set at all?
SCOTT COOPER: We had a lot of fun. I just was reuniting with Christian and talking about how much fun we had in making the film. As you said, it is very heavy with very mature subject matter, but when you’re doing what we do and able to express yourself, you have a lot of fun doing it. It was certainly a heavier set, but the material’s heavy and the themes and we are as Americans. It’s a movie about us and the human condition, resilience and all of those things and fate and circumstance that sort of courses through this narrative. But when you’re able to make a film like this that was much more common in the 1970s and very rare now, you as the actor, cinematographer or the director, you race to the set everyday and the set is filled with joy and happiness.
There was quite a bit of bare knuckle brawling. Did anyone get hurt on set?
SCOTT COOPER: Well, Casey’s not a stunt guy, and maybe sometimes couldn’t hold his punches as well as a stuntman could, so there were some fists flying for sure. What you see when those fists are connecting… they really did. I just happened to be there capturing them.
What do you have coming up, and is there anything on the DVD that you can tell me?
SCOTT COOPER: Well, that will be a surprise. (Laughs) But there’s some really interesting outtakes and some things that you wouldn’t be expecting. I’ve written a couple things that I’m really proud of – a Depression era crime drama that Leonardo is producing with me, and “Lie Down Into Darkness,” about the disintegration of a Virginia family in the 1940s – and entertaining some things I didn’t write, which would be a first, but I’m eager to get back to work and tell very truthful stories.