A chat with writer/director Scott Cooper (“Out of the Furnace”)

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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.

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Movie Review: “Out of the Furnace”

Starring
Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker
Director
Scott Cooper

Christian Bale hands out his own brand of justice in the revenge drama “Out of the Furnace,” but don’t expect Alfred or Commissioner Gordon to help out the former Dark Knight. Instead, the film features an all-star cast under the direction of Scott Cooper in a story about retribution, loss and broken spirits in the Rust Belt of America.

With the rapid intensity of a horse race, the film opens with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) pulling into a country drive-in theater. He asks his date (Dendrie Taylor) to remove her hot dog from the bun and shoves it down her throat. When an onlooker sees DeGroat’s boorish behavior, he sets out to remind him of what a gentleman is. Unfortunately, that act causes him to be beaten to a pulp, to the point where other men are scared to help the would-be hero.

However, the furnace in the title refers to the Carrie Furnace located in Braddock, Pennsylvania, where the Rust Belt serves more as a lead blanket, suffocating those who live there to the point where escape is rarely an option. It’s here that steel worker Russell Baze (Bale) solemnly toils away at the mill, while having a constant reminder that the place that pays his bills also left his father slowly and painfully dying of cancer. Russell’s girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) is cooking up another kind of heat for Russell in the hopes that he’ll make an honest woman out of her complete with bouncing baby Bazes.

Russell already has kid problems in the form of his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a soldier always looking for a quick score, but always ending up in debt to the local bookie and tavern owner John Petty (Willem Dafoe). When Russell tries to bail out Rodney from his latest loan, the night ends with him serving a stretch in prison. Upon his release, he learns that the world has moved on without him. Rodney is even deeper in debt and suffering from PTSD, finding his solace in bare knuckle fights, which often require him to take a dive. Lena has moved on with the local sheriff (Forest Whitaker), and both Rodney and John Petty are going to realize that clearing your debts is easier said than done, especially when those debts are to DeGroat.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to December

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Winter has officially arrived, and with it comes the final wave of award contenders hoping to leave an impression on critics and Oscar voters. Though 2013 hasn’t exactly been the best year for movies, there’s plenty of quality on display in December, including the second installment of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy, new films from David O. Russell and the Coen brothers, and the latest collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. And for those looking for lighter fare, there’s also the long-awaited sequel to “Anchorman.”

“OUT OF THE FURNACE”

Who: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck and Zoe Saldana
What: When Rodney Baze mysteriously disappears and law enforcement fails to follow through, his older brother, Russell, takes matters into his own hands to find justice.
When: December 4th
Why: Writer/director Scott Cooper burst onto the scene in 2009 with “Crazy Heart,” netting Jeff Bridges the Oscar for Best Actor in the process, so it’s not surprising to see that he’s managed to land some equally impressive talent for his sophomore effort. Though early word for this one has been pretty mixed, the trailers have me intrigued, particularly with such an amazing ensemble cast, which also includes screen veterans like Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard. Plus, I’ll watch just about anything starring Christian Bale, because he’s one of this generation’s finest actors with his chameleon-like ability to completely inhabit any role. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t made a dud every now and again, but his résumé speaks for itself, and “Out of the Furnace” looks like another solid addition to an already remarkable career.

“INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS”

Who: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman
What: A week in the life of a young musician as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.
When: December 6th
Why: There aren’t many directors that can boast a track record as impressive as the one that Joel and Ethan Coen have enjoyed throughout their 30-year careers, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” is just another notch on that cinematic belt. Markedly different from a lot of their films in that it’s a much more intimate, character-driven piece, “Inside Llewyn Davis” most closely resembles “A Serious Man” in both tone and execution. But although the movie is a fairly bittersweet portrait of personal failure (a running theme in the Coens’ repertoire), it’s not without their trademark wit and humor. The comedy may not be as pronounced as in their other films, but it’s yet another fine period drama that boasts a superb lead performance from Oscar Isaac and one of the best (and most addictive) soundtracks since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

“THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”

Who: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage and Orlando Bloom
What: The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug.
When: December 13th
Why: It’s a little ironic that the villain of this story is an avaricious reptile, because Warner Bros. could be accused of similar behavior following the decision to split “The Hobbit” into three movies. Of course, fans are hardly complaining about spending more time in Middle-earth, and now that the stage has been set with “An Unexpected Journey,” the second installment promises to be even better. Along with introducing important characters like Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), The Necromancer and Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch pulling double duty), the movie also marks the return of fan favorite Legolas and newly created female elf Tauriel, neither of whom actually appear in Tolkien’s novel. It wouldn’t be the first time that Peter Jackson has tinkered with the source material, but he hasn’t let us down yet, and that’s more than enough reason to get excited about Part Two.

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