EXCLUSIVE: Between nightly guild screenings and the AFI Fest, you could go to theaters all over Hollywood, throw a rock, and probably hit a great director or actor. One I’m intrigued by is Scott Cooper, whose debut Crazy Heart drew an Oscar for Jeff Bridges and a nomination for Maggie Gyllenhaal. His follow-up Out Of The Furnace threatens to do the same for a stellar ensemble cast of Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana and Sam Shepard. What’s fascinating is Cooper spent years knocking around as an actor, hoping for but never getting the kinds of roles he writes for other actors. He discusses that with Deadline along with the high price of truthful writing, the role of luck, fate and ’70s films in his process, and how painful violence in serious films imprints on a gun-crazy society.
Related: Hot Trailer: ‘Out Of The Furnace’
Deadline: It would have been hard to think of you in any other context than a struggling actor when you made your directorial debut on Crazy Heart. You put your on-camera background to good use, helping Bridges and Gyllenhaal to career performances. Scripts start coming your way and you latch onto The Low Dweller, the big-money Brad Ingelsby spec that stalled when Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio dropped out. Why did you choose it as the template for Out Of The Furnace?
Scott Cooper: I had very unremarkable career as an actor and wrote a very personal story in Crazy Heart. Robert Duvall, a mentor and close friend who let me get married on his farm, produced my first film and to have a guy like, who speaks the language of actors, get behind you was key. That film met with some modest success, and then I’m starting at a pile of scripts after never being offered anything in my life as an actor. I have kids to feed, but I want to stay true to myself. I said no to a lot of scripts that went on to become very good films that shall remain nameless. Ridley and Michael Costigan really loved Crazy Heart and so did the folks at Leo’s Appian Way. They offered me The Low Dweller, which received acclaim around town when Leonardo and Ridley were going to do it. I was in a place where I only wanted to tell personal stories. The script was very well written, but I didn’t want to film some of the themes that coursed through it and said no. They came back and said, why don’t you take carte blanche with it? I do have a brother, and there was this seed in that script that ultimately became the movie. A man gets out of prison and avenges the loss of his brother. From there, I personalized my life and turned it into something I felt would resonate.
Deadline: What parts of your life did you infuse into this?
Cooper: Everything, down to the importance of fate and circumstance. As the grandson of a coal miner, growing up in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Appalachia, I understood these people, their values and work ethic. I wanted to tell a story about a very good man beset on all sides by a relentless fate. Christian Bale’s character is sent to prison not because he’s an alcoholic or because he is drunk driving. Willem Dafoe’s character essentially makes him drink some alcohol along with him, as part of repaying some of the debt owed by his brother, who’s played by Casey Affleck. This lady pulls out of her driveway and there is a terrible accident. A good man goes to prison and in those three or four years, he loses the love of his life. His brother serves four tours in Iraq and sees things you and I could only imagine in a nightmare. By the time they’re reunited, the local economy has crumbled, and they are living in a very violent nation. I wanted to really tell a personal story about what we as Americans have undergone these past five turbulent years. So I personalized the narrative. I have a brother, and I lost a sister at a young age. That lives with me every day. We come to understand deep loss, and if you’re honest they find their way into your storytelling. Eddie Vedder said to me, if you don’t tell those stories, they will eat you up. You have to put them down on paper. The script, starting from Fade In to the end, was a fast regurgitation of stuff that I and other Americans had been through. For better or worse, the result was the movie you saw.
Deadline: You mention fate and circumstance. How does one go from an actor who hardly works to a director who gets sent the pile of scripts you only dreamed about in your first career?
Cooper: I think I have a very unobtrusive style that focuses on performance. I don’t think anyone will ever say look how clever Scott is with the camera. That doesn’t particularly matter to me. I care about classical composition, about telling a story in an obtrusive way that is all about the actor, all about being invested in a world. I want the editing, costumes and the music to be invisible, so you’re so invested in this world and it’s realistic enough that can’t resist what the characters are going through. People responded to Jeff Bridges, this legendary actor who gave a performance that left me feeling lucky and the benefactor of fate and circumstance. Actors want to play flawed, complex human beings. The bigger budget films seem to lack that level of characterization, because they are about something else.
Deadline: When you wrote Crazy Heart, did you, like Tate Taylor did with The Help, make directing your personal script a condition of the deal?
Cooper: Yes. It was so personal and specific, I don’t know how I would have given it up. I grew up listening to legends like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and I wanted to tell Merle’s story. I went after it several times. He wanted me to do it, but he had five ex-wives, and it was very hard to get those rights. I’d grown up listening to my father’s vinyl collection, Merle, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and I wanted to tell a story of a man who wrote from personal life experience like those guys did. That was Jeff’s character. I wrote the part for Jeff Bridges, but I never met him. I sent the script to Mr. Duvall, who’d won an Oscar for Tender Mercies which was a very similar milieu. He said, I want to produce it. How do we get this made. I said, I need Jeff Bridges and I need T Bone Burnett, neither of whom I know. I did know that when Robert Duvall’s name is on a script and it goes to Jeff Bridges or T Bone Burnett, it’s going to start on top of the pile, due to his legendary status. I’m certain that happened.
Deadline: Where did you get the talent to direct?
Cooper: I didn’t go to film school, so I steeped myself in watching the masters. Coppola, Scorsese, William Friedkin. I’d watch those movies over and over, sometimes with the sound off. I’d read interviews with the Coen Brothers and how it took Jeff a year to commit The Big Lebowski. A year after I sent him Crazy Heart, he reached out, said he loved it and let’s meet. I only saw Jeff in that part and I don’t know if I could have made it without him. Mr. Duvall said, Scott you have to direct this, you really know this story, the world, the music, the heartbreak and the redemption this man is going for. It was this perfect storm of personal experience, a relationship with Mr. Duvall, the luck that Jeff Bridges responded, and then having T Bone Burnett. I got the luckiest break anybody has ever gotten in this town.
Deadline: With Out Of The Furnace, the challenge becomes proving it was not all luck?
Cooper: There was that daunting pile of scripts, but I wanted to tell another personal story. I won’t always do that, I’m a young guy and don’t have that many. It felt important as I tried to establish a filmmaker’s voice. I wanted the style to be real and uncompromising, in movies about about the human condition and spirit. That brought us to this place. Once again, while writing Out Of The Furnace, I had Christian Bale in mind, but had never met him.
Deadline: Isn’t that a long shot, to write for an actor who most often would say no to a newcomer?
Cooper: When you have someone like Christian in mind, it can help the process, but it can also be very dangerous. Jeff Bridges could have turned me down, and Christian could have also. When you write with people in mind, eventually someone’s going to say no. I’ve just been lucky.
Deadline: Your acting credits include Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me to Get Low. As a director, you’ve never shot on a soundstage. Why do you have an aversion to them?
Cooper: It could be my lack of experience in not understanding the benefit of soundstages. I much prefer to shoot on location. It’s critical for the authenticity I am striving for, and it’s critical to the actors and crew. I would much prefer to be in the gritty steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, than a soundstage in Hollywood trying to create that. It pervades every pore of the production. I chose Braddock specifically after reading articles in The New York Times about how this town had undergone such a tragic transformation. A town full of 3000 people is now 2000 people. I wrote this specifically for the locations in Braddock, from the old Carrie Furnace that once produced iron but was the place where Casey does his bare-knuckle fighting; the mills, the houses that just drip with atmosphere. I have a great fondness for small American towns, they are still the bedrock of this country. The studio said it would make more financial sense to shoot in Massachusetts, which offers greater rebates. I said, I’m not going to shoot the film unless I shoot in Braddock, Pennsylvania. It’s just really important to me to shoot where I write. I wrote Crazy Heart for Sante Fe, Texas and Los Angeles, and shot in those places on a meager budget in 23 days. I had a little more money here, and the studio gave me what I wanted. Braddock was another character in this film.
Deadline: There is a fairly overt homage to The Deer Hunter, one of my favorite movies…
Cooper: Mine too, though I think it’s dangerous to do as a filmmaker…
Deadline: Well, you get a clear sense that you infused ’70s cinematic sensibilities into a contemporary context. What other movies informed or inspired the style behind this film, which moved at an unhurried pace? There’s a confidence you don’t always see in a director’s second film.
Cooper: The Deer Hunter is one of my favorite films, and as a filmmaker I would not advise using that as an avatar, because how can you measure up? That film definitely influenced me as a director, and so did McCabe And Mrs. Miller, John Cassavetes’ The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, Days Of Heaven by Malick, and of course, William Friedkin’s The French Connection and Sorcerer. I watched those over and over; his depiction of these worlds is so realistic that you don’t even realize there’s a camera there. That’s what I’m trying to express. If you look at these filmmakers, their style isn’t so overt that you feel the technical virtuosity of their abilities, which I find can gets in the way of emotion. I marvel at how assured these directors are. Performance and humanity are the things most important to me. Having come up as an actor, I love actors and I love giving them a venue to take risks and fail, because we all fail together. You look at those films of the early 1970s, and throw Scorsese in there with Mean Streets and Raging Bull. I’ve curated and stolen from them all, I just didn’t do it as overtly as I did The Deer Hunter, and I didn’t do it near as well as those guys did it.
Deadline: Your film’s spare dialogue and the way make the audience put some of the pieces together, reminds me a bit of The Counselor, which your producer Ridley Scott directed. It got thumped by critics. I don’t know if I exactly understood it, but I still can’t get some of those scenes and those Cormac McCarthy-scripted lines out of my head. I’ve heard people it could be reconsidered like McCabe And Mrs. Miller and Fight Club, and it’s interesting you were informed not just by big hits, but films that didn’t get their due until later.
Cooper: I haven’t seen it but I will, and I should have mentioned Heaven’s Gate. Masterpieces are not easy to take in, but it really is a director’s goal to make movies like those, which stick with you. Whether you embrace my films or disdain them, I would be crushed if an audience was indifferent. There’s nothing worse than seeing a film, turning to the person you’re with when leaving the theater, and the first thing you say is, so where are we having dinner? You want to make a film that bores into the marrow. I think about the movies we are discussing, all the time. I’m an avid runner, and as I run through the canyons over in West Los Angeles, all I do is replay those films in my head. I never went to film school, and this is my education and it has just started. I’ve only made two films, but I want to keep taking risks. As Francis Coppola said, if you aren’t taking the greatest possible risk, why are you even doing what you’re doing?
Deadline: Casey Affleck wouldn’t be the first guy you’d think of as a bare-knuckle brawler. And aside from Natural Born Killers, if you looked in the homicidal maniac casting handbook, you wouldn’t see Woody Harrelson there. How did you know these guys could do this?
Cooper: I’m glad you noticed. You look at To Die For, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, or Larry Flynt and White Men Can’t Jump, clear to The Messenger and Rampart, you see range and versatility. It would be too easy to cast someone more physically imposing than Casey; you’ll never think he’s going to lose and you would not fear for him. Casey has this beautiful high-pitched rough voice that speaks innocence. I needed people to care for this guy who came home from Iraq after four tours, to no job prospects. He has been taught by the U.S. government to fight, and now he’s back home fighting for his life. He is tormented by what he saw, and while he’s smaller in stature, he is scrappy, like the blue collar workers in America who fight for everything. Casey is a genius actor, a live wire. Woody has this heart of gold and is funny. I could see in his work he takes it seriously, and he goes deep. We all have pasts to draw on and I knew he could draw from his own and give me a performance I knew would rank among some of the scariest onscreen villains, in a realistic way. These people exist and quite frankly, he was based on someone in my life that touched my family in a similar way. It was important to find the right actor, one you wouldn’t expect to see in that part.
Deadline: Without making you too uncomfortable or getting too personal, you are saying Woody’s portrayal is based on a real character. Did that also end in tragedy?
Cooper: Oh, yes, it certainly ended in tragedy.
Deadline: So you’ve taken that and you bleed on the page and put it on the screen. That takes guts.
Cooper: It’s why, when you take a personal risk like this, it would feel like a personal attack if I read a negative review, which I won’t. But when you make movies like this, it’s the risk you take. It would have been much easier to tell a story that wasn’t so personal in my second film, but it seemed important for me to do that. It was harrowing for me to debut the film at AFI. Apart from Christian Bale, who couldn’t be there but who has seen the movie seven or eight times, and Casey, Woody and very close friends, this was the first time people saw it. It meant so much that they embraced my attempt to tell the truth.
Deadline: Oscar season means endless screenings and Q&As. You got one done by one of those ’70s heroes, William Friedkin. What did that mean to you?
Cooper: I’m still feeling the buzz of that. Those DGA screenings are half an hour but Mr. Friedkin asked for an hour. To have one of my cinematic heroes asking the most incisive thoughtful and probing questions in front of our fellow directors and then to hear the things he said after, I will take them to my grave. I won’t repeat them; I’d sound like an asshole.
Deadline: No need for that. What question did he ask you that made you understand he got the weight of these provocative images you put on the screen?
Cooper: Well, we met privately and I could tell he got every nuance. This is a man who has directed several masterpieces, and who has skillfully directed violent films. The most important question he asked me was, do I take responsibility as a filmmaker for putting this kind of violence on the screen. And he wouldn’t let go until I answered honestly.
Deadline: What was your answer?
Cooper: That you do take responsibility. I’m the father of two girls, ages 7 and 10, who won’t see my film for years and years. People are very influenced by what they see onscreen. I could have a much longer discussion about mental health issues, the availability of assault weapons and high capacity magazines, all things we are not doing a good job policing as a nation. You do feel a sense of responsibility. You just have to live with that, especially when you are trying to tell truthful stories as I’ve tried to do here.