After a decade spent trying to make it as an actor, Scott Cooper found his niche as an actor’s director. Distributor Entertainment Studios tomorrow broadens the release of his fourth film, Hostiles, in the teeth of awards season. Cooper guided Jeff Bridges to the Best Actor Oscar in his directing debut Crazy Heart, and followups Out of the Furnace and Black Mass have all featured strong performances. The 1892-set Hostiles — which Cooper scripted from a decades old manuscript by the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart — is no different. Christian Bale plays an army cavalry captain who, after a career spent waging bloody battles against Indian war parties in the way of manifest destiny, feels affronted by an order he escort an ill rival chief (Wes Studi) he helped hunt down, so the man can die at home with his family by his side. The journey is filled with violent battles but also the internal conflict of a man unsure he can survive in a changing world that requires letting go of old enemies and the bitter memories consuming him.
DEADLINE: How long had you been waiting to do a Western and why this one?
SCOTT COOPER: I have long admired the work of John Ford and Howard Hawks, and in particular Anthony Mann and his psychological westerns. Any self-respecting American director wants to take a shot at directing a Western. I could never have made Hostiles as a first, second, or third film. It’s just far too difficult.
COOPER: Logistically, they’re expensive. We were shooting at very high elevations during monsoon season in the Rockies, as well as in New Mexico. You’re dealing with daily lightning, rattlesnakes and a few bears. You know, dark, psychological material. I could never have handled that as a first, second, third time director. I needed to really get my footing before I tried.
Much like the gangster genre that I just made a film in, in Black Mass, you are dealing in a genre where the best films ever made reside. Invariably you’re going to get compared to the best films ever made, so you’ve got to be ready for that backlash. I felt now was the time to do it. I had my personal first film, which in a sense dealt with the musical. I made my personal passionate French film in Out of the Furnace. It made sense to try a Western.
DEADLINE: The original script for Hostiles was written in the 1980s by Donald Stewart, who wrote the Jack Ryan films and died in 1999. How did it find its way to you?
COOPER: One of my CAA agents said Donald Stewart’s widow really appreciated my first film Crazy Heart but the one that most spoke to her was Out of the Furnace. While she was selling a house and boxing things up, she found a manuscript that had never been seen by anyone. Her husband had written it and it was very important to him and she thought I might be the person to interpret it. What spoke to me was the kernel of an idea about a man who, in Christian Bale’s character, has been indoctrinated by the United States government from a very young age essentially to fight and to kill. Christian and I discussed that perhaps he was a very young boy in a hornet’s nest at Shiloh, the waning days of the Civil War and from that point on he has been fighting the Indian wars, all at the instruction of the American government. What struck me was this man with a deep seeded hatred was forced to escort one of his rivals, a dying Cheyenne chief. I set that from New Mexico to Montana. Over the course of this journey, these two men begin to gain a sense of understanding, healing, reconciliation and ultimately enlightenment. As I was working on the screenplay, we had Trayvon Martin, we had Ferguson, we had Eric Garner, and this racial and cultural divide in America. I wanted to speak to that in the confines of an American western.
DEADLINE: What are your personal touchstone Westerns?
COOPER: Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur. Eastwood’s Unforgiven. John Ford’s The Searchers, which would affect this film. John Wayne’s character also a deep seeded hatred that courses through his veins, but we never see him soften or find the enlightenment that we see with Joe Block or Christian Bale’s character.
DEADLINE: The closest to Hostiles would be The Searchers, except that Bale’s character changes and Wayne’s could not. Could you make The Searchers today?
DEADLINE: Wayne’s character was an unrepentant racist. We’re in a social media age where everything is judged and if you’re not mindful of the kind of inclusion that didn’t exist in 1892, you’ll get depicted as being insensitive and tone deaf. How do you depict the period without seeming fraudulent in soft selling the savagery and terrible things that went on in the taming of the West?
COOPER: I’m not on any social media. It clutters my thought process and it’s generally filled with people who are, for the most part, quite hateful. This is blood sport for filmmakers. I don’t indulge it. What I will say about a movie like The Searchers, the Native American parts were cast with Caucasians. That’s unforgivable. I wrote this film for Wes Studi, for Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale, Steve Lang, Bill Camp, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemmons. I had all of them in mind when I was writing the screenplay. I made a very distinct choice to tell this from the point of view of Captain Joe Blocker, Christian Bale’s character. A man who ultimately begins the film much like the D.H. Lawrence quote I have that opens the film which says, the American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted. That’s how Blocker begins this journey.
Over the course of it, he’s no longer that man. He’s softens, finds enlightenment and reconciliation, but I made the choice to tell that through his point of view. Some of the criticism that we’re meeting with, not from many of the Native American consultants or advisors who worked on the film or their communities, but some people who feel like we have not shown as much of the Cheyenne as they would have liked or that I would have liked. But you’re trying to tell a two hour narrative. Instead of the white savior story you often see in westerns this is about a white savage and Native American saviors who help him to see the world in a different way through their culture and mores. That was my goal.
DEADLINE: Despite the heightened sensitivity right now, movie making isn’t a democracy. How much outside noise do you allow in?
COOPER: Almost none. If you set out to make a film that’s going to please everyone you’re going to please no one and you’re certainly not going to please yourself. You can’t make films like I do which are very uncompromising, very unflinching, and unsentimental and expect that a wide group of people might embrace them. When you take big swings you’re going to get big shots taken against you and that’s part of the kind of films that I want to make. The truth is, if everybody likes your film it’s likely not very good. I don’t intend to offend people but I certainly want to make very uncompromising, unflinching pieces of work that hopefully stand the test of time.
DEADLINE: When Hostiles played in Toronto and sold afterwards, the buzz in the acquisition market was this is a movie that cost around $50 million. How do you get something like this financed?
COOPER: Those numbers are over-inflated. The film was made for 39 million dollars, which is still quite expensive. Ken Kao, a lover of film and a financier and producer, and now a very good friend, saw Out of the Furnace three times, and came to me and said anything you want to make, please send it to me. Christian and I were making this and we sent it to Ken and he said, I’m in. And off we went to Mexico.
DEADLINE: Doesn’t sound hard at all.
COOPER: Ever since Crazy Heart, I have been fortunate in getting to tell the stories that I want to. Movies like this are finding it much more difficult, not only with audiences but certainly with financiers. Ken stepped up and so did Byron Allen, whose Entertainment Studios is distributing. I can’t say enough good things about him. The only African American man to own his own studio and distribution, taking on a movie about racial inclusion. I’m quite concerned with how the landscape is starting to shift underneath my feet. There’s nothing like the shared common experience in a darkened cinema and I fear fewer Americans are taking advantage of that. They would rather stay home and watch films. I get it. It’s expensive to go out and see a movie. We’re in a very difficult place at the moment for sure.
DEADLINE: How hard is it to get Christian Bale to say yes?
COOPER: Christian is my closest pal and we spend a lot of time together when we aren’t working. I think Christian is the finest actor working today. He embodies characters in a way that is bone deep. So often, the type of performances that people think are award worthy, it falls under the idea that the most acting equals the best acting. I subscribe to the opposite. Christian is able to do something very few actors can; he psychologically embodies the character and the traits in a way that it takes what you’ve written on the page to a whole different, unexpected place. When you can do that with your closest friend, why not? I wrote Out of the Furnace for Christian, and certainly wrote this with Christian in mind. He and I have very similar sensibilities; we become obsessed. Christian is not afraid to make unflinching or uncompromising movies, which we certainly did with Out of the Furnace and now with this. I couldn’t ask for a better partner because Christian understands character, story and tone so well. When I’m casting, he and I speak about every part in the film. We talk about the cinematic grammar of the story, all the things that a lot of actors don’t want to concern themselves with. Christian does it because he’s interested and curious and like me, obsessed. My wife often says, are you going to work with anyone but Christian?
DEADLINE: You started as an actor, and got close to some big jobs that went to others. What does Bale have that you didn’t?
COOPER: It became very clear to me when making Crazy Heart, when I’m sitting next to the camera, filming Jeff Bridges, that some actors can do things nobody else can. Jeff Bridges, Robert Duvall, Christian Bale. It’s something intangible. Christian is able to plumb the depths of characters in ways I only hoped I could, as an actor. He has been doing this three decades, since he was 12 or 13. That experience shows. He’s able to say so much non-verbally with a look and a glance that would require a great deal of dialogue from a lot of actors. I find myself paring down and completely omitting dialogue I had written for him because he can say so much non-verbally and hold the screen. I just didn’t have that ability.
DEADLINE: When you’re writing Hostiles for him and sharing scenes and plot, what were his biggest concerns?
COOPER: That we were never too over-sentimental and that we would show the brutality of the American West. He wanted to make sure we wouldn’t shy away from our very dark and unforgivable American past of genocide, and convey an unflinching look at life and the hardships of people searching for manifest destiny. Also, it was very clear that we wanted to make this a man who becomes obsolete in the face of modernity, a man who only knows how to fight and to kill and who no longer is of use to anyone in the coming Industrial Revolution. I abhor violence but when it is there in my films, I shoot it in very realistic and authentic ways because I want people to see the consequences. There are television shows that are far more gratuitously violent than my films but there, you realize that what you’re seeing is manufactured and inauthentic so it doesn’t affect you in the way that the type of violence I photograph affects people. Christian very much wanted the same thing. He also was very clear, as was I, that we didn’t ever want to be able to pinpoint where Captain Blocker makes the change, and starts to become more enlightened and this reconciliation begins. There are very few times in your life that you really feel like you’ve changed. The birth of a child, marriage, the death of a parent or a sibling. For Captain Blocker we wanted change to be very, very subtle. You see him at the end, completely out of his element. He’s suffering from melancholia, post-traumatic stress disorder, a theme that’s very important to me that was in Out of the Furnace with Casey Affleck’s character, and here with Rory Cochrane and Christian’s characters. How does a man survive like that? What life is left for him? He’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and there’s a young Native American boy who no longer has ties to his culture, and a mother and a widow who’s lost three children and a husband. Now you have three people who are leading a life that they never planned to lead. Now what?
DEADLINE: A seminal moment in Out of the Furnace comes on that bridge, where Zoey Saldana’s character reveals to Christian’s character she is pregnant by another man, and his dream of reuniting with the woman he loves is over. You see him shut that door in the most subtle way, something he does just as effectively in Hostiles. How do you help guide him in those scenes?
COOPER: Very carefully. You want your actors to feel safe. Like the scene on the bridge or the one where he’s contemplating suicide at the beginning of this film. I want actors to always feel that they can take the artistic leap and I will protect them. With Christian, it’s just him, me, my cinematographer Masanobu Takayanobi, and Zoey on that bridge and no one else is on set. That way, you’re able to bare your soul and show things to the audience and to the director and to the camera lens that you have not shown in other films. That’s what I always want to do whether it’s Jeff Bridges or Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger or Christian as a steelworker or Christian as a cavalry captain. I want to see performances I haven’t seen these actors ever give. That requires a great deal of trust.
With all of my actors, I never rehearse. We have a lot of what I call investigative text work with the script and character and dialogue, for hours and hours before we shoot. Then in those moments you mentioned, it will be a closed set with just the actors, me and my cinematographer. I’ve never rehearsed because performances become stale. Actors make choices in their trailers before they come to set and you can see the gears turning in the heads, when it’s done this way. In moments like on the bridge, it’s action, cut and then we make adjustments between cut and action the next time. Whether Christian is playing the stoic man working in steel country or one who fights the Indian wars, he only shows vulnerability in private moments that are heartbreaking. In Out of the Furnace, we shot until Christian and Zoey said after several takes, we can’t go any further.
As a former actor, I know you never want to push your actors too far. Same with Rosamund Pike when she buries her children in Hostiles. You aren’t taught what she did, at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art or the Actor’s Studio. That comes from a primal place. Rory Cochrane, Christian and Jesse Plemons all came to me and said, how many more takes do we have to do? They were part of the scene, and it was disturbing them. I go until I achieve the behavior I saw in a film that’s probably the most influential in terms of how I direct actors. It’s a documentary that Barbara Kopple directed in 1976, called Harlan County USA, about a coal miner strike in Appalachia, Kentucky. The behavior in that documentary is something that I look at to remind myself of what I want to achieve every time I make a film.
DEADLINE: It’s odd that a documentary would be the touchstone for a narrative filmmaker.
COOPER: I don’t ever want to see the work from an actor. I always tell my actors before I start shooting: don’t show me, let my camera find it. By that I mean I don’t want to see any performance. I don’t want to see the seams. Generally the type of work that wins Oscars is overt, and inauthentic, but for whatever reason people tend to respond to it. I look for a very deep honesty and authenticity that you really only get in private moments of people’s lives. I try to commit that to film. Barbara Kopple had unprecedented access to this. The violent struggles with the strike breakers and the police and these company thugs is haunting, it’s searing, it has the unrelenting, raw energy of the human spirit. I try to incorporate that in all of my films.
DEADLINE: If the performances of Bale and Bridges in your film is about subtlety, Johnny Depp’s turn as Whitey Bulger in Black Mass was more overt. He carried that film as the larger than life ruthless Boston mob boss. Subtlety wouldn’t work.
COOPER: It is still trying to find the human moments. Whitey Bulger with his mother, Whitey with his brother, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, after the death of their mother. These moments with his son that are tender and you don’t expect from a psychopath, those need to be explored and balanced. Because you’re also making a film in which The Departed covered some of the same territory and Jack Nicholson had a much larger than life interpretation of who Whitey Bulger was. What I said to Johnny was what I said to you earlier. Don’t show me. Let me find the performance. I was once setting up a shot with his stand-in, this Boston local who looks just like Whitey Bulger. While Masanobu was lighting, I asked Johnny to look at the monitor. I said you see what he’s doing? This guy had an incredible face and you could just feel this kind of intensity, emanating from him. I said, Johnny, do you see what he’s doing? He said, he’s not doing anything. I said exactly. I’d supplied Johnny with all of this FBI surveillance footage of Whitey Bulger and you got a sense he was so confident in his skin and that he liked to physically intimidate other people by standing too close to them, crossing his arms, lording over them. He gave off this energy that was very threatening, very frightening. He had these extremely blue eyes that would just peer through you, so people didn’t like to make eye contact with him. These are all the sort of things that I said to Johnny we need to incorporate beyond the human moments. That’s a larger than life character than any of the films I’ve ever made.
DEADLINE: You’ve said the Hostiles shoot brought harsh weather, snakes and bears. When you are chronicling a reputed gangster with strong political ties in Boston, what complexities does that create?
COOPER: I was afraid I might end up getting audited by the IRS. You know, when you’re dealing with two characters, one man who’s the most powerful politician in the city of Boston and another who’s the biggest underworld crime figure you’re going to run into some resistance and boy did I ever.
DEADLINE: Where do you go next?
COOPER: I’m writing a film about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Earl Ray and the attorney general Ramsey Clark, all set around that fateful day on April 4, 1968. The film talks about the rise of the demagogy and George Wallace, who was giving people permission to enact their bigotry and hate as he was stumping across the nation in search of the presidency.
DEADLINE: That sounds vaguely familiar to what happened last year in Charlottesville.
COOPER: Indeed. It also deals with a vast racial and cultural divide. I remember once, when I was nine years old my grandfather’s farm in Tennessee, late at night, when there were suddenly helicopters flying over us. His hunting dogs were barking. Up the driveway come red lights, blue lights, state troopers, FBI, sheriff department. I run out in my pajamas and my grandfather is talking to the sheriff, who says a group of men have escaped from Brushy Mountain State Prison and one of them has crashed a truck that he stole that belonged to you. That man, they told him James Earl Ray. From that point forward I always was curious as to how a man like James Earl Ray could take a man who meant so much to me personally in Martin Luther King, Jr. and how someone could assassinate President Kennedy or Robert F. Kennedy. Hampton Sides, the author of the book Hellhound on His Trail, sent me the book years ago, but I was working on other projects. Finally, it’s come back around for me.