Out of the Furnace
Screenwriter and director Scott Cooper reveals the deeply personal narrative of Out of the Furnace, the resiliency of the Rust Belt, and why he turned Woody Harrelson from a “national treasure” to homicidal New Jersey hillbilly.
by Christopher McKittrick
Scott Cooper was once a young actor from southwest Virginia who had appeared in small roles in a handful of films and television episodes. However, that was before he wrote the script for the 2009 thriller For Sale by Owner, which he also starred in and co-produced. To date it was Cooper’s last acting role, and since then he hasn’t looked back. He has since devoted his time to becoming a writer/director of films that reveal the humanity of his characters as they struggle against the entwined internal and external forces in their lives that inflict suffering upon them.
It certainly helped Cooper’s transition tremendously that his first film as a writer/director, the 2009 adaptation of the Thomas Cobb novel Crazy Heart, was a major success by several measures. After receiving almost universally excellent reviews and doing strong business for a low-budget film, Crazy Heart won two Oscars, one for Original Song and the second one—long overdue—for lead actor Jeff Bridges. Crazy Heart is the kind of debut film that every would-be director aspires to make, but few can say they have.
Curiously, the origins of Cooper’s latest film began in 2008, the year before he fully turned his attention to working behind the camera. The foundation of Out of the Furnace originated from a script called The Low Dweller by Brad Ingelsby that was subject of a bidding war. The Low Dweller was a period drama set in 1986 about a man named Slim who intends to walk the straight-and-narrow after serving time in prison for murder. However, Slim feels compelled to avenge his brother’s murder when he is killed after getting mixed up with several gamblers. The studio that bought the script, Relativity Media, sought Cooper to direct the screenplay, but Cooper would only agree if he could use the basic plot as a starting point for a more personal story he wanted to tell.
The result became Out of the Furnace, set in 2008 to the present day in the rust belt Pittsburgh suburb of North Braddock. Christian Bale stars as Russell Baze, the imprisoned brother, and Casey Affleck as his troubled younger brother, Rodney, now an Iraq veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who returns to North Braddock and becomes a bare knuckle fighter in an underground racket run by local bar owner John Petty (Willem Dafoe). The pair find themselves out of their depth when they get involved with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a drug-peddling lunatic who lives in the lawless Ramapo Mountains of New Jersey. Though only a state away, DeGroat’s lifestyle is completely foreign to the Beale brothers and North Braddock police chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). The cast also includes performances by Tom Bower as Petty’s bartender Dan Dugan and Sam Shepard as Russell and Rodney’s uncle Red Baze.
That Cooper could assemble such a stellar cast for only his second film as a writer/director is a testament to not only the success of Crazy Heart but the strength of the screenplay for Out of the Furnace. Creative Screenwriting spoke to Cooper about how that initial plot led him to write a very personal screenplay, how he was inspired by the town of North Braddock’s resilience, and his advice for other actors looking to turn their creative talents to the other side of the camera.
CHRISTOPHER MCKITTRICK: The initial concept for Out of the Furnace didn’t originate with you and was quite different from the screenplay you ended up writing. Can you talk about what you brought to the script?
SCOTT COOPER: When the screenplay was offered to me it was a very well-written piece, but not something I wanted to film. I politely declined it a few times, and the producers and the studio came back and said, “Well, why don’t you just tell the story of a man who has been released from prison and avenges the loss of his brother?” I said I can do that, but only if I can also do it in a very personal way because I’ve known people who have spent time in prison and I’ve lost a sibling. I also want to tell a story about these very turbulent past five years in which we’ve lived and stories about great economic decline, soldiers who fight wars on two fronts and return suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and having a difficult time assimilating back to their lives, and also a very violent story because we live in a very violent nation. The producers and the studio readily agreed and I sat down in my very spare office and started staring at that blinking cursor and never referred to the other screenplay.
MCKITTRICK: How was the process different for you than writing the script for Crazy Heart, which was an adaptation?
COOPER: It’s certainly more painful. You’re dredging up memories of your past. You are also trying to be accurate to what you know the world to be, but also trying to take creative license. You’re essentially writing an original piece that can be daunting because of all those things, and you try to ask permission from people whose lives you’re pulling from, like family members. You aren’t referring to anything that’s already on the page, so it’s just you and that blinking cursor. But in this case it just really poured out of me and was, at times, painful and harrowing but ultimately cathartic. I didn’t want it to conform to what we might expect from a film like this, where Casey’s character typically would die on page nine and for ninety pages we are with our protagonist who is trying to avenge his brother’s death. I never think in terms of genre, so I wanted to write with a great deal of ellipses to allow the audience to really engage and fill in the blanks. I also never wanted to write too pointillistically or make this feel like an “issues” film. It’s not an anti-war film, it’s about what we’ve experienced these last five years and I want the audience to bring their personal experience to it without hammering home those points as the screenwriter or the director. There’s nothing worse than that, at least in my estimation. All of that made it daunting.
MCKITTRICK: Russell and Rodney are two brothers who want more out of their lives, but in different ways. Russell is drawn to the idea of family, while Rodney is drawn to a life beyond his family’s working class roots. Can you talk about their differing motivations?
COOPER: In Rodney you see a man who knows his father has died from working in the steel mill. His uncle has likely worked in a steel mill. It’s a very tough and difficult life. Fighting wars is certainly a very difficult way to make a living and equally as dangerous, if not clearly more so. I think younger siblings, myself included, want something different than what their parents want for them or what their older brother has chosen to do. You try to carve out your own niche in the world and tend to form different artistic world views. A guy like Rodney might listen to Eminem and NWA and Christian Bale’s character might listen to Pearl Jam, Soundgarden or Bruce Springsteen. You’re still brothers and you share DNA, but you tend to want to be different people. Also, Rodney is living with a great deal of torment, unsure of who he is in the world and at times living with a death wish, and he has an older brother who has towed the line and has done exactly what their father has done in family, brotherhood, community and faith. Having lived an earlier adrenaline-fueled life in Baghdad or Fallujah and coming home to a sleepy, dying town, you wonder what that does to a man’s soul and how he finds that sense of adrenaline—the only way he can in terms of surviving, and that’s to fight. Those are very different ways.
MCKITTRICK: Braddock is historically a steel town and is a preeminent example of a rust belt town. Did you always intend to set the film in Braddock?
COOPER: Having grown up in the coal fields of Virginia—my grandfather was a coal miner—which have a big steel industry as well, I tend to like to write about a blue collar milieu or people who live on the margins of society, the dispossessed, the disenchanted, those who are misrepresented or unrepresented in American film, and the same with the towns. I had been reading a great deal about Braddock falling on terrible economic times and the loss of a great deal of jobs—at one time 20,000 strong, now I think it is about 2,000 and largely African American. While I was in Pittsburgh promoting Crazy Heart I went over to Braddock and found the town to be filled with resilient people with courage and strength, and a town that is extremely photogenic, cinematic, adrift with atmosphere, and reminded me of the small towns that I grew up in. So I felt like this was the perfect setting to take my very personal story and place it into a part of the country that was ailing. It’s really a story about us as Americans, and Braddock is endemic of that.
MCKITTRICK: Speaking on unrepresented people in American film, did you do a lot of research into the Ramapo people? What did you use as sources?
COOPER: Most people don’t even know that there are mountains in New Jersey unless they live on the East Coast [Laughs]. Unfortunately, people think of it pejoratively as a state filled with exits and The Sopranos, and I know New Jersey to be a gorgeous state filled with a lot of interesting people. The mountain chain that spans from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachians, that goes through my neck of the woods goes right through there. I could have just as easily have placed that particular person in the mountains of Virginia, but it’s too far of a drive. I wanted it to feel like there was some distance and for it to feel foreign to the people of Braddock. I’m not making any pejorative statements about the people who live there, though there have been some national stories about some incidents that have taken place in the Ramapo Mountains, but I never refered to the people who live there other than just to say Ramapo, so unless you really know you have to do some research to find out where that is. It felt foreign to the characters of Russell Baze, Dan Dugan and Wesley Barnes, and they didn’t know much about it. It felt foreign to them as if they were in France.
MCKITTRICK: The opening scene introduces Woody Harrelson’s character, Curtis DeGroat, in a very vicious manner at a scene set at a drive-in theater. Why did you choose to begin the film with that scene?
COOPER: Most films open with the protagonist and we follow the protagonist for the next two hours. I wanted to start with the antagonist, and with Woody Harrelson, a very beloved actor who is known for his warmth and his humor—he’s almost a national treasure—in a part you’ve never seen him in. Sure, he’s played a despicable character in Natural Born Killers, but that was with a great dose of irony and he was winking at the camera in that performance. But if you start off with a man who beats a woman and then her protector in public like he does in the New Jersey highlands, and then who will take on all comers as you see him do at the end of that scene, you know that this bedrock of menace is established. You’re going to see an actor in a part you’ve never seen him in and the tone of the film that will hover throughout the entire narrative. It was important to me to quickly set up his character as person who if he does this in public, imagine what he would do in private. It’s a little like Jaws, when every time you see that dorsal fin or hear John Williams’ score you know nothing good was to follow. That’s why I chose Midnight Meat Train because you aren’t going to get Harrelson’s character out to see a Fellini retrospective or McCabe & Mrs. Miller. You don’t want it to take you away from the film we’re trying to tell, but it has striking imagery.
MCKITTRICK: What films influence you as a screenwriter for both Out of the Furnace and in general?
COOPER: Mostly just in general I love the work of the Dardenne brothers, I like the work of Ken Loach, and John Cassavetes is one of my favorite filmmakers. Of course, I like Terrence Malick’s work, he writes in a very elliptical fashion. He allows the audience to really engage and to fill in those gaps. I don’t like verbose or overly talky screenplays. I think if you look at the work of Francis Coppola and Paul Schrader’s early work, all of those really influenced me.
My father was taught for two years by William Faulkner at the University of Virginia. So from a young age I was exposed to the great work of Faulkner, Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, the Russians, and more recently Cormac McCarthy. I didn’t watch a whole lot of television, so it was really about reading their works and then understanding those themes that they are writing about and dealing with and the human condition. I am also influenced by music. I listen to a lot of cello while I’m writing a screenplay or Enrico Caruso, a great opera singer. I wrote specifically from Russell Baze’s point of a view and was listening to a song titled “Release,” a song about a man who has lost his father, and you ask yourself what would his character listen to as our protagonist. While he was forming his artistic worldview he was probably listening to Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, The Meat Puppets, and Pearl Jam because they spoke to the angst that someone of his generation was experiencing in their twenties. So it’s difficult to say what specifically influenced me, but I was influenced by all of that.
MCKITTRICK: What advice would you give to actors who are interested in making a similar transition to screenwriting or directing?
COOPER: Tell personal stories, don’t hew to convention, don’t care what film critics or award prognosticators will say about your efforts because if you do you will be writing for them and not for yourself. Make certain that you write from a very pure place and write the story that you want to see.
MCKITTRICK: You almost sound like you have that advice prepared!
COOPER: I haven’t, it’s just the truth. People put out movies in December and they expect you to be gunning for awards, and I can guarantee you that when I sit down to write a story of a man who is shoving a hot dog down a woman’s throat that I’m not thinking about awards. Too many people want that because they need that adoration. That’s why we become actors at a young age, I was a child actor in Virginia, and you want that kind of attention. That’s why people become actors—otherwise they would just do monologues a room, and filmmakers as well. So you just try to be pure to yourself. I will say that I’ve been greatly influenced by Francis Coppola’s words in which he said that if you aren’t taking the highest artistic risk every time you step up the plate, then why are you doing it? I could have made a much less risky film after Crazy Heart, that’s for sure.
MCKITTRICK: Sam Shepard appears in the film, and he is a celebrated American writer himself. Did you have a chance to pick his brain at all?
COOPER: As soon as I sent him the screenplay he called me. He was traveling, I think he was in Paris. You’re always nervous when you send a screenplay to one of our great writers who chronicles the dark side of the human spirit better than anyone. He said to me, “I think this is one of the best titles I’ve heard for a film in a long time, and this is one of the best screenplays. I’m in.” When you hear that from Sam Shepard, you know that you’ve done your job. He’s become a very close friend and we discuss writing and characterization all the time. To have my cast embrace this film the way that they have is more than I could have ever expected. To have my cinematic heroes, whether it’s William Friedkin, Michael Mann or Robert Duvall see the movie and just embrace it in ways I could never have hoped is so gratifying. It makes you feel like you might have a small audience, but at least you have a few people who will respond to the film and support it. Otherwise we’re all living in a world of sequels and capes, and what good is that for the human condition?
MCKITTRICK: And that’s certainly not the type of writing that you do.
COOPER: No, and I’d probably be the worst person to try to write one of those. I have a feeling a studio would toss it out the second they got it!