In this monthly column we spotlight new Blu-ray/DVD releases by interviewing directors about the scenes that stood out most for them while making their movies. This month, we talk to Scott Cooper about his intense character study Out of the Furnace (out March 11).
In his directorial debut Crazy Heart in 2009, writer-director Scott Cooper showed that he could take on heavyweight talent as his somber screenplay and naturalistic direction led to an overdue Oscar win for the film’s lead Jeff Bridges. He now has followed that success by taking on another story that focuses on inner demons with the gripping Out of the Furnace. And this time he has one of the most intense actors working today as his lead: Christian Bale.
In the film Bale plays Russell Baze, a hard-working Pennsylvania steel-mill worker who, after going to jail following a horrific incident, tries to put his life back together, but his then-girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), has moved on with a new man (Forest Whitaker) and his brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), is struggling with his life after returning from Iraq. Filled with emotionally charged scenes throughout, there’s one that stands out for Copper: when Russell meets Lena on a bridge in the center of town after getting out of jail. There he realizes any chance he had to get her back in his life has crumbled as Lena reveals she’s pregnant, leading to a moving conclusion to the scene.
Here Cooper breaks down the scene’s origins and why he thinks Christian Bale is the greatest actor of his generation.
“Fate and circumstances...”
“[Out of the Furnace cowriter] Brad [Ingelsby] and I never spoke about the screenplay. There was an existing script that he had written called The Low Dweller that was a very good script but not one that I wanted to film and told the producers that. I wanted to write a very personal story and so I set that script aside and wrote this one from scratch.
“Russell is based on someone I know very well and someone who suffered the same tragic fate but yet gets up every day and is an extremely positive person and tries, as most of us do, to put one foot forward. And I wanted to illustrate that he and the true love in this man’s life is unfortunately not going to spend the rest of their lives together.
“That scene on the bridge really tells you everything about who Christian Bale’s character is. This is a man who we know is a decent and good man who has been beset by all types of misfortune, and is a man who even though gets up every day and has to face that misfortune and the tragedy and the pathos that’s surrounded his life, he’s still a very good man at heart. He’s finally found the true love of his life but because of fate and circumstances he has to live with the results that sent him to prison, thus taking away the thing he most loved in life.
But once he’s told by this particular woman that she’s having a baby that isn’t his—because we know from the opening moments of the film that she always wanted a child—normally the reaction would be one of bitterness and regret and anger and someone might lash out, but in this case, Russell Baze genuinely couldn’t be more happy for Lena and there are moments that I feel to be heartbreaking but are as well acted as I think screen acting gets. These are actors that are artistically brave and courageous, who are not afraid to take major risks and you see all in a matter of one moment a man who illustrates both happiness and heartbreakingly painful realization that his life will forever be changed, as will hers.”
“One of the best actors of my generation…”
“The idea was to see two actors in the very, very raw state in the middle of town yet in a location that feels very intimate. We see in a photograph earlier in the film Lena is looking over her right shoulder and presumably Russell has taken the photo on that very spot [on the bridge], so we know that’s a spot they both like. For a scene that heartbreaking to take place in a place like that and not in a home just seemed to me to tell everything about the town and what the town is going through.
“We shot in late afternoon. Though in the script it was written as morning because he sees her taking the kids to school, I thought it should be in late day to give us that sense of gloom that was coming but also I specifically wrote this for the town of Braddock, Pennsylvania.
“Anytime you write a scene it’s only a blueprint, at least when I’m directing it. You have certain beats you want to hit, certain ideas you want to get across, the idea that this man, though it’s heartbreaking for him, he is indeed very happy for her. He understands through fate and circumstance that he landed in prison and thus knowing that she had no other options then to remain, and you can never choose who you fall in love with, we assume that she fell in love with another man and those things are all heartbreaking but true, they happen to people everyday.
So I really wanted to get across the idea that they both really truly loved one another but because of what’s happened they know they can’t go forward. And this is a man who isn’t bitter about that but accepts that in a very loving and heartbreaking manner. All in just a matter of moments do we see one of the best actors of my generation, Christian Bale, give a very deep and rich emotional performance. What he’s required to do on that bridge is something you weren’t taught in acting class, that’s being as humanistic as you can possibly be, and that’s all that interests me. It’s about living, breathing human beings that suffer and overcoming that suffering and having to deal with what so many people deal with. We don’t see that too often in American films.
“Everything is invisible in the editing…”
“I shot the scene a little later in the schedule so they really owned and understood their performances. That’s a very difficult scene to play, people can overplay it in many occasions and it won’t come across as real. I will say both actors left everything out on the field. They were absolutely spent and they couldn’t do any work the day after that. So we did it at the end of the day when you know actors will be able to give you their very best, have taken on some less demanding scenes earlier in that day so they can come fully prepared. And most importantly, fully prepared to take risks, artistic risks, and not be afraid to fail, and they both did that. I find it haunting and beautiful and hopefully moving. There aren’t a lot of movies that have those scenes that linger with you 30 minutes, a day, after seeing it and this is one of those scenes in my estimation.
“My editor, David Rosenbloom, and he’s been editing for a very long time, he said the dailies were some of the best he’d ever received, and after seeing all of the coverage from the scene he said, 'Acting just doesn’t get any better than this.' Interestingly enough I was doing an interview with Woody Harrelson for the film during our press junket and he referenced this scene as one of the best ones he’d ever seen performed and should be taught in acting classes, and I thought, wow, coming from Woody Harrelson that certainly means a lot.
“As accurate as it can be.”
“The first time people saw the movie they walked out looking like they had been hit by a two-by-four. They couldn’t communicate what they saw. So you know you have a raw film. And for this scene the audience just broke down and cried because you’re hoping this guy can catch a break and he never does, same with the person he’s based on, he hasn’t caught a break either. That person [the character is based on] was just in awe of the performances when he saw it and thought we captured something that would endure and was as accurate as it can be.”
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