Director Scott Cooper grew up in the hills of Virginia, the grandson of a coal miner. It's a story he's telling often these days, making it the pillar of the campaign for his new film, Out of the Furnace, a drama that stars Christian Bale as Russell Baze, a steelworker who suffers loss after loss: he watches his father die, his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) drift away, and his Iraq veteran brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) fight opponents in both the shadowy world of bare knuckle brawling, and battle-induced PTSD in the dark recesses of his memory.
"I'm drawn to people who live on the margins, the dispossessed and disenfranchised, the blue collar milieu, people who are under-represented on screen, too often misrepresented on screen, and I wanted to tell their lives as honestly and authentically and as truthfully as possible," said Cooper, who previously wrote and directed Crazy Heart, helping Jeff Bridges win an Oscar. "And that can sometimes be painful because the people who live in America often aren't thought of too often by people who make films and the people who produce and finance them. I felt a real responsibility to do that."
In Out of the Furnace, Woody Harrelson plays Harlan DeGroat, a vicious meth-dealing, fight-fixing hillbilly, who is owed money by bar owner John Petty (Willem Dafoe); the local booze-slinger is subsequently waiting on payment from Rodney to settle gambling debts. This cash flow — or lack thereof — sets off a chain reaction of violence, treachery, and vengeance, some of which were inspired by Cooper's own life.
Though he is credited as a co-writer with Brad Ingelsby on the project, Cooper gave the script a near-total re-write after signing on for the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced project, adding personal details in what became a cathartic expulsion of memory.
"Woody's character, even though he wasn't from New Jersey, was based on someone who touched my immediate family in a tragic way," he said. "Having lost a sibling, I understand that. Dealing with the kind of loss that Christian's character deals with, people in my family have suffered in that way."
Even character-building scenes, like Russell's inability to shoot a deer while on a hunting trip, came from the filmmaker's memory.
It is not uncommon that a director, during a press tour, insists that s/he had to have a certain actor for a role or they wouldn't make the movie, a claim Cooper makes about both Bale and Affleck, who do both shine in their roles. But he also insists that the movie couldn't have been produced anywhere but Braddock, Penn., a burnt out former steel town outside Pittsburgh that has the weary, ramshackle exhaustion that typifies the corroded Rust Belt.
Cooper heard about the town when its new mayor, a bear of a Harvard grad named John Fetterman, started garnering a wave of publicity for his efforts to revive the sagging town, filled with shuttered storefronts and crumbling clapboard houses. Appearances on 60 Minutes and a big feature in The New York Times put Fetterman and Braddock on the map, leading Cooper to make a phone call to Fetterman (who was shopping at Costco at the time). He planted the idea of a collaboration in the mayor's head, and a subsequent trip out to Braddock while promoting Crazy Heart cemented the deal.
"I knew those people [in Braddock]. I knew their values," Cooper insisted. "The people who stayed behind, the human spirit and resilience and the sense of courage from these people — it spoke to me in ways that are difficult to quantify."
And the mayor was equally appreciative of the filming experience.
"The production just could not have been any smoother or nicer for the town, and people really just embraced it," Fetterman said, noting the "economic stimulus" that the shoot brought to his town of 2,700.
"They paid a lot of extras and people that owned the homes and the buildings where it was shot," he added. "They used the fire department's bingo hall in town and I know that helped them financially. And we had to upgrade all of our police radios with the new protocol from the county — that was I think $7,000 — and they said, 'Sure, we'll take care of that.'"
In total, the shoot took about three months, and as Cooper said, the setting — including the old steel mill where they shot scenes with Bale — inspired and "imbued the entire production and all of my cast with a sense of authenticity and realism that you can't find anywhere else, certainly not on the backlot of a studio."
At the same time, Cooper's decision to film an unflinching story on location ran the risk of leaning too hard on the misery of the town and antiquated behavior of its outlaws, turning his portrait into a sort of classist museum exhibit. If you linger too long on images of dilapidated houses and focus too intensely on the crime that festers in a place like Braddock, is it exploitative, or at least a snobby look at those people presentation?
As cinema catches up with and begins depicting the economic thrashing that most Americans have felt over the last decade, it is a question that is becoming more pertinent and pressing; just last month, Alexander Payne's Nebraska was met with near-universal acclaim, but some audience members and critics accused the filmmaker — a Nebraska native — of depicting the average Midwesterner as a simple, oafish yokel stuck living in a run-down, rotting past.
Similarly, master-filmmakers like the Coen Brothers have made many movies about working people — Fargo and Burn After Reading, for example — but their twisted, dark humor lends an air of heightened reality, and even occasional lunacy, to the proceedings. They are not, in any case, entirely realistic depictions, and few movies with big name casts strive for grounded depictions of flyover country.
Fetterman acknowledged that concern, but wasn't worried that it applied to Cooper's treatment of Braddock.
"If someone's coming to shoot a movie in Braddock, they're not using it as a backdrop for Aspen, Colo. or the French Riviera. So [what's seen on screen] is not a surprise, and the portrayal isn't meant to be negative," Fetterman said of his town's participation. "I saw one review where they called it 'misery porn' or something like that, and that couldn't be farther from the truth. There are places like this that exist in this country. There are men that worked in the mills their whole lives, generations caring for sick fathers. All that's part of the fabric out here, so it's not coming from a place of voyeurism or reveling in it; it's just, like, This is a story that needs to be told."
"It kept us honest," Dafoe noted, "because you can't make a bullshit movie when you're surrounded by people who still aren't out of the woods yet, in the sense that Braddock still has its challenges, and some of the things that are talked about in the film are still happening there."
"Hopefully, you don't offend people, and hopefully, you don't glorify it," Cooper added. "Hopefully, you show a place as it exists."
With a local "premiere" at the area's multiplex, the citizens of Braddock were treated to a screening of the film earlier this week (and according to reports from western Pennsylvania, it was well-received.)
Ultimately, Out of the Furnace is less about a struggling town than it is about a family struggling under a difficult set of circumstances, with the limits those circumstances place on them informing every decision they make. Needless to say, it is not a happy two hours in the theater. ("No one is going to come out of there uplifted like The Shawshank Redemption," Fetterman joked.)
Given the timing of its release, and the grimness of the story it tells, it wouldn't be out of line to look at Out of the Furnace as Oscar-bait, the kind of movie made specifically to please a small pool of voters who reward very serious films. Though Cooper is on the road, actively promoting the feature, that's an assumption that he vehemently rejects.
"You have to feel like you aren't out campaigning for the film, but you want the film to reach a wide audience, because if it doesn't, people are not going to finance movies like this," Cooper said, adding that he tries "not to care what critics and awards prognosticators have to say."
Besides, he's pretty certain that Out of the Furnace is out of the race already.
"In my estimation, the people who decide who win awards typically go a safer route," Cooper said matter-of-factly. "I'm infinitely proud of these performances. I think the acting is about as good as it gets, but it isn't filled with histrionics — it's living, breathing human beings."