Scott Cooper on his new film Out of the Furnace

Christian Bale is an ex-con investigating the disappearance of his Iraq war veteran brother. Picture: Contributed
Christian Bale is an ex-con investigating the disappearance of his Iraq war veteran brother. Picture: Contributed
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Scott Cooper has not taken the easy option for his second directorial outing, which he ended up writing himself, he tells Alastair Harkness

“I could have chosen a much less risky path than Out of the Furnace,” says Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper, “but I thought it important to explore what America has gone through these past five, turbulent years.”

Cooper is on the phone from Los Angeles to discus his new film, a tough, bruising drama set against the backdrop of illegal fight clubs and starring Christian Bale as an ex-con investigating the disappearance of his troubled, Iraq war veteran brother (Casey Affleck).

Having broken through with the Oscar-garlanded Crazy Heart four years ago, Cooper – who spent the previous decade scraping a living as an actor – knows he could simply have coasted by on the success of that film by becoming a director-for-hire.

Indeed, he found himself beset with offers, including a joint one from Leonardo DiCaprio and Ridley Scott to direct a revenge film called The Low Dweller – about an ex-con whose brother is murdered after becoming embroiled in a gambling racket. The script, by Brad Inglesby, had been one of the highest-ranked screenplays on the 2008 Black List, the annual list of the best un-produced screenplays in Hollywood. Determined to make personal films, however, Cooper decided to pass on the opportunity. To his surprise, though, he found DiCaprio, Scott and the studio wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

“I turned it down politely,” he says, “then they said, ‘Why don’t you just write something about a man who is released from prison and deals with the loss of a loved one?’ I’ve known people who’ve been in prison and I too lost a sibling, so I said to them, ‘If I can write it from a very personal place, I’ll do it’. And out of that emerged Out of the Furnace.”

Set in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a dying steel town that sits in the shadow of the same Appalachian mountain range where Cooper grew up, the film is a comment on the post-2008 economic downturn and the loss of opportunity for ordinary Americans. Bale’s character, Russell Baze is a decent, hardworking guy, beset by bad luck, while Affleck, as Russell’s younger brother Rodney, represents that generation who’ve fought in an unpopular war only to return home with little fanfare, fewer options and no real help dealing with the mental scarring they’ve endured. If they sound like archetypes, stereotypes even, Cooper furnishes them with a depth that makes them believable and relatable to what’s been going on in the US in the last few years.

Alas, his desire to engage audiences by putting a personal slant on such weighty themes hasn’t exactly been embraced in his home country – and he bristles slightly at the way critics have either praised the film, or written it off, as paean to The Deer Hunter. (A scene in which Bale’s character finds himself unable to pull the trigger on a buck he has in his sights while out hunting is, insists Cooper, something that happened to him and not a deliberate reference to one of the most famous scenes in the De Niro classic.) He’s all too aware of the fact that, unlike the 1970s, audiences just aren’t as interested in films that deal with the harsh realities of day-to-day life.

“People would much prefer to go to the movies to be uplifted. Steven Soderbergh said as much when he said that we’re suffering from a post-9/11, post-traumatic stress disorder where we, as Americans, want all of our films to be uplifting and have a great positive notion of life. And I have no interest in those films for the most part.”

If anything can entice audiences to see Out of the Furnace, though, it’s the powerhouse cast Cooper has assembled, which in addition to Bale and Affleck, includes Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepherd and, most strikingly, Woody Harrelson, whose disturbing turn as a hillbilly psychopath casts a menacing pall over the entire film.

“A friend of mine, who is a very prominent film director, said that when he thinks of my cast he gets heart palpitations,” laughs Cooper, who reckons his own background as an actor helped him marshal the varying styles and intensity levels each actor brought to the set. “I can speak their language, which is critical. And they cared about the work and really pushed themselves. And they liked my first film, which makes it easier, because then they know they can trust the director.”

That was particularly important in order to nail Harrelson’s character, Harlan DeGroat. “He’s based on a guy who murdered someone close to my family,” reveals Cooper, so it was important that Harrelson, the star of Natural Born Killers and Rampart, not fall into the trap of “moustache-twirling villainy”. In order to accomplish this, Cooper decided to use Harlan like the shark in Jaws: “Any time he appears on screen you know nothing good is going to happen.” He established a bedrock of menace by beginning the film with a harrowing sequence in which Harlan beats a stranger half-to-death at a drive-in movie while the 2008 horror film The Midnight Meat Train plays on screen in the background. “Harlan was hardly going to go and see a Fellini retrospective,” reasons Cooper of the movie choice.

That scene alone also establishes Cooper as a visual director as much as an actor’s director. As for his own acting ambitions, though he’d still like to do some he no longer has the time. “It’s unfortunate, but I understand now that the stage is an actor’s medium and the cinema is a director’s medium.”

To this end, he’s currently considering which of his own scripts to direct next: a depression-era crime drama for Leonardo DiCaprio or an adaptation of William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness. He may not have chosen an easy path with Out of the Furnace, but it certainly seems to be paying off.

• Out of the Furnace is on general release from 29 January