Scott Cooper was born in Virginia in 1970, which is at least part of the reason why the writer-director set his sophomore feature, "Out of the Furnace," in the small town of Braddock, Penn. and not New York or Los Angeles.
"These are people that I know. I grew up in a small town in the shadow of the Appalachian mountains. My grandfather was a coal miner," Cooper told HuffPost Entertainment during a recent interview. "I don't know the people who live on Park Avenue. I can't write about them."
What Cooper, a former actor who directed 2009's "Crazy Heart," knows is blue-collar Americana. On the surface, "Out of the Furnace" is a heavy drama about brothers Russell and Rodney Baze (played, respectively, by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck) and the family ties that bind them together when Rodney, a veteran who survived four tours of duty in Afghanistan, runs into trouble. Just below that log line, however, lies a film about the crumbling American dream and the nation's complicated and unhealthy relationship with violence and revenge.
Cooper spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about his new film (out now), and what it owes to Michael Cimino, Terrence Malick, Robert Altman and Eddie Vedder.
The film begins and ends with Pearl Jam's "Release." Why that song?
It had a lot of personal resonance for me. It's a song about the loss of your father; Rodney and Russell understand that, and undergo that experience. It also seemed like the type of music that Russell Baze would listen to. I typically write from a character point of view, and he was probably forming his world views in the 1990s when grunge was at the forefront of our musical society. When I asked Christian that very question, he mentioned that kind of music: He talked about Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana. That song just spoke to me, and I felt like it was appropriate for the world, the blue-collar milieu that I was going for, which I had grown up in and understood.
"Out of the Furnace" starts in 2008, and really tracks the downfall of one American family. How do you think the last five years have been for families in this country?
I think it's obvious. There are people who are still struggling. There are people who want affordable care. We have a proliferation of weapons and we have a very dysfunctional government and a crumbling economy. We're still fighting and losing people in Afghanistan. It has been a very sobering and turbulent five years. I wanted to weave that into the narrative in a subtle way.
Why did you set the film in Braddock?
I had been reading about Braddock in the New York Times. I was in Pittsburgh promoting Crazy Heart and I was just drawn to that town. I went over and explored it and just thought, "My God, this is like where I grew up, I have to set a movie here." It just drips with atmosphere. "The Deer Hunter," "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie," "Days of Heaven," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller": all of those movies were important to me as I was formulating my cinematic worldview. You try to personalize what your cinematic worldview looks like. I felt that Braddock was the perfect representation of both that, and the crumbling American dream.
You mention "The Deer Hunter," and some early reviews made comparisons between that film and yours.
I don't know, I don't read them.
OK, but does even knowing that bother you at all? Does it put too much pressure on your film?
If it's happening often, that's way too much pressure. You live with the burden of expectations. My first film was received with modest success and I was never really able to toil away in obscurity as a filmmaker. This was only my second film. I'm heavily influenced by the 1970s and that type of cinema, because those directors were also exploring the times in which they lived. There was Vietnam and a certain sense of government paranoia, a distrust in government. All of those things were infusing those great filmmakers. The most gratifying aspect is to have those directors who I have long admired respond to the work in that same way. I don't read film criticism, but I will say that anytime someone compares favorably to Michael Cimino or Terrence Malick, I feel very grateful.
"Out of the Furnace" does have that throwback quality. It feels like one of those "movies they used to make."
I hope the critics recognize that and I hope they write about that. If they crush a film like this, then we're all in cape misery and sequels and comic book movies. So many people who have seen the film are saying the exact same thing: They want to see movies like this, with morally complex characters and difficult themes and representing what we as Americans are undergoing. This is a movie about us.
The way you handle the violence in the film is interesting. In early scenes, the violent acts are kept at a distance, but as the story moves forward, the violence becomes more intimate and disturbing. What went into that decision?
It's not lost on any of us: We live in a very violent nation. You don't need examples to understand that. All you have to do is turn on the news or read the newspaper. Every day, there's some kind of heinous violence occurring in America. I didn't want the violence to feel gratuitous or shocking in any way, but I wanted it to feel realistic. We see a lot of violence in comic-book movies or certain action-oriented pictures, and it becomes commonplace and the violence doesn't strike us. When a movie like this so searingly realistic, I think even for seasoned moviegoers, it feels like a very emotionally charged film. Perhaps it will alert people in some way that this type of violence still exists.
This interview has been edited and condensed.