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Braddock, Pennsylvania is a city named for a loser. A plaque on the east side of North Braddock, located 8 miles downriver from Pittsburgh, commemorates Braddock's Defeat, a turning point in the 1755 French and Indian War. Named for a defeated British general in a war now rarely remembered, Braddock, Pennsylvania somehow still remains, a cluster of half-empty storefronts and homes perched on a steep slope above the Monogahela River, looming over a massive blast furnace that sits quiet, hulking and as defeated as Braddock himself.
Just around the corner from that plaque and down by the furnace too, Hollywood has improbably come to town. Director Scott Cooper first heard of Braddock while on tour promoting his debut feature Crazy Heart-- the town's mayor John Fetterman has done extensive media appearances to bring the town's plight to national attention, which means Braddock was not like most depressed former industrial towns even before Cooper came calling. A thriving part of the steel industry until the Carrie Furnace shut down in 1982, Braddock now stands alongside Detroit and Gary, Indiana and any number of other Rust Belt towns as a symbol of America's lost industrial might. We've seen the pictures of rusted-out factories and crumbling towns; what Cooper wanted to bring to Braddock was a story, about what happens when the world collapses around you but also how a community moves on together. That fact that this story includes movie stars-- Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard and Forest Whitaker-- means that, when Out of the Furnace opens on December 6, Braddock will emerge into its biggest spotlight yet.
On an overcast but gloomily beautiful day in May of last year, Cooper did something maybe even more uncommon than dragging a full Hollywood production to a ruined steel town-- he invited a group of journalists to a set of a movie that doesn't include explosions, superheroes or giant set-pieces of a any kind. That day production was set up in Hidy's Cafe, a bar and restaurant in an anonymous brick building that sidles up to the underside of the Rankin Bridge. The bar had been renamed The Cellar Door for the shoot but barely transformed, with Hidy's handwritten signs all over, warning patrons not to sell drugs inside and offering the salmon burger (actually ordered by Woody Harrelson's character in the film).
The production team added Christmas lights but little else, and moved into the bar's back office to shoot that day's scene between Willem Dafoe and Casey Affleck. As the owner of The Cellar Door with significant ties to local criminals, Dafoe's character John Petty is helping Affleck's, Rodney Baze, get into a local bare-knuckle boxing match. In the scene Affleck pleads and pleads, Dafoe refuses but eventually gives in, making the phone call as Affleck shadow-boxes in the corner.
BR> But wait-- I wasn't supposed to tell you about the bare-knuckle part. When we catch up with Cooper later that afternoon and mention the bruises applied Affleck's face and knuckles, then ask about the bare-knuckle fighting, Cooper asks "How did you know about that?" Cooper seemed to delight in our complete confusing about the plot when we arrived on set, given that when the project was first announced it was called an adaptation of Brad Inglesby's script The Low Dweller, about "a man recently released from prison forced back into criminal life to settle an old score." There are more elements of that story in Out of the Furnace than Cooper might have wanted to reveal at the time-- he and Ingelsby are credited as the co-writers of the final script-- but Cooper was committed to maintaining a level of secrecy usually more familiar with horror films or Christopher Nolan projects. Now that a trailer is out there, both the bare-knuckle boxing and the revenge plot are out in the open-- so enjoy knowing more than I did on set by watching the latest below:
"I was told not to tell you," says Willem Dafoe when we ask him, standing in a parking lot around the corner from Hidy's, if he has any scenes outside that cinderblock back office. As a character Dafoe describes as "a bookie with a heart of gold," Dafoe is instrumental in getting Affleck's character Rodney into those brutal underground fights (you can see them filming one of them, inside the Carrie Furnace, above). But it's more complicated than just a man preying on a local veteran hard-up for cash:
He has a relationship with the family and he’s a member of the community, so you know, his business is his business and he can’t be soft there, but he also knows these people, he knows their parents, he knows them since they were little kids. So, it pains him when these guys can’t pay off his debts and he has to come after them.
The importance of family and community runs as a strong undercurrent in Out of the Furnace, which more than any saga of revenge of violence is a story of what happens when a town is abandoned by economic forces utterly beyond its control. And for Rodney, a veteran of Iraq who is stop-lossed and sent on another tour of duty as the film begins, he's been abandoned by the military he serves as well. Here's how Affleck explains the work he underwent to understand the character:
On the one hand, I think he doesn’t have a job. It’s hard to get a job. A lot of these guys come home from Iraq and they can’t find work. Some of them are really skilled. They’ve been engineers. They’ve been trained and educated in many ways and then they come home and they’re delivering pizza. They just can’t find anything and the wage for unemployment is higher than the minimum wage, so suddenly they’re taking a big pay cut and they don’t have benefits, yada, yada, yada.
Bale, who was filming but not doing interviews that day, underwent his own kind of training, learning to work in the nearby steel mill that still functioned, handling blazing-hot materials and working in an environment that, as mentioned briefly in the film, is believed by many to cause cancer. Here's Cooper on the training that Bale underwent to look convincing in what wound up being brief steel mill scenes:
Christian hasn’t used a double that I’m aware of for the whole film and certainly that work inside the steel mill was done extraordinarily professionally. He had training of course and we had medics and all those things you should have, but Christian completed that work in a way that made me feel like he not only could do anything, which he really can, but it was so believable and authentic that you would never know that it wasn’t Christian Bale if you didn’t actually see his face while he was doing it.
Our day in Braddock ended with a visit to the place to looms large both in a visit to the town and in Out of the Furnace: the Carrie Furnace. In the movie you see Rodney in a bitter fight inside the furnace, and the film's climax leads there as well, with the massive steel structures looking like a twisted Emerald City in the distance. We were lead through Carrie by Ron of Rivers of Steel, an organization committed to the preserving the steel history of the area. The Carrie Furnace is the only pre-World War II blast furnace to be preserved in non-operational state, and Rivers of Steel provides tours of the site, while working to include it as part of a proposed national park. It's an astonishing place, a tribute to human ingenuity both past and present-- in the midst of those ruined steel structures, there's also a sculpture by a local artist clearly glad for the space. You can see my pictures from inside the Carrie Furnace in the gallery below, and look for the location-- you can't miss it-- in Out of the Furnace on December 6.