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Scott Cooper didn’t mess around when it came to constructing the tone of his new film Out of the Furnace. From the very first scene – which features Woody Harrelson’s character verbally and physically abusing his girlfriend at a drive-in movie – the movie envelops the audience in an incredibly dark world and doesn’t let go until you’re well on your way home from the theater. And that was exactly what the director was going for.

With the film now out in limited release and set to expand on Friday, I recently had the chance to sit down one-on-one with the Crazy Heart director to talk in depth about his latest work. Read on to learn not only about the incredibly dark tone, but also the interesting period setting of the film and where the filmmaker started putting together the all-star cast.

After Crazy Heart, I’m sure you had tons of options on the table that you could’ve done. What was it about this one?

It was an embarrassment of riches, and it was daunting, and all things I didn’t write, and this particular project originated with another script that I thought was well written, but I didn’t want to direct, and Misters DiCaprio and Scott, Ridley Scott said to me, why don’t you just tell, have carte blanche with the script, and tell a story that just surrounds a man who gets out of prison and the loss of his brother and I thought, I can do that, but I have to personalize it, and then through great pain and hardship, do you bring your personal life to a story that well was represented by what you saw yesterday. So, but you know, it’s certainly a very original piece but one that’s personal and any time you put out a very personal story, it’s very harrowing to see it’s reception. Fortunately, I don’t read film criticism because I’m sure, movies like this are divisive, but it feels very good to express myself in this way.

And what was it about the original script that you didn’t necessarily connect with?

Oh, I just didn’t connect on an emotional level with the characters or the time period or the world, and you know, was struggling with what I wanted to tell, but because I’ve known people in my personal life who have been to prison, that I could start from that seed and then just really tell a story about what we as Americans have been undergoing these past five turbulent years, crumbling economy, fighting wars on two fronts, soldiers returning with PTSD.

And it’s interesting that it’s set in 2008, and you have that scene with Kennedy on the screen.

I wrote that specifically.

Can you talk a little about leading to that specific time period?

We all came into 2008 with a great deal of hope, and it’s now 2013 and while some of that hope has been met, we have a very divisive congress.

It’s a split country.

For sure, and the affordable care act that we all want to work and we hope works, but we want our representatives to be more responsible. We’re living in a very violent nation where guns are too easily accessible, high capacity magazines, and we are allowing our nation to almost default and it feels like there needs to be more accountability, so I feel this obligation to write and direct a film about that, for better or worse, and who knows how people respond to that. I’ve been fortunate that people have seemed to embrace the film, whether you, Eric, embrace the film or you distain it, I never want you to be indifferent to the film.

It’s about getting a reaction out of the audience.

There’s nothing worse than going to see a film and then turning to my wife as soon as it’s over and saying, "So, what are we eating?"

And this is a movie that a big part of it is the tone of it. It’s really dark and deep and it’s something that sticks with you as you’re walking out.

Oh, good. I hope it lingers in your consciousness.

Yeah, it does.

Because it’s, you know, I wanted to engage. I want to provoke discussion and you want to move people, and if you aren’t moved by the scene on the bridge between Christian and Zoe Saldana or the loss of a brother or the loss of child and a mother, all those sorts of things, if they don’t, then you have no heart, and you never want to repeat yourself as a filmmaker. Crazy Heart had a lot of warmth and humor and sentimentality, but I wanted to tell a very different story, but also make it feel like a distant cousin or make it feel like it was directed by the same hand, but telling the story about us, as Americans.

It’s interesting because there is, when you’re looking at Russell and Rupert, there are trajectories that you see one coming home from prison, one coming back from the war, and on completely separate paths, and you mirror them really well. There are montages that literally set them up against each other. So, I’m curious just about constructing that within the story.

Well, I wrote that specifically to parallel cross-cutting and editing and I thought it was important to tell these divergent stories and how two brothers only separated by three or four years could go down such wildly different paths and how we’re all shaped by fate and circumstances. Had Rodney come to the bar like he said and they had drinks, that car would have pulled out and lives would be forever different. Anything can happen to you driving home or to me, and you know, as fatalistic as that sounds, I just want to be as truthful and searingly realistic as I can possibly be, and I never want the violence to feel gratuitous or shock-value, but representative in a realist way because we’re all touched by violence. We’re all here because of violence. The American Revolution, the Civil War, all of these things that touch and pervade our marrow, right, because that’s who we are and I wanted to make a film about us and you know, you succeed on some levels and fail on others, but hopefully in 10, 15, 20 years, it’s a film that will stand the test of time, and you see that what America was undergoing at that time.

I kind of want my fingerprints not to be on the film. It’s really about these people and this world and never for Eric to say, wow look how clever you are with the camera. I want my editing to be invisible, the acting to be invisible, production design and score, so that you’re so fully immersed and you have a very intense experience from the opening moments to the final scene of a man sitting at his family’s dining table, where he’s broken bread with his father and his mother and his brother who are all deceased.

Yeah, they’re all gone.

And though he isn’t in prison, he is in his own prison and he’s dealing with the consequences of violence and he’s a man who’s battling his soul.

Where do you even begin starting with the casting process? Were you thinking of Casey and Christian when you were working on the screenplay?

Yeah, and when I wrote, much like for Crazy Heart, I wrote that for Jeff Bridges, and I had never met Jeff. In this particular instance, I wrote for Christian, having never met Christian, but I wanted to see a side of Christian we’d never seen, a vulnerable side and gentle and caring, which I think he excelled at.

Oh yeah, the performances all around are fantastic.

And then Casey, who I think is under-appreciated and under-used, because he typically turns everybody down, I think he’s a live wire and a genius and unpredictable and it came to the point where I said, if I don’t have him, I’m just not going to make the film and you know, through luck was I able to get them and Woody and Forest and Zoe and Sam.

You throw a dart and you hit an Oscar nominee in this film. Was that designed, I mean...?

No, no, certainly not. I mean I don’t even think about Oscars.

But were you looking for big names?

I was looking for very best of the best and these were all character actors, even Christian Bale, who is impossibly handsome, is a character actor, and I’m sure he would tell you that, because if you populate your film with too many bold-faced stars, it imbalances the film.

It can become a distraction.

It can become a distraction, and I never like casting people that you know too much about their private life, otherwise you don’t believe what you see on the screen and you don’t know anything about Christian Bale or much about Casey. Woody, Willem lives in Rome.

See, I didn’t know that.

Right, so you don’t know anything about these people, yet we know them. We have a relationship with Woody for 30 years and he’s sweet and he’s thoughtful and he’s kind.

Not in this film.

And you see that opening scene, then you know that they’re representing something that you haven’t seen.

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