BRADDOCK, PA — Cold, gritty, noisy and slightly scary even in broad daylight, Braddock, PA doesn’t seem like the typical location for an all-star Hollywood film, but that’s the bleak atmosphere that actor-turned-director Scott Cooper was hoping to harness for the upcoming “Out of the Furnace.”
The brutal thriller features one of the year’s best casts, including Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Woody Harrelson and Sam Shepard. Although Cooper and his stars were careful to guard the film’s plot line while on set, “Furnace” depicts the struggle of two brothers — older ex-con Russell (Bale) and younger Iraq war veteran Rodney (Affleck) navigating their way through the criminal underworld in their hardscrabble hometown.
Braddock, surely among the most economically depressed locales in the U.S., provides the film’s gritty backdrop. Once a thriving city of over 30,000, Braddock met with a steady decline after the local steel mill closed in the 1908s, sending thousands out of work. While similar situations were played out allover the greater Pittsburgh area, Braddock wasn’t able to bounce back the way other towns were.
Although Braddock appears to finally be on the upswing — local artists are beginning to make their mark and some jobs are creeping back — it was this feeling of desperation that Cooper wanted to serve as a backdrop to the film’s story.
Oscar winner Bale plays Russell Baze, a steel worker with a chequered past. After an accident lands him behind bars, his younger brother Rodney (Affleck) loses his moral compass and is drawn into a notorious crime ring through a shady bar owner (Dafoe). Once Russell is released, he must risk his hard-earned freedom in order to help save his little brother from the clutches of a vile criminal kingpin, played by Harrelson. On paper, “Furnace” is the stuff of standard revenge thrillers, but Cooper’s lavish devotion to realism and the film’s intense cast both elevate it.
“Furnace” is Cooper’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut film “Crazy Heart” which earned star Jeff Bridges a Best Actor Oscar.
The new film originally began as a spec script by Brad Ingelsby called “The Low Dweller.” Ridley Scott was set to direct star Leonardo DiCaprio in the film, before it was transformed into its current iteration under Cooper, with Scott and DiCaprio staying on as producers.
I was among a group of journalists who visited Day 22 of the film’s brisk 35-day shoot, where we witnessed the shooting of two scenes in and around the hip-looking but notoriously rowdy bar Hidy’s.
In the first, Rodney begs a bar manager with connections (Dafoe) for a shot at the local bare-knuckle fight circuit, although Cooper was so secretive and tight-lipped on the set that he wouldn’t even confirm that basic premise.
Oscar nominees both, Affleck and Dafoe performed the scene multiple times, with numerous improvised variations and lots of cursing. With such high-caliber performers, improvised dialogue was a natural addition to the scene, with Cooper’s encouragement.
“It keeps it loose and it opens it up,” Dafoe explained. “You gotta stay on your feet. As long as you’re playing off each other, there’s an energy and a truth that drives you through.”
Needless to say, it looked intense even through a video monitor with no sound. Two handheld camera angles heightened to the restlessness of Affleck’s character, as he paced and shadowboxed around the cramped, dingy office of Dafoe’s character. He’s a hot-head whose visible agitation contrasts with Dafoe’s cool and sinister demeanor.
Located beneath the railroad tracks in a dark and out-of-the-way corner, Hidy’s is a dingy dive that feels as much like a basement as it does a drinking establishment, and it specializes in greasy and delicious-looking fare like salmon burgers and deviled crab. A real-life sign near the bar that read simply “Don’t sell crack” helped set the tone.
Dafoe discussed his character’s motivations on the set. “I like to think of him as a bookie with a heart of gold,” he mused. “He’s a bookie, but he has a relationship with the [Baze] family. He’s a member of the community. His business is his business; he can’t be soft there. But he also knows these people. He knows their parents. He’s known them since they were little kids. It pains him when these guys can’t pay off their debts and he has to come after them.”
The second scene we watched was much less exciting — Russell (Bale) and his uncle (Shepard) have a short talk outside the bar before Bale drives away in anger. We were too far away to hear any dialogue, but it was likely of the heavy and intense variety.
For “Furnace,” Cooper has assembled a world class cast, spearheaded by Bale, who is already drawing significant award season buzz for his performance. “Christian is one of the best actors in the world,” Cooper explained. He went on to describe the Oscar winner as “impossibly handsome” and very serious with a “wonderfully stoic” quality.
Go to page 2 to read more about the film’s cast, Cooper’s influences and the way “Out of the Furnace” was shot.
Once Cooper was on board, he re-wrote the existing screenplay with certain actors in mind. There was an accelerated pre-production time, mostly to allow Bale to fit the film in his busy schedule. “It came together very fast,” Cooper told us. “I was very specific with who I wanted. It was less about the script, and more that there are so few dramatic films. These actors are hungry for that.”
Cooper also praised the rest of the film’s ace cast, noting Harrelson’s intensity and saying of Saldana, “She had a look that I thought was very appropriate for the part. She’s a very soulful young woman and very, very bright. She understood this part well.” Saldana’s role wasn’t revealed to us on the set, but she allegedly plays a troubled love interest for Bale.
Besides the obvious addition of the crew and the expensive equipment, the set and Braddock were essentially one in the same. The mostly local crew added to the sense of place, making the set feel more like a small indie shoot than a big-name studio film aiming for Oscar glory.
Cooper seems to have a yen for the old school, emulating such “New Hollywood” masters as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, and Cooper’s mentor, Robert Duvall. “I’ve stolen from all of them,” Cooper joked.
In an increasingly digital age, “Furnace” was shot on widescreen anamorphic film by D.P. Masanobu Takayanagi (“The Grey”), using a film stock that Cooper hopes will evoke ’70s cinema. The directors revealed that he doesn’t like to use too many close-ups, because their overabundance diminishes their emotional impact. He even met with the reclusive Malick to chat about filmmaking and shooting on film.
For “Furnace,” Cooper also drew influence from noted realist photographers as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank, as well as rough-and-tumble American literary giants including William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy.
Dafoe agrees that the film is “a throwback. We don’t make these kind of films anymore,” adding that “Furnace” is “a very American story dealing with the underbelly of the America dream.”
Cooper calls “Furnace” an examination of the nature of violence, that he hopes would ring true for the put-upon American working class as well as those in war-torn Syria. He explained thusly: “These younger citizens in these cities just don’t have any options because they can’t get jobs or because they’re buried in debt, what they
do for fun — and also to make a living sometimes — can be very violent, factors into this way of life.”
Cooper continued, saying he was searching for an emotional truth with the film, and found the blue collar aspects of the film’s setting a perfect fit for its themes of loyalty, family, honor and the repeating cycle of violence.
Key scenes in the film take place at the derelict Carrie Furnace in nearby Rankin, PA. The massive complex, now a National Historic site, opened in 1884 and was the area’s biggest employer until its closure in 1982. Dark, dangerous and oddly beautiful, it stands as a perfect symbol for the area of the country often known as the Rust Belt.
Shooting the scenes with Bale working in the steel mill were extraordinarily hot and difficult to shoot. “It was very dangerous, but Bale would never even think of using a double,” Cooper contended. “Christian completed that work in a way that [was] so believable and authentic.”
Of the film’s Pittsburgh-area setting, and its somewhat unique accent, Shepard noted that “It’s a strange little neck of the words,” incorporating Irish and Southern colloquialisms, where “y’ins” stands in for “y’all.”
As for the film’s somewhat cryptic title, Cooper mysteriously maintained that it “certainly suits the narrative in many ways.”
“I like titles that reveal themselves throughout the course of a narrative,” he added, name-checking such well-monikered movies as “There Will Be Blood, “Days of Heaven,” “Being John Malkovich,” and “No Country For Old Men.”
Like many of those films, “Furnace” seems to be a major awards contender.
“Out of the Furnace” opens December 6.
Watch the film’s new trailer here