Scott Cooper was told by a prolific, yet unnamed filmmaker that if everyone likes your movie, well then it’s probably bad. Then Cooper’s first film, Crazy Heart came out to nearly universal acclaim and wins Jeff Bridges his first Oscar. This is all notable because since then, Cooper’s films — which usually feature rural American locations with very flawed characters — have all been a bit more polarizing. To the point, ahead, Cooper says he doesn’t care about awards. He might be one of the few filmmakers I actually believe when they say this. To even back that up, his new film, The Pale Blue Eye was supposed to get a fancy premiere at the Venice Film Festival, but it wasn’t quite right and Cooper wound up forgoing that experience (and, yes, awards chatter) to instead finish his new film the way he wanted to finish it. (The Pale Blue Eye debuts on Netflix on January 6th.)
Based on a 2003 novel by Louis Bayard, Christian Bale plays detective Augustus Landor. He’s asked by the leadership at nearby West Point to not investigate a suicide by one of its students, but instead investigate why that student’s heart was stolen from the morgue. During his investigation, Augustas meets another student, a sort of strange fellow named Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling) and the two team up to solve this mystery.
Back around the time of Crazy Heart, Cooper talked about a handful of movies that he considered his influences. Now that he’s directed six movies, it’s interesting to look back at how movies like The Last Picture Show and Nashville have influenced his whole career, which he discusses. And also, theaters aren’t really playing the type of movies that Cooper makes anymore. The Pale Blue Eye is Cooper’s first collaboration with Netflix. Is this is future going forward?
How are you?
I’m quite well, thank you. Finally finished the film and got it ready to go out into the world.
You just recently finished it?
I was trying to get it finished for the Venice Film Festival, but just didn’t do that in time and I’ve just finished in the last few weeks.
What was the hold up?
Oh, I didn’t finish shooting the film until the end of February. So it just takes time. So I’ve just delivered it so I’m happy that people are finally starting to see it.
Are you disappointed it didn’t get to have that big festival screening?
Well, I certainly love festivals and I love Venice, had a lot of fun there. Generally, people like to take their films to festivals because they reach a wider audience, but also because they want awards consideration. But I don’t give much consideration to that. It’s really about making a film that I want to race out on a Friday night to see. And you really can’t judge a film for, I don’t know, 10, 12, 15 years anyway…
A lot of filmmakers say they don’t really care about awards. You’re one of the few I actually think I believe.
Well, look, you don’t make films I make and think that they’re going to placate a wide voting body.
But your first one did. Crazy Heart.
Right. And then, of course, I took a hard right turn with Out of the Furnace and Black Mass and Hostiles and Antlers and this. I never want to sand off the edges of my films just to make them more awards-friendly. One of the world’s great directors who shall remain nameless once said to me after seeing one of my films and really embracing it, he said, “Scott, if everybody likes your movie, it’s likely not very good.”
Your first movie, again, was met with almost universal praise. So did that bother you?
Well, look, it’s always kind of a double-edged sword when your first film gets embraced the way it does because then you make your mistakes as a filmmaker in a very public setting as opposed to toiling away and really honing your craft. But, look, I’m incredibly thankful and grateful for making Crazy Heart. That changed my life. Jeff Bridges remains an incredibly close friend of mine and I certainly wouldn’t be talking to you now had I not made that film.
You mentioned Out of the Furnace. It just reminded me, after I saw that movie, I don’t know if you’re going to find this amusing or not, but I decided to start a Harlan DeGroat Twitter account.
I love that.
It did not take off.
No, I’m sure not. I’m sure not. But look, that film means a great deal to me. Sam Shepherd — who was a mentor of mine, and sadly is no longer with us — he saw the film, really loved the film, and he said, “Well, it’s a good thing that your first film won awards because this one won’t win a damn thing.” And I said, “Sam, what’s your relationship to the Academy?” He said, “They don’t dig my shit, man.”
Do you feel you have a through-line through your movies? Because I keep thinking they do, but I can’t put a finger on it. And I feel like you’re the person to ask that.
I have to say, I’ve tried just to figure out how to tell the truth about how tragic and unfair life can be without losing hope. Right? Most narratives, I think lie to the audience about how life works out. And I guess if there’s anything that certainly ties my film together, it’s that making films can be a way of observing and making sense of the world. I know that you don’t get to choose your obsessions, they kind of choose you. But I guess something that binds them is, I like stories that kind of say something deep-rooted about American life and its relationship with the darker corners of the human psyche.
Around the time of Crazy Heart, you mentioned how The Last Picture Show was an influence. I’m wondering if it is more the Peter Bogdanovich of it? Or is it more the Larry McMurtry of it? Because it seems you hit on the McMurtry themes a lot.
Yeah, it is. And actually Larry McMurtry, who’s also no longer with us, adapted Empire of the Summer Moon for me. A great nonfiction book that I’m sad that we never got to make. I really liked Larry a great deal. I love how achingly human that film is. Peter Bogdanovich … I’ve been fortunate that directors from that era – whether it be William Friedkin or Bogdanovich, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann, who’s a bit later – all of those directors have really embraced me and mentored me in ways that I’m incredibly grateful for. And those are the movies that I tend to watch over and over because I didn’t go to film school. I’ll watch their films with the sound off, so that I see how they’ve really told the story with the camera, the staging, the mise-en-scene. So those movies do mean a great deal to me.
Going back to The Last Picture Show, I’m wary of comparing a filmmaker’s movies to other movies when you might not agree. But your movies remind me less of The Last Picture Show and more of Hud. I know those movie have similar themes but Hud…
Right, where you kind of have a hard-driving story…
With an ornery cuss.
Who’s suddenly kind of driven to an act of violence that can threaten his world. Yeah. I mean, I certainly see those parallels now that you mention it, which certainly means a great deal to me, I have to say. And I really love the original title Horseman Passed By. And I’m not quite sure why that was changed. Horseman Passed By, but it’s really quite ellagic. But the great thing about McMurtry is his works are timeless and they kind of have a timeless conflict between modernity and time of yesteryear. And I find that to be really interesting to me.
You also mentioned Nashville. There are other Altman movies I’d compare your movies to before that one, but is something like that in you?
I love that film and that truly is one of the cornerstones of ’70s American filmmaking…
But is something like that in you?
I think so. I do love that story. He weaves, what is it, 20, 24 characters into one kind of cinematic tapestry. Well, I certainly am in the process of cooking up a couple of things with Christian Bale again that kind of gets to the heart of American life. Much like that film did, but doesn’t quite have the equal parts of comedy and tragedy and musical. But it was such an astonishing cast. But I would love to make my own version of Nashville. But in the moment, I’m in the process of writing a couple of things that I think Mr. Bale will help me express.
You do seem to love your flawed protagonist. Is that why you wanted to adapt The Pale Blue Eye?
Yeah, I think so because we all are flawed. And look, I grew up in the state of Virginia, which is where Poe spent his formative years. And my father taught English and literature and he introduced me to a novel, The Pale Blue Eye, to pleasure read. And he said, “This is such a clever book where a young unformed Poe is found at the center of his detective story, something that he bequeathed to us.” And I thought, well, this is an opportunity to upend what people think of Poe. Because they think of him as someone who’s obsessed with the satanic and the occult and death and paranoia, and allowing me to be able to essentially make an Edgar Allen Poe origin story. The events that take place in this movie inspired him to become the author of The Raven and The Premature Burial and The Telltale Heart.
This is your first movie with Netflix, right?
It is, yes.
What do you think your future is going forward? Because movies like yours aren’t really playing in theaters much anymore.
Well, I’ll say a couple of things.
The way people consume media has changed, and I don’t think that will ever go back to the way we used to.
No, I don’t either.
I am incredibly grateful that Netflix allowed me to make a film that I’ve wanted to make for about a decade. More people will see this film on Netflix than they’ve seen all of my films combined. They’re also allowing the top markets in the country to see the movie in theaters for a couple of weeks before it actually makes its way onto the streaming service. So if people are like I am and they love the cinema experience, they’ll seek it out. So I kind of had the best of both worlds, but look no further than the box office this fall to understand that the type of movies that I make are not being well attended. And I don’t know if that’s because people have just grown comfortable watching things at home, or if they’re still concerned about catching COVID or if people just have too many other things in their lives, they have long-form television, they have TikTok and social media, they have sports.
I’m going to say it’s “all of the above.”
There’s nothing for me like being in a darkened cinema and surrounded by strangers and seeing a film. It’s one of the greatest gifts of my life and I’ll never stop doing it.
‘The Pale Blue Eyes’ debuts via Netflix this Friday, January 6th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.