Hollywood movies shoot all over the world to take advantage of landscapes, architecture and tax credits, but Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace looks to tap into something more human: the authentic culture and community of a struggling former steel town just outside of Pittsburgh. I was lucky enough to land a set visit invite along with a group of journalists to take a look at the Crazy Heart writer/director’s new film, which explored a violent, yet vanishing culture in small-town America.
Starring Christian Bale, Zoe Saldana, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and Woody Harrelson. Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace opens December 6th. Hit the jump for my set visit recap and 15 things to know about the film.
As someone who grew up in the shadow of a steel mill and spent a decade in the Steel City itself, I was thrilled to participate in the set visit. I was surprised to find out that we’d be dining with Cooper himself on the first night of the visit. The dinner allowed for an intimate conversation with the writer/director, at which point he revealed to us his numerous influences in his career, such as his mentor Robert Duvall, his conversations with Terrence Malick, and his affinity for the films of John Cassavetes and Malick, to name a few. When it came to his own films, he was offered many jobs after the success of Crazy Heart, but didn’t find anything he wanted to commit to. Instead, he rewrote Out of the Furnace.
The story centers on Russell Baze (Bale) who goes in search of his younger brother, Rodney (Affleck) when he disappears and law enforcement fails to follow through with their investigation. Cooper was emphatic when it came to the tone and feel of the picture, which is purposefully set in the struggling former steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. The writer/director was adamant about shooting in this location, telling the studio he wasn’t willing to travel to other places with more lucrative tax breaks, because the area itself proved the inspiration for his take on the story. The Carrie Furnace, a now-defunct blast furnace that’s become an historical landmark, formed the germ for Cooper’s story idea and even the eventual color palette of the film. Cooper said that the scenery and landscape of the Pittsburgh suburb plays even more of a role in Out of the Furnace than in Crazy Heart, representing “stoicism, addiction and violence, but also hope.” More on that in a bit.
After spending the night at a fancy downtown restaurant, the morning found us traveling to a dingy dive bar under an overpass in the downtrodden suburb of Braddock. (If you’re interested in getting an idea of what it’s like to live there, check out “A Day in the Life” on Hulu, featuring Braddock Mayor John Fetterman.) There are no studio shoots; everything is on location. The bar needs little set dressing. It’s smokey and stale and hasn’t had a decor update since the mid-70s. It’s perfect, as this film is a throwback to similar films of that era. In the scene, Dafoe’s character John Petty is behind a desk in his office in the back room of the bar, chatting on the phone while eating ribs. Affleck’s Rodney bursts in and keeps yelling at him in an anxious and excited manner.
As Cooper directs, both Dafoe and Affleck take turns being on or off camera. In Cooper’s interesting style, the off-camera actor does some odd actions to elicit a specific response from the on-camera performer. Dafoe has some choice lines that he tries out. Affleck acts alternately child-like or like a man with an addiction on the edge of getting his next fix. The process is intended to get a variety of looks and reactions from each actor that Cooper will later select from during his edits. The scene in question takes place roughly twenty minutes into the film and provides an important first act indication of where the plot will go.
After watching that scene, our group took a trip to the Carrie Furnace in nearby Rankin, PA (after a brief side trip to the house that stood in for the Baze household). The sprawling, rusted mass of metal has been designated a national historic landmark and is one of only two blast furnaces in the U.S. Its technology dates back to 1936 at its most recent, and operated for almost 100 years, finally shutting its doors in 1982. In addition to providing a sort of muse for Cooper’s story and a template for the film’s color palette, it stands in as a representation for the former steel town’s community, who watched a generations-long form of reliable employment crumble and decay before their eyes. (At one point in the film, Bale’s character works at a live furnace, wearing the same gear as the steelworkers and working alongside of them as they tap the furnace.) The furnace grounds also play host to some rather climactic moments in the film.
To end the day, we watched Bale himself shoot a scene outside of the bar. He’s sporting long hair, a beard and mustache, and is wearing jeans and a flannel shirt under a hoodie. His character Russell exits the bar and stops to talk to Red (Shepard) before getting into his truck, squealing the tires and taking off. We watch as the veteran actor runs through the scene again and again, varying his timing and intensity, and threatening to lose control of the truck in his character’s haste.
Although we only got hints and glimpses of the story overall, we got a good dose of tone and feel; it would have been impossible not to. Elements of Out of the Furnace are sure to be brutal, both physically and emotionally, but the heart of the people of that region is the ability to tough it out when things get rough. Much like areas in the steel industry region that are experiencing revitalization, Cooper promised us that Out of the Furnace ends on a hopeful note. Here’s hoping it’s a success and brings more filmmakers and storytellers to the area.
Here are 15 “Things to Know” about Out of the Furnace:
- Casey Affleck’s character is a war veteran returning home from Iraq and suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
- Director Scott Cooper uses a technique in which the off-camera actor tries different things to elicit the desired reaction from the on-camera actor during a scene.
- The scene in the bar (Cellar Door / Hidy’s Café) required very little set decoration.
- Willem Dafoe’s character enjoys ribs from a local restaurant in one scene.
- Cooper’s various influences include John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Days of Heaven, as well as artist Francis Bacon, and photographers Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank and Walker Evans.
- Cooper’s father was taught English by William Faulkner at the University of Virginia.
- Willem Dafoe also grew up in a mill town, but it was a paper mill instead of a steel mill.
- The Carrie Furnace served as the germ around which Cooper built his rewrite of the script.
- The Carrie Furnace also inspired Cooper’s color palette for the film, along with Pittsburgh’s leaden skies.
- Christian Bale did his own training to work at the active steel mill and can be seen working there in the film without a stunt double.
- Cooper hopes to highlight a “vanishing way of life” through “an exploration of the nature of violence in a society where men solve their own problems.”
- Some of the actors worked on adapting the very specific Pittsburgh accent. Willem Dafoe did not since he was relatively late to join the picture.
- Dafoe’s character is a bookie who’s mired in the criminal underworld, but also a friend of the family and a member of the community.
- Sam Shepard’s character is the uncle of Casey Affleck and Christian Bale’s characters; he plays a retired steel mill worker.
- Leonardo DiCaprio was originally set to star with Ridley Scott directing; both remained attached to the project as producers.
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