Last Saturday, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of the new film, Out of the Furnace, which was followed by a Q&A with co-star Casey Affleck and the film’s writer/director Scott Cooper. With The Hollywood Reporter’s extremely competent Scott Feinberg moderating, the discussion ranged from the power of performance, to the bafflement of personal attacks in reviews, to what it means to hear “Thank You” from a fan.
Scott, can you talk about the root of the idea for the film?
Scott Cooper: A script was sent to me by the producers and it was very well written, but not something I wanted to film. I politely declined, but they said, ‘Well, why don’t you write a script about a man who gets out of prison and avenges the loss of a loved one?’ I know people who’ve been in prison and having lost a sibling myself, I felt I could tell a very personal story about that narrative. So I told them if I could personalize it in some way then I certainly would. And the result was what you saw this evening.
I had been reading a great deal about Braddock [Pennsylvania, where the film is set] and it reminded me of small towns in western Virginia where I grew up. I thought I could set a story there that would really drip with atmosphere. The town, like so many small towns, had fallen on great economic distress, and the courage of the people who stayed in the town was emblematic of the best of the human spirit. I just felt connected to them. It came to a point where I said, ‘If we don’t shoot in Braddock, I won’t make the film.’
Casey, how did this come across your radar, and was it immediately something you connected with?
Casey Affleck: I read the script and got all the way through it, and if that happens, it’s usually pretty good. [Crowd laughs.] I usually get a quick gut feeling one way or the other, and I take the next six weeks questioning myself. But I knew right away from talking to Scott that I was on board.
People may not know that Scott started out as an actor, so Casey, do you think that enhances his ability to get great performances out of actors? [Cooper’s first film, Crazy Heart, garnered an Oscar for Jeff Bridges and an Oscar nomination for Maggie Gyllenhaal.]
Affleck: I had not seen Scott’s work on The X-Files [crowd explodes with laughter], before I agreed to do the film, but more than anything, it was the way Scott talked about the characters. The way he inspired me and made me think of things I hadn’t thought about. For myself and other people I know, the decision to take on a role is largely based on a conversation you have with the director and whether or not they say the right things. Needless to say, Scott said the right things and had a great understanding of the material. Actors don’t like to say it, but any performance in a movie can be made great or terrible by the director. Any praise an actor gets, any awards… half should be given to the director, truly.
|Cooper with Christian Bale|
Scott, Christian is obviously a very big part of the movie, I’m wondering what led you to work with him.
Cooper: I wrote Crazy Heart for Jeff Bridges, without even knowing him. I wrote this part for Christian without knowing him. I write with people in mind, and someday I’m not going to get the person I want [crowd laughs], but it’s worked so far. Christian has a great deal of versatility, but I had never seen him play the type of vulnerability and gentle nature I needed with this part. So I thought that’d be interesting. Christian is also a really wonderful non-verbal actor. He can say much more with a look than I can as a writer. Most actors really want to show you Watch me act, and too many times, in my opinion, those performances are awarded. But I was interested in the restraint Christian and Casey could bring. The whole film is about America over these past five years, with a crumbling economy, soldiers who return with PTSD, and the fact that we live in a very violent nation. I thought Casey and Christian could portray that well on screen.
Casey, you were the subject of a recent New York Times Magazine profile that was very interesting. You said you were sort of demoralized about acting, until you did a scene with Christian in this film. For people who missed the article, could you talk about that moment?
Affleck: Meh. The New York Times makes stuff up. [Crowd laughs.] I mean I guess it’s true. I was talking about the first scene we shot, which was when I go to meet Christian in the prison. I hadn’t spent much time with him, and we didn’t rehearse, and I remember doing the scene with him and I was just blown away. He has an enormous amount of presence and he’s very believable. He doesn’t seem like he’s doing a whole lot but… you often work with actors who don’t even look at you, they’re just acting for the camera. Christian is very present. He listens. And it sucked me into the reality of the moment. After a few takes, he said. ‘So what do you think?’ and I said, ‘I feel terrible, really lost,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, that’s good, yeah.’
Cooper: Meanwhile I’m saying, ‘My God, this is genius.’ Casey thinks he’s the worst actor on Earth. He’s very self-effacing.
Affleck: Well, it was a nice moment. He was very supportive. After that day, I knew I could completely trust Scott and Christian.
The fighting is very convincing in the film. Is that like a side hobby of yours? [Crowd laughs.]
Affleck: [Laughing] It’s not, I’m not a big fighter. I’ve probably been in two fights in my life, and they didn’t go as well as they did for my character. Scott wanted the fighting to look sloppy and realistic, not rehearsed. A real, brutal street fight. So yeah, it took a little time to get in that shape.
Cooper: He’s very self-deprecating. He worked very hard to look that way. The fights were choreographed heavily… it’s all a testament to Casey’s skill.
|Cooper with Willem Dafoe and Casey Affleck|
There are a lot of moments in the movie that really stay with you. And Scott, I’m wondering if there was ever a moment when you thought, ‘Okay, wow, I think we got something here.’
Cooper: When you’re sitting in the kitchen of this small house in Braddock, Pennsylvania and Christian Bale says to Casey Affleck ‘Come on man, why don’t you work for a living,’ and you see Casey’s reaction… those aren’t things you can do in your trailer. Those aren’t things you did in your hotel room the night before. It’s two actors at the height of the craft. So committed and connected to the world of the script. I say this sincerely, but I would go home everyday from this movie and think, ‘Wow, these actors… this is as good as it gets.’
I want to talk about the feedback you both have received from your peers concerning this movie. A lot of very respected people in the community have championed this film. If you can set aside humility for a moment, I’d love to hear which ones meant the most to you.
Cooper: Wow. William Friedkin, who’s a cinematic hero of mine, hosted a screening for the Directors Guild, and after, he grilled me about personal responsibility and what it means to show this kind of violence on screen. And after the discussion he turned to the DGA and said the film had restored his faith in American cinema. When one of your heroes tells you that, or Michael Mann tells you that, or Robert Duvall, or a soldier who has suffered PTSD and thanks you after a screening… no matter what happens to the film, I’ll take those words to my grave.
Affleck: I say this with no false modesty, but I try not to pay too much attention to what people are saying about a movie. If you’re getting horrible reviews and someone makes fun of you personally in print, you’re mad and thinking, ‘Well, fuck them, they don’t know what they’re talking about’ but when you get a nice review from the same person, you better be prepared to say, ‘Well, fuck them, they don’t know what they’re talking about,’ because it’s the same person. [Crowd laughs.] I’ve had A LOT of the former, so I decide to just not read them. And then someone sends you an email and says, ‘Hey man, don’t worry about these bad reviews,’ and you’re like, ‘Motherfucker!’ So you go on Rotten Tomatoes for two seconds and –
Cooper: Oh you can’t do that. You’ve got some critic with 12 cats, writing shit full of false assumptions, with no idea of what it means to make a film. Fuck them. The personal attacks, I just don’t get them. Dislike the movie, okay. But to make it personal… it’s beyond me. [Crowd cheers.]
Affleck: It cuts both ways. But we had a screening in Santa Barbara and after the Q&A an older woman came down and introduced herself, and she was really crying and just thanking us over and over. She went on and on and… it does seem preposterously proud to tell that story, but it really did have an affect on me. I know there will be a slew of other, negative things said about me and this movie but it’s nice to know there’s one 75-year-old woman in Santa Barbara who says, ‘Thank you for making this movie.’