The musical soul of Scott Cooper's 'Out of the Furnace'
LOS ANGELES — In the new drama "Out of the Furnace," premiering tonight at the 2013 AFI Fest in Hollywood, Scott Cooper has finally delivered a follow-up to his 2009 debut "Crazy Heart." That film, which won Oscars for Best Actor and Best Original Song, came about as a vessel through which the Virginia-born director could, in some way, tell the story of singer Waylon Jennings (something he could not do directly due to legalities surrounding the country crooner's life). Indeed, Jennings' Nashville smack-down "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?" made it onto the soundtrack, part of the DNA of a film that aimed to strip away the flashy rhinestones and fancy bolos and tell a straightforward story of a musician's life on the road, no place for the weary kind.
Given how entrenched that film was in its musical identity, it's only natural that one might be curious about the musical pulse of his latest, an account of life and death and the thin line between in the mountains of Pennsylvania Appalachia. And make no mistake, there is a musical soul to "Out of the Furnace," perhaps one even deeper than that of "Crazy Heart."
When Cooper first began working on the script, which was a complete re-write of Brad Inglesby's black list screenplay "The Low Dweller," he was listening to Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" albums quite a bit. In fact, a line of action in the script — "The stacks, reaching for the sky like the arms of God, connect to a massive PLANT that hulks over the Monongahela river." — recalls a lyric from Springsteen's "Youngstown": "Then smokestacks reachin' like the arms of god into a beautiful sky of soot and clay."
There was a time when the film was titled "Under a Black Sun" and featured Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" playing diegetically on a jukebox, both referencing, like the end of the Springsteen lyric, the dark cloud of industry that once hung low over Pennsylvania steel country. The second trailer for the film features a cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" by Phantogram singer Sara Barthel, and early on, cues ranging from Guns N' Roses' "November Rain" to Ice Cube's "No Vaseline" populated the script, all of it reflecting character and culture crucial to the world Cooper was building.
"Any time I sit down to write, I'm always listening to music because it helps inform my characters and my world," Cooper says, sitting in his stark Brentwood office space. "Some of Bruce Springsteen's work sort of speaks to the themes that course through the narrative, and I was also listening to a lot of Enrico Caruso opera for some of the more violent sequences. I would listen to a lot of cello, too, and you'll find a lot of cello in the film, because it felt like those were the tones that best encapsulated this world."
Cooper then began thinking about his characters, rough neck brothers Russell and Rodney Baze and what kinds of music they would listen to. For the 38-year-old lead, Russell (Christian Bale), Cooper theorized that music probably became very important to him, as it does many people, in his teens and early-20s. Perhaps he was anti-establishment in his youth, interested in the punk and metal scenes, but eventually something like Pearl Jam would speak to him.
"Eddie Vedder, through his music and through the whole band, has always spoken to — much like Bruce — a blue collar ethic," Cooper says. "He writes about the obstacles in life, both physical and emotional."
It was an important point of departure for Cooper because until then he was playing with bringing in other elements. There were conversations with Springsteen and U2's Bono, artists who also speak to the milieu he was interested in exploring. "These are two of the most famous rockstars in the world, and they may be extraordinarily wealthy, but you feel like they are not part of the '1 percent,'" Cooper says. "They really understand what a blue collar steel worker is going through because they write from that experience."