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Volume 24, Number 10 — November 2017

Scott Cooper hears Oscar buzz again


"Out of the Furnace" is a gripping and gritty drama about family, fate, circumstance and justice. Russell Baze (Christian Bale) and his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) live in the economically depressed Rust Belt in western Pennsylvania and have always dreamed of escaping and finding better lives.

First film, "Crazy Heart," won two Oscars

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | September 25, 2013

Scott Cooper, who grew up in Abingdon, Va., has become a familiar name to many outside his hometown since his movie "Crazy Heart" was nominated for three Oscars (Best Actor, Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Original Song). "Crazy Heart" won two Oscars; Jeff Bridges won the Best Actor award; and Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett's song, "The Weary Kind," won Best Original Song.

"Jeff Bridges is one of our great actors, humanitarians and supporters of the arts. For him to win an Oscar, under my direction, was gratifying, as he's truly one of the best people I know."

Cooper is once again hearing Oscar buzz for his new film, "Out of the Furnace," due to be released Dec. 6.

"I try and tune out the Oscar buzz, which is, admittedly, difficult. I don't make films with winning Oscars in mind. I'm still not sure how a group of people can judge one film or performance as better than another. I ask how one might judge a DeKooning over a Pollock? It's purely subjective. I couldn't tell you what won Best Picture last year. But I can tell you that "Taxi Driver," "Goodfellas,' "The Conversation" and "Apocalypse Now" didn't win. And Hitchcock never won an Oscar, so ..."

What is important to Cooper when working on a film is the human condition. "I'm heavily drawn to character-driven films, in which character drives the narrative. Not plot. The works of Coppola, Scorsese, Malick, John Ford and John Cassavetes have all inspired me; and I've curated from them all."

Cooper isn't the only one who focused on the human aspect of "Out of the Furnace." "The actors were attracted to the human element in my script. Actors like to be challenged on an emotional level, and this film provided that challenge ... and more." The actors found role models in the town, worked diligently on accents, and Christian Bale worked at a steel furnace.

"Out of the Furnace" is a gripping and gritty drama about family, fate, circumstance and justice. Russell Baze (Christian Bale) and his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) live in the economically depressed Rust Belt in western Pennsylvania and have always dreamed of escaping and finding better lives.

Russell's life isn't easy, but he's doing his best to get by. He has a dead-end blue-collar job at the local steel mill; he's taking care of his terminally ill father; and looking out for Rodney, who's struggling to adapt to normal life following a tour of duty in Iraq. His one comfort is his relationship with the beautiful Lena Warran (Zoe Saldana). However, one fateful evening changes everything for Russell, and he ends up in prison. When he returns to town, years later, his father has passed away; he's lost Lena to local Sheriff Wesley Barnes (Forrest Whittaker); and he discovers his war hero brother has been lured into a brutal, underground world of street fighting, run by one of the most violent and ruthless crime rings in the Northeast, led by Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).

When Rodney disappears, and law enforcement fails to follow through, Russell is determined to seek justice for his brother. With nothing left to lose, he takes matters into his own hands, risking everything. The film also stars Sam Shephard as Red, Rodney's uncle, and Wilem Dafoe who plays John Petty, a bookie to whom Rodney owes money.

Cooper not only directed the film, but he also co-wrote the script with Brad Ingelsby.

"I co-wrote the script because I was offered a script that I did not want to direct, that had one interesting element: a man gets out of prison to avenge the harsh treatment of his brother. From that seed grew my very personal screenplay."

A personal angle seems to be important to Cooper. His background in music growing up in the Mountain Empire, coupled with his father's love of bluegrass and country music, helped him create the story of country singer Bad Blake in "Crazy Heart."

"Crazy Heart" is also indirectly responsible for Cooper's latest movie, which was shot in Braddock, Pa., outside of Pittsburgh.

"The seeds to "Out of the Furnace' were sown when I visited Pittsburgh while promoting my first film, "Crazy Heart.' I was drawn to the region on an atmospheric level as well as having a reverence for those who have worked in the very difficult conditions of steel working. Growing up the grandson of a coal miner prepared me to tell stories about those who proudly work for a living. As well, there's a bit of an autobiographical tint to the narrative. Anytime you can make a film both personal and autobiographical, well, that's where the deeply emotional work comes from.

"Life experience is the most important thing one can bring to any artistic endeavor, whether it be songwriting, filmmaking, novel writing or practicing the cello," Cooper says. "Life experience and being open minded and empathetic as a human are vital. If you don't have or understand a deep sense of humanity, your life as an artist with anything worthwhile to say... will be a short one."

Cooper was listening to "Release" by Pearl Jam when he wrote the screenplay and, as a result, showed the movie to lead singer Eddie Vedder. Vedder collaborated on the soundtrack.

Among the film's producers are Leonardo DiCaprio and Ridley Scott.

"Both Leonardo and Ridley have been very enthusiastic supporters of the film and its trying and searing nature," Cooper says. "They're both wonderful artists and backed me fully in the face of steep odds. These films simply don't get made anymore. And without the two of them, it would never have been made.

"Each film has its challenges, but shaping the performances with challenging material is always difficult. Finding the right tone is another. And showing the full spectrum of humanity isn't easy, but I hope we've done that with "Out of The Furnace.' Only time will tell."

While Cooper is waiting to see what the reaction to "Out of the Furnace" is, he certainly isn't twiddling his thumbs.

"I'm always writing, so that makes it difficult to tell what film might be next. I've adapted a William Styron novel, "Lie Down in Darkness,' that I'm quite fond of. I've just finished a Depression-era piece that I'd love to tackle, and I'm currently re-writing Stephen King's "The Stand.' You move them all forward a little bit each day and one will rear its head and say, "Now's the time.' I don't make any decision lightly — especially what film to direct."

The Hollywood trades are reporting that Cooper is going to direct the film adaptation of King's "The Stand," following the departure of Ben Affleck as director.

Cooper didn't start out to be either a director or screenwriter. He studied economics and philosophy at Hampden-Sydney College. He then moved to New York City where he studied for a "short time" at the Lee Strasburg Institute and then moved to Los Angeles where he became an actor. His acting credits include "Gods and Generals" and "Get Low," among others.

"I enjoy all disciplines, but writing and directing are far more rewarding," Cooper says. "It's been said that film is a director's medium; the stage an actor's. I couldn't agree more. But one discipline has influenced the other: for example, my ability to speak the language of the actor, to help an actor when he or she is in trouble. Without a background in acting, that would be very difficult. My life as an actor led me to writing "Crazy Heart' and then to directing.

"I have no academic training for becoming a film director. No film school. I simply steeped myself in the work of the masters and curated from them. For better or worse, I'm a self-taught filmmaker.

"Both hard work and luck contributed to my success, and it's likely true for most everybody else who's experienced success in any field. You must be prepared when opportunity knocks. If you aren't, no amount of good luck will help."

That hard work and luck is combined with a healthy dose of family support. "I make certain that I have a normal family life. Without family, one's life is much emptier. My parents, my wife and my children give me inspiration and hope on a daily basis. This is a very difficult business. Without that support, it's a nearly impossible hill to climb." Cooper's wife's name is Jocelyne, and they have two daughters, Ava and Stella.

Cooper credits his ability to start the climb up that hill with growing up in Abingdon, Va., and to his parents, Jim and Loretta Cooper of Bristol, Va.

"Simply growing up in Abingdon, with its culturally rich atmosphere, helped immensely — driving by Barter Theatre every day, the William King Regional Arts Center, the Virginia Highlands Festival and, of course, the musically rich and diverse region of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee. All of these played a large part in shaping my artistic worldview. But it all starts at a young age, and you have to have parents who love the arts and expose you to them at an early age. I was most fortunate that I did."

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