The country’s economic downturn of the past five years has hurt many cities with unemployment running rampant and some cities unable to take care of its citizens and their debt. This came to a head earlier this year when Detroit, Michigan, a city already plagued by fallout from the market crash, declared bankruptcy, but the same could be said for the economically-depressed town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Once a thriving steel town with a number of active steel mills and a population of 30,000, the town had fallen on hard times after the closure of the Carrie Furnace with thousands losing their jobs before people started to drift away turning it into a ghost town.
Now, here at ComingSoon.net, we’ve been to a lot of glamorous places in our pursuit of getting the early word on movies, but visiting Braddock and the set of Out of the Furnace, the second film from Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper, was certainly an experience that wasn’t easily forgotten because we were brought closer to true poverty than anyone might ever hope to see in their lifetime.
The film stars Christian Bale as Russell Baze, a former convict who gets a job at the steel mill in Braddock once released. When his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) returns to town from active duty in Iraq, he’s desperate to make money to pay back his debt so he gets involved in the world of underground fighting, eventually sent up north to compete in a backwoods area of Pennsylvania, only to disappear, forcing Russell to try and find him. It also stars Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Woody Harrelson, Sam Shepard and Willem Dafoe, the latter two who were on set that daymore from them later.
Dinner with the Director
Before we even watched a single frame being shot, we met director Scott Cooper for dinner at his favorite Pittsburgh joint Meat and Potatoes, where you could literally get a giant cow bone filled with raw meat – not exactly conducive to a vegetarian. Two-thirds of the way through filming, Cooper was fairly excited by how things were going, especially the work by his actors and cinematographer, but he was kind of nervous about having journalists on his set since that wasn’t something he experienced on Crazy Heart. The dinner was used to introduce everyone to what he was trying to do with Out of the Furnace.
“After Crazy Heart’ I was having a difficult time finding a movie that I really wanted to tell,” he told us, saying that he was getting scripts for big budget films that he found immediately forgettable. The producers of the movie, which include Ridley and the late Tony Scott, had wanted Cooper to direct their long-in-development script The Low Dweller, but he instead chose to write something new based on Braddock, a town he thought would make for an interesting setting for a movie like the ones he enjoyed so much from the 70s. The filmmaker had driven around the town years earlier and seeing it became the germ of the film, although Cooper would be the first to admit that dramas like “Out of the Furnace” aren’t really made that much anymore compared to the 70s.
“The film’s really an examination of the nature of violence in a society in which men solve their own problems which is happening in Syria, so all those themes coursed through the narrative,” he said.
At first, the people of Braddock were a bit cautious talking to Cooper and making the movie there might not have been cost-effective, but with the help of the town’s mayor John Fedderman and a few governors, they were able to gain people’s confidence to make shooting in Braddock easier.
He said that shooting on location really helps the actors and the crew, especially since he had written a number of set pieces very specifically for locations he had seen that he couldn’t replicate elsewhere.
Cooper was invariably asked about the influences for the film and he listed a few 70s films he’s been “curating from,” including ones from John Cassavetes and Terrence Malick, whom Cooper had a chance to talk to before shooting – ironically, his star Christian Bale would be off to shoot scenes for Malick’s upcoming film as soon as he was done in Braddock. “Certainly The Killing of The Chinese Bookie’ was influential; Badlands’ and Days of Heaven’ were influential, Falkner who taught my father English for a couple of years at the University of Virginia, he’s a major influence. Yes, there are some Francis Bacon references that you’ll see in the film for sure he’s one of my favorite artists. The artistry photography the Walker Evans, Dorothy Elaine, Robert Frank, all of those were visual references that I used a great deal when I was trying to find the world and how I wanted to photograph the world and compose the frames for lighting. Typically my frames are darker than most films in just in palette that is. There’s deep golds and browns and silvers that also these leaden skies were really important to capture the tone of the film, and also some of Cormack McCarthy’s work who is somewhat a descendant himself of Falkner.”
Casey Affleck & Willem Dafoe
The next day, we were driven out to the neighboring town of Rankin, where they were shooting at Hidy’s Café, a local watering hole that is normally only open on Friday and Saturday nights, but which was doubling as The Cellar Door, a bar owned by Willem Dafoe’s loan shark and bookie John Petty. When we arrived, Dafoe was doing a scene with Casey Affleck as Rodney, Dafoe eating food and talking on the phone when Affleck comes into his office full of energy, pleading for a fight so that he can pay him back the money he owes him. Rodney knows of a fight in the hills of Ramopo, but Petty tries to protect him saying that, “When they don’t get what they want, they get nasty,” adding that he’ll come crawling back to him.
After watching them do a few takes from outside, and these were incredibly different takes each time as both actors were improvising around the script, we went inside the bar to see how they dressed it up for the shoot. It looked like a typical small town dive bar with a pool table lit with a domed stain glass lightand very little lighting otherwise. There was also a prominent sign warning that “anyone caught using or selling coke, crack or marijuana” would be thrown out – we think that was actually part of the real bar, not dressing for the set. There also were Christmas lights all around, although we don’t think this film necessarily takes place anywhere near the holidays.
During a break, we spoke briefly with Casey Affleck, who up close, we could tell had already been in a number of fights with a large bruise on his eye; his knuckles were also clearly bruised and he had a short cropped haircut, being a military man. “I haven’t seen a lot of Braddock, but it’s a very sobering place to work,” he told us. “On the one hand, you feel lucky you’ve got a job being around here, and on the other hand, it’s pretty depressing. I’ve been to a lot of poor places, but I’ve never seen a place that you can tell had at once been a thriving community and now is completely decrepit.”
Affleck talked about the preparation he did for the role, especially the fighting aspect of it. “There’s quite a bit of fighting in the movie and it’s kind of these illegal backyard fights, which I didn’t really know anything about, but I guess it’s become a real thing, in part because of the internet, which has fed the fire of so many horrible, little peripheral fetishes in our culture. On YouTube, there’s a million of these illegal backyard street fights, and that’s sort of what my character participates in a little bit, so I had to learn about that and learn how to fight better, as someone who had been a soldier in a war and fought there, not only fighting in war, but also gotten into fist fights and done boxing and that wasn’t something I had ever done, so I had to train a little bit for that, and that’s harder than learning how to work in a steel mill.” (That last bit was a semi-shot at Bale, since many of the journalists were interested in Bale’s training.)
“It’s kind of complicated,” Affleck responded when asked what he thought drew Rodney into the underground fight scene. “On the one hand, I think he doesn’t have a job. It’s hard to get a job. A lot of these guys come home from Iraq and they can’t find work. Some of them are really skilled. They’ve been engineers. They’ve been trained and educated in many ways and then they come home and they’re delivering pizza. They just can’t find anything and the wage for unemployment is higher than the minimum wage, so suddenly they’re taking a big pay cut and they don’t have benefits. So that’s part of what he’s going through. On the other hand, he’s having to deal with the very serious and very common post traumatic stress disorder. He’s done three tours in Iraq, so he’s seen a lot of horrible things and it’s hard to get them out of your head once some of those images are in there, even if it’s not things you’ve done, it’s things that you’ve seen, it’s hard to relate to other people and it’s hard to sleep at night and all that. He’s kind of dealing with both of those things and the fighting is an outlet for pent up aggression and also a way to make money.”
Dafoe was up next. He had grown his hair longer and had it slicked back, as well as having what looked like a good week’s growth of beard.
“Broadly speaking, I like to think of him as a bookie with a heart of gold,” he said about his character, John Petty. “He’s a bookie, but he has a relationship with the family and he’s a member of the community, so his business is his business and he can’t be soft there, but he also knows these people, he knows their parents, he knows them since they were little kids, so it pains him when these guys can’t pay off his debts and he has to come after them. He’s invested in (Russell and Rodney), where he probably shouldn’t be, and I think that’s an interesting aspect of the character, because he’s conflicted. He’s a local guy and in this kind of environment, his kind of activity thrives and it preys on the people, but also he cares for the people, because they’re his community. So, he’s kind of between a rock and a hard place and I think that is one of the attractive things about the character. You know, superficially, he’s a small time criminal, but he’s kind of sweet in how he deals with Christian and Casey.”
Dafoe talked about shooting in Braddock and what being in that town brought to the movie. “I’ve shot here before and I performed in the theater here before, so Pittsburgh isn’t foreign to me, and in some ways, I grew up in a factory town when I was a kid, slightly different. It wasn’t steel. It was paper, but I feel like I know these people.”
“(It’s a) beautiful set, and when I entered it, I couldn’t figure out whether it was really a functioning bar, or how much they sweetened it,” Dafoe said about the bar they had dressed up for the scene we saw them shooting earlier. “Then I went to the toilet and I had no doubt it’s a functioning bar. That’s been fueled for a good forty years. Your nose tells the story.”
“I came here and they had already been shooting and I’d be a liar to say that I did any special accent work,” he answered when asked the same question as everyone else. “There’s a very specific Pittsburgh accent. Yinz’ is like y’all. It’s very specific to the area. It’s a mix of kind of a Southern thing and a mountain things. It’s where a lot of different accents come together. It’s a little sticky. Basicallly, I just listened to people on the set to see what the tone and accent was. I wasn’t going to go and hambone my way with some fancy accent that didn’t fit into the place, so really I took my cue from the world that was already created when I arrived.”
The night before Cooper told us that he had Affleck doing different things in his scenes with Dafoe to try and surprise the actor and getting different results and Dafoe told us how he felt about that way of working. “I like that. It keeps it loose and it opens it up. You got to stay on your feet and keep on going back to the scene to figure out what it is, rather than delivering a performance or structuring something that is forced. You play off each other and sometimes you misstep, but as long as you’re playing off each other, there’s an energy and a truth that kind of drives you through. Sometimes you don’t know where the scene is supposed to go, but when you open it up and make it loose, you find a way. That’s really it. The director has got to sit there and that’s where the real directing comes in, guiding those kind of improvisations on top of the script. I think the general tendency is, you know, you try to do the scene, then you loosen it up, then you get back to it, because the script is a strong script, so you don’t want to throw that out.”
While Dafoe was hesitant to compare Out of the Furnace to other movies, he told us, “I’ll just say that one of the attractive things about doing this movie is it’s a throwback. We don’t make these kinds of films anymore. It’s period feel. It’s feeling of the portrayal of a community. It’s a very American feeling story, dealing with kind of an underbelly of the American dream in the respect that you have, this is a depressed area in the story and to see how people negotiate between the temptation of criminality and how to find their way out to find a life is something that normally movies don’t talk about.”
Carrie Furnace and Braddock Tour
After talking to the two actors, we were driven out to the actual Carrie Furnace, which was probably one of the really inimitable experiences on this trip. The film’s location manager Jim and Ron, the furnace’s caretaker, gave us a tour and told us about the history of the furnace, which closed down in 1978. Since then, the Homestead steel mill across the river had also been closed down and the one active furnace on the other side of town only employs 700 people, down from the 15,000 at the height of its activity. The Carrie Furnace was old and rusted and covered in vegetation but you could tell what a massive and majestic place it must have been in its heyday. We were told the had shot about four days of the movie at the defunct furnace.
While we did take some pictures on our tour, who knows what happened to them in the time since last year, so instead, enjoy these professional pictures by Darren Ketchum and Sean Posey, which gives you a great idea what the Carrie Furnace was like to walk around in.
After that, we were then given a driving tour through Braddock to see how much of the town was rundown with many houses boarded up after going into foreclosure. Fortunately, the artistic community had been migrating to Braddock with the likes of Banksy and Sheppard Fairy setting up shop there in order to do their art and bringing attention to the town’s plight. Actually, we saw some of this at the Carrie Furnace as well as a number of artists had set up sculptures and installations around the site.
Sam Shepard & Scott Cooper (again)
We were then driven to a large nearby bingo hall where we ate lunch and then had a chance to talk with the legendary Sam Shepard, who plays Red Baze, Russell and Rodney’s uncle. “I’m kind of like an older brother to (Christian Bale’s character),” the veteran told us, treading lightly as to try not to spoil any major plot points. “He’s the real responsible character in the story. He’s trying to clean up around his brother, he’s had some really bad luck, there’s a car crash in which somebody involved in the crash dies and he goes to prison.”
“I think we did make a stab at trying some of the colloquialisms and some of the vernacular,” Shepard said about his own accent work, confirming what Dafoe had told us earlier. “It’s a strange little neck of the woods. I don’t know if you all are from Pittsburgh or not. There are some words that are very southern and almost kind of Irish. For instance, you say Flair’ and stuff like that. Yinz’ for y’all like in the deeper south they say y’all up here they say Yinz.’ Things like that that are useful in organizing the way you speak and it’s not simply for authenticity. It’s also the rhythm of it and the structure of it. It gives you a different feel.”
Scott dropped by briefly to talk with us some more before he was called back to set, talking about the dangers of shooting in an active steel mill with temperatures up to 3,000 degrees. Even so, Bale didn’t want a double for the scenes he shot in there, doing the most dangerous job of dumping alloys into the furnace to get the temperature high enough to melt steel. “It was very dangerous, but as I mentioned at dinner, Christian would never even think of having a double. Christian hasn’t used a double that I’m aware of for the whole film and certainly that work inside the steel mill was done extraordinarily professionally. He had training of course and we had medics and all those things you should have, but Christian completed that work in a way that made me feel like he not only could do anything, which he really can, but it was so believable and authentic that you would never know that it wasn’t Christian Bale if you didn’t actually see his face while he was doing it.”
“It certainly helps establish a community, it establishes his character, it helps establish a type of person,” he added, “Because a certain type of person does that kind of work and doesn’t sell insurance. And that will certainly come to bare later in the film.”
Before Cooper went back to directing, he told us what he hopes audiences will get out of watching a movie set in a place like Braddock. “It’s just a vanishing way of life and it’s an examination of the nature of violence as I said in a society where men solve their own problems. As I said last night it’s happened in Syria, it’s happened in all across the Arab spring, it happens all too often in America, France. Yeah it’s unfortunate, but it’s a way of life. But there are many things about a vanishing way of life that occur in this film that these men do.”
Unfortunately, Christian Bale decided not to make himself available to talk to press that day, even though for many he was the big draw for coming to set. We could see that he had grown a beard and had longer hair that was slicked back (similar to Dafoe’s) as if it was unwashed and he was wearing a heavy plaid jacket. Instead, we watched him and Shepard do a scene where Bale walked out of the bar and walked over to where Shepard was waiting by the truck, they had a little chat (which we couldn’t hear from where we were watching) and then drove off. They did the scene a number of times and that was it.
That was pretty much it for our visit to the set, and while it’s a little hard to tell what we got out of it since we watched very little shooting and spoke only briefly with the actors and Cooper–much less than we expected–the film certainly sounds promising from the amount of time and care Cooper has put into creating a realistic environment in which to base the story.
Out of the Furnace opens nationwide on December 6.