The musical soul of Scott Cooper's 'Out of the Furnace'

Posted by · 11:42 am · November 9th, 2013

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.”

But generationally, Vedder and his band made the most sense. So much so, in fact, that Cooper reached out to the singer for permission to use the song “Release,” the closing track of Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut album “Ten,” in the film. Cooper was writing from a very personal place, he says, and so certainly his own musical taste was creeping in on the fringe. But in “Release” he found an anthem that reflected the more elegiac qualities of the film. Like a handful of Vedder’s work, the song is about the singer’s father, who died before Vedder – who grew up believing his stepfather to be his biological father – knew the truth about him. And so it rang a grace note with some of the plot points of the film in that way, as Russell and Rodney care for their dying father, bedridden in the family’s Braddock, Pennsylvania home.

“It felt like that was a song that probably carried Russell Baze through some very difficult times, as I know it did me,” Cooper says. “It seemed to be a natural fit.”

But Pearl Jam had never allowed the song to be used for commercial purposes and in fact collectively disdains that sort of thing. Cooper flew up to Seattle to screen an early assembly of the film for Vedder, who was a fan of “Crazy Heart,” and though the director says he never really gets nervous, he was dreadfully so after that screening. But he could see instantly that the film had moved Vedder. The two men clicked on an artistic level and shared a kindred spirit, Cooper says, and without much hesitation, Vedder conceded the song’s use in the film.

But then he did Cooper one better. He suggested re-recording the song for the first time in over two decades to afford a rendition rich with all the life experience he, now a father, had acquired in that time. He even tweaked the song’s lyrics from “Dear Dad, can you see me now?” to “Dear Rod, can you see me now?,” further embedding the musical identity of the film in the perspective of Russell Baze. And so “Out of the Furnace” is bookended with the two versions, opening with the nostalgia of the original, closing with the lived-in resonance of the re-recording.

“It’s a longer recording and Eddie infused it with so much power and pain and everything that we all go through,” Cooper says of the new version. “I hope it registers with everybody.”

If that weren’t enough, Vedder was also interested in writing some original material for the film, which Cooper couldn’t have hoped for even in his wildest dreams. The director is a huge fan of the songs Vedder contributed to Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” soundtrack and thought he understood the depths he was aiming for with “Furnace,” so of course, he was happy to explore the possibilities.

Vedder penned a number of songs “that were just so beautiful and haunting,” Cooper says. “I would place them into the film and they were nearly perfect. In fact, I would say they were too perfect because as I would toy with them in the narrative and try to place them in certain areas that I thought would be most effective, I found myself being drawn out of the story into how beautifully crafted and how potent they were.”

It’s never Cooper’s intention, he says, for anything to ever pull the audience out of the world on the screen. He wants no fingerprints, his or otherwise, on the film. He doesn’t like anything too affected present, and whether it’s a performance or a music cue or just something that doesn’t seem like it fits into the world, he’s always looking to strip away and find an essence. So as much as it pained him, the original material couldn’t find a comfortable home in the film and it was decided, mutually, that score would be a better fit.

“It was a very difficult decision to make because any time someone goes to those depths to write something that’s that beautiful and that personal and that meaningful to him, and to me, you want it to fit into the movie,” Cooper says. “Eddie has such a rich voice, but what makes it difficult is his voice is much like Bruce’s. It’s unmistakably Eddie Vedder. The second you hear that voice you know, ‘Jesus Christ, that’s Eddie Vedder.’ And even if I was using it as a needle drop in the film, if Christian were driving down the road and he turned on the radio and here’s this Eddie Vedder song, again, it was just so powerful. I know it sounds odd but it was so powerful that it took me out of the narrative.”

Ultimately, both Vedder and Cooper felt the songs were best left as unearthed relics of the creative experience rather than seeing any sort of commercial release alongside the film. “They’re very personal songs to Ed and to me,” Cooper says. “I forged a close relationship with him through the movie and it’s probably better kept between us. Sad to say, for Eddie Vedder fans, as we all are.”

From there Cooper turned to score. A number of composers had expressed interest in working on the film, and in fact, Cooper hired one of them: Alberto Iglesias. Iglesias was quite moved by what he saw and even had to take a walk around the block to clear his head after first viewing the film, Cooper says. But conveying to a composer the sort of musical signature a director is looking for can be one of the most difficult aspects of the filmmaking process. It’s why so often composers are replaced on films. And in this case, Cooper felt he just didn’t do a proper job of elucidating exactly what he wanted, even though the score Iglesias had produced was gorgeous and moving. “It felt that perhaps I needed someone who could better understand my inarticulate manner of trying to describe the very regional, Appalachian soundscape that I was looking for,” Cooper says. The two, of course, parted on amicable terms.

As it turned out, the answer may have been staring Cooper in the face the whole time he was editing the picture. He temped much of “Out of the Furnace” with music from the 2010 film “Winter’s Bone,” which composer Dickon Hinchliffe scored for director Debra Granik. Seeing as it was working so well on a temporary basis, Cooper felt like he should give him a shot at it, and Hinchliffe ended up trumping everything he had hoped for.

“Dickon, to me, is a musical genius,” Cooper says of the Englishman and former member of the British indie rock band Tindersticks. “He really understood the film beautifully and wrote from a strong character place, and much like with ‘Crazy Heart,’ the music really informs who the characters are presently and where they’re likely going.”

The director didn’t want a lugubrious or mournful score, though. He wanted something that at times would be very life-affirming, in fact, even though the film is full of trials and tribulations. But he was also interested in low tones, and indeed, Hinchliffe took some his cues from the D-minor stylings of Pearl Jam’s “Release” throughout.

“There’s something about that song and the intensity of it that moved me a lot,” Hinchliffe says by telephone. “It sort of casts a shadow across the film in a really intense and good way. It has that guitar at the beginning that’s quite stark and on its own, but it has this beautiful turning of momentum and that definitely had an impact on some of the cues that I wrote.”

Cooper also wanted to use instruments with a regional flair, including banjo. “Before it became ‘Brooklyn hip,’ bluegrass was essentially born from the Scotch Irish in the Appalachian mountains,” Cooper says. “I was listening to bluegrass in the womb of my mother, fiddle, cello, banjo, Ralph Stanley, Bill Munroe, the legends.”

But that’s not to say he wanted a bluegrass score. The task was to take the instruments of that aesthetic and forge something fresh and new to help convey the narrative musically. And Cooper gave Hinchliffe the freedom to explore and experiment toward those ends.

Hinchliffe picked up a banjo at a pawn shop, and when the owner pulled it down off the wall and started playing “Dueling Banjos,” the composer couldn’t help but wince a bit at what has become something of a cliche with the instrument. But nevertheless, because he had never really played a banjo before, Hinchliffe had to invent his own style.

“Usually you equate the banjo with a certain type of American bluegrass, or there’s an Irish four-string banjo,” Hinchliffe says. “It’s very much part of folk music and it’s not often used outside of that. But I wish that there was more banjo music that was a bit more experimental. There was a band called 16 Horsepower a while back and the lead singer played banjo and it was amazing just to hear it played in a different way.”

He also notes the irony that the banjo is yet another element of music that has been co-opted by white America as the instrument originated in Africa. But nevertheless, using things like bowed cymbals and an EBow, Hinchliffe drove out an abstract touch in the score that became its own thing. He did things like distress guitars with distortion and overdrive and even put strings through a very old analog deck to try and make them a bit grittier and grainier. The idea was for the music to emanate from the culture and the people of the film’s setting.

“I was trying to fuse, at times, the music with the sounds of the industry, of the furnace,” he says. “I think the musical identity is very much from Russell Baze’s character, who is a blue collar working guy whose world is collapsing around him, economically, culturally and in terms of his family. The music is like the kind of blues around his life.

Hinchliffe likes to “inhabit a film with music,” he says, “and to do that, you have to be quite subtle, I think, and not be too bombastic. There’s a misconception that bigger and more is better with film music, and in my opinion, it isn’t. When you think of great scores like ‘The Godfather,’ with that solo trumpet line in it, it’s haunting and it stays with you forever. I like to start off in a more intimate way and then allow the music to grow naturally from there, in the same way that I think great character performances can be very intimate, but they somehow become larger than life as the film continues. This was very much the case in ‘Out of the Furnace,’ and hopefully the music follows a similar kind of pattern.”

Cooper reiterates the point, noting, “I don’t want anyone to ever say, ‘Look how clever he is with the way he moves the camera,’ or, ‘Look at those very arch, histrionic performances,’ or, ‘Look at those outlandish costumes.’ I want all of that stuff to recede into the background and I knew Dickon would be able to lend a very cinematic and atmospheric score and do exactly what I wanted. He delivered, I think, an astounding score, one that does not call attention to itself but is very rich and vibrant.”

The score was recorded at the legendary Abbey Road studios in London, which was of course a dream come true for Cooper. As soon as he stepped into those hallowed halls, he could sense the ghosts of The Beatles and Pink Floyd and of course the countless film scores that came before “Out of the Furnace.” Hearing the strings section gear up on Hinchliffe’s compositions and having legendary engineer Peter Cobbin invest so much time and emotion and care into the finished product is one of the highlights of his life. “It made that experience all the more special,” Cooper says. “I can only hope that Dickon will score whatever I do next and go back to Abbey, because it was truly, much like every facet of this film, about as good as it gets. Which is why it’s a privilege to do what I do and certainly not work.”

Music remains an ever-present thing in Cooper’s life. Every morning as he and his wife are preparing their children for school, they listen to soothing classical pieces for a calm start to the day. Later, the morning becomes a bit more eclectic as the lineup of local Los Angeles station KCRW filters in. When he heads down to his office to write, he’s always listening to something, building his worlds from a place of melody and lyric. And it’s because of that, he says, that he can’t imagine that his next film and indeed any future project won’t be as influenced by music as “Crazy Heart” and “Out of the Furnace” have.

It really just stretches back to those words from “Youngstown” embedded on the page in the early conceptual days of the project. “Bruce Springsteen made it into the script,” Cooper says. “And that led to a Walker Evans shot of a cemetery, the Bethlehem Steel Mill in the distant background. When I heard that lyric, it just struck me as being really cinematic, because I grew up in a region just like that. As the grandson of a coal miner, I knew what that lyric meant. I didn’t watch a lot of television growing up but I listened to a lot of music, and it’s such an important part of my life that it not only informs my writing process but my worldview as well.”

“Out of the Furnace” premieres tonight at AFI Fest. It opens nationwide on Dec. 6.

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