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Portraying America’s Rust Belt: Behind the Scenes Lessons from OUT OF THE FURNACE
By Carl Kozlowski, Contributing Writer
Most movies are designed to provide escape for audiences wanting to take their minds off the sometimes harsh realities of life. In contrast, OUT OF THE FURNACE, actually shines an unflinching light on the lives of Russell and Rodney Baze, two fictional yet highly realistic and relatable brothers slogging their way through life in the dying steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania.
Rodney, played by Casey Affleck, is a soldier suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after serving four grueling tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. His brother Russell, played by Christian Bale, is struggling with plenty of other problems himself. He’s working hard days in the same steel mill that made his elderly father fall sick, is using his wages to pay off Rodney’s gambling debts and care for his bedridden father, and accidentally kills a mother and child in a traffic accident.
By the time he gets out of prison, Russell has lost his girlfriend – whom he hoped to marry – to another man. With all that weighing on him, Russell finds himself facing the greatest crisis of his life: saving his brother Rodney from his dangerous involvement in an illegal fighting ring run by a vicious criminal named Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).
FURNACE is an often bleak movie, and its frequently profane language, violent actions, and the villain’s illegal drug use make it a movie that’s not appropriate for family audiences. However, it has a sympathetic portrayal of the stresses our soldiers face coming home. Also, it respectfully shows Russell as a man of faith, who attends Catholic Mass even while behind bars and in the face of the crisis regarding his brother.
Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, and actress Zoe Saldana answered questions about the movie recently alongside the movie’s writer-director, Scott Cooper, whose prior debut film CRAZY HEART earned Jeff Bridges a Best Actor Oscar.
They discussed the movies’ more heartfelt and more positive aspects in an interesting way that was more thought-provoking than the average press conference.
Question: This movie has strong family values and a unique small-town location. How did you pick these themes and places, and how did it affect the performances?
SCOTT COOPER: I grew up in a small town in Appalachia, in Virginia, as the grandson of a coal miner and spent a lot of time in small town America. While I was touring with my first film CRAZY HEART, I was reading a great deal about Braddock, Pennsylvania (where FURNACE is set) and what the town had undergone in the past five to seven years with economic troubles and the loss of the steel industry, it was important to me to shine a light on not only small towns, but what we as Americans have undergone these past five turbulent years. That blue collar milieu was familiar to me yet under-represented in films. It was very prevalent in the 1970s but not since then. I wanted to see that represented on screen again because I knew these people very well, their values and mores, and could weave all those things into a narrative in a very personal way.
CASEY AFFLECK: There’s a story just in the way the place looks, a place that was once bustling, and is now something else. It has a lot of atmosphere. Normally you’re on a set, and a lighting set up takes 20 minutes, and you’re normally staring at a bunch of plywood in the fake interiors, but in this movie, you go in another real room. You’re not staring at a bunch of plywood, but a real house you’re supposed to be in. It really grounds you.
CHRISTIAN BALE: There’s a world that the camera creates and the broader world beyond it. This time, we were so immersed that we were easily in the broader world and that helped make it real.
ZOE SALDANA: You walk into a town like this and gain a really unique insight. It’s very easy to walk away when things go wrong, but to stick around and basically give life to a town because of everything it gave you generation after generation after generation, that’s a real mark of a true American – sticking together when it gets really rough. I’ve been to places around the world that can give you knots in your stomach and Braddock was one of those places, but once you sit down with those people, you wish you had an ounce of the strength that they possess every day in sticking around. That was something I was really very moved by.
MOVIEGUIDE: Woody, you were as scary as we’ve ever seen you, yet extremely relaxed. Does that come easy to you?
WOODY HARRELSON: You want to be relaxed as possible, even if you’re doing something intense, so you’re basically in a state of dynamic relaxation. I didn’t feel there was anything natural about playing Harlan DeGroat.
COOPER: The very last shot of the film was the first one we shot. When we finished, Woody walked over and hugged me and said, “I never wanted to shed a character more in my life.” Truly I wanted Woody to represent the very worst of America, and Christian to represent the best. Hopefully we succeeded in that dichotomy. As someone with a very limited career as an actor, you realize once you see these guys in action, you see the work and see the other side of the lens, and you quickly realize the difference between being modestly talented and how gifted they are.
Question: It’ interesting how Christian’s character is in church, and in chapel in prison. Was there any particular backstory motivated you to have the character be that way?
COOPER: When I was writing the character, I always thought of him as a very good man who was beset on all sides by a relentless fate. It was based on someone in my life who has suffered a tremendous amount of pain and loss, and who is also one of the most positive people I know and has given me a great source of inspiration. That man’s faith has carried him through, whether with absolution or whatever he was asking for. …For me, to have Russell Baze have that kind of seeking faith as he’s doing things that are morally questionable and put him in real risk was important.
Directors can go their whole career without telling personal stories. I don’t even consider it work. It’s a privilege to have actors of this caliber help me reach my vision. They were always questioning, taking a script that was well written and elevating it in every way. Making me understand who I was as a person. After the modest success of my first film, I found it very daunting to live with those expectations. After growing up with very little money and still having very little after CRAZY HEART, you can get tempted to make movies for the wrong reasons. They want you to make that movie, but you can’t, you have to stick to your artistic worldview and this was a personal story that was charged and emotional. It was a risk, certainly. I could have taken a much less risky route after my first film, but as one of my filmmaking heroes, Francis Ford Coppola, said, “If you’re not taking the highest greatest risk, why are you filming?”
Question: Casey, you gave a very raw real performance of soldier returning from Iraq, especially talking about what you’d seen over there. Did you do any special preparation?
CASEY AFFLECK: Not really, you start by making notes a few months before the shoot, over and over and talking to Scott lot about where he’s coming from, but [PTSD] is not too much of the film. Watching documentaries and talking to veterans, feeling as much as you can what that experience might be like for somebody. These guys are doing more tours than ever before, so there’s a constant level of anxiety and a lack of understanding what those symptoms are when they come back. People don’t want to hear what their experiences were. They would often rather forget about that stuff and here you are in your living room, trying to be in whatever moment you’re in and not bring it into every moment of your life. And, hope that it doesn’t bubble up in your consciousness at the wrong time.