Interview by Roger Durling with Writer/Director Scott Cooper and actor Casey Affleck
Cooper: Well, I can’t tell you how much it means for me to be in Santa Barbara, because not many people know that I wrote Crazy Heart while I lived here.
Albright: It’s great to have you guys here, and welcome back. So Scott, actually as a follow up to Crazy Heart, this is also a film about the darker corners of the American psyche. You’re dealing with some of the same themes, the same characters–salt of the earth, honest, loyal, American figures who have gone through some hardships. What drew you to the story?
Cooper: Well, after the unexpected success of Crazy Heart, I, someone who had never been offered anything in his life, was suddenly staring at a pile of scripts. You say to yourself, “My God, that’s daunting. Do I take someone else’s script and try to interpret that?” But for some reason I was having a difficult time, and quite frankly, I became a little paralyzed by that success. I thought it was important for me then to look at the times in which we lived, and try to chronicle those as truthfully as I could. These past five years as we all know have been very turbulent. We have had a crumbling economy. We have been fighting two wars on two different fronts. Our soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and they have been having a very difficult time assimilating back into life–and it isn’t lost on any of us that we live in the most violent nation on Earth. So I thought it was important to try to weave those themes into the fabric of the narrative and try to just be as truthful as I could, while also trying to make us aware of the human spirit and resilience and what it takes to overcome those types of obstacles.
Albright: Well, you did an excellent job, and I felt really moved and emotionally connected to the characters and the location. Braddock, Pennsylvania, seems to embody a lot of these themes you just spoke about–the steel mill closing, the working class town, the exporting jobs abroad, returning veterans from the war. So why did you choose that location? Was it something that came about naturally?
Cooper: Well, a couple of reasons. When I was touring the country with Crazy Heart, I had a stopover in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had been reading the New York Times, and I happened to see that the mayor of Braddock was chronicled on 60 Minutes. I was really moved by the plight of the city, having lost jobs to China, having people leave the city in droves, and the people that remained seemed to be filled with courage and conviction. So I drove around on my day off and it just dripped with atmosphere, and it had a real heartbreaking beauty. On top of that I was born and raised in Virginia, the grandson of a coal miner, so I knew those people. I understood their mores, their values, how important to them a sense of strength and courage was, and it was important to me then that you tell a story. It became a very personal story, and at times autobiographical in ways that only the actors and I are privy to. It makes it all the more difficult when you release a film like this, that is so personal, because when you meet with criticism and rejection, which every filmmaker does, you feel personally rejected. And that’s part of being a filmmaker, or a musician, or an artist, and I think it certainly makes it riskier, but it’s worth taking those risks.
Durling: Casey, when did you get involved with the film?
Affleck: I got involved with the film well after Scott’s trip to Pittsburgh, I can tell you that. The way it came to me was a script that came in the mail and someone said, “This is fantastic. You should read this immediately.” And I did, and I got on the phone with Scott, and as you can hear he speaks very passionately and frankly about the film and himself and the characters, and I knew within a few minutes that I very much wanted to be part of it. So we had a few more conversations after that and then we were off.
Cooper: Let me just add, what Casey won’t tell you is that there were a lot of actors who wanted to play this part. Christian Bale was cast first, and I had him in mind when I wrote the piece. Much like with Crazy Heart–and it’s very dangerous to do this–I write with people in my mind. I wrote Crazy Heart for Jeff Bridges without ever having met Jeff, and I wrote this piece for Christian without ever having met Christian. Once I was lucky enough to get Christian, we really focused on this part. We wanted someone, and it isn’t lost on me that Casey is easily one of the best actors of my generation. And it came to a point where Christian and I said–I can distinctly remember this–I was in Pittsburgh after having scouted all day, and Christian and I said to one another, “If we don’t get Casey for this part, we aren’t going to make the film.” Thank God we did.
Affleck: Thank you. You can believe about half of that.
Cooper: It’s true. Every bit of it is true.
Albright: So Casey, then, in preparing for the role and getting into the mind and body of your character, what was the process like once you got onto the project?
Affleck: Well, Scott and I talked a lot about what it was like to come home from deployment and to try to integrate back into society, especially one where the economy has collapsed, there are no jobs to find, there’s not a lot of support from friends and family who don’t really understand what you’ve been through, and there just isn’t a lot of support from the government. And I watched some documentaries and spoke to a few people and I had a friend who’d been in Iraq and had come back, and I just tried to get my head around what that would really be like and how hard it would be to come home and find yourself on your own. That was kind of the central thrust of the preparation and just trying to get into that space. Then there was some physical stuff that had to happen with the fighting, because part of the story is that he gets involved in these fights. And, believe it or not, I was not a professional boxer coming into this film.
Cooper: To say the least.
Affleck: So there was a little bit of training that had to happen. But a lot of it just is staring at a wall. You read the script and then you just kinda stare at a wall and think about it, then you read the script again and call Scott and listen to him talk about it and then stare at the wall again. You just sort of wait for something and hope that something bubbles up to the surface that makes sense. Something happened on the first day of shooting. It was the day in the prison for me. For some reason the first day, the first week, was pretty terrible for me. I was feeling totally lost, and I was very vulnerable. And I asked Scott and Christian–I said, “Well, I might as well just tell them that I have no idea what I’m doing here.” They were both extremely helpful, letting me know that it was sort of OK; that the best thing to be feeling at that time was to be feeling like I had no idea what I was doing just because of the context of the scene. Then from that point on I felt a lot of trust. I kind of feel like I want to choose movies where I sort of trust the director so that I feel like I can take risks and make mistakes, and know that no matter how bad I am on set that there’s someone that’s going to take care of me. If you make safe choices with your director, then you can make reckless choices when you are doing the movie. I felt 100% safe with Scott all the time.
Durling: You have incredible chemistry with Christian Bale. What was it like working with Christian, and did you guys work on your relationship as brothers?
Affleck: I think I have to give him all the credit. He’s an amazing actor and just from part to part, he’s always as different as anybody is–but always believable–and he’s my favorite to watch I think. He does something that a lot of people talk about which is just staying in character. You hear people talk about that all the time. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen anyone do it, but I had never seen anyone do it to that extent. I don’t even really feel like I know who he is because the whole time I spent with him he was this character. I’ve never heard him speak in his own accent. I’ve never heard him behave like anybody other than the guy you saw on screen. It sounds a little bit crazy, and I think he probably is a little bit crazy. But it makes for an amazing performance, and it made me better. I guess the chemistry, if there’s anything there, has to be in large part due to his commitment to the part and just how he approaches his job. It’s just all or nothing, and he sucks you into a reality. He’s an anchor for everybody in the movie that we did. He insists on a certain reality in every moment and I think it just creates a connection on screen. Then you know of course everything gets manipulated by the director in the end in the editing process. So, I’m sure there were some moments that it didn’t feel as real and Scott just had the talent to see them and take them out.
Cooper: Not really. I’ll say this. And this just stays in this room, and I don’t know that I told Casey this before. Please. Christian said to me that Casey was the best actor he’s ever worked with.
Affleck: I told you he’s crazy.
Cooper: But in terms of the chemistry, one of the things you really like to do as a director–of course this is only my second film so I really have no experience–but I said to my line producers, “Whatever you do, please, I wanna have just a couple of days so that we can ease into this very difficult material.” “Scott, we can’t. We have to shoot the prison first.” “No, that’s the last thing I wanna do. I don’t want to shoot the prison. These are very, very difficult, emotional scenes.” “We have to shoot here, Scott.” So the first scene that we shot is Casey telling, or not being able to articulate, what he saw in Iraq. I mean, it’s so difficult to do. I knew at that point, I said to myself, “My God, this is going to be one beautifully acted film when you have these two players of this level.” I had a very unremarkable career as an actor, which is where I started, and I really realized that even though you think you have a little bit of talent as an actor, when you watch someone like Casey and someone like Christian, you quickly realize there’s a difference between being talented and being gifted, and these guys are gifted.
Albright: Well Scott, certainly Casey’s performance and Christian’s performance are incredible. But, you also have this amazing ensemble cast. You have Forest Whitaker, and you have Willem Dafoe, and you had Zoe Saldana. You had another amazing cast. How did you get this group together?
Cooper: Well, I had a feeling, and Casey probably can speak to this more than I can, but most really wonderful actors want to do just that. They want to act, and they want to play really complex parts that challenge them and move them. As we all know, although this year is quite different because there are a number of really excellent films, that’s a rarity. These actors of this caliber so badly want to be human. When a script comes along that even sniffs at that, I think they jump at it. Having a first film like Crazy Heart where you have performances that feel authentic and real and that move people, people want to play in that type of arena. Quite frankly these are all the actors that I really desperately wanted, and just through sheer luck was I able to get all of them. It meant so much to me because many of them are my cinematic heroes. I’ve been reading Sam Shepard’s plays since I was a kid. And to have Sam, the first thing he tells you is, “My God, Scott, this is one of the great titles for a film I’ve ever seen. How did you get that over the studio?” Studios like titles with one word, or two or three, because they’re easier to market, but when you hear someone like Sam say that to you, then you realize that you’re kindred spirits and the rest just kinda fell in place beautifully. I have to tell you what a pleasure it is to direct a cast like that, who are just so nimble and agile, and who care about doing great work and bring no ego to the set whatsoever. I’ll never forget . . . because most of the actors on the set, maybe apart from Zoe, have a very similar process of kind of . . . people tend to label it as method acting. My wife was visiting, and she came to the set just one day. We had the scene in the police station where Forest Whitaker is telling Christian and Sam Shepard that his hands are tied for jurisdiction issues because they live in Pennsylvania, and what happened took place in New Jersey. We shot that scene all day and then one more later. You could feel the tension just on the set. It certainly wasn’t in any way onerous. She came up to me and said, “Whoa. Fun set. See ya!”
Durling: The opening scene is so startling–the scene in the drive-in. How did you decide to start the movie at that moment?
Cooper: Oooh, well, Woody’s character clearly is someone that I wanted to personify evil. And any time he comes on screen you know that something terrible is going to happen. By the way, Woody said to me that this is the part that he was most ready to shed in his entire career. But he was wonderful in the film. So I said to myself, if you’re going to set a tone for a film and you’re going to alert the audience what to expect for the rest of the two hours and what this character is going to represent, then you should start the film that way. Because most people like to come in and sit down and you have popcorn and your drink and just kind of relax into it and start the film. Well, clearly that doesn’t happen here. Because we all know Woody, or many people do, from different performances where he’s filled with humor because he’s a wonderful guy, and so sweet and thoughtful. But to see him articulate this type of terrifying performance you say to yourself, you could start the film that way and really set the tone for who this character is. When he comes back, you realize as an audience what you’re in for.
Albright: You were speaking earlier about getting this project off the ground, and the studio being hesitant about three words in a title. The themes are also incredibly stark. I would imagine that this would not be something that they would jump on right away. This in some ways reminds me of films from the 1970s. You’re dealing with films that are clearly influential to this project and with producers like Ridley Scott, people who came on board to get this project off the ground. What was that like and what were some influences early on?
Cooper: I have to say I have nothing but good things to say about the studio that backed this film. Had I shopped this script around I almost with certainty can say that no studio would have made the film. In 1973, 1974, films like this were commonplace – Cimino and Coppola, Friedkin, Scorsese, Cassavetes, all the people that I curate from and just blatantly steal from. Having never gone to film school, I would watch their films over and over and over with the sound off, and my wife would come in and say “Honey, what are you doing? You can’t hear this.” And I would say “Well, I’m watching how these masters really tell the story from a visual standpoint.” Because all the directors I mentioned, for the most part, don’t want you to see how clever they are with the camera, because it’s all about creating a world and an environment. So, once you have a script like this, and you realize that it is very difficult tonally and has a difficult subject matter thematically, that’s when the real battles start, because people say, “Well, you know, what if we don’t open the movie that way? We might allow the audience to just ease into it” or “Wow, does it have to be this authentically portrayed?” Now, the studio never really said that. They were just kind of questioning, would I perhaps, maybe soften the approach. And I said, “Look, I’m really here just to tell the truth and if I do that, it isn’t going to resonate on an emotional level.” Because whether an audience embraces the film or disdains the film, I don’t ever want them to be indifferent. There’s nothing worse than going to a film with your spouse and as soon as it’s over, “So honey, where are we having dinner?” and the movie is just not even resonating. I hope that any film I make lingers with you thirty minutes after the screening ends, or the next day or two days that it takes you to process it. And most of the films in the 1970s, for me personally, did that. Unfortunately, it speaks to the earlier question about casts who grew up loving those films, and they want to be a part of films like that. I think that once I told them that those were my avatars and this is exactly the tone that I was going for, it really helped them understand. Then at that point, when you have Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, and the rest of the group, they kind of throw caution to the wind and hope for the type of success that some of those films in the 70s had, or even the very modest success that Crazy Heart had. It couldn’t be more different. Great actors never want to be pigeon-holed into one type of film. And it’s a big risk, and you’re a father of two young girls and you have to feed those babies and you say to yourself, “My God, this could be a career killer.” But you have to take those risks. Otherwise, why are you in this business?
Albright: You spoke about when you watch films from the 1970s, or any film, you see them without the sound. You’re just looking at how they’re visually constructed . . .
Cooper: It makes a really powerful difference.
Albright: I noticed watching it the second time that you cross-cut certain scenes to get thematic with Casey’s character and the deer. And other times too, you have this slow zooming camera that creates isolation and desperation as well. So can you speak a little about those stylistic techniques that you wanted to use to get those emotions.
Cooper: Well, two things . . . One, when I first started the process of visualizing the film, I amassed as many photographs as I could from Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Robert Franks, who are all great photographers. And one of the things that I took away from all of their work was that you never really notice the camera. That is something I take pride in, in both of my films–that you never really feel it, hopefully. So what you feel is Casey’s torment, Christian’s sense of courage–all of these things, the atmosphere of the picture. It’s not about, “How does Scott Cooper move the camera?” Because people say, “Well, as an actor I know that the stage is the actor’s medium and film is the director’s medium.” I never want to call attention to myself, so when I have those discussions with the people that I am going to hire . . . for my editor, I want his editing to become invisible; I want my cinematographer not to just sumptuously paint images, but to create those that will move us and linger with us without calling attention to themselves. It’s the same with my production design and the score, something that can really help become a fabric of this entire piece so that it isn’t about us as individuals but us as a unit–and how that really fits into this world. So that was important to me. And then when you are setting shots and setting the camera, you try to do it in a way that makes Casey feel comfortable so that Casey doesn’t realize the camera is there. What you are trying to do is act as though you are a fly on the wall. And of course that type of direction never wins you awards, because people want to see you move the camera, people want to see you put that directorial stamp. I won’t get into the reason that Crazy Heart won, on pure luck. I just want to tell stories as truthfully as possible and become a better filmmaker, one who doesn’t get in the way of the story I am trying to tell. So if you look at the work of two people who really are influential–that kind of classicism of John Ford from a much earlier era, and the truthfulness of John Cassavetes–that’s what I was striving for. And of course, I didn’t succeed in either of those fashions, but certainly you look at those people and you think, “My God, that work really moved me.” That’s the approach I want to take and I tried to stick to that as much as possible. Choosing lenses and choosing light, showing my cinematographer hundreds of photos and paintings–whether it is William Blake or Caravaggio–all of those things were really important to me. Things that are overly lit tend to show too much, and if you have a sense of darkness, we as the audience tend to lean in more.
Durling: Casey, what was it like working with this gentleman next to you? He got amazing performances not just from you, but from Christian, Forest and Zoe Saldana. What was it about this guy that gets such a good . . .
Affleck: I’m not sure exactly. But going back to that opening scene, with Woody and that girl . . . Last night there was a screening of this movie at AFI and some woman came up to me, and she started talking to me as if I knew who she was. She seemed like a very sweet lady, very articulate and I was sort of thinking, “Is this my mother’s cousin? Who is this person?” And then she realized that I didn’t know who she was. She said, “I’m Deirdre from the first scene of the movie,” and I was like, “OMG, I thought that person was someone that was found in the drive-in and put in the car.” I said, “You don’t seem anything like that person. That is incredible. You are nothing like that person. I am astonished!” And she said, “I just did what Scott told me to do.” And I said, “Well don’t say that to too many people. Give yourself some credit.” So I don’t know if I know what it was that Scott did to get the best performances of their careers–for people who have been working for 100 years, or Woody, or the incredible Forest, or at the very top of the heap, Christian. If I did, then maybe I would just go be a director too. But I don’t, and it’s certainly one of those mysteries. When you work, some good directors do a ton of takes, give you a ton of direction, and you can sort of see what it is that they are trying to get you to do. They end up saying on the screen, “OK, you told me to do this, I did that, and it resulted in this.” I think that the better ones, in my experience, they fall all over the spectrum. Scott is in that group for sure, the kind of person who doesn’t seem to be giving you direction but is in fact shaping the performances a great deal from the rehearsal all the way through the end. I know it sounds like I’m keeping secrets. I really don’t know what it is that he is doing, aside from sometimes it being a matter of changing the context of the scene. In other words, suppose you think you should be playing it blue and he knows that red is the best way to do it. If you can’t do it red, instead of telling you to do it red, he’s going to shift the context and move the camera and change a few lines, so you appear red even though what you think you’re doing is blue. And that might sound manipulative, but it’s not. It’s collaborative in a way, sort of saying you’re going to do what you want to do and I’m going to honor that. And I’ll change the circumstances so that things work out the way I need them to. That’s definitely a process I enjoy because it makes all of the actors feel like they’re invested in the process because it makes them feel like their ideas are on the line. If you tell an actor who’s saying “I want to go home” to say, “NO I WANT TO GO HOME,” then that guy goes, “I don’t know why I’m saying it like that,” and he feels like a puppet. It’s nice to work with someone who honors what you want to be doing. So you feel like you contributed to the movie in some way, but in a way that you can figure out how to fit into the gigantic intricate jigsaw puzzle. It takes a very, very patient person to put it all together.
Durling: And to both of you, what was it like being in Braddock, and working and shooting this film in Braddock? It may allude to the 70s influence, and it did feel like I was watching a film that took place and was stuck in the 70s. I know it was set in 2008 but it felt like the 70s.
Cooper: Well Casey, you can speak to what it is like to work in a place that is dripping with that atmosphere. I really never want to shoot on a sound stage, because I am always striving for authenticity and verisimilitude that you just can’t recreate on a sound stage. It’s probably my lack of confidence as a filmmaker. It’s something psychological, that I really need to feel the space, and that town drips with atmosphere. Literally, as I wrote the screenplay I could see the house the Baze boys grew up in. I wrote it for the Carrie Furnace where we first meet Rodney as a bare knuckle brawler which is the same place where DeGroat met his maker. I wrote specifically for that. You can never recreate for that place which is an old abandoned mill. I really wanted a sense of community and you get that from Braddock. At one point it was a town of 22,000 people and now it’s 2,000 people. It makes you so thankful for the things that you have when you go to a place like that. Quite frankly, the producers couldn’t get out of there quickly enough. I mean they came and were like, “Jesus, what is this place?” But the fact is because of tax incentives, the studio wanted to shoot this film in Massachusetts, and I said “Well yeah, but I wrote this for Braddock, Pennsylvania.” “But you’ll get more shooting days.” “I’m not going to get on the plane and shoot this film unless we do it in Braddock.” Same thing with Crazy Heart. I wrote it for Santa Fe and Los Angeles and Texas. “But Scott, we can get all of that in Canada.” No, not really. So it’s dangerous. I wasn’t bluffing. I just said, “If I’m not shooting here, why am I making the film because it’s like another character in the whole piece.” I know how much it meant for Christian to shoot in a town like that and how it influenced him, because we’re all influenced by our environment. I hope that I’m being truthful, but at least some of the actors have told me that it makes them really feel like they are a part of that community. I have nothing against Toronto, but if you’re shooting a movie that takes place on the Lower East Side of New York, and you shoot in Toronto, it’s just not going to work and infuse the actors with the sense of place.
Affleck: I agree, it’s really helpful to be there in that place. It seems like it doesn’t matter all that much. But if you do a scene and you come out of there and it’s a stage and you leave this room that is supposed to be a kitchen, and you walk out and there are boards and a craft service table, and you’re sitting there waiting to do another take, it doesn’t seep into you. But if you walk out of that place and you’re sitting outside, and it is a street in Braddock and you look around . . . I remember when Scott said–he is not exaggerating–he was talking about where we were going to shoot it. We are going to shoot it in Lowell. Lowell drips with spirit too. I grew up in Massachusetts, a rough place with a lot of rough history. But he had a vision for where it was going to be, and he was dead on. Then we ended up in Braddock. It was pretty incredible to be there.
Durllng: Well, congratulations to you both and thank you for coming out here today!