TheWrap Screening Series: How Scott Cooper Hooked Casey Affleck With ‘Out of the Furnace’

The ‘Crazy Heart’ director’s affinity for suggestion over exposition informs everything about the brutal drama starring Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson

“Out of the Furnace” director Scott Cooper is a show-don’t-tell kind of guy, so much so that he’s been hinting at a deep personal connection to his brutal, violent drama this awards season without saying too much – including Tuesday night’s screening hosted by TheWrap.

“As ‘Crazy Heart’ (which Cooper also wrote and directed) happens to be a very personal film, I thought it really critical that my second be as personal,” Cooper said. “This one happens to be far more personal than that, and autobiographical, and that makes it harrowing to release a film like this; painful to write; sometimes difficult to shoot; but ultimately cathartic.”

See photos: TheWrap Awards Screening Series 2013

Cooper spoke at a post-screening Q&A at the Landmark in Los Angeles with co-star Casey Affleck, whose character – like Cooper, it seems – has things in his past that are evident, if not explicitly expressed. That caginess is one of the elements that drew Affleck to the material, he told the standing-room-only crowd.

“This person had things, had experiences, that he couldn’t really talk about ,” Affleck said of his character, the Iraq-war veteran Rodney Baze Jr. “There were things inside of him that were really eating him up, hollowing him out, and that seemed like a really rich, really fun thing to play.”

Also read: TheWrap Screening Series: How Belgium Produced the Century’s Second Great Bluegrass Movie (Video)

It’s the defining element of Cooper’s filmmaking; he favors a voyeuristic approach and natural dialogue — as opposed to hit-you-over-the-head exposition or other, more obvious narrative devices.

“You never want to be so overt with anything that you’re making an issues movie, or any type of statement, because really and most importantly I wanted these to be about real, flesh-and-blood humans,” Cooper said.

Some of those people – including Woody Harrelson‘s shockingly coarse and merciless backwoods drug kingpin Harlan DeGroat – were based on people from Cooper’s life. Not that Cooper was going to elaborate much on that; the Virginia-born grandson of a coal miner has spoken of these connections before, but remained cagey as ever about details in his conversation with Wrap awards columnist Steve Pond.

“Having lost a sibling, I know what that’s like. And Woody’s character is based on someone who … based on someone from personal experience – so you try to tell these things as personally as possible,” he said.

Also read: TheWrap Screening Series: How Oscar Isaac’s Incredible Luck Made Him the Serially Unlucky ‘Llewyn Davis’

One thing Cooper didn’t want to be subtle about: Affleck’s physique, since the otherwise slight actor would be playing a bare-knuckles underground fighter.

TheWrap's Awards & Foreign Screening Series - "Out of the Furnace"“It was required that I look like I could actually be in a fight, and wouldn’t just be instantly pummeled by these guys,” Affleck said. “And I don’t think we achieved that,” he joked.

Kidding aside, Affleck said Cooper insisted he look “wiry, or haunted, or there were certain adjectives Scott used to describe how to look physically that would indicate something else that was going on in his life, or his past.”

Affleck worked for weeks with a boxing trainer, and Cooper was happy with the result; though Affleck is hardly the brawniest guy in the film, his sinewy physical makeover was believable enough. As for the “haunted” part — that came from an extensive backstory that the two developed offscreen.

“Scott was very specific,” Affleck said. “We would say, these were some of the actual battles that he had been in, and we reflected on the tattoos on my body, and these were the years he was there, these were how many tours he was in, these were some of the things that he saw in combat.”

Also read: TheWrap Screening Series: Pharrell and ‘Despicable Me 2’ – How a Song Can Change a Movie

Any onscreen portrayal of those experiences come out not in dialogue or flashback, but in Affleck’s moods and mannerisms – all part of Cooper’s show-don’t-tell aesthetic.

“One of the things that I love about the writing is it doesn’t tell you a lot,” Affleck said. “And then Scott’s directing doesn’t always show you a lot. It draws you in – he leaves room for you to enter the movie to imagine what might have happened and connect dots yourself. My character’s been to war, but you don’t see that; you don’t see that part of his life. But you want to show that in his behavior and his physicality.”

For now, Cooper’s own connections to “Out of the Furnace” remain suggested rather than stated. As the Q&A wound to a close, he told the story of how the project got rolling, reiterating his personal influence without saying too much.

“Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio sent a screenplay to me – a very well-written screenplay that I didn’t have an emotional connection to … so I politely declined,” he said. “And both Leo and Ridley came back and said, ‘Why don’t you just write, you know, take carte blanche and write, a story about a man who gets out of prison and avenges the death of his brother? And that was the seed of that screenplay and I thought I could tell a very personal story, at times very autobiographical … and it just kind of regurgitated, it came out quickly, and as I said earlier painfully, but really cathartically. And for better or worse, it’s ‘Out of the Furnace.’”

Watch more videos below: