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Secrets of a Steel Town
"I've always hurt the ones closest to me. Especially you and dad... I hope you know I never meant to do it. It just always seemed to turn out that way." - Rodney Baze

When writer and director Scott Cooper went on the road to promote his first film, Crazy Heart, he also discovered the setting for his second film. Out of the Furnace was shot entirely on location in and around Braddock, Pennsylvania, a former steel-industry hub that suffered a dramatic economic decline during the 1980s. Established in 1867, the town's ascension to Industrial Age powerhouse began when robber baron Andrew Carnegie opened his first steel mill, the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, in Braddock in 1875. But by 2008, when Out of the Furnace begins, the state of Pennsylvania had officially designated Braddock a "distressed municipality." The boarded-up and vacated facades of the once-vibrant community provide a poignant backdrop for Scott Cooper's story.

After reading a New York Times article about Braddock and its colorful mayor, John Fetterman, a media favorite for his efforts to revive and transform the town, Cooper decided to see it for himself. "Braddock is a town that has experienced great economic decline, but the people are courageous and strong," he says. "While I was there, I happened to see the Carrie Furnace, which figures prominently in the film. From that the screenplay was born."

Shooting amidst the tough reality in which the Baze brothers must try to survive provided the filmmakers with a unique insight into the resiliency of the people who live there. "Braddock is intrinsic to the DNA of our characters," says producer Ireland. "I know that when the actors came here, met the people and saw the remarkable texture of this world, they had to recalibrate their performances. Everything about Braddock is so rich and different. We all felt a responsibility to get this right."

Because of his deep desire for authenticity, Cooper has never shot on a soundstage. "I always want my actors to experience the verisimilitude that you can only find on location. Braddock drips with atmosphere. For example, the Carrie Furnace is a very important set piece that no Hollywood designer could replicate."

Rising 92 feet over the Monongahela River, Carrie Furnace produced iron for the Homestead Works from 1907 to 1978. It was constructed of 2.5-inch-thick plate and lined with refractory brick. At their peak production in the 1950s and 1960s, Carrie Furnaces 6 and 7 were producing more than 1,000 tons of iron per day. Preserved as part of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, the rusted reminder of Pittsburgh's steel heritage is the backdrop for a pair of pivotal scenes in Out of the Furnace.

Working with Cooper, director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi created a moody visual style that permeates the picture, contrasting the peaceful forest vistas around the town with the battered, smoke-stained houses of Braddock. "It was critical that we have a cinematographer who could create a deep sense of realism, story, authenticity and power through his framing, his lighting and his lens selection," says Cooper. "Masa's recent work, which includes The Grey and Warrior, has been astoundingly good. He brings authenticity to his work. He understands how to shape the light, as well as how to shoot from a psychological and emotional vantage point. The collaboration was better than I could have possibly hoped for."

The director says the same about working with production designer Therese DePrez. "Her work in films like Black Swan speaks volumes. As with all the best cinematographers and the best production designers, the work is invisible. It doesn't stand out, but it complements the world and the actors. I've long admired her work, because it is so real and so detailed. And Kurt & Bart, the costume designers, worked beautifully in concert with Therese especially in terms of helping me establish a palette for the film."

DePrez was especially taken with the town and people of Braddock, noting how rare it is to find a screenplay that was written for the location in which it is shot. "The environment is so richly woven into the script," she says. "It is incredibly well written and authentic, which is a word that Scott and I used a lot when we were designing the film. We made a pact before we started to constantly check with each other to make sure the settings looking lived in and real, while working for production's needs."

One of the qualities DePrez tried to capture in the production design is the feeling that Braddock is a place out of the reach of time. "It could be 2012 or it could be the 1970s," she explains. "The film reflects that in the cars, the clothing and the set design. You immediately know that a certain type of people live here. We were always asking ourselves, 'would somebody in Braddock really have that? Where would they get it? Could they really afford it?'"

The environment became as substantial to her as any of the characters. "The town is represented in the blue-collar, hard-working people you see there every day," she says. "We embraced that. I knew I did my job well every time someone walked into a location and said, 'how did you find this?' As if I hadn't done any work there. The Baze home is a good example. We completely cleaned it out, opened up some walls, and added different windows. It was painted, wall-papered and dressed for the Baze family to show some of their history. But it looks like it has been unchanged for decades."

Production for Out of the Furnace took place on an extremely tight schedule, with only 34 shooting days. The highly skilled and committed crew, mostly local hires, kept things running smoothly, Waxman adds. "This is probably one of the best crews I've ever worked with," says the executive producer. "We tried to hire as many local people as we could. When you have people that good, it makes it go so much easier."

In directing Out of the Furnace, Cooper deliberately chose to make a film different in many ways from Crazy Heart. "There are certain themes that fascinate me and that always come through in my work. The idea of family and brotherhood really appeals to me. I grew up steeped in American literary classics: Hemingway, Faulkner and, more recently, Cormac McCarthy's work. They explore themes that I feel are important for me to experience as a filmgoer, as well as a filmmaker.


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