Just over a decade ago, Scott Cooper called Christian Bale to offer him the starring role in Out of the Furnace, which he wrote specifically for Bale. Cooper was only a couple years removed from his feature directorial debut, Crazy Heart, which landed Jeff Bridges a long-deserved Oscar. Since Cooper tailor made Crazy Heart just for Bridges, he took the same approach with Bale and Furnace, except Bale politely declined the invitation at first. After all, Bale, who was still a young father at the time, was also nearing production on Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, and to top it all off, he had to promote his final Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, in between it all.
Cooper and Out of the Furnace remained at a standstill until Bale ultimately changed his mind, leading to a collaboration and friendship that shows no signs of slowing down and also includes Hostiles (2017).
“As usual, I was trying to avoid working, but [Out of the Furnace] was too good to pass up,” Bale tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And obviously, [Out of the Furnace] was the first of three now. I’ve started calling our work the ‘Ethics of Revenge’ trilogy, which aptly describes all three films in a sense.”
Bale and Cooper’s third film, The Pale Blue Eye, which opens in select theaters on Dec. 23 before its Netflix release on Jan. 6, chronicles Bale’s Augustus “Gus” Landor as he investigates a series of murders involving West Point cadets in 1830. His grieving detective soon seeks the assistance of an eccentric young cadet known as Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). The gothic whodunnit may be rooted in historical fiction, but Poe truly was a West Point cadet in the early 19th century.
In all three of their films, the varying degrees of revenge have been a through line, but Cooper didn’t connect the dots until Bale coined their work the “Ethics of Revenge trilogy” on the day of the Pale Blue Eye’s press junket.
“It was Christian who mentioned it to me, really, in terms of what bound our work together. When he said [‘the Ethics of Revenge trilogy’] to me, I thought, ‘My God, you’re right,’ and boy, was he ever,” Cooper explains. “But it feels like this is a nice trilogy. A couple of other things that I’ve written expressly for Christian don’t quite mine that, but that’s the great thing about having Christian Bale lead your films. You may have an idea on the page of who these characters are, but Christian has so much range that he can take them to places that go well beyond that.”
As Cooper hinted, the duo have many more film ideas on the table, including an L.A. noir, and while they may not know exactly what’s next, they do know that a fourth go-round will happen at some point.
“We’ll keep going. We don’t know what yet, but we’ll keep going,” Bale says. “I’m a sloth. [Scott is] incredibly prolific. He writes like crazy and he is obsessed with it. I probably take longer reading a script than Scott does writing a script. So he just has to slap me around a little bit to speed things up.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Bale and Cooper also discuss the importance of the Pale Blue Eye’s second viewing, as well as how Pennsylvania U.S. senator-elect John Fetterman ended up cameoing in their gothic murder mystery.
Well, let’s start from the beginning. Christian, you got a call over a decade ago from a guy named Scott Cooper, who said he wrote a film called Out of the Furnace for you. You said thanks but no thanks, but then you circled back like Hostiles’ Joseph Blocker, creating a partnership and friendship that’s still going. What do you remember about this fork-in-the-road moment?
Christian Bale: As usual, I was trying to avoid working. (Laughs.) But it was too good to pass up. If you’re in a position where you don’t have to work that second and you can throw it away, then throw it away. But I just kept on thinking about it, and I knew that it was going to keep me engaged. You need to become obsessed about these things, and so that allowed me to become obsessed for the few months that it took to film it. And obviously, [Out of the Furnace] was the first of three now. Today, I’ve started calling our work the “Ethics of Revenge” trilogy, which aptly describes all three films in a sense.
Scott Cooper: Chrisitan is a little bit like Jeff Bridges, who was in my first film [Crazy Heart]. They find every reason not to go to work. They have very rich lives offscreen, outside of the film business, and they are both very devoted family men. They both probably get as many or more offers than just about anybody, so they always have great offers coming. I write with actors in mind, so I wrote Crazy Heart for Jeff Bridges, and it took Jeff a year to even read it. So I was testing my luck and tempting fate when I wrote Out for the Furnace for Christian, because I didn’t know him yet. And while he did say how much he really liked it, he ultimately decided not to do it. And that was tough because I envisioned him in the part, and then I couldn’t quite think about anybody else in that part, quite honestly.
I went from being an actor who was never offered anything to becoming a director who was offered everything after Crazy Heart. So to have a film that I really wanted to make with a particular actor who wasn’t ready to make it at the time, I wasn’t quite sure where I was going to go next. Thankfully, Christian reached back out and said, “I ultimately do love this. Let’s make it.”
Scott, when did it become apparent on Furnace that you guys would keep your collaboration going?
Cooper: I would say it was certainly in the process of doing what I call investigative text work. Christian and I would talk about each scene, each line and character, motivation, but Christian goes beyond just his part, whether that’s Casey Affleck’s part or Woody Harrelson’s part or Sam Shepard’s part or Forest Whitaker’s part. So Christian comes at it very differently than most actors, and I knew at that point that this was going to be a really interesting and rich collaboration.
And once Chrisitan played the part that I’d written specifically for him and he took it to places that I only could have dreamed of, that’s when it became very difficult because I’d finished a film I deeply love. I again thought, “Where do I go from here?” So I decided to write other movies for Christian Bale, knowing that what he just said is true and that he finds every reason not to go to work.
But over time, our relationship became more than just a working relationship. It became a friendship that deepened, and we’d spend more time together off set than we do on set. So, from my vantage point, that’s what’s really special about our relationship, and I can now write different parts for facets of his personality that I didn’t know when I wrote Out of the Furnace. And beyond the fact that Christian is so versatile and he can play most anything, I also write for a different aspect of Christian than David O. Russell writes, or Adam McKay or Chris Nolan. So, thankfully, we all have an actor that can play all these different parts. I’m just fortunate he said yes over a decade ago, because, if not, I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here.
These days, most wide-release films have to be everything to everyone, but the two of you are among the few mainstream sources of movies for grown-ups.
Bale & Cooper: (Laugh.)
Cooper: Thank you. I’ll say it.
Does it overwhelm or worry the two of you that you’re now depended on to carry the torch for a type of film that was once so common?
Bale: I don’t worry at all about anything like that. I like to have tunnel vision and stay somewhat myopic. I don’t think it helps to look at the bigger picture in that regard. That just brings unhealthy self-consciousness. Of course, you want to be aware, and you want to be thinking of making something that is hopefully going to be seen. With every film you make, you should aim for it to be the best film that you’ve made, but for me, it’s always just about, “What do I want to see? What do I want to work on?” And it’s not because I’m crazy selfish; I just can’t even begin to pretend that I have any idea of what other people want to see. I remember hearing one time that Titanic was being made …
Cooper: Didn’t you audition for that?
Bale: I wasn’t going to go into that, but yes.
(Bale and Cooper both erupt with laughter.)
Cooper: That’s interesting! It’s something I didn’t quite know, and it just struck me.
Bale: I am really bad at auditions. I’m terrible. I’ve never been good at them.
Cooper: I heard that Daniel Day-Lewis said he was as well.
Bale: I can’t do ‘em. They’re nothing like working. They’re not related in the slightest. When I’ve been on the other side, I go, “Poor bastards, it’s got nothing to do with working.” You get some people who are incredible at auditions, and then they show up on set …
Cooper: And they aren’t so great.
Bale: And the other way around as well. But thank God, I don’t have to do it anymore. Well, maybe I will again …
Cooper: (Laughs.) I highly doubt it.
Bale: Well, right now, I don’t have to do it, but my point about Titanic was that I went, “Oh, everyone knows the ending to that story. No one is going to go see it.” So after that, I said, “I will never listen to myself about what anyone else wants to see. I’ll just judge it on if I’m interested and if it’s something I want to see.” That’s the only truth I absolutely know.
Cooper: The great thing about Christian is that he is kind of removed from all of that Hollywood gossip, in terms of what movies are working and what movies aren’t. It comes from a very pure place for him. Christian produced this film as well, but as the writer/director/producer, I do have to try to get a sense of why certain movies aren’t working. Why aren’t adults coming back to the cinema like they did, pre-pandemic? Is it the product? It can’t be because there’s a lot of great films. Is it because of ticket prices being too high? Is it because people have become comfortable watching films at home? Is it a combination of all of those things? But taking Christian’s lead, I really do think about what I want to see on a Friday night. What stories most move me? But since he was 12, Christian’s movies have been wildly successful, so he doesn’t really ever have to worry about that sort of stuff or even think about it.
You guys have discussed a number of film ideas over the years, so what allowed Pale Blue Eye to pull ahead of the others?
Cooper: Well, Christian has aged perfectly into the part that we’ve been speaking about for ten years. He was a little bit young the first time we discussed it, and perhaps he was a little bit too mature for Edgar Allan Poe, who’s in his early twenties. We’d made a Rust Belt drama [Out of the Furnace]. We’d made a Western [Hostiles]. So I really wanted to express some of the themes that course through this, again, and then I brought it up to Christian. So he reread the script, and he ultimately said, “This is great. Let’s do it.”
Christian, you tend to have very specific inspiration for your characters, such as Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s hair or a neck tattoo that we will discuss later. So who was your basis for Landor?
Bale: It really came more from [Louis Bayard’s] book and Scott’s script. So I just went through it all and got some very strong ideas about who it would be. I did at some point realize that I had one actor quietly in the back of my mind. I don’t usually think about other actors, but I realized I had been thinking of him. I’m not going to say who it is.
Bale & Cooper: (Laugh.)
Bale: But it came as a bit of a surprise to me. I went, “Oh God.” I remember making a note of it with exclamation marks, going, “You idiot. Of course, it’s him.” And then there were different elements like my granddad. He always wore steel-capped boots because he lived in a rough part of London, and even though we never see [the boots], that was an element we threw in there. But Landor was not in any way an imitation of anybody that I know. He was born purely from Scott’s script and the book.
Christian, you’ve done a lot of period pieces throughout your career. Do you feel more at home in the past, versus playing a regular guy in modern day?
Bale: No, a good story is a good story. I don’t really look at it and consider, “Is it period? Is it modern day?” And I’m certainly not strategic in any way. I don’t look at it and say, “Well, I just did a period film, and now I need to do a modern one.” I just go with what project I can’t stop thinking about.
Cooper: I’ll add that Christian is one of the few actors who can very easily play both contemporary and period, whether it’s Patrick Bateman and Bruce Wayne or Joseph Blocker and Augustus Landor. A lot of actors, quite frankly, certainly American actors, I find, feel much more contemporary, and I have a harder time imagining them in certain periods.
So it’s no secret that the two of you first took the character of Edgar Allan Poe to a former collaborator of yours [Hostiles’ Timothée Chalamet], but I think things worked out for the best as Harry Melling is tremendous in the role. I presume the two of you are quite happy with the way things unfolded?
Bale: I think we got very bloody lucky to get Harry. He’s a phenomenal talent and a really good guy. When Scott first sent me Harry’s tape, that was it. He was hypnotizing. He was transporting himself somewhere in that audition. That’s a very tricky thing to do, and he just became the fixture in my head of who Poe was, as I read the book and the script again. He’s absolutely brilliant.
Cooper: Yeah, I agree. I’ve only seen Harry in one other part, which is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen brothers’ anthology, where Liam Neeson is carrying this limbless performer [Melling] around the American West. And I was enthralled. I was riveted, and I thought it was one of the greatest performances I’d ever seen. So I mentioned that to Christian, and I said, “He is our Edgar Allan Poe.” And as Christian alluded to, he auditioned for us, and it was readily apparent. So I certainly couldn’t imagine anybody else playing the part.
A second watch of this film is a very different experience than the first. Did the two of you actively make choices that factored the second viewing?
Bale: We talk about that on every single film. If I like a film, I get quite obsessive, and I like to watch it again and again. And so we always talked about that. But obviously, having seen the film, you’ll know why it’s even more relevant with this picture. And definitely, we tried to find how much we can leave and what seeds we can plant to make it even more enjoyable if we are fortunate enough for somebody to watch it a second time. And it’s also about being able to discover new things within that.
Cooper: In fact, with almost every take in every scene, we would discuss Christian’s performance for a first viewing and a second viewing. In a film in which nobody is who they appear to be, every character has a public life, a private life and a secret life, so you need an actor who can give you a range of nuanced performance. That way, when you’re in the cutting room and you’re putting together this tricky narrative, it gives you options. So we spoke about it literally on almost every take. Christian was that locked in to the character, and he knew how much to give and how much not to reveal, which is just a testament to his skill.
The simple act of ordering a beer means so much more.
Cooper: Yes, it does. (Laughs.)
Sometimes, with whodunits, the characters can take a backseat to plot, but you found a brilliant way to bridge that gap and keep the focus on Landor and Poe. Was that the appeal of the whole piece?
Cooper: Yeah, I mean, who doesn’t love a whodunnit? I love Agatha Christie’s work, of course, Sherlock Holmes and all of this originated because of Poe. He bequeathed to us detective fiction and horror fiction. And to have him at the center of this story is quite dangerous because he did create this genre. But in terms of telling a story, it’s a whodunnit, but it’s also this father-and-son love story. These two characters operate in the margins of society, and they are loners who forge a bond and a friendship. And then it’s also an Edgar Allan Poe origin story. So hopefully, it works on a number of levels, the base level being who’s murdering these young cadets, and then everything else is more about character, which I often find is just as interesting, if not more so.
I want to read you guys something that an actor just said to me about working with the two of you on his first film. I asked him, “To work with Christian and Scott, was that a pretty big deal for you at the time?” And he replied, “Truth be told, to this moment, that’s probably the biggest moment in my career. It put a lot of confidence in me to know that I had the support of one of my heroes in Christian Bale and one of my mentors in Scott Cooper. Those guys really gave me a lot of fuel.” That was Jonathan Majors, who you worked with on Hostiles. Timothée Chalamet has also expressed a similar sentiment over the years, and Hadley Robinson and Cailee Spaeny have both sung Christian’s praises to me as well. So are the two of you aware of how much impact you’re having on a new generation of actors?
Cooper: Well, I’ll say this for Christian, because many of the actors that you’ve mentioned and many other actors, even of Christian’s generation, who are incredibly well known, have all said to me that Christian has influenced them and that he’s their favorite. If they’re in a movie with him, they come to set nervous and all those sorts of things. I imagine it’s what it would be like if Michael Jordan came out on the court. That’s kind of how these actors feel. So I’m interested to hear what Christian has to say about that, but I see it from actors who are veterans and are in the same scene with Christian, such as Sam Shepard. I forget what the scene was on Out of the Furnace, but I just recall Sam Shepard coming to me and saying, “Fuck, he is good.” And I said, “Yes, Sam, he is.” Woody Harrelson, Casey [Affleck], [Robert] Duvall all love Christian, as do Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane. So it’s nice to hear that from Jon and Timmy and everybody else.
Bale: I love all of them and admire all of them. Look, I’ve got no idea what I’m doing.
Bale: I never studied properly. On every single film, I think to myself, “Oh God, what have I done? How did I get myself into this again? They’re going to realize that I’ve got no idea what I’m doing.” But I think that’s why I’m still interested in doing it because I don’t really have any technique. People always say, “Oh, he’s a method actor,” but I’m not a method actor because that takes studying. I just do whatever I feel like I’ve got to do on the day.
But Jonathan’s words are crazy complimentary and absolutely wonderful. I learned just as much from him as he did from me. There was a particular day [on Hostiles] where Jonathan was just stunning. Oh my God, he was just amazing. We all have good days and bad days, and I just want the freedom to be crap, please, because you don’t want to live in that rarefied air where you’re something special and sacred. You want to get in the gutter and roll up your sleeves and get dirty with everybody, and that’s what I enjoy doing.
So Pennsylvania’s newest senator and former mayor of Braddock has a cameo in the Pale Blue Eye, but your relationship dates back to Furnace, which was based in Braddock. For the uninitiated, can you share your origin story with John Fetterman?
Bale: Yeah, John Fetterman was the mayor of Braddock when we were working there. He’s a hell of a guy and a giant of a man with a giant presence as well. I’m so bloody happy for him and his family, as they’re bringing some soul and some dignity to politics. He means it. He’s not your typical politician.
Bale: He’s a man who cares very deeply and intentionally about whatever he does. In Out of the Furnace, I gave him a little tribute with the postcode tattoo on my neck, which he has [on his forearm]. He has tattoos that are incredibly meaningful to him, representing citizens and townsfolk from Braddock. So Scott and I were just really impressed with the man, and I’m very proud to know him and congratulate him on his success, recently. And yeah, [his cameo] was great. He came by to visit us, and he’s just got a hell of a face. Oh man, he’s got an interesting face.
Cooper: (Laughs.) It was Christian’s idea, actually.
Bale: And I said, “Well, we’ve got to put John in here if he’ll do it,” so John and Gisele [Barreto Fetterman] are both in the tavern scene. Unfortunately, things get condensed and cut a lot, but it was a wonderful thing to have them around.
Cooper: Yeah, I can’t speak highly enough. I echo a lot of what Christian said, and quite frankly, [John Fetterman] was very instrumental in the making of Out of the Furnace. I wrote it specifically for a lot of the locations in his city, and he helped secure all of those locations. He was an incredible support system for me while I was making the film. And then when the film came out, he wrote a very beautiful piece in Variety about the film and how it really captured the essence of the city in which he had lived and presided over. So that was very meaningful to me, and we’ve all stayed in touch. Christian and I really supported his campaign, and we are thankful that John helped save our democracy.
Scott, you previously told me about an L.A. noir that you have in mind for Christian, so what is the future of the Bale-Cooper enterprise?
Bale: We’ll keep going. We don’t know what yet, but we’ll keep going.
Cooper: Everything I write gets slipped under his door first, and again, Christian is someone who doesn’t have to work and feels that there’s a right time for every project. So we’ll make [the next project] at the right time. But I certainly have written several things that only he can bring to life in ways that I don’t think anybody else can. And with some luck, we’ll make another.
Bale: Scott’s a cheater, and I’m a sloth. He’s incredibly prolific. He writes like crazy and he is obsessed with it. I probably take longer reading a script than Scott does writing a script. So he just has to slap me around a little bit to speed things up.
There are definitely through lines of revenge in all three of your films, which you’ve now dubbed the “Ethics of Revenge” trilogy. I would also say that Pale Blue Eye and Furnace share a bit more DNA, especially Poe and Forest Whitaker’s character. Was any of this by design, or did you just walk into it?
Cooper: It was Christian who mentioned it to me, really, in terms of what bound our work together. When he said [“the ‘Ethics of Revenge’ trilogy”] to me, I thought, “My God, you’re right,” and boy, was he ever, whether it’s avenging the United States’ maltreatment of Native Americans [in Hostiles] or avenging the loss of [Russell Baze’s] brother portrayed by Casey Affleck in Furnace or what transpires ultimately in The Pale Blue Eye. But it feels like this is a nice trilogy. A couple of other things that I’ve written expressly for Christian don’t quite mine that, but that’s the great thing about having Christian Bale lead your films. You may have an idea on the page of who these characters are, but Christian has so much range that he can take them to places that go well beyond that.
There’s a brilliant moment where Poe is at a loss for words, but overall, was it daunting to write for perhaps our greatest wordsmith?
Cooper: Yeah, it was. Anytime you have a young unformed Edgar Allan Poe at the center of a detective story, one that he bequeathed to us, there are many pitfalls. And someone who spoke as eloquently, movingly, poetically and romantically as Poe wrote, that’s quite daunting to write for, I have to say. I attribute a lot of it to Louis Bayard, the author of the novel. He came up with a really clever book, and he’s just a stunning writer. And at the time I was reading a lot of [Lord] Byron, [Charles] Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper to understand the poetic cadence of 1830. This is a much more dialogue-driven film than all of my films. Very often, in the films that Christian and I make, so much is left unspoken, so I had to be careful with the dialogue here. It had to sound very period-appropriate on the surface, but also in terms of what it isn’t saying, the subtext. And then I had to whittle that down to the core, because it is a visual medium. So writing for Edgar Allan Poe is not easy, and I imagine it’d be the same if I were writing for [Ernest] Hemingway or [F. Scott] Fitzgerald.
The film is historical fiction, but Poe really was a cadet at West Point. So was there anything else that people might be surprised to learn was true?
Bale: Poe attending West Point seems so ridiculous and unlikely, doesn’t it?
Cooper: Poe is prone to poetic and romantic musings, and while I could be wrong, I don’t know that there are many poets who’ve come out of West Point. Poe is kind of unbound, and he just doesn’t seem like a good candidate for West Point. And it turned out that they felt the same way. People might know his poem The Raven, or they might know that the Baltimore Ravens football team was named after Poe, who died under mysterious circumstances in a Baltimore alley. But I hope this inspires people to pick up The Tell-Tale Heart or The Murders in the Rue Morgue or one of my favorites, The Premature Burial. They’ll begin to realize that all of the true crime that we watch, all of the detective fiction that we read, all of the crime movies and television shows that we continually gravitate towards originated with Poe. He was the progenitor of detective and crime fiction.
The Pale Blue Eye opens Dec. 23rd in select theaters and begins streaming Jan. 6th on Netflix. This interview was edited for length and clarity.