Dark Braddock setting of 'Out of the Furnace' reflects a dying way of life
Looking over Christian Bale's shoulder on a cool, windy night in Braddock, it was easy to notice the actor's sense of focus. He watched silently, intently, as his prey entered a rough steelworkers bar.
After a few seconds' wait, Woody Harrelson, gun in his waistband, walked outside the bar, scowling in the shadows. Slowly, Bale trained a hunting rifle on Harrelson from inside his pickup, and waited.
A few feet behind, Casey Affleck watched, and waited.
This pivotal scene in “Out of the Furnace” was shot over and over again, until writer-director Scott Cooper and company got exactly what they were looking for.
Bale never did pull that trigger, at least not that night.
The makers of “Out of the Furnace,” which opens nationwide Dec. 6, could have spent a lot of money building a crumbling, depressed steel town on a set. Then, they could have spent even more to tear it down when they were done.
Or, they could find a place like Braddock.
In the background, the hulking Edgar Thompson Works dominates the Monongahela River valley, illuminating the night sky with occasional flares of flame. From certain angles, not much has changed since Andrew Carnegie had it built in 1872 — except that it requires much fewer people to run. Not far away is the towering, rusting remnants of Rankin's Carrie Furnace, still standing like a soot-streaked tombstone for the era of Big Steel.
“Out of the Furnace,” filmed in 2012, is about two brothers, played by Bale and Affleck, trying to build better lives for themselves in a crumbling Rust Belt city. The younger brother (Affleck), a traumatized veteran, turns to bare-knuckle boxing to pay off gambling debts. When he gets in too deep with a notorious local criminal (Harrelson) and disappears, his older brother, a steelworker and ex-con, vows to find him at any cost.
Cooper visited Braddock once before, in 2009, on a promotional tour trying to drum up interest in his first film, a fictional biopic about a hard-living country music legend called “Crazy Heart.” Jeff Bridges' Oscar-winning performance in the film opened up Cooper's career.
“Out of the Furnace” is a throwback to the gritty, realistic filmmaker-driven cinema of the '70s, said Michael Ireland, one of the producers of the movie, noting “The Deer Hunter” and “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” as key reference points.
“The movie is about a dying way of life,” Cooper said. “It's an examination of the nature of violence in a society where men solve their own problems. This (movie) does not pull its punches. It mines some difficult themes: loss, despair, retribution.”
The sheer volume of top-shelf actors involved — which includes Forrest Whittaker, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard and Zoe Saldana — set expectations for the movie quite high. A December release is no accident. Somebody, at least, sees Oscar gold buried in the soot and rust of “Out of the Furnace.”
“I asked, ‘Who are the actors who could bring these characters alive in unexpected ways?'” Cooper said. “I have literally the best of the best. Between ‘action' and ‘cut,' is some of the best acting I've ever seen — darkly humanistic, searching for emotional truths.”
“I legitimately feel like it's a privilege to sit at the monitor and watch them work,” Ireland said. “You know you're watching something great unfold.”
The movie has undergone several name changes, and at one point the title “Out of the Furnace” was dropped in favor of “Dust to Dust.” It was later changed back.
Dickon Hinchliffe, of the British band Tindersticks, did the music, with help from Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder.
It was easy to find the kinds of settings they were looking for — which wasn't exactly the postcard-ready shots from Mt. Washington.
“Pittsburgh gives you so many distinct looks,” Ireland said. Bale's character's house is in Braddock, as is a church on Talbot Street. They shot in Moundsville, W.Va., at the former State Penitentiary, as well as in Raccoon Creek State Park in Beaver County.
Ironically, the decision not to demolish Carrie Furnace — unlike other empty steel mills in the area — has resulted in a one-of-a-kind industrial setting that ends up playing a key role in the movie.
“Christian literally comes out of the furnaces,” Cooper said.
In fact, if you want people who look like they know what they're doing, they aren't hard to find in Braddock — or Pittsburgh.
“When we shot at Carrie Furnace, one gaffer used to work in the steel mill,” Ireland said.
“The town really embraced it,” said Braddock's mayor, John Fetterman.
There was, initially, a little confusion about the story. The film “Out of the Furnace” has no relation to the Thomas Bell novel “Out of This Furnace” — a story of labor struggle and immigrant sacrifice close to the hearts of many in the region.
“Ironically, I suggested that they should read that book to get a taste for the labor struggle and the area,” Fetterman said.
In the film, there's a tattoo of “15104,” Braddock's zip code, on Bale's neck; Fetterman has the same number on his arm.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.