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'Gritty but vibrant world' of Braddock lures director of 'Out of the Furnace'

| Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, 10:25 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The Edgar Thomson Works looms over Braddock as seen from the the Rankin Bridge on Thursday Dec. 5, 2013.

Filming “Out of the Furnace” in Braddock proves one thing:

“It shows Scott Cooper sees the story of Braddock as compelling as I do,” said Mayor John Fetterman. He points to the director's decision to base his story in the borough that was ripped apart by the decline of the American steel industry.

Cooper agrees he was captured by the story of the town.

“I wrote it for Braddock,” Cooper said of the movie that opens Friday. “I wrote it for the Carrie Furnace. I wrote it for the Edgar Thomson Works. I wrote it for all of its people.”

Braddock has become the Hollywood darling for filmmakers looking for a grim background and distinctive atmosphere.

“One for the Money” (2010), for example, used the closed UPMC Braddock Hospital as a Trenton, N.J., police station. “The Christmas Tree,” a 1996 made-for-TV film, took advantage of the Braddock Library as a set, although the film was rooted in New York City. In 2010, Levi Strauss & Co. cast Braddock as the “muse” for its Ready to Work ad campaign, which featured the people of Braddock doing real work in their town.

Braddock has as much a starring role in “Out of the Furnace” as Christian Bale or Woody Harrelson, according to Cooper. The story takes place there and is propelled by Braddock's economy, history and residents.

“It is a story about strength, family values and sticking it out,” Fetterman said.

Cooper wanted to write a film about “America of the last five years — of a lousy economy, of America waging a war on two fronts, of people coming home to nothing, with post-traumatic stress syndrome,” he said.

But that story didn't emerge until 2009 when Cooper was in Pittsburgh on a media tour for “Crazy Heart,” his Academy Award-winning film. The director said then that he had grown up in the Appalachian coal-mining part of Virginia. And something in Pittsburgh's frozen rivers and undulating topography seemed to speak to him.

He read a story about the work Fetterman was doing in Braddock and decided to visit the town.

“It exceeded my expectations,” said Cooper, while on the set of “Out of the Furnace,” shot in April and May 2012. “I was struck by the photographic atmosphere of the place and how the people seemed to be so proud.”

The script, co-written with Brad Ingelsby, existed, said Michael Ireland, one of the movie's producers. “But Scott rewrote it, setting it in Braddock.”

The story of Braddock and its people became Cooper's way of telling the story of the nation struggling through tough times.

“Out of the Furnace” presents Braddock differently from other films shot there — realistically. It has the Edgar Thomson Works as a hulking presence that defines the town's existence. There are quiet scenes with train whistles in the background, acting almost as a soundtrack. Crucial scenes were shot in Rankin's Carrie Furnace, the closed blast furnace that is a ghost of the region's past.

Zoe Saldana, virtually the only female actress in the film, said being in the area conveyed a sense of power.

“I was very moved immediately,” she told Newsday. “The more you drove around, you felt the pulse — the town is still alive.”

Cooper said filming in the Mon Valley gave the film a reality that would not be there had it been done on a set or in a more cost-efficient locale.

“Braddock, there's so much texture here. You just turn on the cameras and capture this gritty but vibrant world,” Ireland said during filming.

Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, called luring Cooper here “a huge win for our area.”

The Relativity Media film took advantage of Pennsylvania's film tax credit program, which offers a 25 percent credit for productions that incur at least 60 percent of their production expenses in Pennsylvania (capped at $60 million). The tax credit awarded was $4.5 million on a total budget of $25.7 million.

Neither Keezer nor Fetterman could estimate how much work the film provided for the area. But Keezer said such projects have contributed $100 million to the local economy in each of the past four years.

Fetterman said the presence of the film crew resulted in some immediate gains. For example, when the film company heard Braddock needed about $7,000 to upgrade its police radio system, “they just wrote us a check.”

But mostly, Fetterman said, he is impressed with how Cooper and crew did not want to make Braddock something it isn't.

“They told the story honestly,” the mayor said.

The story demanded it, Cooper said.

“There is just such a strong sense of courage and resilience,” he said.

Bob Karlovits is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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