Scrappy community inspired director

One of the biggest stars on the planet was sipping a (faux) beer and methodically eating slices of an orange on a porch in North Braddock.

It was the second time in less than a year that Christian Bale was in Pittsburgh, and it might have been late April 2012, but neighbors and onlookers were clad in heavy jackets and gloves, nestled under Steelers blankets and sipping hot chocolate and other drinks in the wintry weather.

As a Friday night treat, a coffee station from Bean Catering, "serving great cappuccinos and good vibes," was down the steep cobblestone and brick hill from the filming hub at Kirkpatrick Avenue and 13th Street.

The vibes also were good on the set of "Out of the Furnace" where Mr. Bale's Russell Baze sat on the porch of the family home and Casey Affleck, playing his younger brother, Rodney, pulled up in an Oldsmobile 442. "The place looks nice," he said of the childhood home Russell has been fixing up.

The exchange that consumed hours lasts mere seconds on screen, as moviegoers will discover Friday when "Out of the Furnace" opens in theaters across North America.

Director-writer Scott Cooper found Braddock -- and inspiration -- the day in late January 2010 when he came to Pittsburgh to promote "Crazy Heart" and drove around the area. Pausing in the dark in the middle of Kirkpatrick Avenue, he recalled, "I was so moved by the community and its plight that I thought it would be a great setting for a story because it's dripping with atmosphere, right?

"And it also really embodies what Americans all over the country are suffering through, which is jobs are leaving and soldiers coming back suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and coming back to a country with fewer jobs than when they left."

If Braddock was part of the inviting equation, Mayor John Fetterman was another, and it's no accident that Mr. Bale's character has a tattoo of ZIP code 15104 on his neck just as the mayor does (for real) on his left forearm.

"For a man with a degree from Harvard who could have any job or many jobs, he came back to a community that needed him," the director said. "The people that I've spoken to since I've been here all feel like he's done a great deal for this community, and quite frankly I feel like I'm a part of this community."

As the occasional train whistle pierced the crisp air, he suggested, "You can feel the ghosts that live here. I simply hope that the film can, in any way, help."

Braddock first landed on his radar with a New York Times story that mentioned the 2007 death of a 23-month-old girl whose partially clothed body was found in Rankin not far from her Braddock home. She had been left out in single-digit temperatures and died of hypothermia and exposure.

"That really was the first thing to bring Braddock to my attention and then a couple of Web searches and then the IFC series and it seemed like the perfect setting for a film and one that would suit the tone of this picture perfectly and the themes that course through the narrative."

Mr. Cooper had never read "Out of This Furnace," an unrelated Thomas Bell novel that initially caused some confusion, but he does use the Edgar Thomson Works and Carrie Furnace in his storytelling. "My lead character comes out of the furnace both literally and figuratively, and I'll leave it at that," he said, avoiding spoilers.

He wrote Russell Baze with Mr. Bale, a favorite of Pittsburghers thanks to "The Dark Knight Rises," in mind.

"I think Christian's the best actor of my generation. He has so much range. He's extraordinarily bright. He has great, great physical presence. He's blessed with leading man looks, but he's really a character actor at heart.

"And because of America being a nation of immigrants and certainly Braddock being a town of immigrants, I wanted people that weren't so conventionally handsome," he said.

"He also embodies a real work ethic that I think is inherent in the town of Braddock. He also is an actor who is not only extraordinarily gifted and has a great deal of range and versatility but he's an actor that people care about, innately, when he's on the screen."

Mr. Bale and Mr. Affleck have similar sculpted facial features with very high cheekbones, and while it's not like looking at Ben and Casey Affleck, you can believe they're brothers.

Unlike some other younger actors, who fear they will come across as weak, Mr. Affleck is willing to show vulnerability. "Casey is one of the best actors in the world. He is remarkable. I would say he's underused but he's underused for a reason; he just turns everybody down. He has such a high artistic threshold," Mr. Cooper said.

His cast, which also includes Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe and Sam Shepard, along with local actors such as Bingo O'Malley and Jack Erdie, exceeded his expectations.

"All I know is there are too few really good films that say anything that are made in Los Angeles. My attempt was for this to evoke the feeling of the movies from the 1970s -- early Scorsese, Malick, the emotional truthfulness and intensity of John Cassavetes. And those films, unfortunately, just don't get made."

Yes, "Out of the Furnace" has what he calls "some very difficult themes, for sure," but he said, "When a movie is done right, it's about us."

Mr. Cooper, a native Virginian, sometime actor, a husband and father of two daughters, says he tends to respond to people living on the periphery of society, the forgotten, the ones in fly-over states. "I don't really have anything in common with wealthy people, and I don't particularly want to see them portrayed on film."

During the 36 or 37 days of production, Mr. Cooper had a taste of every weather system possible thanks to snow, heavy rain, sunny patches and hot and humid days along with welcome leaden skies underscoring the movie's mood. In addition to Braddock and North Braddock, the production shot in Rankin, Clinton, Robinson, Raccoon Creek State Park and Moundsville, W.Va.

"I thought the story needed to be topical. It deals with the economic crisis, it deals with men who settle their own problems and they're doing it in the streets and homes of Damascus, Syria, they've done it in Cairo. They do it in south Los Angeles or Detroit or small towns all over the U.S. and the world. ...

"This is an examination of violence in a society and then it also, on a subtextual level, it examines men who have been trained to fight, to kill, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and their skill set really isn't applicable to what our economy needs at the moment. So these people come home, and they aren't prepared to re-enter the workforce as they or others would have hoped."

Add to that the difficulties of brotherhood embodied by the Baze boys.

"One man is a lunch-box type of guy who gets up every day and goes to work and who is expected to act a certain way, and then you have a younger sibling who has a different work ethic but also is a bit more wayward, and their personalities and outlook and mores collide. But they still love one another."

Mr. Cooper's family visited him in Pittsburgh although the set of the R-rated movie wasn't made for young girls. In a phone interview during his final weekend in town, he said he had developed "a real fondness for Western Pennsylvania and the people."

He made it to Fallingwater, went to several Pirates games, nosed around rare book stores, visited The Andy Warhol Museum, cleared his head walking in nearby parks and even spent a little time with Gus Van Sant and Matt Damon, here working on "Promised Land."

"One of the things that most pleased me was staying here at the Renaissance Hotel, the general manager told me that because of our production, they hired two people extra full time who are now receiving full benefits, and that made me feel great. When you bring a big production in and people shop and they go to the dry cleaners and they eat and they buy gas and groceries, it adds up."

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