Sam Shepard Talks OUT OF THE FURNACE, Joining on the Strength of the Script, Staying Authentic to Pittsburgh’s Language and Culture, and Improv on Set

     November 22, 2013


From the writer/director of Crazy Heart comes the new crime thriller, Out of the Furnace.  The story centers on one Russell Baze, who goes in search of his missing brother Rodney when the young man disappears and law enforcement fails to follow up.  Sam Shepard (Black Hawk Down) stars as the boys’ uncle “Red”.

During a set visit, Shepard talked to our visiting group of journalists about who he shared scenes with, his character’s backstory, how the quality of the script made him take the role, staying authentic to Pittsburgh’s language and culture, and using improv on set.  Also starring Christian Bale, Zoe Saldana, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and Woody Harrelson, Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace opens December 6th.  Hit the jump for the interview.

out-of-the-furnace-sam-shepard-christian-baleAre you shooting today?

Sam Shepard: Yep. I have shot already.

Were you in the scene with Willem and Casey that we saw? Or were you in a separate location:

Shepard: No, I was with Christian and Tom [Bower] in the bar.

Can you tell us what’s happening in that scene?

Shepard: [laughs] Very boring. Very, very boring. Just information. It’s really just an information scene that motivates us to go to the Ramapo Mountains to look for the younger brother when we find out that he’s in debt from gambling.

And you play their uncle?

Shepard: Yeah.

Are you from the steel mill background as well?

Shepard: I think everybody is, yeah. I don’t work in it directly in the film. I’m sort of retired.

Were you at the steel mill that closed? Is that part of your backstory?

Shepard: Possibly, yeah, but that’s not part of the story.

What was it about this film that drew you to the project?

Shepard: The script, it was a good script.

As a director in your own right, what’s it been like working with Scott Cooper and are you impressed with him?

Shepard: I mainly direct theater, plays and stuff. I couldn’t put myself in the same category as him being a filmmaker. My whole approach to acting is through theater, so it’s a quite different take, so it’s hard to compare.

out-of-the-furnace-christian-bale-sam-shepardHow is he with working with the actors?

Shepard: Oh, very good. He’s full of enthusiasm, for sure. He has tons of enthusiasm. He’s always very helpful and he knows the script inside and out, which always helps.  He knows the storyline, he knows the characters, he wrote the damn thing, so he really knows it very well. It’s always useful to talk with him prior to shooting so you understand the sequence and where you’re going, which I have a hard time keeping track sometimes.

As a writer, what spoke to you about the script?

Shepard: I love the script. It’s very original. The characters are well-drawn. The situation, the predicament of it, having to deal with bare-knuckle fighting … I don’t know how much of it you want to give away.  It’s a unique script. I see a lot of scripts and very few of them leap off the page at you.

And this did?

Shepard: Oh yeah. It’s full of very well-defined characters. Consequently, with fantastic actors to play the role.

For this role, did you have to do a lot of research?

Shepard: I think we did make a stab at trying some of the colloquialisms, trying some of the vernacular. It’s a strange little neck of the woods. I don’t know if you all are from Pittsburgh or not, but there are some words that are very Southern and almost Irish, for example “flour”, and stuff like that.  “Yinz” for “y’all” like in the deeper South they’d say, “y’all”, here they say “yinz”.  Things like that that are useful in organizing the way you speak and it’s not simply for authenticity, it’s also the rhythm and the structure that gives a different feel.

How would you describe your relationship with both Casey and Christian, and their characters?

Shepard: Well I’ve done a film with Casey, the Jesse James film, so I know him pretty well, I mean I know him better than most of the other actors. I’ve never worked with Christian before, but he’s very easy to work with and he’s very single-minded, you might say. Casey’s a little harder to pin down.

Is that good, as an actor? Single-minded?

Shepard: I really admire his forthrightness in the way he approaches the character. I’m not a method actor, so I sometimes have a hard time manipulating around that thing.  I don’t even know if he’s a method actor or not, but I know that his approach is quite different than mine.

out-of-the-furnace-christian-bale-sam-shepardHow much improv have you guys been doing?

Shepard: Very little. And that’s another token of the script being good. You sometimes improvise because there isn’t anything on the page, or what’s on the page doesn’t really work. It’s not the case with this.

Given the setting of this and the fact that it deals with a war veteran, it seems like there’s a sense of  “American-ness” to this story, in that middle-of-America story that doesn’t get told a lot. Does that resonate with you in any way?

Shepard: Oh yes, it’s an extremely American movie. I can’t think of it being done … I suppose there are some similarities in Ireland or northern England, the industrialized areas that have collapsed, but it’s extremely American.

out-of-the-furnace-posterIs that part of the appeal for you?

Shepard: Yeah, I love doing American movies. [laughs]

But there are some American movies that aren’t about real Americans. This feels much more honest.

Shepard: Yeah, they’re American Hollywood movies. They’re cartoon characters.

You say there’s not a lot of improve. We saw a scene with Casey and Willem earlier…

Shepard: Casey loves to improv.

We heard Scott saying that he wanted Casey to try different things.

Shepard: Yeah, Casey’s very clever at that. I’m not so good at that. He’s very good at that.

Has he been doing that in scenes with you and Casey?

Shepard: I think I’ve only had one scene with Casey when we were actually in the same scene.  It was when [spoiler] his father – my brother – is dying. Casey’s there, but he just comes and goes through the scene; we don’t have anything to do with each other.

This takes place over quite a few years. It’s something I’ve had a hard time [visualizing].

Shepard: Well, it’s fairly condensed. There are generations that come and go, but it’s not like Doctor Zhivago or anything. [laughs]

How would you describe the relationship between your character and Christian’s character?

Shepard: I’m his uncle, I’m kinda like an older brother to him. He’s the real responsible character in the story. He’s trying to clean up around his brother, he’s had some really bad luck [spoiler] there’s a car crash in which somebody who’s involved in the crash dies – he goes to prison.

r crash in which somebody who’s involved in the crash dies – he goes to prison. 

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