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Scott Cooper may be new to the horror genre, but Antlers still has his signature all over it. From forgotten towns to the mistreatment of indigenous peoples, Antlers revisits many of the elements and themes that have defined Cooper’s films since 2009’s Crazy Heart. The pandemic-delayed creature feature centers around a young boy (Jeremy T. Thomas) who’s forced to take care of his family after their life-altering encounter with the Wendigo, a mythological deer-like creature. Cooper’s first foray into horror was actually spearheaded by an Oscar winner who happens to know a thing or two about movie monsters.
“Guillermo del Toro approached me and said, ‘Your last three films have been horror films and nobody knows it. Would you consider a horror film?'” Cooper tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I wouldn’t have made the film without Guillermo [as producer] because he is our foremost creature creator. And his folks at Legacy Effects — who worked at Stan Winston Studio — were involved from our inception through the design stage…”
Cooper is currently prepping The Pale Blue Eye, his third film with his closest friend and collaborator, Christian Bale. The two previously worked together on 2013’s Out of the Furnace and 2017’s Hostiles, which, along with Pale Blue Eye, were written for Bale.
“We’re about to start shooting in a month. I’m prepping it now,” Cooper shares. “It deals with a series of murders that took place at West Point in 1830 and surrounds a young cadet that the world would come to know as Edgar Allan Poe [Harry Melling]. So we start shooting from Thanksgiving to the end of February.”
The duo have also set their sights on at least a couple more projects together.
“I have written something else specifically for him that we’re going to make as well,” Cooper says. “I also want to explore the noir genre in Los Angeles, and Christian and I have discussed that. So, look, as long as he’ll continue to lead my films, I’ll keep writing for him.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Cooper also discusses his tendency to “genre hop,” as well as the recurring themes in his films. Then he looks back at Hostiles and how it produced one of the greatest moments of his career at the Telluride Film Festival.
Antlers revisits broken working-class families in a dilapidated town a la Out of the Furnace. Indigenous peoples or culture are at the center of it like Hostiles, and there’s also addiction like in Crazy Heart. And then there’s the rage, greed and destruction of Black Mass. Am I reaching when I say Antlers is an amalgamation of all your work so far?
I think you’re spot on. The reason that I “genre hop,” so to speak, is that with each film, I want to be on unfamiliar ground. I think artistic risk is one of the great pleasures of making films or art, in general. But I will also say — and I mean this sincerely — that if I can find myself in my work, I think others will see themselves. And quite frankly, I’m interested in working through the difficulties in my own life by addressing them through film. (Laughs.) And when I say my own life, I mean the things that interest me, the things that concern me in looking at our nation and the state in which it’s currently existing. I think the scariest movies hold up a dark mirror to America’s fears and anxieties, and certainly Antlers does that, I think. Hostiles hopefully does that by way of our 400 years of maltreatment towards Native Americans. In terms of Out of the Furnace, our young soldiers come back depleted. They’re suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and they have no outlet to let out that type of rage. They’re always trying to look for the adrenaline that they were feeling in the streets of Tikrit or Baghdad. So all those sorts of things that Americans are dealing with, whether they want to turn away from them or not, are themes and ideas that I want to course through my films.
So when did you first start exploring the Wendigo myth?
Guillermo del Toro, who knew that I write my own films, approached me and said, “Your last three films have been horror films and nobody knows it. Would you consider a horror film?” I said, “Absolutely. I love the genre.” My earliest memories of being a filmgoer are going with my older brother to see movies that I was too young to see, or even watching them on LaserDisc or VHS. So I love the genre. They’re some of my favorite films, whether it’s Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist or Ridley Scott’s Alien. Those movies rank among my favorites. And because of my very passionate support of Native American issues and causes, the Wendigo was, as we know, a Native American, First Nations myth, folklore. So that allowed me to tell a horror story while, at the same time, telling a story about their colonization. Our European forebears first came to these shores and colonized Native Americans, and then raped and pillaged their way across the nation, taking Native Americans’ land and resources. And in their mythology, the Wendigo came out of that. So it seemed to me that I could tell the stories that are ailing America and the horrors that America is living with now. Depths of despair, unprecedented addiction, drug overdoses, suicides, alcohol-related deaths. And then filter it all through the Native American experience and through the Wendigo. It’s a big swing, and it probably works more successfully on some levels than in others. But that’s the story that I ultimately wanted to tell and that’s what the film represents.
You were very careful about how much backstory you gave the audience regarding Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons’ characters, and based on the hospital scene, even they don’t know the full extent of their stories. While I always appreciate this approach, what was your rationale?
Yeah, Jesse says to Keri, his sister in the film, “You have no idea what he did to me,” meaning their father and that type of abuse. There’s quite a bit of ambiguity in the film. I want to pose questions for the audience to come up with their own answers and allow them to do the math on their own. I firmly believe that not everything needs to be answered. Demystifying everything is not the key to a successful story. You have to allow the audience to place their own projections onto character, narrative and plot. And a lot of people don’t like that. They want everything answered, whether it’s film critics or filmgoers. And I don’t think that’s the key to a successful story. In Antlers in particular, as the film continues and we parse out more information, you start to see the characters in a very humane and very vulnerable way, and I think it’s important to the storytelling. Keri, Jesse, Rory Cochrane, Amy Madigan, Graham Greene, Jeremy Thomas, they all do it so beautifully. I think they give very lived-in and very subtle performances.
The photography is gorgeous, especially the nighttime shots involving police lights and fog. So how did your use of the camera change with Florian Hoffmeister as your new DP?
Well, Florian’s work is remarkable. He’s a wonderful filmmaker. This was my first attempt in shooting digitally. I’ve shot all of my previous films on film. But I also wanted to use this camera called the Sony Venice, which was a newer camera at the time. It’s a large-format camera, and I wanted Antlers to be a story about a young boy with big problems. I wanted him to feel dwarfed in the frame. The enormity of his issues are never far from him as a character. So it was that. And locations and regions are very important to me in my filmmaking, whether it’s the mean streets of Boston or the Continental Divide in Hostiles or the American West in Crazy Heart. So I wanted this to feel like coastal Oregon, even though I shot it just up the coast in Vancouver. I wanted it to have a certain gloomy mystery. I said to Florian, “We’ll never shoot in the sun. If it’s a sunny day, that becomes a cover set for us. I want it to feel foggy and misty, and I want it to feel very earthy in its palette. And I want to film a small town that feels like it has been left behind. A small town that owes its success to a particular industry, whose civic life was built around a factory or a mine, and then the fabric of that town changes when the mine or the factory closes.” So I said, “How do we film that in a very large format?” We also wanted this story to be a silent film in which, if we removed all the dialogue, we could tell this story of generational trauma and the dying of a small town. So that was the camera we chose, and that was the palette. And Florian executed it beautifully. Masterfully, quite frankly.
The creature design is very effective to say the least. Was Guillermo invaluable throughout this process?
Oh yeah. I wouldn’t have made the film without Guillermo because he is our foremost creature creator. And his folks at Legacy Effects — who worked at Stan Winston Studio — were involved from our inception through the design stage with Guy Davis [creature concept designer] and all through my input, Guillermo’s input and their own input. We wanted it to feel familiar, but also quite striking and something you hadn’t seen. My advisor, Grace Dillon — who is the foremost authority on the Wendigo and teaches at Portland State University — said to me, “Scott, the Wendigo can manifest itself in many ways, but first and foremost, it’s always the spirit.” We wanted it to be the spirit of lonely places. This small town, Cispus Falls, that we created, represents a stand-in for the issues that people would rather not confront. But we also wanted the creature to feel like it came from the Earth’s core, its crust, its mantle. And it represents a couple of things: the destruction of our natural resources, but also how we’re destroying our bodies through alcoholism and through opioids. These are all the things that are haunting America at the moment. So again, maybe it’s successful in some ways more than others, but it was an attempt to tell the horrors of generational trauma in America as I see it today.
I haven’t seen a child performance as good as Jeremy’s [T. Thomas] in a while.
Thank you. Yeah, he’s remarkable.
Was casting that role rather stressful since the film somewhat rides on him?
Yes. (Laughs.) And I would not have made it if I didn’t find him. The studio understood that. Guillermo understood that. At every coffee shop in Los Angeles, there’s a child actor whose parents have taken them out there. And these young babies, unfortunately, have been conditioned to cry on cue, to laugh on cue, to memorize their lines, and I had no interest in that. So we searched the world over. 900 boys. I wanted somebody who felt like he represented the trauma of a certain small town. I also wanted a young boy who is too young to shoulder the responsibility he deals with. His goals, every day, are duty and self-preservation. And every day, Jeremy Thomas, who’d never seen a film camera that I was aware of, really exhibited the most important skill any actor can have, which is to listen. He listened so well and he listened so truthfully that you can’t help but believe what you’re seeing. And just his physicality really made you feel that this is a young boy with far too much responsibility. I can’t say enough about him and his performance, as well as Sawyer Jones, who played his younger brother. He was also remarkable. They both dealt with scenes that young kids that age had probably never dealt with or shouldn’t have to deal with.
One of the most cathartic moments I’ve ever had in a movie theater was the ending of Hostiles.
I remember I stood up as Christian [Bale] turned back around towards the train, all while Max Richter’s magical score was swelling. What do you remember about the first time you watched that sequence with Max’s cue over it?
Well, I said to Christian that day, “As the train proceeds down the tracks and you’ve made the first decision to follow it, once you step onto that train, take a few moments and really think, ‘This is the most important decision I’ve ever made.'” And he did that so perfectly. Then he goes inside and disappears as the train heads down the tracks to who knows where. And hearing Max score that was one of the great moments, so far, of my career. And in that particular moment during its debut at Telluride [Film Festival], I saw the crowd stand and get to their feet, and there were people who were crying and cheering. Regardless of what happened to the film, from that moment on, I’ll never forget that particular moment. And the first person to come up to me as soon as the film ended — while I was on my way to the stage to do a Q&A with Christian — was Ken Burns. Ken has now become a friend of mine, and he said to me, “Scott, that’s one of the best films I’ve seen in the last 25 years. What you did in two hours took me 20 to do in The Vietnam War,” which he was also showing at Telluride at the same time. So from that point on, it was just crazy. And it was that particular moment that you’re referencing that I think resonated for people. Christian’s character, Captain Blocker, had been conditioned by the United States government to hate everything that the Native American represented. And it was only over the course of this journey that he finally understood that everything he thought about them was wrong and how deeply humanistic these people are. So it’s one of the great filmic experiences of my life that I don’t know that I’ll ever repeat. So thank you for referencing that.
Once Rosamund Pike’s character thanks Blocker, Christian’s reaction shots always affect me because he has this military posture with a blank face and eyes fixated ahead of him. And it made me realize that because he’d been a soldier for so long, he’d forgotten how to just be a regular guy. So that walk back to the train was him finally trying to be a regular guy.
Yes, that’s exactly right. Without question, Christian and I discussed that. This is a man who was conditioned to kill and now he has to assimilate into a life without the skill set that has carried him through. And this was not something that Christian took lightly. There’s no actor that I know who goes deeper, who does more emotional work, which he’s doing now on the film we’re about to start shooting within a month. And apart from being my closest pal, he’s my closest collaborator. He came into Antlers and looked at cuts and looked at my screenplay, different drafts. So I can’t say enough about Christian as a filmmaker and certainly as a best pal. But that’s exactly what we discussed for that moment. How does this man, who has been conditioned to kill, now assimilate into life with a young boy who may lose touch with his culture and a young mother who’s lost everything? She lost her three young children and her husband. But for so many people today, the world over, they have to deal with those issues, whether it’s war, famine or pestilence, a virus. For many people, I think that [Thomas] Hobbes was right. Life can be “nasty, brutish and short.”
So you guys are gearing up for Pale Blue Eye right now?
Well, we’re about to start shooting in a month. I’m prepping it now. It deals with a series of murders that took place at West Point in 1830 and surrounds a young cadet that the world would come to know as Edgar Allan Poe [Harry Melling]. So we start shooting from Thanksgiving to the end of February.
Can you say who’s photographing it?
Yes. So often, it’s about schedules. The people that I work with — whether it’s a photographer, a designer, a costume designer, an editor — everybody wants them because they’re so highly skilled. And there’s so much production now, so it’s very difficult to crew a film. But the film that I’m shooting now, The Pale Blue Eye, Stefania Cella is the production designer; she designed Black Mass. Kasia Walicka-Maimone, who did Black Mass and who often works with Bennett Miller, is doing the costumes. And I’m reuniting for the fourth time with Masanobu Takayanagi, who has shot three of my films. But Florian and I will certainly find ourselves together again because he’s such a remarkable filmmaker and just a beautiful human. I’ve had more people call me about Florian in the last couple of weeks now that the film is coming out. So I just hope that our schedules can align because he’s going to be very busy.
And you and Christian have another project in mind down the road?
Yes, I have written something else specifically for him that we’re going to make as well. I also want to explore the noir genre in Los Angeles, and Christian and I have discussed that. So, look, as long as he’ll continue to lead my films, I’ll keep writing for him.
As frequent collaborators and close friends, it’s pretty amazing how things have turned out for you guys, especially since he passed on Out of the Furnace at first. But he quickly doubled back like his character in Hostiles.
Yeah, you have to catch an actor in the right place. I wrote Crazy Heart for Jeff Bridges, I wrote Furnace for Christian and I wrote Hostiles for Christian. I certainly wrote The Pale Blue Eye for him. But I think it all depends on what’s happening in someone’s life. Christian, at the time of Furnace, had a young daughter that he didn’t want to leave. Now, he has two children. Christian rarely leaves Los Angeles to make a film, and now he’s leaving again to make the film we’re about to start shooting. He takes it seriously. But what I also love about Christian is that he takes his family even more seriously, and that’s the most important thing in his life. That’s why, among many reasons, he means so much to me.
Antlers is now playing in movie theaters.
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