Scott Cooper interview: ‘The Pale Blue Eye’ writer-director
Cooper relished the opportunity and “dangerous” challenge of putting the popular figure of Poe on screen. He shares that he hoped to change audiences’ “preconceived notions about who Poe was,” transcending the “dark, brooding, and melancholy” characterizations of the man to explore him as “warm and witty and a great companion.” Harry Melling uncannily takes on the mantle of the poet in the film, which the screenwriter describes as a movie motivated by questions including, “What drives someone to madness? How much pressure has to build before they explode in violence?”
Set in Hudson Valley, New York, in 1830, “The Pale Blue Eye” focuses on a murder of a West Point cadet. The Academy hires the illustrious detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) to look into the crime, and the early days of his investigation lead him to a professional and personal relationship with a young cadet, Poe. Cooper says the movie is a study in contrasts: Bale’s Landor exhibits a “restrained, controlled intensity,” whereas Melling’s Poe is characterized by his “poetic, romantic notions.” “Calibrating those two performances was a lot of fun,” admits the writer-director.
“The Pale Blue Eye” is an intentionally contemplative, slow-burn of a film. The process of adapting the “sprawling” novel to the screen was “difficult,” Cooper shares, because he not only had to craft a “taut, two-hour film” out of the lengthy source material, but also because he had to “keep the mystery alive” while also laying “breadcrumbs” for moviegoers paying close enough attention to solve the whodunit ahead of its truly surprising climax. The end result is a work that gives viewers “time to languish in these silent moments” that focus on character rather than just “divulging plot.”
Those silent moments are always striking to behold because Cooper evocatively captures the icy environs of the Hudson River in bone-chilling detail. The filmmaker describes production as “an incredibly brutal shoot, which is very fitting for Poe.” He recalls filming in conditions that were sometimes as cold as of four-to-eight degrees below zero. To convey visually the nineteenth-century landscape and its Gothic architecture, the director collaborated closely with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, production designer Stefania Cella and costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone to “keep our colors within a really narrow frame” to make the film “feel like black-and-white.”
Artists and filmmakers who influenced Cooper’s vision for the film included the German painter Caspar David Friedrich (best known for “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog”), “Dutch masters” like Rembrandt, and Stanley Kubrick’s film “Barry Lyndon” for the movie’s “candlelit interiors.”
“The Pale Blue Eye” boasts an incredibly impressive ensemble of actors. Beyond Bale and Melling, the film also stars Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Robert Duvall, Toby Jones, Harry Lawtey, Simon McBurney, Timothy Spall and others. “I love to cast faces,” notes Cooper of how he assembled this overwhelmingly English cast. The director continues, “This dialogue, which is more florid than I usually write, seemingly is handled really well by these British actors. It’s almost second nature to them.” As for picking his Poe, Cooper remembers seeing Melling in the Joel and Ethan Coen film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” thinking to himself, “This kid can understand who Poe is and can really handle this dialogue.” When he sent Bale Melling’s audition tape, the Oscar winner remarked, “Why look elsewhere?”