For filmmaker Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Hostiles), the best horror movies—the best movies in general—reflect the times we’re in. With his latest supernatural horror film, Antlers, Cooper addresses generational trauma, the opioid crisis, the effects of climate change and colonialism … to name a few. In the film, a young student in small-town Oregon harbors dark secrets, bringing a middle-school teacher (Keri Russell) and her sheriff brother (Jesse Plemons) into his orbit to terrifying effect.

Cooper, who began his career as an actor, is always drawn to a good story. This one came to him when Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro approached Cooper and said, “Your last three films have been horror films, but nobody knows it. Would you be interested in directing a pure horror film?” Cooper didn’t hesitate. He read Nick Antosca’s short story “The Quiet Boy” and the subsequent screenplay, then infused it with current themes to make it his own.

Simply put, Cooper wouldn’t have made Antlers if not for del Toro. “As a writer-director himself, he understands what a writer-director needs at all times, from the script stage, to monster creation, to shooting, and then to postproduction,” Cooper says. Del Toro helped develop the film’s creature, the wendigo, and gave feedback on a number of cuts of the film. The two have very different sensibilities as filmmakers, Cooper says, and Antlers was a study in marrying the two.

Director/Writer Scott Cooper and Producer Guillermo del Toro on the set of 'Antlers.' Photo by Kimberley French. © 2021 20th Century Studios

An actor’s director

Cooper grew up in the small, artistic town of Abingdon, Virginia, “the kind of crown jewel of the arts world,” as he calls it. He became a child stage actor, participating in regional theater productions before moving to New York to study the craft. But after relocating to Los Angeles, he didn’t meet quite as much acting success as he would’ve liked. “I’ve always loved acting, but it was always very feast or famine,” he says. “I would find that I wasn’t securing the parts that I wanted to play. When you’re a young actor and you grow up loving the work of De Niro or Sean Penn or Day Lewis or Robert Duvall or Gene Hackman, and you want those types of parts but you aren’t getting them, frustration sets in.” So, in a move that changed the trajectory of his life, Cooper wrote his first screenplay, Crazy Heart, which his dear friend and mentor Robert Duvall insisted he also produce. With Duvall’s blessing—and participation in the cast—Cooper proceeded. 

“I had written it for Jeff Bridges without Jeff Bridges knowing. Jeff Bridges said yes to Crazy Heart, and his saying yes changed my life.” (Bridges received an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in the film.) Cooper often writes with specific actors in mind. In Bridges’ case, “Jeff is easily one of our great actors, American or otherwise for the screen, with deep wells of humanity. Jeff can play humor. He can play obviously serious drama. … Jeff is empathetic towards other characters in the film. He’s empathetic towards characters that he plays, and that goodness comes through.” Over the years, Cooper has also found himself collaborating closely, and repeatedly, with actors Christian Bale and Jesse Plemons. 

He first wrote a part for Bale in Out of the Furnace, followed by Hostiles. Now, Cooper is shooting his next film with Bale, The Pale Blue Eye, about a series of murders that take place at West Point in 1830. He’s worked with Plemons on three consecutive films, including Antlers. Plemons, Cooper says, is “incredibly relatable like Christian and Jeff. Jesse never has an inauthentic moment, and the audience can see themselves in these men and that’s incredibly important to me.” The same goes for Keri Russell: “She comes across as someone who’s incredibly resilient and strong, but someone who’s dealt with some very deep generational trauma.” Both Plemons and Russell’s relatability are on full display in Antlers.

Left to right: Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas and Keri Russell in the film 'Antlers.' Photo by Kimberley French. © 2021 20th Century Studios

Cooper collaborates closely with his actors, doing a lot of deep, investigative text work before filming begins. Together, they explore character motivations and desires and plot points. With actors like Bale and Plemons, since they’ve developed a shorthand after working together for years, Cooper knows their abilities and their range. He’s able to write certain moments for them, and them alone. 

This process is particularly natural to Cooper because of his own career path. “Being an actor for much of my life before I became a writer-director has really influenced and informed how I direct performers. Without it, I don’t think my films would ever have any type of the same kind of behavioral success that I hope folks see in them.”

More important, Cooper draws on his own experience to figure out “how to help when an actor’s in trouble in the scene and how to get very specific and easily understandable direction and not overload them with ambiguities. Be very clear what it is that you want from the scene, what the character needs from the scene.”

New, uncomfortable territory

On Antlers, Cooper faced a whole new set of challenges. He worked with young actors, ages 7 and 12 years old, “who’ve never seen a film camera. So these young performers have to be able to handle the emotions that they’re far too young to have to really experience.” As a father of two young girls, he was able to make them feel comfortable and secure, even if some of the scenarios on set terrified the actors. “I had to remind them that we’re in this giant sandbox in which all of this is make-believe, and this is not going to happen to you. It was difficult as a filmmaker, but when I look at their performances, they’re among the best performances that I’ve directed since I started.”

Keri Russell in the film 'Antlers.' Photo by Kimberley French. © 2021 20th Century Studios

Cooper chose to work with nonprofessional actors because, he says, “I think young actors generally come too formed with preconceived notions of how to play a scene, whether their parents have coached them or an acting coach has coached them. Great screen actors are great listeners, and young actors have already made their choices of how they’re going to play a scene.” He never rehearses with his cast because he wants everyone, at any level of experience, “to feel like they’re walking on a high wire, so that every emotion you’re seeing is the first time it’s come to them.”

Related: Scott Cooper’s 5 favorite horror films

That’s just one of the ways Cooper makes sure he’s always pushed into new, uncomfortable territory. “I believe the great danger is in doing safe work, which is why I’ve made a drama infused with music, or a gangster film with Johnny Depp, or a Western with Christian Bale and now, a horror film,” he says. “I’ve been very deliberate about not trying to repeat myself.” 

Still, throughout his filmography, there’s always a sense of character vulnerability, regret and redemption. These characters face a reckoning of sorts, even in stories set across time periods and genres. When they overcome these vulnerabilities, and meet these deep, complex choices, they’re conveying basic human emotions we can all relate to. Says Cooper: “I’m attracted to stories that teach us to love, or teach us to forgive, stories in which we seek redemption or develop a deeper understanding about life or certainly about ourselves.”

Antlers premieres in theaters Oct. 29.