The Pale Blue Eye tells you exactly what kind of film it is in its opening shot. The latest film from writer-director Scott Cooper opens with an image of a dead man hanging from a bare tree. As far as opening shots go, it's a fitting introduction to a gothic detective film that is as obsessed with death as it is with life. "I thought it would be helpful to actually set the tone of the film and tell the audience that they needed to lean forward here," Cooper says.
Based on Louis Bayard's 2003 novel of the same name, The Pale Blue Eye follows Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Potter actor Harry Melling) and private detective Augustus Landor (frequent Cooper collaborator Christian Bale) as they team up to solve a series of grotesque murders that have plagued the Hudson Valley of the 1830s. Poe is depicted in the movie as a far more excitable and passionate figure than those who are familiar with the author's real-life works might expect. According to Cooper, it was the chance to subvert audiences' perception of Poe that partly drew him to the project in the first place.
"America and the world at large have a certain idea of who Poe is," he tells A.frame, "and I wanted to upend the most common perception of him. That was a challenge that greatly interested me when I was putting the film together."
For Cooper, whose past work includes the Oscar-winning music drama Crazy Heart, the period Western Hostiles, and last year's horror thriller Antlers, The Pale Blue Eye is also his attempt at creating something that feels evocative of the Master of the Macabre's other poems and stories. The film's opening shot goes a long way to helping do just that, but the task was never an easy one for the director or his crew. "In the end, it all kind of served Poe's gothic world."
A.frame: This feels like the kind of film that you could only have made after directing a horror movie like Antlers.
It's interesting that you say that. I wrote the script for The Pale Blue Eye well before Antlers, but after having made a very moody, atmospheric piece with Antlers, that became a kind of film that I wanted to expand on. Making Antlers actually reminded me why I loved the screenplay for The Pale Blue Eye and its story so much.
How do you think your experiences on Antlers helped you make The Pale Blue Eye?
I've now made movies in several genres. My first film could be considered a musical and, of course, after that I made a gangster film, I made a Western, and Antlers certainly lives in the horror genre. That's also a film about family trauma, though, and opioid addiction, so making that film for me wasn't about figuring out how to tell a story through jumpscares or horrific moments. In all genres, what it really comes down to is character. If I can see myself in these stories, then others can and that can allow them to, hopefully, become universal. Not just to Americans, either, though, I tell quite American stories.
What Antlers allowed me to do was continue to put myself in an uncomfortable space. That’s why I continue to make films in different genres. As a filmmaker, I would get bored telling the same story over and over again, so bouncing between different genres helps keep me from feeling that way. And I like stories that say something about American life and its relationship with the darker corners of the human psyche. I think The Pale Blue Eye is a film that rewards not only careful viewings, but multiple viewings. For me, making films can be a way of observing and making sense of the world and both The Pale Blue Eye and Antlers helped me continue to do that.
The film combines the gothic romance, horror, and detective genres together in an interesting way. Was that part of what appealed to you about Louis Bayard's original novel?
Absolutely. Much like Edgar Allan Poe, I also spent my formative years in Virginia. My father taught English and he loved Poe. My father was taught by William Faulkner at the University of Virginia where Poe studied as a student, and there was a lot of literature in my house. Lots of poems. [Laughs] All of which is to say that my father sent me Louis Bayard's novel not necessarily because he wanted me to adapt it, but because he wanted me to read it. He thought it was quite a clever concert to have a young Edgar Allan Poe at the center of a detective story, which is a genre that he bequeathed to us. When I read the novel, I thought, "Wow, this could make for a really remarkable film. But only if I can find a great person to play Edgar Allan Poe" — which is no easy task.
Ultimately, it came down to figuring out how I could make a film that is at once a whodunnit, but also a kind of father-son love story where you bring together two men who are essentially alone and live on the margins of society and yet forge a kinship with each other. It was also important to approach the film as an Edgar Allan Poe origin story because I think we all have a sense of who Poe was during the later parts of his life, when he was seen as the Master of the Macabre. He's still seen as someone who trafficked in the dark arts, was obsessed with death, and obsessed with emotions like loss, grief, paranoia, and anxiety. But Edgar Allan Poe, when he was the age he is in The Pale Blue Eye, was warm and witty and humorous. He had flights of romance and was, obviously, very poetic.
From a certain perspective, the film even feels like it could fit into the noir genre.
Edgar Allan Poe was obsessed with the occult and Satanic practices, so it only makes sense that The Pale Blue Eye goes to those places as well. We had to include those subjects in our film or else we weren't being true to his themes and his work. It was really important to me to speak to the themes that Poe wrote about and imagine the events that take place in The Pale Blue Eye's story as moments that potentially influenced the writer he became.
The film has a very specific, gothic look. What conversations did you have with your cinematographer, Masanobu Takayanagi, when you were conceptualizing the film's look and style?
The film is obviously shot in color, but when Masanobu and I started to conceive the look of it, we wanted it to feel almost black and white. We had a very controlled color palette in mind, which we discussed with my production designer. Stefania Cella, and my costume designer, Kasia Walicka-Maimone. For the film's exteriors, I looked to the work of the German expressionist painter, Caspar David Friedrich, and for the film's interiors, I looked a lot at Dutch paintings. In terms of other films, I also looked at Barry Lyndon, because it was all lit by candlelight, which would have been the only source of light in 1830. Overall, we tried to give the film a very controlled look, but it was also a really difficult shoot. Recreating the Hudson Valley of 1830 while dealing with freezing temperatures, bracing winds, inhospitable locations, and lots of snow was really difficult. In the end, it all kind of served Poe's gothic world.
The film's opening shot tells you immediately what to expect from The Pale Blue Eye. When you're directing and you're writing your films, is the opening shot something that you spend a lot of time on, or does it usually come to you immediately?
I do spend quite a bit of time thinking about that, yeah. It's something that should, given the way I make films at least, set the tone for what's to come. In this film, we have a man hanging from a tree who's clearly met his maker. That image is preceded by a quote from Edgar Allan Poe about where life ends and death begins, so it makes it very clear what the tone of this film will be, which hopefully puts the audience in the right mood.
You can also have an opening shot, as I do in Hostiles, that is completely different. That film opens with a very classic shot of a beautiful, handmade cabin that's set on the plains of New Mexico. It seems almost like the ideal version of the American pastoral, which is then quickly thrown into disarray moments later. So I do think about the opening shots of my films a lot. It's all about setting up expectations, and sometimes that depends on whether you want to upend those expectations, or whether you want to prepare a viewer for what's to come.
You've made several very different films now. As you move forward, what about the filmmaking process continues to inspire you and keep you motivated?
I'm driven by my own curiosity about the human condition. For me, directing is always about a quest for the truth, and I usually discover what each film is about while I'm making it because I bring my own emotions that I've experienced throughout my life to my films. Personally, I think if a filmmaker can continue to mine the human condition, which has no limit to its depth, then they should always be able to tell really compelling, human stories. Ultimately, the only way for me to really make films is by pushing myself into uncomfortable spaces.