“Life is nasty and brutish and short.”

“Thomas Hobbes said that,” he explains. It’s the perfect bookend to our conversation with Scott Cooper, the director of possibly the most brutal film of 2017, Hostiles. In searching for a way to comment on the much-remarked upon violence of his film, Cooper mirrored its striking epigraph, courtesy of D.H. Lawrence: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

Hostiles tells the story of Joseph Blocker [Christian Bale], a veteran Captain in the U.S. Cavalry at the tail of the Indian Wars. Playing Bale’s opposite is Wes Studi, as legendary Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk. Due to heightened national scrutiny around Yellow Hawk’s captivity, Blocker is forced to escort the dying Chief and his family from New Mexico to their homeland in Montana. What ensues is a torturous plunge into the cancerous gut of colonist/indigenous relations at the turn of the 19th century. The film features stand-out performances from two of its minor stars, Jonathan Majors and Q’orianka Kilcher as a conflicted buffalo soldier and the brooding daughter of Yellow Hawk.

Cooper broke out in 2009 with Crazy Heart, a countrified romantic drama which garnered an Oscar for lead Jeff Bridges. Hostiles is his fourth directorial effort, and it is ambitious. It was shot in sequence and completely on location, it was adapted from the long-lost manuscript of a dead, famous screenwriter, and attempts to tackle hyper-current racial themes. (Oh, and it’s a period piece). MovieMaker sat down with the director to discuss all this and more.

Rosalee (Rosamund Pike) and Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) watch the sun set. Image courtesy of Entertainment Studios

Ryan Coleman, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you originally come to the manuscript?

Scott Cooper (SC): I generally write my own stuff, but I received a call from my agent who told me about a woman who’d been moving house in the desert beyond Palm Springs. In the bottom of a box she found a piece her late husband had been working on. That was Donald Stewart (The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger). She really appreciated my first film Crazy Heart, but the film which made her think I should be the one to take her late husband’s work and make it my own was Out of the Furnace, my second film, which Christian [Bale] also stars in. That piqued my interest. Crazy Heart is a much more digestible film, where Out of the Furnace is a darker hued piece of work.

I read it, and I thought I could take the seed, which is a calvary captain against his better wishes escorting a group of hostiles from, I forgot exactly where it was in his work but I placed the action from New Mexico to Montana. It would allow me to speak to what’s happening in America today, in terms of race. The racial divide in our country is widening. We’re living in polarized times, and I wanted to speak to this notion that we need to better understand one another and to reconcile. I think America needs to heal. My characters’ journey from New Mexico to Montana becomes an enlightenment. I wanted to speak to what I see is an America looming down a dark and dangerous path.

MM: How is that enlightenment achieved in the movie? Does it have something to do with the extreme violence both groups encounter?

SC: Indeed, because the American West, while majestic, was very violent. As wars generally begin, it’s all about resources and land. The United States government was trying to impose its will on Indigenous peoples. There is a dark and unforgivable past of attempted genocide. I wanted the movie to be punctuated by moments of extreme violence. I abhor violence for one, but these very violent and vivid encounters on the road end up informing the characters emotionally and psychologically in a way that really spoke to the difficulties in trying to achieve Manifest Destiny. That’s ultimately it: people were searching for a better life. Leaving religious persecution, leaving a sordid past, or even just trying to re-invent themselves, improve their lot in life. That came in a great sense through hardship. But I can’t stand violence. I feel like the only reason I show it is out of an obligation I have to show the consequences of violence.

MM: Did you originally see the script as a western?

SC: I don’t think much in terms of genre. Much like Black Mass wasn’t a gangster picture. In fact it was an anti-gangster picture. Gangster movies are about criminals who just happen to be humans, and I wanted to make a movie about human beings who just happen to be criminals. In this one, while it is set in the American West, in 1892, I wanted it to be more about a human journey, a psychological journey. If anything it’s a psychological western in the vein of Anthony Mann. There were a couple shots where I paid homage to John Ford’s The Searchers. I don’t think it’s a western, it has more in common with Joseph Conrad or Larry McMurtry or Louis L’Amour.

Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher) in captivity.

MM: Did you steer Donald Stewart’s manuscript toward race, or was that present in the original?

SC: For sure, that wasn’t even a part of the original manuscript. Neither was Rosamund Pike’s character, or Ben Foster’s. What I generally like to do is take a piece and expand it into what I want to explore. Making films is really about find out who you are. I’ve been exploring people who live on the margins of life, from Crazy Heart all the way through Hostiles.

MM: What was important about Rosamund Pike’s character?

SC: The indomitable strength of the human spirit. You know there’s really only one thing I fear. I don’t fear my movies not doing well commercially, I don’t fear them not being well-received. Those are things that are out of your control. As a father the only thing I truly fear is the loss of a child. For Rosalee [Pike] to lose three in the beginning of the film? To overcome that loss? And to lose her children at the hands of the Comanches and later for the Cheyenne to help her overcome that loss, amongst all these hardened and stoic men? That’s something clearly she’ll live with for the rest of her life. It shows she also has to have found some kind of faith, or solace, or enlightenment by the end of the film. It’s not just the strength of women, which is very important to me, but also about the strength of the human spirit to overcome.

MM: Why is the film set so close to the turn of the century, at the end of the Indian Wars?

SC: The end of the film ties in with the Industrial Revolution, and these men become obsolete. You see Blocker in the final scene wearing a wool suit and a top hat, beside a steam engine, looking incredibly uncomfortable. All Captain Blocker has known since he was a child, since he was 14 years old fighting as a child in the Civil War, is fighting. Fighting for the Untied States government, fighting in the Indian Wars. What use is that man to anyone? My hope is he can lead a very productive life and give back in ways he didn’t before. We see him in the beginning of the film as a man with deeply entrenched views about Native Americans. Yet he has a complex relationship with an African American corporal [Jonathan Majors] that becomes very emotional. Yet he asks an African American man to chain a Native American man, a man whose forbearers likely came over in chains. So he’s a very complex character, Blocker.

Rosalee and the women of Yellow Hawk’s family face a foe.

MM: Did you think about how the particular racial narrative Hostiles is pushing would splash into the national conversation we’re having?

SC: There are so many voices shouting to be heard right now and so few that are listening. We live in an increasingly partisan society, getting moreso by the day. The thought process was about how can this film spark a conversation about this necessary sense of understanding others, of reconciliation and enlightenment. Cinema is society, when it’s done well. This film speaks to the human condition, and I think it can play to people on the coasts as well as in the heartland, to say, “Look, we can overcome our differences, because if not we’re going to continue down this troubling path.”

MM: Would you say you were inspired by John Ford?

SC: Certainly I was inspired by him. Even though, in a lot of those films, a lot of men wore black hats, and a lot of men wore white hats. Native Americans were portrayed a certain way and the white saviors were portrayed a certain way. In my film they’re all hostiles. The United States government is hostile, Christian Bale’s character is hostile, Wes Studi has been, certainly the Comanches that begin the raid are hostiles. The fur trappers who abduct the women, certainly. No one is immune to that in this film. Most Westerns don’t really deal in those kinds of shades of ambiguity. They’re much more starkly black and white. I love moral ambiguity and moral complexity.

When you’re shooting those landscapes and dealing in themes that John Ford and Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks certainly mined there’s no doubt people will compare you to them. Look I don’t make it easy for myself: when you make a film in the gangster genre or the western genre, where some of the best films ever made reside, you will inevitably be compared to their best films. There’s no question. I don’t take that lightly, but you try to make as personal film you can that in some way speaks to the times in which you live. I’m very proud of the film. My work can sometimes prove to be divisive, but I think in time people will come to the films and understand them. I think it was Coppola who said, “If everyone like your film, it probably wasn’t very good.” MM

Hostiles opened in theaters December 22, 2017, courtesy of Entertainment Studios.