Writer-director Scott Cooper’s The Pale Blue Eye is a visually haunting and methodically paced murder mystery that places a young Edgar Allan Poe at the center of a detective story.
“My father, who taught literature and English, introduced the book to me. Much like Poe, I spent my formative years in the state of Virginia. I was born there. Poe … was never adopted, but John Allan — his benefactor in Richmond, Virginia — raised him for many, many years in the state of Virginia. My father taught English and literature, and after my first film, Crazy Heart, he sent me the novel. My father said, “I’ve read the most ingenious book, where the author Louis Bayard has placed Edgar Allan Poe, a young Poe, at the center of a detective story.” Of course, Poe bequeathed to us detective fiction and horror fiction. I read it for pleasure, That’s how The Pale Blue Eye made its way to me: my father.”
Cooper thoughts that it could make for a really compelling if he could do a number of things.
“One, I could make a whodunnit. I could also make this father and son love story where two loners who kind of exist on the margins of society come together and forge a deep friendship. And then thirdly, I could make an Edgar Allan Poe origin story, because we all are entrenched with this notion of who Edgar Allan Poe was when he wrote The Raven and Telltale Heart and Murder in the Rue Morgue. But this is a film before that era. This is when he was still in his formative stages and was just starting to write poetry and just starting to write fiction. So what I’m saying is that the two hours that take place in this narrative motivate young Poe to become the writer he ultimately became. The events that take place in this movie inspired him to become the author of The Raven and The Premature Burial and The Telltale Heart.”
Adapted from the book of the same name by Louis Bayard, it’s the sixth film directed by Cooper, who began his career with the exceptional 2009 music drama Crazy Heart and continued to offer up compelling stories in Out of the Furnace, Hostiles, and Antlers. The Pale Blue Eye also marks Cooper’s third collaboration with Christian Bale, for whom the lead character of detective Augustus Landor was written.
“As a director, to have two actors who bring two very different performances in the same frame is really compelling. One in Christian, as I mentioned, who’s quite restrained and quite observant. Then you have Harry Melling, who is open to flourishes and who can hardly keep whatever thoughts that are coursing through his head from verbalizing. To see these two men occupy the same space, and then at the end of the film, how much loss and regret and heartbreak both men ultimately experienced … I thought would be, for a viewer, but certainly for the writer and director, a really wonderful experience.”
The Pale Blue Eye is set at West Point in 1830. A world-weary detective (Christian Bale) is hired to investigate the murder of a West Point cadet. It features a surprising secondary protagonist in a young Edgar Allan Poe, played to perfection by Harry Melling. Together, Bale’s Landor and Melling’s Poe must work together to discover the identity of a killer who has taken the life—and removed the heart—of a West Point cadet.
The collaboration between Cooper and Bale
When Cooper made Out Of The Furnace in 2013 with Christian Bale, which marked their first collaboration, he shared his screenplay of The Pale Blue Eye with Bale.
“I shared my screenplay with him, which he loved,” says Cooper. “We felt he was probably too young to play Augustus Landor at that point, and too old to play Poe, so we waited. I continued to work on the script, I tailored it for him, and then last year, we said, “Hey, what about making The Pale Blue Eye now?” And off we went.”
“But [also], life has intervened in those last ten or twelve years, and Christian brings life experience and all of his work as an actor since he was 12 years old into each part. He’s made it a richer, more interesting character than I think I would have conceived ten or twelve years before. And then it allowed me to cast Harry Melling as a young Poe as well.”
“Christian is not only my closest collaborator, he’s my closest pal, I write specifically for him. There are many things about him that I admire, and I know what he’s going to bring to a character, but very often he surprises me and brings something so much more interesting than I have conceived on the page.”
“Most narratives, I think lie to the audience about how life works out. And I guess if there’s anything that certainly ties my film together, it’s that making films can be a way of observing and making sense of the world. I know that you don’t get to choose your obsessions, they kind of choose you. But I guess something that binds them is, I like stories that kind of say something deep-rooted about American life and its relationship with the darker corners of the human psyche.”
With any mystery movie, it’s common for people to go back and see if there are any clues they missed the first time
“I do believe that my films get richer upon repeated viewings, whether it’s Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, or Hostiles. The Pale Blue Eye is no exception, and maybe more so here because I have laid all the breadcrumbs for a repeated viewing for the intrepid to say, “A-ha! I could have seen it all along.” And there are some people who will spot it upon first viewing, but because this is a whodunit, I thought it would be a great challenge and a lot of fun to leave a trail of clues for someone who deigns to see it a second time.”
“As the director, you want to leave breadcrumbs for people to see upon a second viewing — should they watch the film a second time — that they could have really picked up early on, some of the clues that lead to that particular scene, firstly. Secondly, I think we shot the final scene in an entire day, maybe a 12 or 14-hour day, where everything comes to the fore — the entire film rests on the success of that scene.”
“The ending, arguably, is always the most important thing in any movie. It’s the last thing the viewer will think about. Everything has been building to that particular moment. If the endings don’t work, well then the film is not going to work. Whether the film has wonderful performances or production design, you’ve created a great tone, aesthetic, or world … everything has to come together emotionally, has to come together psychologically … it has to come together in ways that feel honest. And I hope that you felt that It did.”
Shooting The Film
“It was incredibly difficult to shoot this film. [We shot in a] quite unforgiving and brutal landscape that was not easily accessible. Temperatures were four below, eight below zero for long stretches when you’re outside, but it all really lent itself to Poe’s evocative and macabre aesthetic.”
“The film just wouldn’t feel the same if it were shot in any other season but winter, where the leaves from the trees have been denuded. You get the architecture of the branches, you get a really incredibly lovely, but brutal, unforgiving landscape because we’re all affected by our environments. It really speaks Poe’s aesthetic. My cinematographer, my production designer, and my costume designer, wanted to have a very controlled palette. One that almost felt like it was in black and white, it was so stark. It was all very deliberate.”
Crafting the Dialogue
For Cooper, it was a challenge to nail the tone of the dialogue.
“It was quite a challenge,” says Cooper. “America was still in its infancy in 1830. Of course, the English influence was quite pervasive; it wasn’t American English. People were much more verbose than they are today. Most of my films don’t have a lot of dialogue, and they’re told quite visually, but this is a dialogue- and plot-driven film because it is a whodunit and a murder mystery. I also had a lot of fun writing dialogue for these characters because they were at times theatrical, [with] a bit more flourish than most of the very lean dialogue in my films.”
“This was all in service of Edgar Allan Poe, who is one of my favorite writers, in trying to evoke what he might have written, or would go on to write. I would read a lot of Dickens at the time, just to get a sense, and would rewrite some of his passages. That helped send me on my way. And, of course, Louis Bayard’s wonderful novel.”
Cooper’s favorite work of Edgar Allan Poe
“One of my favorite works of Poe’s is called The Premature Burial. It was first published, I think, in 1844. The narrator has an obsessive fear and horrible nightmares that he will be buried alive while comatose. That’s something that people of that era feared quite openly. Fears of being entombed before one’s time plagued Poe’s thoughts and a lot of people. It’s one of my favorites.”