The Pale Blue Eye is the sixth feature film from writer/director Scott Cooper. This follow-up to last year's Antlers is just as dark and complicated, set in the blistering cold of New York in 1830.

The film follows detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), who is enlisted to help solve a mysterious murder at the nearby West Point. He meets a sharp cadet who loves poetry—Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). Together they begin unraveling the threads of a disturbing plot with ties to the occult, while also learning more of each other's deepest secrets. The story is adapted from the novel by Louis Bayard.

Cooper is a thoughtful director who brings authenticity to his projects no matter the scale, with a focus on character and relationships. The Pale Blue Eye, an expansive period film with stunning locales and costumes, and a pretty incredible ensemble cast, is probably his most intricate film to date, and it's a dark delight to watch him and his cast play in this world. If you're in the mood for a chilly mystery over the holiday break, you'll want to find a screening.

Cooper spoke with No Film School via phone ahead of the film's limited release, telling us about the project's challenges and also how he approached several period elements. 

Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: What drew you to this work?

Scott Cooper: I spent my formative years in the state of Virginia—I was born there. As did Poe. Though he was born in Boston, he spent most of his time in Virginia in and around Richmond when his benefactor, John Allan, brought him. He didn't adopt him, but he certainly brought him down to Virginia and took care of him, raised him.

And my father taught English and literature, and there was a lot of Poe around my house from a young age. And after I made my first film, Crazy Heart, my father said, "I've just read the most clever novel in which a young Edgar Allan Poe is a cadet at West Point, and he's in the center of a detective story."

And I thought, wow, that's really clever, because we have a really entrenched idea of who Poe is from his later works, much darker works. So I read the novel and I thought, this will make for really great film and will allow me to do three things—make a whodunit, but also make a kind of father/son love story. And then really kind of an Edgar Allan Poe origin story, taking somebody who's kind of warm, and witty, and humorous, and prone to kind of poetic and romantic musings, and essentially saying that the events in this film inspired him to become the writer he became.

Tpbe_ks_011Christian Bale as Augustus Landor and Harry Melling as Edgar Allan Poe in 'The Pale Blue Eye.'Credit: Scott Garfield/Netflix

NFS: So you adapted this from the book, obviously, and it's also not the first time that you've written a screenplay from another work. What are some challenges of that process?

Cooper: Well, really trying to find the essence of the novel, but understanding that a novel and a film are two very different things and making certain that the author understands that when he or she gives their work over to you, taking what it is that interests you. And then what I generally try to do, without speaking too specifically about it, is try to personalize the screenplay—in ways that things that I've experienced in my life or themes that I want to experience. And then essentially taking the characters that somebody else may have invented and then making them my own, which is what I've done here.

Tpbe_ks_026Robert Duvall as Jean Pepe, Christian Bale as Augustus Landor and Harry Melling as Edgar Allan Poe in 'The Pale Blue Eye.'Credit: Scott Garfield/Netflix

NFS: In our earlier conversation about Antlers, I remember you talking a lot about the horror that you love. And you play in that world here, too. Can you talk about how you balanced those elements, the occultist elements, with the mystery story?

Cooper: Yeah. Well, if people know [Poe's] work as well as you do, [they know] that he was obsessed with the occult and the Satanic, and where life ends and where death begins, and paranoia and anxiety and tragedy and despair and all those sort of things that course through his writings. And when you're making a film about a young Poe, you have to keep all of those themes in mind, especially if you're making what is essentially a Poe origin story, in saying again that the events that take place in this film really inspired him to write the "Tell-Tale Heart" or "The Premature Burial," or "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" or "The Raven," all of those sort of things.

So you're trying to balance a character story, but you're also trying to bring in some horrific elements. But it isn't a horror movie in a sense like Conjuring or Halloween Ends, like that. It's more of a drama that speaks to the gothic world that Poe created.

Tpbe_ks_031Gillian Anderson as Julia and Toby Jones as Dr. Marquis in 'The Pale Blue Eye.'Credit: Scott Garfield/Netflix

NFS: Another thing that I loved about this movie was the cast. As more people kept popping up, it was just like, "Oh, I love this person." So can you talk about how you assembled all those great actors?

Cooper: Generally I make very American films, but I watch a lot of world cinema. And I happen to adore actors. And I would see, "Oh my God. There's Timothy Spall in yet another Mike Leigh film." Six of them that he's been in. Or Toby Jones or Gillian Anderson, whom I worked with on The X-Files as an actor. Or Simon McBurney. And I had them all in mind because I had really enjoyed their performances over the years.

And this is 1830. America was still in its infancy, and accent and dialect was certainly not American English that we know today. And these actors can take the type of dialogue that I've written for this film and really make it feel incredibly authentic. Because I don't like watching period films in which I feel all of the period trappings, the accents, the dialects, the costumes, the production design that obscure character and story. And I wanted all of that to recede in the background. Plus, they all have such incredible faces, and I wanted to populate that. So I was just thankful that all of the actors that I wanted to be in the film said yes. And many of them just happen to be my favorite.

Tpbe_ks_052Christian Bale as Augustus Landor in 'The Pale Blue Eye.'Credit: Scott Garfield/Netflix

NFS: What was the biggest challenge you faced making this project?

Cooper: There were many. It's risky to make a film about young Edgar Allan Poe because people, again, are quite entrenched with Poe much later in his life, the man who died under mysterious circumstances in a Baltimore alley. But taking a Poe who's warm and witty and humorous and southern, and really by all accounts, a great companion and taking someone that is very unexpected of what you think Poe might be, and kind of turning that on its head. And that was really a big challenge. But also there was the physical challenge of making a film at minus four below zero, minus eight below zero in very harsh and unforgiving landscapes. But it all serves, I think, in creating Poe's Gothic world.

Tpbe_ks_001Christian Bale in 'The Pale Blue Eye.'Credit: Scott Garfield/Netflix

NFS: The locations were another thing that I noticed. And it is a beautiful film.

Cooper: My characters' surroundings tell us as much about them as the character themselves. We're all really affected by weather, and landscape, and seasonal changes. So then, you try to painstakingly recreate an era without kind of falling into nostalgic overload.

NFS: I think one of my favorite scenes is the final scene. It is such a powerful and emotional moment between your two main characters. To me, that felt like a very taxing scene.

Cooper: It was incredibly difficult.

Tpbe_ks_013Christian Bale as Augustus Landor and Harry Melling as Edgar Allan Poe in 'The Pale Blue Eye.'Credit: Scott Garfield/Netflix

NFS: So how do you prepare cast and crew for a scene like that?

Cooper: If that scene doesn't work, the film doesn't work. Not only because it's the ending, it's the last thing that you leave the audience with before they leave the theater or turn off Netflix. But it's where everything culminates. You have two characters who've spent the better part of the film trying to figure out who's the culprit, who has murdered these two young cadets. You have two characters in Poe and in Christian Bale's Augustus Landor who has lived on the margins of society, who have suffered great loss in terms of Landor's wife and his daughter's missing. Poe, of course, is an orphan. And they're both searching for someone. And they found something in one another that they really respect, and then they grow to love one another. And they have this incredible bond that gets tested in this final scene.

So it was really about taking an entire day to shoot one scene, which you don't often do, unless it's an action sequence, which this of course is not. But it's where everything comes together for the entire film and culminates in what I hope is a thrilling but heartbreaking, but ultimately moving scene in a denouement for the film.

NFS: What is your favorite part of the film?

Cooper: Well, I would say that particular scene because it was so difficult to stage and so difficult to direct in terms of performance. And just making sure that everything ultimately made sense for the audience, but left them not only satisfied, but maybe questioning motivation as to why someone would ultimately do what they do. Hopefully, it leaves a lasting impression. That's all that I'll say. As much as I can say.

Tpbe_ks_062Lucy Boynton as Lea Marquis and Harry Melling as Edgar Allan Poe in 'The Pale Blue Eye.'Credit: Scott Garfield/Netflix

NFS: What's next for you?

Cooper: I'm in the process of finishing up a screenplay that I've written for Christian Bale, so I don't quite know if that will be next. But The Pale Blue Eye is our third film together. There certainly will be a fourth and possibly a fifth. We have a couple of things that I have written for him that I think we're going to do. It all comes down to timing and availability. And also seasons, because I don't shoot arbitrarily. And I shoot a lot of exteriors and I want to make certain that the mood, and the tone, and the aesthetics are right for the film. But I don't think you've seen the last of Christian Bale and me.

NFS: Is there anything that you wanted to add I didn't ask?

Cooper: Well, just that these movies are not easy to make, both physically, emotionally, but also having a company like Netflix that is allowing filmmakers to make passion projects. So often people write derisively about Netflix, but they are saving a certain segment of cinema that nobody else is making. And I'm just grateful that I got a chance to make this.

The Pale Blue Eye is in select theaters on Dec. 23, 2022, and on Netflix Jan. 6, 2023.