LOS ANGELES – Winning the Oscar for Argo in 2013 put Ben Affleck, actor/writer, on a whole new trajectory. He finally met the high standard he had set for himself as a screenwriter. Twenty years ago now, he and boyhood friend from Boston, Matt Damon, won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting. Indeed Affleck rescued his Hollywood career by directing when his popularity as an actor plummeted following films like Reindeer Games (2000), Gigli (2003), Surviving Christmas (2004), Jersey Girl (2004) and the gambling picture, Runner Runner (2013), which proved that despite being at his best in Argo, he could be at his worst at the same time. Strange.
Directing is a passion. While acting in the excellent Gone Girl two years ago, he used his time on set to learn more about filmmaking technique from legendary director, David Fincher.
He set himself up perfectly to take over the Batman franchise, intent on starring as the caped crusader, the most popular of all the superheroes portrayed in Hollywood. He was set also to direct the latest installment presently in development.
Then in early February he withdrew from directing the project saying: “Performing this role demands focus, passion and the very best performance I can give,” he explained. “It has become clear that I cannot do both jobs to the level they require. Together with the studio, I have decided to find a partner in a director who will collaborate with me on this massive film. I am still in this, and we are making it, but we are currently looking for a director. I remain extremely committed to this project, and look forward to bringing this to life for fans around the world.”
His latest film LIVE BY NIGHT may have curbed his appetite for acting and directing at the same time. Not everyone is Clint Eastwood. In fact no one is, except Mr. Eastwood himself.
Affleck wrote, directed, co-produced and played the lead role in this homage to the classic gangster era movies. He gets the chance to apply some of that Fincher-acquired knowledge in his new film, LIVE BY NIGHT. Much as Clint Eastwood (another one of his idols) has done over the years, Affleck puts his reputation on the line by working both sides of the camera in this stirring gangster saga set in the 1920s Prohibition era. It’s an overall entertaining movie, even if it’s hard to buy into Ben Affleck good guy demeanor and super hero looks—he played George Reeves, the man who was the TV Superman of the 1950s in Hollywoodland—don’t translate well to playing a stone killer. He lacks the manic instability of the Warren Beatty turn as Ben Siegel in Bugsy.
That aside, Affleck is happy to start out talking about directors.
“I do look at the careers of other directors, guys like John Huston, and see how they had big hits and big misses and lived big lives. That’s OK with me as a model,” Affleck says. “I don’t mind the high stakes gambling nature of this profession. If it’s a hit, you’re a hit, and if it’s a bomb, you’re a bomb. That’s just the way things go. There’s something uniquely American about that.”
In LIVE BY NIGHT Affleck plays Joe Couglin, a daring smuggler who enjoys a “Bonnie-and-Clyde thing” with co-star Sienna Miller in the course of his quest to become top dog in the world of Florida rum-running. Featuring a cast that includes Elle Fanning, Scott Eastwood, Chris Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Chris Messina, and Brendan Gleeson (as Affleck’s father), Live by Night is based on the Dennis Lehane bestseller.
This marks the second collaboration between Affleck and fellow Boston native Lehane. Affleck made his debut as a director with Gone Baby Gone (2007), also adapted from a Lehane novel of the same title. That film starred his brother Casey Affleck, who has since gone on to make perhaps more of a reputation with critics than his more classic leading man brother, Ben.
These two couldn’t be more different. Ben Affleck is a big man at 1.92 m. and 95 kilos who towers over the slightly-built Casey at 1.75. In fact you would not think them brothers at all. So much for the genetic roll of the dice. Ben plays heroes. Casey plays anti-heroes.
The 44-year-old Affleck today, the handsome leading man looks and seems far happier than he did last year when he was visibly struggling in the aftermath of his divorce from Jennifer Garner. Today he’s all smiles. He is in fine spirits. He is apparently enjoying a with Garner while sharing parenting duties for their three pre-teen children, Violet, 11 Seraphina, 7 and Sam, 4.
They spent the Christmas holidays together on a family skiing trip in Montana together with longtime friend Matt Damon and his family. Reports suggest there is still a chance that Ben and Jennifer might yet save their marriage. When it comes to Garner, Affleck politely deflects questions. It is not something you want to press. He does call her “the world’s greatest mom,” which is what you would expect from the apparently affable star.
What was it about Live by Night that made him want to take another plunge as director?
Affleck says that he saw it as a classic gangster movie which reminds you of those great movies that Warner (Brothers) used to make in the 30s all the way through to the 70s.
“I’ve always loved the way those films transported you to another era and while we were shooting the film I can’t tell you how much I looked forward going to the set every day and seeing everyone wearing all the period clothes which adds to the sweep and atmosphere of that era.”
Was it always a given that he was going to star in the film himself?
Affleck smiles and says: “It helped that I had an “in” with the director, but I also knew right away that it was a great role where you’re at the centre of a sweeping drama. I found it very interesting how he has his own moral code and even though he’s an outlaw he sees himself as very different from the Irish and Italian mobsters who are running the town.
Double duty as director and actor is no easy task, even if you have written the script. How did he adapt?
“I love acting in the movies I get to direct because it’s much easier to speak up when you don’t like the way a scene is being shot! (Laughs) Obviously you have so much more control over the entire process and you can create the kind of atmosphere on the set that you feel is going to help you and the other actors do the best work possible. As an actor, you’re entirely dependent on the vision of the director and the lines you have to do when you go to work in the morning. And I’ve done enough films to know what it’s like when you’re not happy with the way things are going, That’s why if you’re the director you can make those creative decisions even though there are times when you worry about those choices.
For Affleck the best part of directing is being able to work at a comfortable
pace. “I don’t like it when on some film sets you feel like you don’t have the time to get things right because you’re worried about losing the light or you need to move to another location.”
Being the director, he has “the power to take as much time as he needs to shoot a scene the way he wants.” And when he’s also acting in most of the scenes he has greater perspective to know, for example, immediately that he can change a line or do something different that makes a scene work better.
The gangster movies of the classic era like Public Enemy with James Cagney, Scarface with Paul Muni and Little Caesar with Edward G Robinson portrayed loners against law and order framed by Prohibition and later the Depression. Those gangsters in movies and in real life (Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly), whom the public both worshipped as folk heroes and feared as symbols of rebellion in a disintegrating society.
The FBI, in fact, became famous for killing Dillinger. At the same time the public missed the charming outlaw, who had once escaped from prison using a gun carved out of wood, coloured black with shoe polish. The point is that there was a closeness of audience to subject in those long ago days that simply does not exist today, when violence is a matter of sophisticated and murderous terrorists or drug cartels, who don’t mind killing civilians. For gangsters civilians were collateral damage not targets. The police or anyone else who waved a gun in their direction were fair game.
As Hunter S. Thompson wrote: In a world where everyone’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught.”
Did Affleck study these old gangster movies before filming Live by Night?
“I saw as many gangster films as I could from the 30s and 40s,” he says. “A lot of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney movies like Angels With Dirty Faces. I tried to learn a lot not just from the acting style of that era but also the way directors would try to create a level of tension and add different layers to the story and create this dense atmosphere.”
Despite the early Oscar triumph in Good Will (which curiously also starred my old friend Minnie Driver), this superhero impersonator has gone through some major ups and downs in the course of his career. Many would say his best film was Chasing Amy, the least likely candidate to succeed. Keeping in mind his string of celluloid stinkers from the early 2000s and that from out of nowhere his brother seems quite likely to win an Oscar in 2017 for Manchester by the Sea, does Ben still throw caution to the wind or does he feel the pressure to avoid mistakes?
“I wish I could say that I plan more carefully), but I really don’t approach this business thinking about my status or how something might affect my career down the road. I look for projects that interest me and inspire me in some way. I couldn’t be happier or more grateful or feel more fortunate than I do now for all the opportunities that I have now.”
Affleck is certainly competitive. He is also no mama’s boy. He is a self-proclaimed alcohol abuser, who has been on and off the wagon since 2001. He likes the ladies—in a variety. He is a gambler who has been tossed out of casinos for counting cards—to his credit one might add.
Does he feel that it was a risk to take on the role of Batman, especially after some of the negative reviews that the Batman v Superman film received?
Affleck shrugs and says: “I knew that my way of playing Batman would probably be controversial in some way because it wasn’t what most people were expecting. But my goal was to do the best job possible and hope that people appreciate it. I know that my Batman was a little older, a little more broken down than what was probably expected. But that made him more interesting to me and gave me a much better perspective on how to play the part. Batman will always be a fascinating character, though, because he’s human and he’s full of weaknesses and doubts and contradictions that we all have.”
Everything’s a gamble is it?
“Yeah, people like simple arcs,” he says. “We’re comfortable with that kind of storytelling. Parts of my life fit. And parts that don’t. The parts that don’t are discarded because they’re inconvenient . . . Everybody does things that work and don’t, and I can’t take responsibility for how things play out in pop culture.”
Has fatherhood affected his career now and the time he spends on film projects?
“You certainly worry more about the time you spend away from your children and you miss them if you’re not able to take them to school or to be with them as much as you would like. Being a father changes you in a lot of ways and you feel this enormous responsibility towards them.”
There is something appealingly vulnerable about Affleck when he talks about family life. It seems you might almost be talking to a close friend. In his previous film, The Accountant, his father in the film taught him martial arts as a form of protection and discipline.
Did Affleck’s real father teach him anything along those lines?
“My father and mother were divorced when I was 11, he says. “I lived with my mom after that. Sometimes I think it would have been nicer if I had learnt something artistic, I don’t know, maybe like playing the piano. Usually your parents force you to play the piano or something similar and you hate them for it. But then you grow up and discover that all the work and practice you put into that has given you a beautiful gift in life.”
His mother had no time for such things.
“She was working from morning to night so I grew up being very much on my own. No one ever forced me to do anything but to grow up quickly. I suppose I would have liked to have had a nice black belt in karate, although I am sure that, given my nature, I would have complained before each lesson,” he says with a laugh.
He has been very open about his life and work. Is there any one thing about his life that has meant the most to him or been the most significant?
The birth of my children has been the most beautiful and important thing that has happened to me. Watching my children grow up has changed me in many ways and made me a better person. I see it as my role and privilege to be able to help them become good people and to teach them to be respectful, thoughtful, and caring. “