It’s Complicated :: Ben Affleck on Acting and Directing
Ben Affleck's newfound success as a writer/director has quickly erased his reputation as the butt of tabloid jokes ("Gigli," anyone?)
Yet, up until now, he's been Boston's boy. His first two pictures behind the camera, "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," succeeded primarily through a total understanding of the class and racial divisions cutting through his settings (Dorchester and Charlestown, respectively,) and through a masterful evocation of the sights and sounds known so well by their denizens.
His third picture, "Argo," sees him stepping far outside that comfort zone. Dramatizing the 1979 takeover of Americans in the U.S. Embassy in Iran, the film follows six men and women who sought refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Affleck's first two pictures called back noir stylings and classic gangster films, but his latest is decidedly a political thriller, with an undercurrent of paranoia that recalls the works of Sidney Lumet ("Serpico") and Alan Pakula ("All the President's Men.") He even opens the film with the mid-1970s era Warner Brothers logo!
Returning to his Boston stomping grounds, Affleck seemed just as excited to talk about his upcoming return as he did the film he was promoting. So in between discussions about the geo-political aspects and subtexts of "Argo," he was very excited to talk about "Whitey," an upcoming Whitey Bulger biopic to star Matt Damon and his brother Casey (he also gave us updates on his remakes of "The Stand" and "Tell No One.")
The Ben Affleck who was constantly attacked for starring in derided films like "Reindeer Games" and "Paycheck" (both directed by legendary filmmakers, I must mention,) is nothing more than a thing of the past. The Ben Affleck who directs smart, politically and socially aware adult dramas - the type of movie that seems non-existent in our superhero-obsessed climate - is here to stay. You won’t hear any complaints from me.
EDGE: You’re just coming from the Toronto Film Festival, correct? The film must’ve played like gangbusters over there.
Ben Affleck: I mean, we have a giant sign that says "Thank you Canada." I can’t pander any more than that.
EDGE: So I take it you shot this in neighboring locations in the Middle East?
Ben Affleck: Unfortunately we couldn’t shoot in Iran at all. We wanted to do some B-unit stuff or city stuff and we couldn’t do any of that. The same political issues that were at play 30 years ago are still at play now. So we shot in Turkey, which is next to Iran. And I was really excited, because I thought in Turkey, we could get a lot of Farsi-speaking people to convincingly play Persian. We go all the way to Turkey, and we can’t get any Farsi-speaking Persians to be in the movie. Not one. "What do you mean they don’t want to be in the movie? Offer more money!"
We did everything we possibly could, and it just turned out these people were afraid. Afraid they would be seen in this movie, and their relatives would pay the price back in Iran.
So the irony of it is we go back to LA, which it turns out they call "Tehran-geles," there’s 500,000 Persians down there... and everyone’s an expert! [Affleck takes on a deep Middle Eastern accent] "Bro, it does not look like this. They would never paint in Fuchsia. It’s not like that."
Making ’The Stand’?
EDGE: Tony Mendez is a character torn away from his family, instead dedicated to a job he has to dedicate every moment of every day to. Did you connect to that?
Ben Affleck: Naturally, I haven’t had to give up anything like Tony Mendez, where I’m in harm’s way or risking my life for the country. There are sacrifices that you make when being an actor, most of them I have come to grips with. The only thing I don’t like is when my kids are brought into focus, I think that’s inappropriate and it crosses the line. I got in this business-so if people are going to bother me on the street, or take my picture, or put me on TMZ, then okay, there are worse prices to pay. So in a way, it’s not really my sacrifice, it’s my children’s. And I really like to protect my kids’ privacy.
EDGE: You’re attached to a number of high profile projects coming up. Is it true you’re involved with adapting "The Stand" for the big screen?
Ben Affleck: I’m a big Stephen King fan. He has got very good taste in sports teams, and he’s a great writer. "The Stand" is very tough; it’s just a massive thing. So we are trying to figure out if it’s two movies or three movies. And there has to be a whole first movie, you can’t just say ’To be continued,’ because the whole arc of the book is a huge story but it is still a beginning, middle, and end.
So we are trying to pull apart the movie and figure out how to make it. Ironically enough, "The Stand" was written right around the time the events in this movie took place. But it is still incredibly current and contemporary, and you see how much of it has been ripped off by other movies. So it makes it tricky.
There are projects I’ve been rumored for [like "Justice League"] - I’m not on those. My primary stuff now is "Whitey" [a feature on Boston Crime Lord ’Whitey’ Bulger, to star Matt Damon], "The Stand," and that’s basically it. That’s the scope of my attention now. There is some secondary stuff, like we’re remaking a French film called "Tell No One." Chris Terrio did the adaptation for that, but I’m not sure when it’ll actually happen.
Acting and directing
EDGE: Personally, I adored your adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s "Gone Baby Gone." Do you have any interest in adapting more of his work?
Ben Affleck: You know, the Lehane books - I don’t have any rights to them right now. But as a fan, the series he’s doing now - "The Given Day" and "Live by Night" - are fabulous books. DiCaprio has it, so [with a hint of jealousy] evidently he’ll be doing them. But nonetheless, they’re really good, and as a fan of his, [those adaptations] are really something to look forward to.
EDGE: You’ve acted the lead role in your past two films. Is your attraction to directing these projects brought on, in part, by wanting to play the roles within them?
Ben Affleck: When I’m dedicating myself and my energy to doing something that I am really passionate about, naturally the actor part of me goes, ’I want to be in this movie! You need to hire me!’ And I have, so far. The thing about acting and directing is that it is complicated. As a director, it demands a lot of your mental space. So the acting can kind of eat in to that stuff, and you end up not having thought about something because you were thinking about what you’re doing in the scene. But those complications are overridden by my need to give myself a job.
Getting the right tone
EDGE: You’ve got a lot going on here - meta-textual Hollywood comedy, international thriller, a character study in between. What’s it like juggling those tones?
Ben Affleck: The scariest thing about this movie, for me, was the three tones. If you don’t get it right, it won’t feel like the same movie-just three short films. If you have the comedy come in and be too goofy, that picks away at the scenes of the dramatic stuff and makes it not feel real.
EDGE: I’ve got to say, I felt you were in another movie recently, "The Company Men," that juggled comedy and high drama pretty well. Unfortunately the film was quite underrated.
Ben Affleck: It got a little bit lost. It was end-of-the-year, so the money for P-and-A for certain movies - it becomes a mad scramble, a musical chairs aspect to what gets pushed.
I think the problem with that movie is that it was so painfully in line with what was really happening that it was tough for people. Like "I’m seeing enough laid off people out here, I don’t want to go pay $10 for ’Layoffs in Imax’." Doesn’t sound like a fun Saturday night, though the directing was really good. The same director (John Wells) is now directing "August: Osage County," with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. It was a great experience.
Playing the political spectrum
EDGE: Was it a conscious effort to make a film, about Iranian-American relations no less, that played well to both sides of the political spectrum?
Ben Affleck: For the politics of this, it’s such a tricky balance. I want my Republican friends and my Democratic friends to come see this movie, like it, appreciate it, and look at it as ’These are the facts and this is the movie.’ They may try to draw conclusions from it, and they may not. I think one thing we can all agree on is that Tony Mendez is pretty heroic. He saved all these American lives, and that is a pretty exceptional thing. I don’t think you need to have any political leanings to appreciate that.
EDGE: So what was most challenging about navigating the political aspects of the story?
Ben Affleck: In terms of the broader, geo-political way the story was framed; that was a challenge. Because I didn’t want the audience to come in with any bias, I didn’t want to generate any bias, and I wanted to give the audience a context so they could watch the movie through an educated prism, so they could better understand what people’s motivations were. I was afraid that if I just started with an Embassy takeover, with screaming Iranians - it would look like a lot of images we see from the Middle East, it would get muddied, it would fit into the stereotypes of ’they’re all crazy, and want to blow us up.’ That’s opposed to looking at the actual nuanced details and facts of what’s going on.
"Argo" opens on Friday, October 12, 1012.
Watch the trailer to Argo: