To direct your first film is a major undertaking. To also take on the task of adapting the script from a novel by a famed and beloved writer is a little more gutsy still. To have your film be the third in recent years based on novels by the same writer, and to try and live up to previous productions directed by Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese seems almost insane, and takes either great self-confidence or a bloody-minded streak a mile wide...
For Ben Affleck to undertake bringing the bestselling novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane to the screen, he would clearly need a trusted supporting cast, and with Gone Baby Gone, he certainly has that, with legends Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris acting alongside emerging talents like Amy Ryan and Michelle Monaghan, all supporting, in the lead role, Ben's brother Casey Affleck. ben recently sat down with Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier to talk about walking in some pretty deep footprints, his first stint in the director's chair and the fact that he was far from the only Affleck stepping up his game on Gone Baby Gone...
Emmanuel Itier: You not only directed this film, you also adapted it from Dennis Lehane's orginal novel. At the time of Mystic River, Clint Eastwood said that Lehane was a very textured crime writer, which meant he posed some real challenges to his work being adapted to the screen. Did you also encounter that?
Ben Affleck: Yes, and if he challenged Clint Eastwood, imagine how he challenged me! [Laughs] The adaptation was extremely challenging, and I had the benefit of a gifted partner named Aaron Stockard, who worked on it with me. It was challenging for a number of reasons–chief among them was that simply, on a basic kind of plot level, it was extremely complicated just trying to get all the…not to mention the nuances, but the basic fundamental plot twists seeding enough of the elements that you buy the reveals that happen at the end. And understanding simply the basic factual elements of the story was really tough, considering that you have how many pages that the book is and you have to distill that into an hour and 54-minute movie.
It is hard and then you don’t want to lose all the wonderful nuances - the texture, the dialog, the ambience. I picked it really kind of foolishly... first of all, because I really liked it and because I also thought, "You know, I’m not that good at writing plot"... I don’t really want to write an original story. I’ll find something that has a story architecture that I can fall back and set in a world I understand, and I can work on character and dialog, which I feel more confident about. It just turned out that I set myself up for the most difficult job possible...
EI: Well then, congratulations: you did it well.
EI: Were you thinking of your brother Casey all along for the main character as you were adapting the story?
BA: I actually was not. The character in the book and the character in the original adaptation was older – say 35 or almost as old as 40. It got to the point where the script was completed and I started to go as far as looking for an actor. I wasn’t still really happy with how I was feeling about this whole story arc and couldn’t find an actor really, and thought, "What if I make him younger and make him 29, 30, somewhere in there", and that I thought, "Give him more to lose and somewhere to go", and thought, "If you’re 40 and something bad happens to you, it’s scarring but it doesn’t really change you fundamentally". But if he’s ten years younger, maybe it could sort of put a fork in the road of your life. Then I thought [Smiles] it lets me cast this great actor who knows Boston, who I can get, who I can afford [Laughs], so…
EI: It never occured to you to star in this yourself?
BA: Initially, I wanted to. When I first optioned it or went to the guy who had the rights with Aaron and said, “Let us just try and adapt this.” I thought maybe I’d just adapt it, we’d go to a director, and I’d act in it: That was the idea. But then, as I got more and more invested in it, first I didn’t think it worked as a screenplay and we just hadn’t done a very good job, and then I thought we did a mediocre job, and then we thought we had done an okay job, and then I thought maybe I should direct it, and then I thought I can’t direct and act in it. So it just sort of shifted because I was terrified of acting and directing: The thought was completely daunting. The idea of directing alone was terrifying, much less… I don’t know how in the world guys like Clint Eastwood manage to do Unforgiven. Or Dances with Wolves … every shot, you’re in it and acting, and it just seems incredibly difficult...
EI: Casey and a Boston accent is a no-brainer, but how did you know that Amy Ryan could do that so well?
BA: I was auditioning people, I was really concerned: This part is pivotal. The mother needs to be…she’s vile, yet I wanted to find somebody you could… there are moments in the movie where you empathize with her. You feel like this is a woman whose child has been taken, and you feel for her and you recognize her humanity... and yet she should be also repugnant in some ways. Then there are times when you recognize she is a victim in her own way, of her own upbringing.
All this complexity in this character... and she’s a drug addict and she’s skanky... I had read all these actresses in Los Angeles, but none of them could do the accent or they seemed too put together, not real people. Most of the actors I was casting in small roles were non-professional. So I was getting very discouraged and very frayed. And I was sitting there and they brought in this woman, and she read the first scene and I thought, Oh, it was really good, and it was one of the shorter scenes, and I said, “Oh, you’re from Boston.” And she said, “Naw, I’m from Queens.” [Hits himself in the forehead] I couldn’t believe it.
It was the first time in my life that someone had truly, totally fooled me right to my face, that I know of, and I said, “Well, can you read the next scene?” And she read it and I said, “You’re hired, you’re hired.” I thought I had found this one thing in the movie I know will be good now, and the producers kind of huddled and, [Whispering] “You can’t just offer her a movie like this. You have to have a meeting, you have to talk.” So we had to have a fake meeting. [Laughs] She came in and so…”I’m offering you the movie,” and she’s like, “Okay!”
EI: Talking of pleasant surprises, was there anything that surprised you about Casey's performance, now that you were directing him? Did you see him in a different light, or was it business as usual?
BA: You learned a little more, in some ways. You know, I have respect for him, so it’s a weird thing to say I have more respect for him, but you see someone in a different light, seeing how talented he is. I was really struck by that and impressed by that. He was brave, and I got to see that he had a fearlessness that I really admired. And I really was just so satisfied and kind of felt personally rewarded by the fact that I saw that he was… just like, he was going to be really good in this movie. It just makes me so happy.
I know, on some level, there are people who thought “Oh, he’s just casting his brother.” And there were some people around and they are going to see the movie, and they are going to see that they were wrong...
EI: It’s interesting in that Casey's never had a leading role before. But I remember being at the Jesse James press conference. He was there and there was tons of press, but he didn’t want to say anything. He was obviously very proud of the performance, but he doesn’t want to step into the shadows by the roles he’s taken. Did you feel that you were almost pushing him into the spotlight here?
BA: It was a new thing for him, just in terms of that role. He has played leads before, like Lonesome Jim and Me and Jerry, but those are more unconventional films. This is a much more conventional movie, so there were definitely ways in which he was in new territory, even though he’s been acting for... 15 years? I don’t know how long - a long time!
There are two distinct and separate arenas. There’s the work that you do as an actor in the movie, when they turn the camera on and they point it at you and you talk or don’t talk. Then there is this arena here, where you come in and talk to people and communicate with members of the press and talk, or don’t talk. Yet those two obviously have some overlap and they have a relationship with one another. And a lot of people make no distinction between those two, yet they are totally separate.
So the evolution in his navigation of those two things – the one, the acting thing, he gets and he can do... it’s a small adjustment. The other is a bigger adjustment, I’m confident that he’ll make that. And he’s been around a lot of people who have done a lot of movies. It’s not his first time, like, being around like, “Wow, there are a lot of cameras here.” But still, it’s a bigger transition. So if he was being quiet at the Jesse James press junket, it’s probably because he’s just taking it in, and that’s maybe not a bad thing.
EI: Were you guys always in sync on this project, or were there times you creatively disagreed?
BA: Sure, there were times we disagreed. You’re not doing the right thing if you’re always agreeing. That’s a bad thing. The worst mistakes I’ve made creatively have been when I’ve just always agreed. I’ve made terrible mistakes just agreeing with folks, Jesus! [Laughs] We made a lot of stuff a lot better, just going through, like, “What are you talking about? Why you want to do that? Well, that doesn’t make sense,” and almost always, the scenes got better doing that.
Sometimes we maybe talked ourselves in circles, and that’s the nature of the creative process. He’s very smart. He’s a very smart guy, and he focuses always on making the scene better and the movie better. I think he’s the guy you want doing a movie with you because you know he’s a really good actor and he’s a really good protagonist, in the sense that you know protagonists are on camera for most of the movie, so he needs to be kind of interesting. Casey is really authentically thinking and living and surprising and engaged throughout while you’re photographing him, and giving you a wide array of stuff to use, and also engaging you and kind of challenging you to make sure that you know what you’re doing, and that you have an answer for these questions while you’re making the movie...
EI: What does it feel like, being part of this Boston triology of Mystic River, Departed and now Gone Baby Gone… alongside Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese... and while we are talking about other directors, what did you learn as a director from all your work with Kevin Smith?
BA: To be in a Boston trilogy, it’s kind of like that’s Everest, Kilimanjaro, and you… [Laughs} Obviously, those are towering giants. I'm just happy to get my movie made, man, you know? Those guys are legendary filmmakers, and this movie is just a little movie that I'm glad to get out there and hope that people go see, and I hope that people like it. I will be pleased that if, in 40 years, I get some portion of those guys' great success. Some fraction of that would be wonderful. For now, I'm just trying to cobble together a little directing career.
Part two involves a different kind of answer. What I've learned from Kevin Smith is… in a way, this movie has a very simple actor-focused feel to it, and it's similar in some ways to a Kevin movie. Kevin's got a little bit more verbally rigorous writing focus. He doesn't permit any deviation of the word, whereas this is like... it's okay to change a syllable or two... One of the things I learned from Kevin is that he really pays attention to language, and this is definitely something I took away from him - the rhythm of language and how actors sound, and that's something I really came to appreciate, working with him.
I think that's something that's really important - not just what they say, but the cadence of how they say it and also making stories that oftentimes are being told - just holding your interest. Kevin's kind of relying, a lot of times, on the raw power of the writing and the importance of the writing, and that's always been the centerpiece of his movies. It's a reminder that that's the underpinning of movies, and I think that's a really good thing to learn and remember.
EI: When you first worked with Kevin more than a decade ago, did you know that you already wanted to direct?
BA: When I first worked with him in, I think 1993, in Mallrats... I didn't know anything in '93. I was very new and just trying to figure things out. But over the course of working with him, I just became really good friends with him and picked up a lot from him and from the other people we worked with, and just tried to study and learn from him, as I have from all the directors I've worked with. And over the course of that time, I developed an increasing interest in trying to direct.
EI: Turning back to the narrative of the film iteself, What do you think about the difficult moral choice that Casey's character has to make at the end of the film?
BA: Obviously, it's the choice that's presented in the book, but in terms of trying to convey it in the movie, I tried to present it as provocatively as I could, in the sense that I wanted it to feel really difficult. I think it's a tough choice, and underneath it there's this sort of pull between these classic things in our society, whether we're willing to forgive people or judge them, whether we think it's okay for us to make decisions for other people… If the right thing was easy, everybody would do it.
The idea that Casey really believes that once he's… I don't want to give this whole thing away, so I'm trying to figure out what to say that won't give it away, you know? In Rules of the Game, I stole a line from it where, at the end of the movie, she says, "Everyone has their reasons," and it's like his accusation, really, is that everybody is kind of rationalizing their actions based on their own self-interests. In other words, you're all sort of claiming this moral high ground, but really it's just based on what you all want to do.
You just want to have this girl, and he's the one doing the difficult thing and sometimes the thing that doesn't seem pleasant or totally right or totally comfortable, but it's right. And if it's the right thing, based on the rules that we have set down, the reason the rules are there is that they're there to protect us from our own subjective prejudices, and those are the things we have to follow. And it's really difficult to make those choices, but we have to make them. That's a strong argument and yet, when you're sitting there at the end of the movie with the choice that he's made, it's profoundly ugly and disturbing.
So the idea was to try and set both those things up as strongly as I could and build both arguments as strongly as possible so that they would be at loggerheads with one another, because I thought it was a coming-of-age movie - not like American Pie, a losing your virginity kind of movie - that coming-of-age kind of movie. I'm not disparaging American Pie, but that level of age is teen or early twenties...
Real coming-of-age, meaning you become an adult is 30, I think, because it's around the time you discover that the decisions you make in life have lasting, real consequences and that you never really know if you're right or wrong - that there is no answer, there is no end of the book to turn to tell you, "Oh, actually, I made a mistake there." And oftentimes those decisions have real consequences, not only for yourself, but for other people. At the end of the day, all you can do is live with them and try to be at peace with them.
EI: Lastly, I just wanted to ask you if had any Project Greenlight-like moment in the making of this film, one of those things in terms of first-time director. Obviously, you've been exposed more than people that were there on your show, but was there a day when the first-time director was just, like having a moment? [Smiles]
BA: They did tell me that I was running out of film at one point. [Laughs] I was shooting too much film and I was running out of film. I was like, “Where’s the film store? Is there a place that is selling film?” They were like, “The film store is in New York City.” I was like, “Well, someone go to the film store.” We got into a “where’s the film store” discussion. But actually, in truth, they were just kind of manipulating me...
Miramax Films' 'Gone Baby Gone' is in theaters on October 19, 2007.