Ben Affleck talks about the seemingly inescapable pull of Boston and the need for authenticity. Relationships between script, screen, and a possible working reunion with Matt Damon are mentioned whilst Buzzine teases a gray hair.
Izumi Hasegawa: A couple of years ago, I read that you wanted to take a step back from acting and concentrate on your directing. I was wondering why you wanted to star in this film. Also, do you have any more Boston-related stories in mind for the future?
Ben Affleck: I do not have any Boston-related stories in mind for the future. I’m not looking to specifically have a career making stories about Boston; I just happened to find two stories set in Boston, and probably being from there helped me a little bit. A step back from acting: Really it’s just a function of wanting to take a step toward directing, toward doing some more unusual stuff – Hollywoodland, then Gone Baby Gone, and then, after that, it was State of Play, movies like that, and this movie, which I was interested in on a creative variation and felt ready to try being an actor and a director, so it wasn’t really any meta planning stuff. It was just creative instincts.
IH: Can you talk about the directing to help the actors nail the Boston accents?
BA: The accents are a big issue because if you don’t do them well, they can really upend your movie. You have to hire really good actors to do it, and you have to know they can do it. Blake [Lively] came in and read the scenes for me, and I asked her what part of Boston she was from, so that was handled. Then with [Jeremy] Renner, who I knew was a great actor, I wasn’t worried about his ability to do it — I was just worried would he do it. I sent a lot of recordings, but more than the recordings, I found that it’s about the people you stand next to. So I put the right people around Jeremy, and without saying anything, Jeremy’s so smart, immediately you could just see him radiating toward the people without them knowing who could be helping him. It was really fun to watch. Then he’d show up on the set and he had it, dead to rights. Blake also went around, did her tour; some of these girls in the projects who took Blake around, she spent time with them because it’s not just an accent; it’s not just vowels and diphthongs. It’s a worldview, it’s carriage, it’s vocabulary…it’s so many different things. Particularly people in Boston are really hard on that kind of thing, so that’s the first thing people say about Boston. The accents were alright. It’s a race-car movie. What do you mean the accents? Rebecca [Hall] had a doubly challenging thing, which was she was from Marblehead, which is kind of a suburb, so we recorded a bunch of dialect from Marblehead, which is almost an English, American received pronunciation, kind of flat dialect, not meant to stand out, Charlestown or anything else, but she’s reflecting gentrification but was yet another kind of accent, particularly if you were British. And [Jon] Hamm – we talked about it. He and I both had the same instinct, that being from… whatever it is — Illinois, Missouri, Rochester or something – being an outsider kind of said more for him than being somebody who had an accent.
IH: You said once in an interview that you were told early on in your career that you were too tall to be a leading man. Am I remembering that correctly?
BA: I have been told so many ugly things, and… I have to take your word for it.
IH: In terms of how you’ve evolved as a screenwriter, what’s gotten easier or what’s gotten harder? Also, since this is also a film you’ve directed from the script you co-wrote, what works best for you in terms of your directing style when it comes to the script changes? Are you flexible to make changes on the day of shooting a scene, or are you fully into spending hours talking with the actors beforehand?
BA: I think style is a function of conditions. You’ll do different things depending on what the conditions are. In this case, I was already working with not only a fine, fine novel but also a fine screenplay that Chuck [Hogan] worked on. So really, he had given me most of what I needed. The only difference between what was there and what was going to be on the screen was going to be the additional research I did and the peculiar, specific choices that I made as a director about what I wanted to photograph. In that sense, I view screenwriting as – in its best form, particularly if you’re going to have multiple screenwriters – one good idea on top of another. When I got Chuck’s good ideas and I add some of my ideas, I brought them to the table, add to that Robert Elswit, Dylan Tichenor, Chris Rouse, and Don Murphy – all of our crew folks – they brought their ideas as well. The stuff Chris Cooper does in his scene is…little changes, little moments, the way the scene’s playing – that’s writing. That’s directing. That’s making the movie better. So I continue to try to stay nimble and open and dexterous to that stuff, because that’s where you get the best stuff.
IH: Why did you dye your hair? Is it for looks, is it for style, or just because?
BA: You’re asking why I dyed the gray? I thought it would look good. Vanity. I have a little bit of gray in my hair, yes. Thank you. It’s there, it’s present. I acknowledge it. Thank you. You know what it is? I didn’t have a single gray hair until I started directing movies. I started directing movies, and… here’s your gray hair. And my brother. Those things give me gray hair.
IH: How much cooperation did you have from officials in the Boston area, and how do you think they’ll react to the way they were portrayed in the film?
BA: There are various styles of cooperation, as you astutely point out. We were not officially embraced by the FBI, for example. We don’t use their actual logos; we’re not sanctioned by the Department of Justice. For one thing, that’s a long process for the thing you end up in an editorial situation where you have to really subject your film to creative concerns that you might not want governing what you want to do. That being said, people that work for the Department of Justice in the Greater Boston area are extraordinary people. They’re smart, they work hard, they’re trying to catch real bad guys all the time, and they’re no fucking joke, these people. They were willing, on their own time, not while they’re being paid by the taxpayers, to sit down and talk to us and Jon about how they do their job and why they think it’s important, and tell us what kind of cars they drove and what kind of clothes they buy, and their wardrobe, or bothered about what kind of socks they had, that kind of thing. They did not share all of their techniques with us; they were very clear with the boundaries they had set. There were a lot of surveillance techniques, arrest techniques that they didn’t want us to know because they thought we would put it in the movie or we’d make bad guys smarter. They did not cross any of their boundaries, and they did not give us special support, but outside that context, they were supportive and I think they’re portrayed the way I see them, which is with honor. They’re human beings, naturally, but they’re portrayed with honor and they do a good job, and so do the Boston police.
IH: There have been a lot of bank heist movies over the years. How did you allow these to inspire you but not so much that you lose originality?
BA: Obviously, Heat is a huge influence. It looms quite large over this movie. It’s extraordinary, and we had to work to not be too close to Heat, in fact. Rififi is a great movie; The Bank Job is a great movie; Friends of Eddie Coyle is a big inspiration; an Italian movie called Gomorrah was a movie that I watched and watched before I got going with this. The fact that there are a lot of movies in this genre points to the fact that it’s kind of tricky to do. You don’t change the genre; you retell those same things over and over again, so the danger is the audience is going to feel it’s a little predictable. But those mob movies stand as reminders that even living within the same genre conventions, you can do something special. That’s what we were trying to do – walking the footsteps of movies ranging from the great Warner Bros. gangster movies to the great Michael Mann gangster movie, to Italian movies and so on.
IH: I have trouble crossing the street in the North End. Could you tell me a little about the background? How did you put together that car chase? It was remarkable.
BA: We had a lot of trouble in the North End because it’s quite constricted. It served the point of helping us because it looked like what I wanted it to look like, which is rabbit warrens, the walls falling in on us, the police would be unable to catch them if there were an obstacle thrown in front of their car because they couldn’t get around the obstacle. That being said, the community is extremely powerful, politically, in the North End. So when you’re blocking up traffic and you’re causing those kinds of problems…where if you’re doing that in Dorchester, Mattapan, or in Everett – well, Everett’s not in the city – you wouldn’t be getting the same kind of pushback from the municipal authorities. It was very difficult for us, and we were needing to be very judicious about how we worked in the North End – where we parked, where we put the things, how much we smashed, how much we burned the cars… It just got very, very hard to do and, to make matters worse, it rained. So we kept postponing and postponing. We closed all the streets and then we wouldn’t be shooting. The North End is a great tourist destination so they make a lot of money, so we’re taking money out of people’s wallets. This movie is nothing if not a long apology to the people of the North End, so I hope they like it. I wish there was a way where you could bring your phone bill and get in free. Anyway, I’m sorry.
IH: Did you get any of your first picks for the roles? Was it your idea to go with this cast? Also, did you consider having your wife [Jennifer Garner] play the role of your girlfriend in this movie?
BA: My wife is a great actress, and I would be profoundly lucky to work with her. Something tells me that people don’t want to see real-life couples together in film. If I could pick a woman to work with, it would be my wife. She’s magnificent. She’s magnificent on her own, in her own movies, and maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to direct her. I was fortunate in that I was able to get all the first choices that I had for this movie. I knew I wanted Chris Cooper back when I was doing The Company Men, right before this, so I was buttering Chris up: “Can I get you a coffee, Chris? Danish, Chris? Tire flat, Chris? Be right back!” Just endlessly trying to… sycophancy as a way of getting him in, and ultimately, we shot near his house and I just twisted his arm and got him. Jeremy [Renner] was my first choice. I knew him from Jesse James. My brother said, “This guy’s a genius. He’s a genius actor, won’t give you a false note. You should see his new movie.” So I was like, alright, I’ll see his new movie. New movie turned out to be good. I could not be more lucky to have Jeremy Renner. He crushes this movie. With Blake, she came down and read for it, and I didn’t know – I didn’t watch Gossip Girl, I didn’t know who she was, hadn’t seen it, had no idea about it. I had seen the Rebecca Miller movie, the Pippa Lee movie, and she was tremendous in it. She came in and read, like I said, with a Boston accent, and I thought, where are you from in Boston? Still have not seen Gossip Girl. Only have seen her in this movie. I feel as if she should only ever have been in this movie and no other movies. And Rebecca was somebody I admire a great deal as an actress, from Vicky Cristina, and then I talked to Chris Nolan, who was a huge fan of hers, and that made me feel even more sure. I met with her, I felt great, and at first I thought, “Gosh, this isn’t going to be a big studio choice because she hasn’t been in a lot of $100 million movies. Instead, Rob went off and Warner Bros. said, “We love her. Great. She’s a talented actress; she’s the right one for the movie. Cast her.” Then I had a problem – I was looking for an FBI guy and took a while… no. The truth is, Jon had gotten involved the first time – the first iteration of this movie, and I felt, “I think we’d be lucky to get Jon Hamm back for this version, and I would really, really make it great,” and what can I say? We got lucky, he did, so I just felt incredibly lucky the whole time to look at these cast members every morning and to watch them act, and just to know that every time I got in trouble, I’d have something to cut to.
IH: You mentioned earlier that your brother gives you gray hair. I understand he might be causing a lot of other people gray hair. I was wondering how real his current film, I’m Still Here, is, and what’s your take on that?
BA: I’m not the best person to ask. It wouldn’t be right to comment on the specifics of it, one way or the other. But what I can say is that I think it’s a really interesting film with a lot to say about something that’s happening right now, and really well-directed and well-constructed in a sense that it leads you toward some questions which merit asking. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you go out and buy a ticket. My brother is a very gifted guy. He’s not just a big, gifted actor; he’s an extremely gifted director, piercingly smart guy. He and I are about to start writing a movie together, I’m told, so yeah. Look for more gray hair.
IH: Would you direct it and he’d be in it?
BA: That hasn’t been laid out yet. We’re just going to write something together.
IH: Do you intend to do any projects with Matt Damon in the future? The three films that you have set in Boston are not only about the town but are also about class differences. Is that important to you? And are you a socialist filmmaker?
BA: I’m not a socialist filmmaker. I don’t think you have to necessarily have a certain ideology behind films that you make. As an observationalist filmmaker, I hope, if I’m lucky, I’ve made some keen observations at best. Social differences are part of the fabric of our lives. They’re an aspect to people’s coexistence that is often studied and from which many conclusions are often drawn, and I think it’s in the conclusions that you find the person’s ideology, which is why I try not to point out too many conclusions. This company handled my fourth movie there, which has also got some sociological stuff going on. It’s about guys in the economic crisis who lose their jobs and reexamine their relationships between themselves and the corporation who hires them. This notion that the United States…we don’t know who we are if we don’t have a job, if we’re not an auto worker, or if we don’t sling sheet rock or whatever it is – and rediscovers his values and his identity. It’s been a pleasure working with Boston in these four movies, and it’s been something else. It’s been a pleasure working with all these guys up here. They made the movie way better than it had any business being, in my mind.