As his hit film prepares a DVD release timed for awards-season impact, Affleck talks about pigeonholes, redemption and learning from Terrence Malick
When “The Town” hit theaters in September, the quick take was that director, actor and co-writer Ben Affleck had made a modestly-budgeted crowd-pleaser that would likely have a good run at the boxoffice. But along the way, Affleck’s Boston-set ensemble crime drama also became an awards contender of sorts, drawing talk of a Best Picture nomination and prompting a fast move to DVD that’ll put the movie in stores in mid-December, the prime of two seasons: Christmas season, and Oscar season.
Affleck, whose previous work as a director was the Oscar-nominated (for Supporting Actress) “Gone Baby Gone,” is currently spending most of his time in Oklahoma co-starring with Javier Bardem and Rachel McAdams in the next Terrence Malick movie (after Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which will be released next May). But on a recent trip back to Los Angeles, he sat down with theWrap to talk about the continuing buzz for “The Town.”
How'd you turn the trick of taking a mainstream, commercial crime film and turning it into a film with all this awards talk?
Well, the Warner Brothers people worked really hard, and they always saw this as more than a genre movie. I kept saying to them, “This is not just a heist movie. There’s a lot of other stuff in here thematically that I’m trying to do.” But I would have been a tree falling in the woods without them getting that and putting it out there in the world.
What was that “other stuff” that you were you trying to do with the film?
It’s not that I have anything against pure robbery, heist movies. I like them. But as a director and as an actor, that wasn’t what I wanted to give two years of my life to. What I liked about it, and what I thought was interesting about it, was that it was trying to use traditional genre conventions to let the audience in on these deeper themes: the way children pay for the sins of their parents, the way we’re shaped by the environment that we grow up in, and how difficult it is to change our lives. It’s a story about redemption, and that kind of stuff is a harder sell, both inside the studio and when you get out to the general marketplace. So I had a chance to try to wrap that inside a heist movie.
Were you approached about the project as a director, or an actor?
Director. There was another director who had just dropped out of the project [reportedly Adrian Lyne], and Warners came to me and said, “What do you think of this?” I was nervous, because I’d just directed a Boston movie that was sort of dark, with crime in it, so I thought maybe I’ll get pigeonholed.
That’s always a bad thing to do, worrying about how you’re perceived. But I said, “Let me just star in it.” And we talked about directors a bit, but the whole process kind of lagged. And it seemed like if I wanted to push it, momentum-wise, I was going to have to say, “Okay, I’ll direct it, I’ll co-write it … ” I was going to have to be the engine that drives it. And it turned out not to be as similar to my first movie as I thought. It had a bigger scope, it had an action element that I’d never done …
On the action front, you certainly didn’t make it easy on yourself: you set your big car chase in an area of Boston that’s famous for little, narrow streets.
Yeah, I thought that was one of the things that would make it interesting. That wasn’t in the book, and when I wrote it I was trying to find something more cinematic. And I thought that rabbit-warren aspect of the North End is really interesting. I wanted to do a car chase kind of like the car chase in “Amores Perros,” which is gripping because it feels like it’s really happening.
So I wanted to do all car-to-car photography, over the cops, onto the other car, and you could see the guys in there. And having the actors wear masks meant that I could put stunt guys in the car, and put the camera in with the stunt guys, and go a lot faster and do a lot more. Then I put little sparrow cams on front mounts, which gives you a real sense of the walls going by at high speed.
One advantage I had is that I worked with a lot of directors who are smart about this stuff, and I’ve made sure to pay attention and learn from everybody I’ve worked with.
Did you ever feel spread too thin, starring in the film and directing it?
I thought I’d feel spread thin more than I did. The only problem with the acting is that it kind of took time away from the directing aspect. I had done so much research rewriting it that I could probably say the lines backwards starting on page 121. But it was the directing that was still so new to me that it required a tremendous amount of bandwith in my attention. So every time I had to go on camera or do something as a performer, I was aware that it was chipping away at time I would otherwise have spent focusing on the movie.
But that being said, when the cameras are rolling, all you’re doing as a director is watching anyway. So I could watch in front of the camera. It gives you a kind of unique perspective, actually, on what the actors are doing.
The film is being sold on the idea that the Charleston neighborhood is “the bank robbery capital of America,” which some people have disputed.
Obviously, the real thing is a bit more nuanced, which is a hard thing to do in an advertising campaign. When they say “bank robbery capital of America,” that communicates rather succinctly and deftly, I think, that this place has produced an unusually large number of bank robbers over the last 25 years.
Now, what would be the bank robbery capital of America is arguable. On sheer volume, Los Angeles is the bank robbery capital just by the fact that they have the most bank robberies. But per capita, for many years Boston had more bank robberies than any other metropolitan place in the United States. And Charleston, the area, has produced, without question, a larger volume of professional-level armed car and bank robbers. That’s a matter of public record. And particular in the heyday of the mid and late 90s, you can’t believe how many guys were coming out of there committing robberies. In fact, they got the FBI’s attention in a serious way, and that’s one of the reasons they really cracked down over the last 10, 12 years.
I could sit down and bore everybody about this – but the point is, there’s a strikingly high number of bank robberies in Boston, and Charleston is a neighborhood that’s been nationally famous for churning out guys who rob banks.
You said you’ve learned something from every one of your directors. So what are you learning these days from Terrence Malick?
A huge amount. More per capita than any other director, for sure. It’s a really interesting movie, and I’m there with him all the time, because there’s very little setup time. It’s not “We’re gonna shoot over here, let’s light it.” He likes to move very quickly, and so you’re very close to the process. Which is an incredible gift, to be able to listen in to his creative process, and see what he’s doing and why.
Most of us mortal people adhere to the conventional wisdom because we think, oh, you have to do it that way, that’s how everybody does it. And so we all plod dutifully along obeying that decree from the ether. And Terry is a guy who challenges that, and continues to redefine how he wants to make his movie and what he’s doing. That is itself a really powerful lesson.
It seems so unlike Malick — to start making a movie before his previous film has even come out.
I know, it’s crazy. We were in post[-production] on our movies at the same time, and I ran into him and was talking to him about his movie. I was trying to soak up tips and listen to what he had to say about his process of finishing his movie, and his mix, which was an amazing thing to hear. And he was like, “Yeah, I’m starting this other movie,” and then he came back to me and said, “Why don’t you do it?” And I was like, “You’re still mixing your movie!” But not being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I went down to Oklahoma and started my research the next week.
I still have vivid memories of you and Matt Damon bringing your moms to Oscar rehearsals back in 1997, when you won for writing “Good Will Hunting.”
That was so new, and so incredible. We went there, and they had the little cardboard cutouts of all the actors and the seats they were going to sit in, and we couldn’t believe they let us in. We just kept taking pictures with the cutout of James Cameron, Kim Basinger, Jack Nicholson … It was such a thrill – not just the award, but every little stop along the way.
So are you jaded about it now?
I hope I’m not. The Oscars, for sure, the few times I’ve been lucky enough to present, it’s one of the last great, magical, uncorrupted things. When I think about it, I always think about it as an outsider. I had no perspective the first time I went there. I was 25, and your body can only experience excitement up to level X. It can’t go to 11. If it could, I would have been at 30 or something.
And since then, I’ve gone though all kinds of different things. And in a way, rather than being jaded, I think I appreciate it more now, and value it more. I’ve made movies that worked and moves that didn’t, and I really appreciate how hard it is. I guess in some ways I’ve become less jaded about it.
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