As the very humbled Ben Affleck strolled into our room at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles to talk to us about directing his first full-length feature film Gone Baby Gone, which stars his younger brother Casey as a private investigator trying to find a missing four-year-old girl, you could tell the Oscar winner was slightly exhausted from doing so much press, but that didn’t stop the A-list celeb from flashing his million dollar smile and animatedly tell us about his new project. Not only was he sincere in wanting to talk to us, but he was as dynamic as ever even though he’d been talking about his film all day and he stayed even after the publicists tried to pull him to answers our last minute questions.
ComingSoon.net: Clint Eastwood said at the time of “Mystic River” that Lehane was a very textured crime writer which meant he posed some real challenges to him being adapted to the screen. Did you encounter that?
Ben Affleck: Yes, and if he challenged Clint Eastwood, imagine how he challenged me (laughs).
CS: I’m talking about in adapting it as well.
Affleck: Yes, 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 dialogue, the ambiance 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 on set in a world I understand, and I can work on character and dialogue which I feel more confident about. It just turned out that I set myself up for the most difficult job possible.
CS: Did you have Casey in mind in particular when you were writing the story?
Affleck: 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, started to go as far as looking for an actor. I wasn’t still really happy 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 gave 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 10 years younger maybe it could sort of put a fork in the road of your life. Then I thought, and, (smile) it lets me cast this great actor who knows Boston, who I can get, who I can afford (laugh) so
CS: You never thought of starring in this yourself?
Affleck: 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 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 OK 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. I don’t know how in the world guys like Clint Eastwood manage to do “Unforgiven” or “Dances with Wolves” is every shot you’re in it and acting and it just seems incredibly difficult.
CS: How did you know that Amy Ryan could do this accent so well?
Affleck: I was auditioning people; I was really concerned. This part is pivotal. The mother needs to be vial, yet I wanted to find somebody you could even empathize with. You feel like this is a women 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 I had read a ton of actors. 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 1st scene and I thought, “Oh, it was really good and it was 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 (laugh). She came in and [I said] “sooo I’m offering you the movie” and she’s like “OK.”
CS: Is there anything that surprised you about Casey now that you were directing him. Did you see him in a different light or was it business as usual?
Affleck: You earned a little more in some ways (pause). 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. It got to a point halfway through where I 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 were going to see the movie and they were going to see that he was wrong.
CS: It’s interesting in the fact that he’s never had a leading role before but it’s interesting in the fact there where a couple of us were at the “Jesse James” press conference, he was there and there was tons of press. He didn’t want to say anything. He’s 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 you were kind of pushing him into the role?
Affleck: 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. And there’s 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’s a lot of cameras here.” But still it’s a bigger transition. So if he’s being quiet at the “Jesse James” press junket, it’s probably because he’s just like taking it in and that’s maybe not a bad thing.
CS: Were you guys always in sync on this project or were there times you maybe disagreed?
Affleck: Sure, there were times we disagreed. You’re not doing the right thing kind of 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 just 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 you have an answer for these questions while you’re making the movie.
CS: What does it feel like being part of this Boston trilogy of “Mystic River,” “Departed” and now you
and what did you learn from Kevin Smith as a director?
Affleck: I mean to be in a Boston trilogy it’s kind of like that’s Everest, Kilimanjaro and you (laugh). 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. I will be pleased that if in 40 years that I get some portion of those guys’ great success some fraction of that would be wonderful. For now, I’m just trying to just cobble together a little directing career. Part two involves a different kind of answer. No, 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 like writing focus. He doesn’t permit any deviation of the word whereas this is like it’s OK 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, like not just what they say, but the cadence of how they say it and also make stories that oftentimes are being told just holding your interest. Kevin’s kind of relying a lot of times, 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.
CS: When you were working with Kevin, did you know that you already wanted to direct. What triggered you?
Affleck: Working with Kevin, I mean when I first worked with him in I think ’93 in “Mallrats,” and 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 developed an increasing interest in trying to direct.
CS: What do you think about the difficult moral choice that Casey’s character has to make at the end of the film?
Affleck: 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 sort of classic things in our society whether we’re willing to forgive people or judge them, whether we think it’s OK for us to make decision for other people. If the right thing was easy, everybody would do it. “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” like losing your virginity kind of movie that coming of age kind of movie. I’m not disparaging “American Pie,” but that level of age of teen or early 20s. Real coming of age meaning like you become an adult is like 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.
CS: I just wanted to ask you if had any Project Greenlight like moment in there where it was one of those things in terms of first time director. Obviously you’ve been exposed more than people that were there, but just kind of like having a moment
Affleck: 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 like where’s the film store discussion. But actually in truth they were just kind of manipulating me.