OSCAR: Ben Affleck Q&A On 'The Town'

Ben Affleck’s career trajectory rarely happens in Hollywood much less all by age 38: from unknown actor (Mallrats, Chasing Amy) to Oscar–winning co–writer (Good Will Hunting) to leading man (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Changing Lanes, The Sum of All Fears, Daredevil) to tabloid fixture (“Bennifer”) to washed–up star (after Gigli) to budding director (adapting Dennis Lehane’s novel Gone Baby Gone) to hot actor/helmer with the #1 opening movie September 17–19. For The Town, Affleck returns to his Boston roots and blue collar crime to adapt Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince Of Thieves for the big screen. The result: an adult–pleasing hit that has entered the Best Picture discussion. Mike Fleming talks to him about his and The Town‘s Oscar chances:

DEADLINE: So you wrote yourself a second career as a director in Gone Baby Gone. Now you’ve written yourself the edgiest role of your acting career since Good Will Hunting. How much of this was about you wanting to reinvigorate your onscreen career?
BEN AFFLECK: A huge part of this was wanting to play the role. I hadn’t had the chance to play a character as interesting as the one Chuck wrote in the book in a long time. In that sense, it did feel like Good Will Hunting because I was trying to make the movie, in part, as a step in my acting career.

DEADLINE: These R–rated crime dramas with action sometimes get marginalized in Oscar season, but this one has stayed in the conversation. Gone Baby Gone, though lauded, grossed only $35 million worldwide. The Town so far is nearing $150 million worldwide. What has most surprised you about the way it played and the reaction?
AFFLECK: Relative to my first movie, it didn’t have to do that well to be a step forward, so I was set up well. I think people caught up to that movie on DVD, but when you come out and do $20 million at the box office, nobody calls to congratulate you. In terms of pure commercial success, the thing that struck me was, our opening weekend on The Town was bigger than the whole number on Gone Baby Gone. This time, I had very modest expectations and I was really surprised the movie did as well as it did. It’s not a juggernaut, but my big goal was seeing it turn a profit for the studio. I use that as my metric for whether or not they’ll let me direct another movie. I remember calling up and saying, ‘So have you broken even yet? Are you going to make money on this? Are you happy?’ I’m a little embarrassed I’d done that, but it was what I set out to do. And it made me be sure I kept the costs down to under $40 million. This way I could make a movie that dealt with themes that interested me, at a pace I like dramatically.

DEADLINE: What went through your mind as you were deciding whether or not to do this?
AFFLECK: My first thought was, I really wanted to play the role. But I was concerned that the overlap between this and the other movie I directed would be too much, and that I ran the risk of getting pigeonholed for making crime movies in Boston. When I really want to tell stories that take place all over. That made me pause. But there were a couple things that ultimately persuaded me to take on directing it as well. There were a ton of great parts, and I thought the material gave me a shot to work with really good actors. And there was a big challenge in trying to synthesize the two elements of the movie. There was the traditional genre element — the robbery, heist, chase and all that stuff — which had to be done in an interesting and unique way in order to work. That needed to fuse with the character drama on the other side. I felt intimidated and daunted by that challenge, but felt, if I could execute it right, I’d put myself in a position to be able to make movies that I am really interested and attracted to. That is a rare thing in Hollywood. Mostly we’re just schmucks limited by our options.

DEADLINE: What did you do better this time?
AFFLECK: As director, this definitely had a broader scope than my first movie. On a basic level, movies are defined by performances and writing and it’s up to the director to bring those together or screw it up. To some directors, this was a small film, but to me it was a big step forward in budget, scale and the attempt to cross–pollinate these two kinds of movies.

DEADLINE: How difficult was it when the director is also the star?
AFFLECK: Because I was directing myself, I got to make my own determination about what was most interesting about my performance. That’s a double–edged sword. People know it is you making those decisions, so they probably judge it more closely. And it calls into question your perspective on yourself. You put your taste on the line. If you can’t be good in a movie you direct and write, when is it going to happen for you? You can’t make the argument, I didn’t have the opportunity to succeed. The question became, was I sophisticated enough as a director and an actor to capitalize on those opportunities and to understand how to use them? I shot a lot of film on myself, trying different things and basically directing myself in the editing room when I put the performance together. I read somewhere that De Niro did the same thing on The Good Shepherd. I don’t know if it was true or not but the idea was reassuring. If I was going to fail, at least I would fail emulating De Niro. The approach proved to be, for me, really smart. You gain much more perspective on yourself in the cold dark of the editing room than you do on the set, trying to modulate your own performance along with everything else.

DEADLINE: You’ve hit the highs as an actor, been in gigantic blockbusters like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, but you hit some low lows in your career, too. Instead of blaming your agent and getting a new one, or feeling sorry for yourself, you literally scripted a resurgence as a writer and director. What gave you the courage to say, I can do this?
AFFLECK: I don’t know. Maybe it’s not being smart enough to know better and say to yourself, what do you think you’re doing? For me, there was a lesson in Good Will Hunting, and even earlier in the things we were taught in the acting school we went to. Generating your own material is the only thing you can rely on. Opportunities come and go, things go well and dry up. But ultimately you have to be responsible for yourself, your life and your career. This wasn’t necessarily a question of nerve or drive, because a lot of people in Hollywood have that. It’s really a question, will you get the break? I’d felt for some time that I wanted to direct and I’d done some writing, and I wanted to continue down that road. I just didn’t know if I would get hold of the right material, or come up with the right idea, and, if I did, would people be receptive to it? The only reason Gone Baby Gone got made was that Dick Cook was willing to pick it up in turnaround. But I’d done a lap around the track at this point, seen the highs and lows, and seen various versions of how things can turn out. If I’ve learned anything through that, it’s that a lot of what you get caught up in doesn’t mean anything. What you really have to be concerned about is your own work, and working hard. And that’s it. Here, I was grateful to have Jeff Robinov really believe in me, and Sue Kroll who I think is the reason why the movie was successful, and Alan Horn green lighting it. Robinov said, ‘I want to hire you, I believe in you, you’re going to have this much money to do it, cast who you want’. I just kept thinking, has he mistaken me for some proven filmmaker? But I do believe in myself. Any artistic endeavor has got risk in it and they’re not all going to fall the right way, no matter how hard you work. A big part of it for me was not getting discouraged, and believing that, if I just had the chance to keep taking swings, I could be successful at some point.

DEADLINE: Your films display an understanding of the under-class, and the working class and through that you’ve established your wheelhouse. Then there were rumors you considered directing Superman, which went to Zack Snyder. What factors do you consider in where to go next? Do you need to do a mega–budget film as a director?
AFFLECK: The one benefit of having done all kinds of movies as an actor is, you learn the pros and cons of being tempted to do a really big movie because it costs a lot of money. With Superman, I think they’re going to do a great version. Chris Nolan is brilliant and they’ve got a great director for it. I’ve love to do something like Blade Runner, but a lesson I’ve learned is to not look at movies based on budget, how much they’ll spend on effects, or where they will shoot. Story is what’s important. Also, there are a lot of guys ahead of me on the list to do epic effects movies.

DEADLINE: If there is an Oscar nomination for The Town, how much does the film owe The Departed for making it okay to consider an R–rated crime drama? Should this genre get more respect during awards season?
AFFLECK: It’s easy to lump movies like these together. My movie owes a lot to The Departed, it owes a lot to Mystic River, and it owes a lot to Heat. Also The Friends of Eddie Coyle. All are R–rated movies in that same vein, and the movies I used as the gold standard of success here.

DEADLINE: You’ve been part of two films that had magical Oscar night results, in Good Will Hunting and Shakespeare in Love. What are your best memories?
AFFLECK: The great memory of Good Will Hunting was going to the Oscars with Matt, and it all being really new. Then we sat down and we were mentioned in Billy Crystal’s opening monologue. That was the biggest deal to us, this iconic guy, in his iconic role as host of the Oscars, mentioning us. It felt like stepping through the looking glass, where you are sitting at home watching television and all of a sudden the television starts talking to you. And then we won and that was a great highlight, something that was hard for us to even absorb at that age. I was 25.

DEADLINE: How about Shakespeare in Love?
AFFLECK: Wonderful, just being part of that large group, like a football team. I felt like the guy on the end of the bench of a championship team. It was just fun to be included. The fact it won stunned me.

DEADLINE: Many still can’t believe it bested Saving Private Ryan.
AFFLECK: Saving Private Ryan is an astounding movie. That opening sequence really changed forever how people shot action sequences. It redefined the genre of intense, powerful filmmaking. That debate is emblematic of what I like about movies. It’s just a matter of what touches you, and that’s what makes movies so wonderful.

    1. Hear you, but I actually see Gigli (and the much misunderstood and actually GOOD film of Meet Joe Black) as being announced dead before arrival… Both are worthy of your eyes and the director should not be in jail for either… Glad Ben is out! THE TOWN was great!!

    1. Agreed, but one question: Why not re-release The Town this weekend? Looking for a flick and not much nearby (already saw Unstoppable and liked). Looking for a big screen pic.

  1. Make no mistake about it Ben Affleck made a good movie. Story started from beginning to end. Great acting by all who participated. Action sequences were filmed just perfectly in the tight streets of Boston.
    But what really put me in my seat(twice) was the trailer to the movie. Seeing the criminal nuns in the van with those mask and shotguns and the way it was shot–that it was told me something here was pretty great. That trailer-those nuns-Wow
    Robbie Goldstein

  2. So happy for Ben’s success. He seems down to earth, honest, and the movie was good. Great line “if I could execute it right, I’d put myself in a position to be able to make movies that I am really interested and attracted to. That is a rare thing in Hollywood. Mostly we’re just schmucks limited by our options.”

    Go Ben.

  3. I hope people warm up to Ben Affleck from interviews like this. It was intelligent from both sides and honest.

  4. It’s wonderful to see Affleck at the top of his game. He’s matured a lot as an actor and quickly as a filmmaker. Unlike Matt Damon, Affleck hasn’t worked with as many astounding directors (Don Roos, Michael Bay, John Woo, Betty Thomas don’t really exist on the level of Steven Speilberg, Robert Redford, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Joel & Ethan Coen). This makes it even more impressive how much Ben has learned about directing performances and executing a riveting cinematic story. I’m sure a lot of it is a nature talent that never really got to be realized until he decided to step behind the camera and just go for it. Affleck’s career is a fascinating one, filled with ups and downs, and I’m just glad after 15 years in Hollywood, he’s finally getting the respect he deserves.

  5. I’ve always loved Ben Affleck…. especially his commentary tracks on Kevin Smith Movies. He just seems genuine. Good for you man. I will buy tickets for next three movies easy.

  6. Great interview Mike. I agree with those above: Affleck made a solid movie that was well-written and adroitly directed. That said, I would be surprised if it got Oscar traction, only because I felt, as did my several of my friends in the industry, that “Gone Baby Gone” was a slightly better Affleck movie than “The Town” and Oscar Eyes did not gaze upon that film. Do others agree?

    Either way, Affleck clearly has THE CHOPS and it will be awesome to see the trajectory of his nifty career continue to climb.

    Go, Ben, Go !!!

    1. Smart and astute comment, Bobby. Were you listening in to my dinner party a month ago? We were having that exact same conversation and most people at the table felt “Gone Baby Gone” was a superior film to “The Town”

      One correction to your suggestion that Oscar eyes did not look kindly on “Gone Baby Gone” as I think an actress in that film did, indeed, win for best supporting. I think the general thrust of what you wrote (that “The Town” is solid filmmaking but no Oscar triumph) is right on the mark. Unless it becomes this year’s “Shakespeare in Love” it does not have a snowball of a chance.

  7. Must admit I was never much of an Affleck fan so I haven’t seen much of his work. However, I can usually tell from the trailer if I should watch a film and from the trailer for the Town I sensed it was going to be magic. He did a great job on sceen and behind the camera. I think his age has a lot to do with his freshness and ability to tell a story his generation can appreciate. Most of the great directors did some of their best work while in their 30’s. I hope to see Ben behind the lens much more. His writing is pretty good too. His talents give him many options. Congrats to him.

  8. Liked “The Town,” extremely glad it did well — but I had to cringe when I heard Affleck say part of the point was to “take another step in his acting career.” Really? So that’s what this was all about — the tens of millions of dollars and thousands of hours of people sharing their talents and working their asses off — it was all just in service to Affleck trying to prove something about his acting?

    Tarantino says the same kind of stuff – “Well, in ‘Kill Bill’ I wanted to show I could do this or this kind of action sequence.”

    These kinds of comments come off a real slap in the face to everyone else who contributed their own talents to the movie, and even to the audience. I’m buying a ticket, just tell me a good story. I don’t care what you’re trying to prove about your acting. Save that kind of talk for your lunches with your agent.

    1. Go to hell. That’s the truth, and it’s a fact of life. You think people put money and time into Good Will Hunting because they cared about Matt and Ben getting a foothold past small roles? No, they wanted to advance themselves, and make money.

      These guys direct because yes, they want to get better parts. But also because as they age, they can still make great films and not have to worry about their careers winding down like an athlete.

      1. Go to hell? Go take a deep breath, I didn’t just run over your dog…

        Your analogy between athletes and directors is a completely inaccurate and irrelevant one. The issue here is not premature expiration dates on careers or blowing out your knees at age 29, it’s about respecting your creative collaborators. And what exactly is a way of life? That people have selfish motives for what they do? Brilliant insight, wish I’d thought of that before…

        Unfortunately I never said self interest doesn’t exist, I said when directors tell an interviewer for a major media entity that their purpose in making a film is to prove to someone some aspect of their own ability, it’s tacky and in poor taste and disrespectful of their creative collaborators and everyone else working their ass of on the film for a reason other than proving what range Affleck has as an actor.

    2. I disagree with the way you see that comment. Why else would someone write/direct/star in a movie? To further the career of a camerman? Everyone, the cast, directors, crew, writers, have personal reasons for making a movie. If it worked in helping to further his acting career, that means it was written well, directed well, the other cast members performed well, the crew did their jobs well, and all those who helped finance the movie were smart in that decision. You may not care about his personal agenda for making a movie, but he was asked a question and he seemingly answered it honestly. Just like tarantino and every director, they have a vision for the movie, and they decide how they want it to go, which requires some ego and personal confidence, but they also rely on everyone else to help make it a reality. Whether you’re the last guy on the totem pole, hoping for a decent pay check, some experience, and some connections, or the writer, director, and star who is just hoping your movie is good enough so you can make more movies, everyone has an agenda. They can all satisfy their personal goals to varying degrees, as long as their immediate goal is to make the best movie possible.

      1. Agreed! Ben’s personal agenda has helped everyone involved. Especially Jeremy Renner who deserves an Oscar nomination, and Rebecca Hall and John Hamm who now have promising movie careers. This was a home run for Affleck and everyone involved!

      2. “as long as their immediate goal is to make the best movie possible.” I agree whole-heartedly with that sentiment, the problem is Affleck explicitly said his immediate goal was NOT to make the best movie possible, his immediate goal was to prove things about his acting (to whom, he never made clear).

        And why would anyone ever want to make a movie for a reason other than to further their careers? Uh, how about to tell a great story? To make a great movie? Because it’s what you love and were born to do? Because THAT’S why the great directors make movies

    3. I think you are confusing Affleck’s original motivation for deciding to make THE TOWN (as opposed to any other movie) with the overall goal of making a great movie. Those are obviously two different things. Saying that the character drew him to the story is not the same as saying that he just wanted to showcase himself and that’s why he made the movie. If he was purely motivated by selfish interests as an actor, the film wouldn’t be so good.

  9. Ben is one talented director for sure, no argument there. Too bad he’s going to squander it all when the tabs get a hold of that fact that he constantly cheats on his wife, he’ll be back in the tabloids again. He sure was having a good time in Bartlesville OK (wink wink)

  10. I like Ben Affleck.

    But the town for Oscar. Saw it again yesterday.

    Disjointed, slow pacing.

    I love Boston so it could get nominated for cinematography.

    Maybe the actor who played his child hood friend for supporting, but it seemed to be a cut from Heat or even that Jack Nicholson film that showed some better aspects of Boston’s politics.

    Marky mark.

  11. He makes it look easy

    I appreciate his relentless attitude and drive..I think he is the poster child for someone who has created their “luck”..he isnt that talented,that attractive but he has really made the best of what he has and has demanded people take notice..

    I see an artist

  12. Ben, don’t be too nice. You can blame the “lows” of your career on J-Lo. It seems everybody she goes out with hit their “lows.” P. Diddy shooting somebody, Marc Anthony doing rap songs…

    Anyway, loved the The Town. No Oscar for it though. Ben’s humble and talented.

    I personally think it’s much easier to act in your own material. All this talk about it being difficult is just to hide the fact that it’s much, much easier. What’s harder, delivering a line knowing the exact vision of it in your head, OR delivering a line over and over with a director who has no idea how to work with actors (most directors these days), explaining his vision to you?

  13. I amazed how she answer this questions as who is really is. I think he is not really a good director,actor,writer and publisher but he makes things change to make him a better one. That is the most important. You let people judge you to let you know what will make you better for the next time.

  14. Shakespeare in Love didn’t best Saving Private Ryan. If you had to pick a film that will be remembered 100 years from now, which one would you bet people are still talking about?

    Saving Private Ryan was a PHENOMENALLY IMPORTANT film about war and sacrifice and the pain and sufferring that shadows it. It reminded us of what courage really is…..doing the right thing in the face of horror. It gave us a glimpse of a CRITICAL moment in our world’s history, a turning point — and showed us what happened when some brave folks stood up against pure evil.

    That’s why you heard AUDIBLE GASPS when Shakespeare in Love, a clever rom-com, won Best Picture, ahead of The Thin Red Line, Life is Beautiful and Saving Private Ryan.

    It’s considered one of the biggest EMBARRASSMENTS in Oscar history, and the definitive moment when the world saw that money (Harvey Weinstein) trumps artistic/cultural/historic merit.

    The 71st Academy Awards marked the day I stopped believing in the significance of a shiny gold statue. I was 18 years old.

  15. Like Affleck a lot. Very impressed with The Town. He’s supposed to direct a script I read when it came into UTA. REPLAY. I don’t think there’s a better choice for that movie. Great script. Great director. Is he starring? And why is everyone now talking about Alfonso Curon?

  16. What? He blamed J-lo numerous times for the downturn in this career.
    The Town is a good movie but not Oscar worthy.

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