Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Back in the spotlight

After years as a gossip-mag staple and Hollywood joke, Ben Affleck is suddenly a hot director who’s delivering on his early promise

Jeff Dawson

Published: 19 September 2010, Sunday Times

Getting snarled in the Paris traffic might not be good for the temperament, but the honking gridlock — courtesy of the mass protest against President Sarkozy’s pension reforms — affords ample time to peruse the billboards. Posters for Ben Affleck’s new movie, The Town, have been plastered liberally and fraternally. Having your heist flick likened to Michael Mann’s seminal movie Heat is a ringing endorsement, especially in a land where old-school cops and robbers — from Rififi to Ronin and, more recently, Mesrine — prove immensely popular.

“High praise, excessive praise,” gushes Affleck, flopped on a chaise longue, elbow on armrest, head propped on hand. “Heat is the gold standard for a movie like this.”

During the research, he explains, he quizzed numerous jailbirds, who all cited Heat as their inspiration for a life of crime. Back on the outside, he found that FBI agents also worshipped the film. “I started to feel I was under the shadow of this movie. In the end, I thought, ‘Oh well, you just give in to it.’”

“Ben Affleck” and “Heat”. Not so very long ago, those words would have conjured up trash-mag splurges and long-lens pap snaps of a gurning beefcake — the wooden flyboy of Pearl Harbor — patting the bikinied and ample booty of J-Lo on some yacht.

But that was then... When, in 2007, Affleck reinvented himself as an assured director with his child-abduction thriller Gone Baby Gone — a release he delayed in this country because of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance — the “comeback” banners were unfurled.

Dressed in blue check shirt, charcoal pinstripe jacket, jeans and black chelsea boots, the tanned and stubbled 38-year-old endures as the most casual and affable of Hollywood A-listers. At 6ft 2in, he lollops into the hotel suite, thrusts out a palm and is immediately into the badinage, the only smudge on this illusion of mateyness coming with discussion as to whether those revolting locals are going to scupper the chances of catching his private plane to Venice (where he’s due at the film festival). “There hasn’t been a reasonably big strike in the US for a long time,” he muses, almost wistfully. “It just doesn’t happen any more.”

On Gone Baby Gone, Affleck delegated the acting duties to his brother, Casey. With The Town, he both helms and stars. “I knew, for the first movie, it would be way too much to try to act and direct,” he says. “I was intimidated. But I loved directing. I wasn’t sure what would happen — would it be a disaster? Would I hate it? — but it was really satisfying.”

The stakes were higher this time round. “I mean, it was huge leaps in terms of doing car chases and action stuff. And acting in it was another big step... But,” he shrugs, “no risk, no reward.”

I was intimidated. I wasn’t sure what would happen — would it be a disaster?

Ben Affleck

Set in his home city, Boston, Affleck’s heist flick concerns a gang of masked, armed larcenists from the neighbourhood of Charlestown — the titular “Town”. Affleck is Doug MacRay, the comparatively smart one, keen to escape his lot. Jeremy Renner, from The Hurt Locker, plays the loose cannon, Joe Pesci of a best bud, questioning MacRay’s loyalty — especially once MacRay gets it on with Claire (Rebecca Hall), the bank teller they kidnapped briefly, and who remains unwitting as to her beau’s true identity. With John Hamm (Mad Men) as the FBI heavy and Blake Lively (Gossip Girl) deglammed as a crack “ho”, Affleck has certainly pulled in the names (Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite also crop up).

The film doesn’t do much for the image of the real Charlestown — here all 24-hour barflies, “Fightin’ Irish” tattoos and Celtic omerta — which is granted an apology in the end credits. “Its not an apology, it’s a qualifier,” Affleck laughs. “I realised the PR was geared to painting this place as a den of crooks and thieves, but there are people in Charlestown who are not that.” His main concern, he says, is that “this movie, Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone all have an embarrassingly similar set of circumstances and themes. It’s obviously stuff I’ve been interested in since the early 1990s... This question about how shaped we are by our environment... about children who pay for the sins of their parents”.

And all played out in that cartoonishly flat dialect (immigrant Irish bludgeoned with a shillelagh) that makes everyone sound as if they’re in The Flintstones. “Ha, I know what you mean.”

Thematically, Affleck could throw in another couple of Beantown hardboilers — Mystic River, written by Gone Baby Gone’s author, Dennis Lehane, and The Departed (starring Affleck’s mucker Matt Damon), whose producer, Graham King, performs the same function on The Town. Yet Affleck shouldn’t be too hard on himself. He’s simply sticking to a landscape he knows: “It’s a lot easier to tell a story when you have an innate understanding of the world.” Although he never actually knew any bank robbers, he insists.

Like Gone Baby Gone, The Town has been hailed as a “mature” piece of work. This, in its own way, is a case of praising with faint damn, isn’t it? The implication being that our expectation would be for something quite the opposite? Affleck likes this, chortling away. “This callow fellow, likely to make some frivolous nonsense,” he mocks. “Look, I’m happy to accept any praise, damned, faint or otherwise. I know there’s not much of a connection, in others that I’ve seen, between the artist and the man, the person and the creative product.”

The popular legend goes like this. Part One: Affleck and Damon, childhood pals, decamp to Tinseltown to try to make it as actors. Thus follows Good Will Hunting, an attempt to script a piece that they can star in, which yields an unlikely screenwriting Oscar and, for Affleck, dates with the fragrant Gwyneth Paltrow.

Part Two sees Affleck eschew the serious roles that Damon craves to become a sort of alternative Keanu Reeves, in films such as Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Daredevil — a playboy era that includes a stint in rehab and that ill-blinged romance with Lopez. Their film Gigli is oft mentioned as the worst ever made — though it may not even be the poorest Affleck offering, that distinction going, possibly, to Jersey Girl or to the horrible Smokin’ Aces. In a sideline venture, Affleck became the 2004 California State Poker Champion, but, career-wise, he’d cashed in his chips.

In Part Three, Affleck settles down with the wholesome Jennifer Garner and produces a couple of kids, an overture to the revival. The 2006 film Hollywoodland, with Affleck as the 1950s TV Superman, George Reeves, a credible lummox of unfulfilled potential, gets raves, a role he caps with both Gone Baby Gone and a lauded turn as a Slick Willie politician in State of Play.

“You know, the entertainment press wants to construct easily digestible narratives, and you’ve just given me one,” he ponders. “There’s obviously truth to it. There’s definitely movies that I’m proud of and movies that I’m not proud of, and they’ve tended to sort of clump together.

I’ve had movies that I didn’t love that made money, and movies that I love that didn’t make money

I don’t think they have any relation to what happened in my personal life, although one’s personal life really informs a perception of someone’s work, which is why it’s really good to try to be exposed as little as possible.”

Affleck has still not got rid of the stiff hunk thing, though. Shows such as South Park and Saturday Night Live have popped at him with impunity. “I’ve certainly made plenty of jokes myself,” he says. “It would kind of be hypocritical of me to get too sensitive about it.” Let’s cheer him up. Did he know that he was voted the No 1 ideal man by women attending American sperm-donor clinics? “That’s horrible,” he splutters. “Tell them to stop!”

Perhaps overlooked in all this deconstruction is that for both Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck has co-written the screenplay (adapted in the latter instance from The Prince of Thieves, a book by Chuck Hogan). Some in the screenwriting fraternity had been suspicious of that Academy Award, alleging that Affleck and Damon were a filmic Milli Vanilli, a saleable duo bearding for some behind-the-scenes maestro, surely evident in the fact that they were unable to produce a follow-up. “There was definitely a kind of blowback,” Affleck admits. “But I guess that’s to be expected. We were interested in acting and, all of a sudden, we had acting opportunities. And acting, when you’re doing one after the other like that, takes a lot of time. It’s difficult to write. I stated writing again with the Gone Baby Gone screenplay in 2000, maybe 2001. It just took a long time to get it made.”

Gone Baby Gone has its flaws. So does The Town. As with any action flick, you just know that it’s going to descend into people yelling “Stay the f*** down” and loosing off more rounds than in the assault on Monte Cassino (or, in this case, Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox). Affleck’s character, too, must come over as heroic despite committing some pretty horrendous acts. He concedes that it’s a “big ask” to root for him. “But I never liked movies where you have a protagonist who’s a criminal, but we soften his edges so the audience can like him. I wanted him to participate fully in what they [the gang] were doing. Otherwise it wouldn’t be about change, it wouldn’t be about redemption.”

Affleck must catch that Learjet, currently idling on the tarmac somewhere. There’s still enough time for him to scotch two rumours: one, that he’s about to reprise his Jack Ryan character from The Sum of All Fears, and two — mercifully and sensibly — that he will one day run for public office on the Democrat ticket. “Once I did ‘I’m f***ing Ben Affleck’ [a spoof gay song/video with the American talkshow host Jimmy Kimmel: 5m hits on YouTube], I pretty much ended my political career,” he smirks.

He’s shortly doing a film with Terrence Malick, which he can’t talk about, although it’s possibly set in Oklahoma and there may be some fishing involved. Another movie with Damon has been floated, but the problem these days, he says, is prising his pal away from ‘the great legends of cinema’. “I have to somehow squeeze in between people like the Coen Brothers and Clint Eastwood,” he says.

You know a film of Affleck’s I really liked? Extract, the Mike Judge comedy that came and went in the blink of an eye, in which he plays a stoner-dude barman. It’s also one of his faves. “I’ve had movies that I didn’t love that made a lot of money, and movies that I love that didn’t make a lot of money.

What I’m trying to do, and it’s really hard, but the goal is to bridge the two. Do something that works for an audience, but is interesting to me... But, you know, I’m still young, I keep trying...”

The thirties are the new twenties, they say. “The new teens,” he corrects. “Thirty-eight is the new 16.”

The Town is released on Friday

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