In 2008, Bill Dubuque was a corporate headhunter trying to make the transition to screenwriting, working on scripts late at night, when a producer named Mark Williams approached him with a rough idea for a financial thriller centered on a fast-talking forensic accountant.
The pitch didn't fully resonate with Dubuque, at least not enough to motivate him to hammer out a script in the wee hours. But after mulling it over for a while, he struck on a twist that got him excited: What if the accountant was on the autism spectrum?
"I've always been interested in how the mind works," Dubuque said on a recent afternoon. "I thought: What if you could structure a story that was a mystery within a mystery? What goes on in this individual's mind? How does he process information? How does he communicate with the rest of the world?"
Eight years later, Dubuque's script is now the basis of one of the more unlikely films in recent memory to come out of Hollywood's increasingly risk-averse studio system: an action thriller set in the world of corporate finance featuring an autistic CPA with savant-level math abilities and the deadly skills of a Jason Bourne-style assassin.
You know — one of those.
In Warner Bros.' "The Accountant," opening Oct. 14, Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, a small-town accountant on the spectrum who freelances in secret for criminal organizations. When Wolff takes on a high-profile new client, Treasury Department agents start to close in on him, drawing the accountant — who is far better at dealing with numbers than people — into a cat-and-mouse game with a rising body count.
Part straight-ahead action film, part heady financial thriller, part family drama, part love story — all wrapped around a developmental disability that has rarely been the focus of Hollywood movies — "The Accountant" doesn't fit neatly into any of Hollywood's standard boxes. And that is precisely what drew Affleck to the project.
"This isn't 'Die Hard' in an aquarium," the actor said last week in a hotel restaurant in Beverly Hills, having recently finished shooting in London on the big-budget superhero film "Justice League," in which he reprises his role as Batman. "He doesn't get the girl. … I thought it was so unique and surprising. It almost seemed too good to be true."
In a world many often complain is awash in cookie-cutter franchise films, Affleck believes the distinctiveness of "The Accountant" — which is directed by Gavin O'Connor, best known for the widely praised 2011 mixed martial arts drama "Warrior" — will be a powerful selling point.
"People want to be challenged," said the actor, who, prior to Batman, had a mixed track record headlining more conventional action fare like "Daredevil" and "Reindeer Games." "They want to see something new, if it's good."
That may be. Still, it's safe to say that building an action thriller around an autistic CPA is not something you'd find in the standard studio executive playbook. "Our market research showed that what the audience was really demanding was more movies about accountants," Greg Silverman, president of creative development and worldwide production for Warner Bros. Pictures, joked dryly.
"If you were writing a script about how the studio system works, you can immediately imagine someone saying, 'Can you not make him autistic but rather just a bit standoffish?'" said Dubuque, whose script landed on the 2011 Black List of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. "'And accounting, really? That doesn't sound very sexy. Can he be something else?'"
But, to its credit, O'Connor says the studio never flinched from those unconventional elements — or from the film's sometimes non-linear narrative and unpredictable tonal shifts. "I never once had them try to manipulate and bend it into something it didn't want to be," he said.
Hollywood has a long history of depicting characters with various physical and mental disabilities as heroes in movies. But, with notable exceptions like 1988's "Rain Man," the 1998 action thriller "Mercury Rising" and the 2009 romantic comedy "Adam," characters who are clearly defined as autistic — as opposed to simply odd or socially awkward — have rarely been placed front and center in mainstream movies.
"We've seen characters that are maybe on some version of the spectrum but not inserted in this kind of movie, in this kind of plot," said O'Connor, who signed on to direct the film after an earlier incarnation with Mel Gibson directing and Will Smith potentially starring failed to come together.
In a storytelling medium rooted in emotion, in which likability and reliability are often considered paragon virtues, having a central character like Wolff — who has profound difficulty connecting to those around him and exhibits idiosyncratic, sometimes disturbing obsessive-compulsive behaviors — poses a unique challenge. As Affleck is aware, if handled wrongly, it could be seen as a kind of gimmick or stunt.
"It stands out and it can seem cloying and pandering and a lot of things," Affleck said of actors playing characters with disabilities. "Yeah, you could take the jaundiced view and frame it in a cynical way. But, to me, you have to be taking risks — otherwise, you're making boring movies. That was the risk of this movie, and it was well worth it. The character was written in a really real and grounded way, and we made sure to maintain the integrity of that."
Dubuque did extensive research into autism while writing the script, which Affleck and O'Connor built on by meeting with numerous experts and people in the autistic community to ensure they were portraying Wolff's condition sensitively and realistically.
"I was naïve about autism — I don't know anybody closely who is autistic," Affleck said. "But I found this huge spectrum of different kinds of people, as varied as anyone. Being autistic didn't mean you functioned one way and had one set of behaviors. It was fascinating and it was also heartwarming in the sense that people really seemed to want to help tell a story where an autistic character is the central character."
Anna Kendrick, who co-stars in the film as a junior accountant who befriends Wolff, admits she initially had concerns about whether the film would be able to represent autism in an accurate and nuanced way.
"A friend of mine has an autistic child, and I was so worried about telling her I was going to do a movie with this subject matter and potentially getting it wrong," she said. "She was like, 'I'm going to tell you something that somebody told me when my son was diagnosed: When you've met one autistic child, you've met one autistic child. To have an expectation that he should act this way or you should act that way — don't even worry about that. Everyone is different.'"
Within the autism community, depictions of the condition in popular entertainment have been met with both praise and criticism, with some arguing that Hollywood too often portrays what is a complex and highly variable disorder as a kind of strange superpower. But O'Connor and Affleck say the feedback they've received so far has been entirely positive.
"We screened it for some people from Autism Speaks and some other organizations and foundations related to autism," O'Connor said. "We wanted to make sure we were passing their test of authenticity and honesty, and we've gotten fantastic responses from them, which feels really good." That said, he added, "Someone is going to take issue with it. It's just the way of the world now with social media and the Internet."
As for how a wider moviegoing audience will receive "The Accountant," that remains to be seen; the same qualities that make the film unique also make it challenging to market. Warner Bros. hedged its bets by keeping the film's budget in the neighborhood of $40 million, well below what a more traditional action thriller with a major star like Affleck might cost. Still, the studio is optimistic it will find a sizable audience.
"We were really pleased that the audience we wanted showed up for 'Sully,'" Silverman said, referring to the studio's recent Clint Eastwood-directed drama, which has earned more than $150 million worldwide. "It feels like, for the audience that loved 'Sully,' this is another movie that respects their intelligence and understands that they understand cinema."
At a time when much of the most creatively daring adult-oriented fare has drifted toward television and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, Affleck — whose own next directorial effort, the period gangster drama "Live by Night," opens in select theaters on Christmas — is hoping that "The Accountant" will prove that moviegoers still crave something outside the norm.
"I've been to hellish [publicity] junkets where nobody likes the movie, including me, and we just all have to go through the ritual and it's agony," he said with a laugh. "But I'm really proud of this movie and I think it's good and smart. You could have an expectation of a very rote, by-the-numbers genre movie going into it and be surprised to find out there's really a lot more to it than you thought. ... The hurdle is just going to be getting people in."