In the last shot of
But this bedroom sequence, no less important. When it arrives, notice the loving linger given every
Notice that the film is about the beauty of a well-told story, and how in the hands of a rich imagination, ephemera are raw tools. But also notice that Affleck — who just turned 40, has three kids, a wife (actress
When we met for lunch recently in River North, it was hard not to notice the white streaks in his hair. Or that, as with many directors, he seems to have grown into a living embodiment of the movies he directs — serious and thoughtful, a little stony, but affable, entertaining and unpretentious, with a keen self-awareness.
Longtime students of history may struggle to place the little-known footnote at the heart of
As a filmmaker, you could argue he has yet to falter but only gotten smarter and more ambitious with each new picture. Indeed, "Argo" (almost certainly an Oscar contender), probably will put to rest whatever backhanded compliments of surprise that his promise as a director still generates.
The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.
Q: Can you see your own progression as a director, or are you too close?
A: No, I see it. I've consciously taken on material that's a bit too much for me but not an overreach. The first movie, just about performances. "The Town," I learned how to work broader material, develop tension, direct bigger scenes, action sequences. "Argo," I experimented with film stock, widened the scope of my geography. It's a period movie, which is also a stretch but not outside my understanding. I would do a special-effects movie, maybe. I have nothing against that kind of thing. What Ridley Scott did with
Q: If you had started directing before you became tabloid fodder, while your acting career was going well, do you think the films you directed would have been different? Bigger? Less serious?
A: I don't know. That's a hard question. I was too young, probably. I hadn't been through enough pain. The movies might have been OK, but they would have played skin-deep. I didn't understand things then. I wouldn't have had enough to prove. But when I felt like I had something to prove? Then I got up early every morning and worked all day long. I didn't know if I had any more talent than anyone else directing, but I knew I could work hard at it, and so I did. I simply put in the time. I didn't do anything for two years but work on "Gone Baby Gone," and it was miserable and hard, but at the end? It is a good movie. I liked it very much. If it had been dismissed and deemed worthless, it would been definitely devastating. But that didn't happen.
Q: No, but you also started modestly ambitious — you didn't go for a bombastic, epic statement (in "Gone Baby Gone'). Which is, I think, somewhat the kind of film that people expect from an A-list actor-turned-director.
A: Right, and so the idea was to make something gritty, about the darkest parts of ourselves but also about recognizing your failings and paying the price for the things you've done. Not an easy sell. At the time I had gotten burned out on acting and was making (expletive), expensive, glossy (expletive). After 2000 or so, I started to realize I wanted to be doing something else. I didn't want to be in front of a camera. I was frustrated. I didn't think I would stop acting, but I didn't want to be seen. You have to understand — the intensity of being everywhere, on the cover of every magazine, it's corrosive to your career, to who you are. You're a rat in a maze. But also, my taste was going up against the taste of the directors I was working with. I would suggest doing something a different way, and to them I would become "that actor being difficult." The chance to direct was partly about that, about wanting to know if I knew what I was talking about.
Q: You weren't in "Gone Baby Gone," your name wasn't mentioned in the trailers or posters.
A: Absolutely, because otherwise it would never have been a movie I directed, just a movie I acted in and kind of directed. Not that it entirely matters: There is a perception that all actors make their movies. A lot of people assume you're responsible.
Q: Still, even in "Argo," three films on, you're in the lead but quiet, arguably not even the focus. You probably could have given yourself one of those big moments where you explode and go —
A: "I want answers!"
A: Two reasons: Tony Mendez is taciturn. He does what a spy does. He fades into woodwork. But also that speaks to me wanting to make serious movies and not make myself heroic just because I made the movie.
Q: Were you ever sick of seeing yourself during the tabloid days?
A: Sick of seeing myself in the context I was seeing myself in, yes.
Q: Starting out as a director, I assume you spoke with other actors who turned to directing?
A: As many as I could. I wasn't thinking the Warren Beatty or
Q: Did you just ask these directors about their movies that worked or about their failures too?
A: Well, everybody fails. It's more instructive, I think, to talk about successes, because the people behind them rarely feel the movie would work: They had to change something last minute or some disaster fell on them. Yet it worked. I talked with Clooney,
Q: Did you have directing in your mind when you started acting?
A: I started as a child, in this PBS series "Voyage of the Mimi," which led to driving down to New York for "Afterschool Special" auditions, which led to moving to Los Angeles. I wanted to be an actor. But in LA, I got into film technology, and I was building cheap editing systems and would edit my friend's acting reels.
Q: You built them?
A: It's not that hard. But I was pretty good with computers then. If I took apart a motherboard now it would be a disaster, but even then, when I started cutting (on computers), the hard drives were incredibly slow by contemporary standards and would drop frames. Matt (Damon) and I tried re-cutting movies. We re-cut "Glory." Like an early version of a mashup. To answer the question, though: I didn't always want to direct. I just liked the idea of it. If a friend was making a short and needed someone who knew screen direction, I would jump in. It would be horrible, but it led to a short, then another, and another. It was like student films.
Q: What were they about?
A: One was about feminism and the indulgence in Hollywood and license given. (Laughs.) It was called "I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney."
Q: So you never had a movie epiphany as a kid?
A: I think I didn't really appreciate movies until
Q: What did you watch before making "Argo"?
A: Rodrigo (Prieto, the cinematographer) was really into the vampire movie
Q: Did you watch any Iranian films?
A: It's hard finding
Q: This is not a backhanded compliment, but your movies are also not overtly stylish. They're direct, economical and confident — confident enough to be straightforward, which is rare.
Q: The truth is, and this is also not a backhanded compliment, but I'm not sure anyone would feel like they were missing anything if you stopped acting altogether and decided to stay behind the camera all the time.
A: You mean, if I just committed to directing. I like acting. People have a short memory, and I was worried that if I stayed away from acting I wouldn't be thought of anymore. But directing is the priority, and it gives me a choice. I have a family and movies I want to direct and I don't have time to idly take on acting jobs anymore that have a low probability of turning out well. I've come to see the last 10 years as the rich years, the productive years. I am in a zone now. I feel that, and basically, this is where I'm going to make a stand.