Assassins, mobsters and Batman: The year in Ben Affleck
On a blustery early-December afternoon in Santa Monica, Ben Affleck sat on the rooftop of Pearl Street Films, the production company he founded with Matt Damon, having just come out of a script meeting for a planned solo Batman movie.
Affleck is set to star as the caped crusader in the film, which is as-yet untitled, and is also attached to direct. But asked about rumors circulating on the Internet that the movie will begin shooting imminently, he shook his head and chuckled.
“People keep saying that and I don’t know why,” he said. “I guess it’s hard to grasp the whole nature of development. You don’t realize that the vast majority of movies are in this swamp of development where they kind of ooze along slowly – and most of them never get made.”
He laughed. “Sometimes I feel like I just come here and sit at the computer and I’m like, ‘Just … push ... keys! Make … words …. happen!’ ”
The fact is, 2016 has been a particularly fruitful — and at times challenging — year for Affleck, one that has seen him, at age 44, pushing himself into new terrain as an actor, a director, a writer and a box-office commodity.
In March, following months of anticipation, Affleck made his debut as the Dark Knight in the big-budget superhero mash-up “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” a role he briefly reprised in August’s “Suicide Squad.” In October, the actor played an autistic forensic accountant with the Jason Bourne-style skills of an assassin in the outside-the-box action-thriller “The Accountant.” Together, “Batman v Superman” and “The Accountant” made over a billion dollars worldwide for Warner Bros.
Capping this busy year, Affleck’s latest directorial effort, the period crime drama “Live by Night,” will open Christmas Day in limited release in New York and Los Angeles before going wide Jan. 13.
In “Live by Night,” Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston police captain who rises through the ranks of a major crime organization during the height of Prohibition. As with his 2007 directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone,” the actor adapted the screenplay from a novel by fellow Boston native Dennis Lehane.
An attempt to blow the dust off the classic Warner Bros. gangster movies of yesteryear, “Live by Night” marks Affleck’s follow-up to his 2012 historical drama “Argo.” But while “Argo” proved a hit with audiences as well as critics, grossing $232 million worldwide — and earning three Oscars, including best picture — it’s not clear how moviegoers will receive this updated version of what is, at its heart, an old-fashioned movie filled with flapper skirts and fedoras.
“The language of movies has changed since the ’30s and ’40s,” Affleck said. “Obviously things are different now, and they’re even different from other films that I drew inspiration from, like ‘Reds’ or ‘Doctor Zhivago.’ That was what a crowd-pleasing Hollywood movie was then. Now it really means wearing a cape. Obviously I have nothing against capes, but I wanted to see if I could make this work. We’ll see.”
Like “The Accountant,” “Live by Night” is the kind of ambitious, adult-oriented film that the major studios have shied away from in recent years. But Affleck used the trust and goodwill he has earned with Warner Bros. from “Argo” and “Batman v Superman,” among other films, to help get both movies made. With “The Accountant,” the gamble paid off and the film proved a sleeper hit, grossing $149 million worldwide.
Lehane says he applauds Affleck for leveraging his star power to push such challenging material through the studio system.
“We grew up on a different type of movie and we’re of the mind-set that if you build it correctly, they’ll come,” said Lehane, 51. “It’s not that people have turned away from adult movies — it’s that they’ve turned away from bad adult movies. If you can do a ‘Gone Girl,’ if you can do ‘The Accountant,’ then people will show up.”
On the flip side, in a testament to how fickle today’s moviegoing audience can be, the Affleck film that seemed like the closest thing to a slam-dunk, four-quadrant smash heading into 2016 — “Batman v Superman” — proved the biggest disappointment.
A critical step in Warner Bros.’ effort to broaden its DC Comics movie universe, the film grossed a less-than-expected $873 million worldwide and drew widespread pans for what many deemed its convoluted story and overly grim tone.
As critics and fans alike piled on the film, a video clip of Affleck looking melancholy during an interview alongside co-star Henry Cavill went viral. The fact is, the overwhelmingly negative reaction had surprised the actor, who had been encouraged by the generally upbeat response to early screenings.
“I thought, ‘Oh, we’ll be at like a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes,’ ” Affleck said. “But once the reviews started off badly, there was a herd mentality and I think people were probably a bit overly harsh on the movie…. People wanted to write a story about the movie bombing — I felt that out there. There was a desire to see failure.”
Looking back, Affleck says “Batman v Superman” illustrates how brutally difficult it can be to crack the superhero genre. “I thought it was an interesting movie that had a tone that came right from the Frank Miller ‘Dark Knight’ books,” he said. “But that was the thing that people mostly rejected. They were like, ‘I want this to be more fun. This is too dark.’… It’s a cautionary tale about how careful you need to be and how tricky it is striking the right balance between tone and originality and freshness and wit and fun versus camp. There’s all this tightrope-act stuff in these movies.”
As he works to develop his solo Batman movie, Affleck now seems more aware than ever of how potentially perilous it can be to take the helm of that type of hyper-scrutinized, extreme-high-stakes enterprise.
Being unfettered by any of the stuff that comes with money and IPs, doing something completely new and fresh — that’s the other appeal to me.
— Ben Affleck
“You have to be willing to suffer, you know what I mean?” joked the actor, who will next don the character’s cape for “Justice League,” which hits theaters Nov. 2017. He laughed dryly. “You have to be like one of the priests in ‘Silence’ who goes to Japan and knows they’re going to be tortured. You just have to believe it’s in the service of something greater.”
Warner Bros. has positioned Affleck as a key figure in its DC Comics slate both onscreen and behind the scenes. But he says he will only direct the Batman movie if he can get the script where he wants it.
“If it’s not good enough, I’m not going to direct it,” he said flatly. “If we don’t get it there, I’m not just going to go, ‘Well, it’s kind of crummy but I should do it anyway just because I’m here.’ It’s not a movie to make just to make it. Because you’ll just get destroyed if it’s not great. The bar is so high.”
Actor Chris Messina, who co-stars in “Live by Night” and also appeared in “Argo,” says he admires the extent to which Affleck remains guided by his core passion for movies, even as he’s buffeted by the pressures of the business and the public’s incessant curiosity about his personal life. (In 2015, Affleck separated from his wife, actress Jennifer Garner, with whom he has three children.)
“You watch these movie stars try to navigate through the world and it’s quite complicated,” Messina said. “I’m sure he has his own internal monologue about it, but when I was with him on the set of ‘Live by Night,’ I felt like I was back with a buddy in acting class and we were just excited about the material. For a guy that’s been through so much and had so many great days — and so many hard days — he was just having fun, doing what he loves to do.”
As it happens, 2016 has also been a notable year for Affleck’s younger brother, Casey, who has landed a spot on the Oscar shortlist for his turn as an emotionally broken man who becomes the guardian of his late brother’s son in the wrenching drama “Manchester by the Sea.”
Reflecting on that movie, which was developed under the Pearl Street Films banner, Affleck said that even as he has one foot planted in the tent-pole realm, he’s drawn to the idea of making that kind of smaller-scale, more intimate film.
“Watching my brother do that, it was really liberating — the fact that the character is allowed to make these choices and is ultimately not redeemed,” he said. “There’s an appeal to getting to do that real storytelling where it doesn’t have to be bound by, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t say that, conventional wisdom dictates…’ The idea of totally being unfettered by any of the stuff that comes with money and IPs, doing something completely new and fresh — that’s the other appeal to me.”
For the moment, though, Affleck is simply focused on releasing “Live by Night” into the world. After “Argo,” he’s not counting on best picture glory to strike again. But Oscar or no Oscar, the pressures feel as intense on his fourth film as a director as they did on his first.
“You put so much time and so much energy into basically this little round plastic disc that plays for two hours,” Affleck said. “It all comes down to that.”
He paused and reached for a sports metaphor. “It’s like you’ve been in training for the whole season for just one at-bat,” he said. “You want to get a hit. You want to get on base.”
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