Before accepting the Santa Barbara Modern Master Award from childhood pal Matt Damon, “Argo” helmer and star Ben Affleck, 40, with graceful help from master interviewer Leonard Maltin, showed his mettle as charming raconteur and ace impressionist. These skills have served “Argo” well in its surging race for Oscars.
Affleck recalled his years as a young Boston area actor on such shows as “Voyage of the Mimi,” schlepping with Damon to auditions in New York. He looks back fondly on early indie roles for director Richard Linklater on “Dazed and Confused”–“I had a bowl cut and was beating up on little kids”– and Kevin Smith (“Chasing Amy”), who helped to make the connection to Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, who backed Affleck and Damon’s Oscar-winning script for “Good Will Hunting.” (Boston Magazine’s must-read oral history is here.)
Sharp as a tack, Affleck learned from everyone he worked with, and candidly shares his Hollywood education, from “Reindeer Games” veteran John Frankenheimer and Paramount studio chief Sherry Lansing, who gave him the role of Jack Ryan in “The Sum of All Fears,” to “Armageddon” star Bruce Willis, who tried to take away his lines.
One of my favorite stories: Affleck prepared his posh English accent for “Shakespeare in Love” by listening to British thespian Simon Callow read Shakespeare sonnets. When Affleck showed up for the first “Shakespeare” table read, he saw his American girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow (who helped him to get the part), “and everyone else was a knight.” Sitting next to him: Simon Callow. Check out Affleck in “Shakespeare in Love.” He was damned good.
But he wasn’t always. He goes on to address his career crisis and second act as a director that has culminated in seven Oscar nominations and a series of award wins for “Argo.” His biggest applause of the night came when he said: “I make sure to work as hard as I absolutely possibly can, because I know that’s the only shot I have at being successful.”
I shot the first 45 minutes or so of Maltin’s Affleck interview on video (below), the rest of the Q & A is transcribed here.
Leonard Maltin: What lead to your directorial debut ‘Gone Baby Gone?’ Were you looking to direct? Was it chance or purposeful?
Ben Affleck: Well, I had directed a few little scrappy things. I liked directing, put it aside. Once I started getting some traction as an actor, I wanted to try to use that to direct, but I wasn’t sure when. I found this Boston book, “Gone Baby Gone,” by Dennis Lehane. It had strong architecture, and I wanted to play with it and butter on the interesting stuff that I wanted to bring to it. I knew that the ending worked; that’s the most important part. You often have a good beginning, a good set up, a good act one, act two, but this really had a conclusion that I thought was provocative. So I got the option, had it at Paramount, then Sherry Lansing left, and the studio let me take the book out when she was leaving. I figured they’d never make it there and took it to Disney; they bought it and slotted it to Miramax as Harvey and Bob were leaving. There was no new Miramax. So they said “Oh hey, you’re at Miramax, make some Miramax-y type movie.” And it was inexpensive, so it was under the radar.
I had been writing it with our old friend Aaron Stockard, I broke it down and it stayed on the shelf. And I got to a point where I got really over-exposed and I got really sick of the gossip machine, the paparazzi machine. I got really disillusioned about acting, if what acting meant was only a 50/50 shot at being in a movie that worked, and an 100% shot at ending up in a sort of magazine that I didn’t want to be in. And so I thought, the only thing I know how to do is withdraw myself from this circus, go live in Georgia where nobody could see me or get to me and just talk myself out of it and think, ‘what do I want to do? What do I want my life to look like? Who do I want to be? And how do I want to express that in the arts if that’s still what I to do?’
And I was thinking about this movie but I didn’t want to be in it: what a beautiful way for me to deal with some of these themes I’m interested in, to express myself, to work in these businesses, the stuff that I’ve done my whole life, with the kind of people I’ve worked with my whole life but spare myself that ugly exposure. And I got my brother to do it, got them to agree to do that, put together a little cast and sort of quietly went off and made the movie. I luckily had some friends who would hash through the script with me before I started, including Matt and others who were really helpful, my brother worked on the script with me a lot and we, we just went off and made it.
LM: What’s the best piece of advice you got about directing?
BA: It was the classic Cameron Crowe, I guess he got it from Billy Wilder, ‘wear comfortable shoes.’ I forgot about it and I thought ‘hahaha,’ and my first week I had regular shoes on and I would come home and my feet felt like they were just radiating.
I got some confidence boosts. I was terrified. I had a lot of fear, and I thought, ‘how do I just of own this, have the confidence to say, look, I belong here, I can do this.’ Because other people have to listen to you. So someone will come up to you and say ‘What do you have to say?’ and you’ll just think, ‘We’re fucked, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You’re on your own!’ Luckily I know a few directors who are actors, who are directors. I talked to a few of them: Kevin Costner, George Clooney, Warren Beatty. He is a wonderful guy and he’s so smart, he’s got the best stories in the world. You’re just so lucky if you can spend half an hour with the guy. And he also doesn’t lack confidence, you know? And I was with him and I was like, ‘you know I’m not so sure about this, I go on the set and I don’t know…’
‘Look, look, look, have you ever been on a movie as an actor and just been sitting there and looked over and saw the director and thought to yourself, if this fucking guy can do it…’ And I was like ‘Alright, that was great to know.’ It’s not for Access Hollywood, that story.
LM: What did you learn? What was the biggest lesson?
BA: I learned that as a director, you’re around all these talented people, so you have this window that all these really good ideas can come in to help your movie, so you’re crazy to close them. You need to be inspiring people, engaging people. There are lots of people who are really good at their jobs but might not know or feel like they want to come up to people and get them to participate and want to do their best. But you can go up to people and say, ‘I believe in you, I’m interested in what you think, you have something to offer here,’ and people will kill for you. They will all of a sudden show up and say, ‘I’m valued, people give a shit about me, I’m part of this team, I want to make a good movie too, as much as you do.’ And that was a tremendous asset to me, figuring that out and I figured it out pretty quick, luckily because I’d been on sets and seen so many good ideas go to waste. There is a point: you can’t take every idea, there will be one or two guys standing around, ‘You’re not gonna do that thing? You’re not gonna do the fire? You don’t think that’s good?’
‘I think we’re gonna look at that for the next one.’
And I learned that it’s iterative, it’s chipping away. For me, it wasn’t like ‘here it is, we’re going to do this scene, this scene is great,’ but it’s constantly up hill, just make it a little bit better, whether it’s about prep, casting, the scenes, and in post, definitely where you can see before your own eyes if you want to just click through the versions that it just got incrementally better. And success is a direct result, for me, of the amount of time we put in.
If you look at sports as an analogy, some guys are just so good they don’t have to practice, they don’t have to think about it, they’ve always been great, they show up, they’re in the game and they score forty points. And you go ‘okay, good for you.’ That’s not me. I’ve got to work really hard and I know exactly what I’ve achieved because I know how hard I’ve worked, and I make sure to work as hard as I absolutely possibly can, because I know that’s the only shot I have at being successful. [Applause]
LM: That’s a great work ethic. There were several high profile Boston movies at this time, they’re all good, but your movie was made by somebody from Boston, you can tell. And one way you can tell is the faces and the people and the atmosphere in the bars. No Hollywood casting director came up with those faces.
BA: Yeah we had great, real Boston people. That was a priority. That was something that I knew about growing up, that these people were out there, you had to go find them, we did our extras casting at bars at 8 in the morning. [Laughter] We pull in there and it’s just like ‘Hey – ah, what’s going on?’
And we pulled people and that was the thing I felt most confident about. Look, Scorsese made his movie, Clint Eastwood made his movie, I’m never going be those guys. What I can do, is be from Boston and try to add some truth to it. I really feel that’s part of why audiences go to movies now is to take you to a world you have no access to, whether it’s the world of Avengers or Middle-earth or bars in Boston you would be afraid to go into. You see characters there – they aren’t hobbits but they’re close. [Laughter] They’re just gnarly guys, this is forty years of alcoholism and working with your hands forever and suffering and wasting all your money on scratch tickets. You’re telling something as a director with one close-up, and so that was a huge focus for me and I thought if I can succeed in any way, I thought that was my strength and I want to play to it, basically.
LM: That’s a helluva scene from “Gone Baby Gone.”
BA: Yeah, it’s fun to watch, that was Morgan’s first day and he came on the set and you know, we were sort of dragging, we go back to his trailer, and he was already on set. He’s got such a presence, a gravitas and he just sat in his chair with the camera and you never saw a crew move so fast, they were just like, ‘Morgan’s waiting for us!’ It was really fun.
LM: People like me sometimes wonder, so does Morgan Freeman need to be directed?
BA: Not much! [Laughter] We did a couple takes and I was like, ‘Can we do one more?’ And Morgan was just like, ‘Why? Why would I do one more, why?’
‘Well it might be good…’
‘Are you happy with what we have?’
‘Yeah I’m happy, are you happy?’
‘Let’s do one more?’
‘One more, okay, here we go, here we go.’ [Laughter]
Morgan’s actually done so much. He knows. He really is one of those pros. Ed Harris is like that too. You look at his first take, you’re like, ‘oh that’s pretty good,’ and his second take, and they’re all pretty good. And I like to do a lot of takes so I fall into that trap and I have to recalibrate with a guy like that, where’s he’s just so sharp and you don’t really appreciate all the things he’s doing when you see it later, so after the first couple days we would do one or two takes, like ‘What do you think, Morgan all set?’
‘Alright all set!’
LM: Why do you like to do a lot of takes?
BA: A couple of reasons. One, I like to create a sense of relaxation, you know. If you do one take and then another take, and eventually it’s all about the slate, and saying ‘go’ and action and ‘am I going to say my line?’ And getting nervous and thinking about the course of the scene. It’s just like you’ve done enough, when you’re rolling camera it feels just the same as when you’re not and it gives the actors the chance to do whatever they want instead of this fear of, ‘I got to get it quick before they’re gonna move on.’ There’s no move on, there’s no get it quick, we have all the time in the world, let’s just do six takes without even talking about it. And you do it, and ‘let’s just do a few more’ and do a few more, and then ‘why don’t we get a little more scared.’ That’s not the Morgan approach, but that is what I’ve found for actors who are a little less experienced than masterful and want to experiment a little bit more.
LM: With ‘The Town,’ you direct yourself, the first time you did that. The logical part of my brain gets it, but emotionally I still don’t understand how you do both of those things, because directing requires a certain skill set and directing requires an entirely different skill set plus focus as an actor, you’ve got to be in the moment and in the part you’re playing, that’s all you want to be thinking about. As a director, you’ve got to be thinking about everything.
BA: For me I sort of bifurcate the experience. I think about being a director in the morning as I get ready, or I think about being a director as I’m going to shoot everybody else, and I kind of carve aside my coverage, where I’m likely to use my stuff and then I take some time and go think for a minute about what I’m going about, how it’s going to work, and what I want to try, and then we go in a shoot…
I talked to Costner, Mark Ruffalo, I talked to all these actors who have directed, every single one of them. Clooney said, ‘shoot more coverage of yourself than you think you need. Don’t be gallant when it comes to your close-up – don’t, oh well, just do one, and it’s fine.’ I really took that to heart. I just shoot, shoot, shoot and stay rolling – one thousand foot, one thousand foot – film comes in one thousand foot, about eleven minutes worth of film, in a canister that gets affixed to the camera.
So I just will crank through a bunch of that stuff without trying to direct myself or anything and as an actor you have a little bit of a barometer about when it’s good and when it isn’t, you know what I mean? Which is why I hate doing some movies and love doing others. And you go, ‘well this is feeling right,’ and I watch playback, like a take or two, and either I feel like it matches up with my idea of it or it doesn’t or just, ‘Oo no no,’ and then I just do a couple more, try a few more things and basically just stop thinking about it, sock it away, and I always give myself an extra couple weeks in post as an editor to look through all my material. And the thing about hating to hear your own voice on your voicemail, I’m so highly critical and sensitized to my stuff, so can just be like ‘no, no, no, no, no, no’ just burn through twelve takes really fast. Okay take thirteen, that one line is okay that other piece, and I’m able to identify things I like later on and calibrate them.
LM: That’s tough. That’s a lot, that’s hard.
I’ve acted plenty so I know I feel comfortable doing that. It’s more that it just carves into the bandwidth of your time as a director to focus on all tbis other stuff, because directing is monumentally complicated and it’s a function of all the time you pay to it. I think it would be great to do a movie I’m not in, I could just eat Fritos and just say, ‘yeah, it’s good!’ Some day.
LM: You’ve spent the last 19 months just talking about ‘Argo’ – you made it like three years ago. You’ve been talking about it a long, long time. But as you move forward and as you think about what you want to do next, what properties you’re looking for, do you think those decisions are affected by being a father of three children?
BA: Anything I do as an artist, in the arts, as a filmmaker, I consider it all a kind of art. This kind of work does get influenced by those kids, by the little paintings they give you, the way they look at you, the way you look at them and mostly by the way you see yourself reflected off of them into the universe and the way that reflection has very changed from what it used to be, in the sense of what my goals were, what my desires were, the way that I seen things in the world.
My kids already go with me outside, they hear people talk to me, I can’t stop them from reading little flashes of things on the newspaper or the internet and they see stuff about their Dad, you know. And it makes it profoundly important to me to do work that has integrity and that I’m proud of. It means a great deal. I had a great time in life when I was like running around and doing ‘Pearl Harbor’ and stuff. That was fun, that was a different era for me. And this era, this last seven years is something also new but something incredibly rewarding, something that has opened up a door where you go, ‘oh I wish I could have known at 15 this is actually what life is about,’ and I never saw that or anticipated that or could internalize that, or maybe I could not have believed it then or understood it.
LM: No one can explain it to you. No one can prepare you for that experience. Are you watching movies differently because you watched some movies with your kids?
BA: Yeah, first of all, there is a lot of censorship we have to do. We have to watch the movie first, then there is a lot of explaining. I don’t know if they get stuff when they watch – and as far as I know they’re just watching ‘Wreck-It Ralph’and Pixar and stuff. And my daughter came in yesterday and said, ‘How do people smuggle drugs?’ [Laughter] Is that in ‘Pocahontas?’ So it’s definitely whack-a-mole in terms of trying to navigate it. The Pixar movies are really good. It’s sweet, they like ‘Sound of Music.’
There is little American Girl questionnaire that came with one of her dolls – some people know about American Girl out there. Yes – $120. [Laughter] And it says, ‘who is your favorite celebrity or movie star?’ And my daughter put down Julie Christie. It’s like ‘Yes’ Very sweet. So trying to help them along and as they get a little older, it’s trying to get them to see it responsibly, to try to contexualize the world for them, contextualize the arts. We face a lot of challenges for all of us bringing up our children and figuring out how to do it right and the central challenge of one’s lifetime is trying to make them good people. [Applause]
In terms of talking about the movie, it is satisfying in a way: I’ve done movies where I run out of gas and things to talk about within the first twenty seconds of a junket interview. ‘What else do you got? ‘ This is the kind of film, ‘Argo,’ where I haven’t run out of the ability to talk about. It’s kind of eerily current. It examines issues that are really at the forefront of American foreign policy today, in terms of our relationship with Iran, this intractable conflict, how we got there. What is our impression within Iraq-Iran and what do we do about it? And what are the ramifications more broadly, what is the goal of our foreign service folks serving us overseas?
LM: Someone just cited your movie that other day talking about Benghazi.
BA: Do you know how much that cost? [Laughter] I’m going to be out there handing out Hillary ’16 stickers. Producing this has some challenges, Chris Terrio wrote the script, he did a great job. As a producer you get to address this holistic stuff and that’s been really interesting and that’s been able to sustain this conversation, whereas in the past, this process gets dry.
LM: Well I would be remiss if I didn’t congratulate you on being the recipient of the Golden Tomato. From Rotten Tomatoes, as being the highest scoring film of 2012.
BA: That was really fun, I was actually proud, I don’t know if you get a real tomato, I would like one, put it up there and show off to people when they come into your house if you get a good score.