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Every year, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival gives me the opportunity to host its Modern Master tribute to a major star or filmmaker. This year Ben Affleck and I spent more than two hours on stage reviewing his career, with excerpts from his many films, beginning with Dazed and Confused and ending with Argo. It’s easy to forget just how much he’s done over the past twenty years or so: Chasing Amy, Armageddon, Shakespeare in Love, Good Will Hunting, Boiler Room, Pearl Harbor, Daredevil, the underrated Hollywoodland, and so much more. I’ve chatted briefly with Affleck before but never had a chance to conduct an in-depth interview like this, before a sell-out crowd at the enormous Arlington Theatre. I had a great time and, despite the multitude of interviews he’s given over the past few months, he seemed to enjoy it, too. What’s more, his lifelong pal Matt Damon was there to present him with his award at the evening’s conclusion.

The two have known each other since they were kids. Damon recalled that after they and their buddies (including Ben’s brother Casey) would watch a movie at their local theater in Somerville, Massachusetts, Ben alone had the ability to dissect it—“look under the hood,” as Damon put it—and analyze what was right or wrong with it. Later, when he would pass along the script of a film he was about to act in to Matt and his pal would protest that it had serious flaws, Ben would agree and cite the things he hoped to fix—if only the director would take his advice. It rarely worked out as he hoped it would.

Now that he’s a director himself, he’s had a chance to prove his mettle as a storyteller. It’s clear that he has great skill and, just as important, good taste. How many fledgling filmmakers have made three films in a row as good as Gone Baby Gone, The Town, andArgo?

I mentioned that one of the things that impressed me most about Gone Baby Gone was the faces of the background people and bit players. They gave the picture an authenticity that the other high-profile Boston-based films of that era (Eastwood’s Mystic River and Scorsese’s The Departed) couldn’t match. He explained that they cast all their “atmosphere” people in local bars at 8 in the morning! 

Affleck is a fine raconteur, candid about the films that didn’t come up to snuff like his superhero picture Daredevil, which I actually liked but he says never overcame a series of production problems. He can be self-deprecating, as in describing his efforts to acquire a credible British accent for Shakespeare in Love by listening to a cassette of sonnets read by some English actor—then discovering that very actor, Simon Callow, sitting next to him at the cast’s first table reading. Callow offered to continue coaching him at his apartment, after putting his hand on Ben’s knee, more than once, which he demonstrated with me onstage. He’s also a gifted mimic, and had the crowd in stitches with his dead-on impressions of everyone from Morgan Freeman, whom he directed in Gone Baby Gone, to Matthew McConaughey, whom he met twenty years ago working on Dazed and Confused. (He enjoyed working with director Richard Linklater, but wryly observed that everyone in that film had an appealing character to play except him!)

He spoke about athletes who never practice but simply show up and score 40 points per game, and admitted he’s never been like that. He has to work hard and he knows it. It was true when he and Matt Damon went on casting calls in New York City as teenagers and it’s still true today. Recalling those early days, he says he’ll never hire an actor who hasn’t learned his lines before an audition.

It was the desire to generate a couple of juicy roles that led him and Damon to work on their screenplay for Good Will Hunting—a fluke that led to them earning Academy Awards. And it was a desire to get out of the spotlight and away from the soul-crushing world of paparazzi—without abandoning the movie business—that made him think about moving behind the camera to direct Gone Baby Gone. Life is funny that way; we don’t always get to plan our next step, but after some bumps in the road, Ben Affleck is riding high with the success of Argo, happily married to former costar Jennifer Garner and raising three daughters.

No one handed any of this to him on a platter: he earned it all, and he seems to be relishing that success. It was a pleasure to share the stage with him on Friday night.

Click HERE to read about last year’s onstage conversation with Martin Scorsese.

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