You know you have successfully reinvented your Hollywood career when the first question of every interview changes from "Why did you make that movie?" to "How did you make that movie?"
For your consideration: Ben Affleck, the 2012 version—an accomplished 40-year-old director of movies that please both critics and audiences, a dutiful father of three, and, not incidentally, an actor in ever-firmer command of his craft.
With his first two features behind the camera, Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), Affleck, who grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, mined the terrain of Baaahston bad guys and antiheroes so skillfully that he probably could have kept working the genre for years. Instead, he chose to raise the stakes with Argo (opening October 12), a drama that retells a long-classified story from the Iran hostage crisis. In the film, Affleck plays a CIA agent who enlists a Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin) and a makeup artist (John Goodman) in a quixotic attempt to extract six American-embassy workers hidden in the Canadian ambassador's residence in Tehran by having them impersonate a film crew producing the cheesiest Star Wars rip-off never made. Argo is full of revelations, not the least of which is how deftly Affleck juggles backlot humor, suspense, and geopolitics while steeping the film in his love for the cinema of the 1970s, which he calls "the greatest era in American movies."
Appropriately, our interview begins in Burbank, California, on the Warner lot—not the part where rich producers have office bungalows but an old New York streetscape (complete with brownstone façades and alleys and stoplights) that's fallen into disuse. "These days it's mostly TV shows like Harry's Law that shoot here," Affleck says wistfully as a tour bus rounds the corner into view. The passing visitors show no signs of recognizing the star—not a surprise, since in tailored jeans, an untucked dark button-down, and the gray-flecked beard he grew for Argo, Affleck looks more like an exec or a crew member than "talent."
The bus disappears around a bend of the ersatz urban horizon. "I thought this would be a good place for us to talk," Affleck says, "because this is a studio movie. A real one. We shot part of the film right here on the backlot, which not that many movies do anymore." It's clear he's a long, long way from . . . well, you remember that stuff. He knows you do. And he's okay with it.
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DETAILS: Argo doesn't fit neatly into any genre. How did you manage to make a movie that's both a sharp comedy about the movie industry and also a complicated historical drama?
Ben Affleck: That was the toughest thing. I thought, "This is my third movie—I have confidence that I know how to shoot, I know good actors, and the script is good. The one thing for me to do is to deal with tone." And tone is really hard. When you get tone wrong, it's not like you can go reshoot it. You're just fucked. The movie's destroyed.
My big concern was that there's so much comedy, and if it became too slapstick or too goofy, suddenly you don't care about those people trapped in Iran, because you know they're going to get saved. I always said the joke is the first thing to go. If it borderline does anything wrong to the rest of what we're doing, it has to go, even if it's gut-busting.
After that, I just made sure that every moment felt real. I wanted these actors to feel that they were in this house in Tehran. So we went to all these cliché-Method lengths.
DETAILS: You had the six actors playing hostages live together while you were shooting in Istanbul, right?
Ben Affleck: On Pearl Harbor, they put us in with military guys for two weeks, and it was incredibly hard. But incredibly good for me as a person. I don't know how much it correlated to what happened in the movie, but I remembered that worked well. So I thought, "I'm gonna have them live in the house, and if nothing else, it'll give them something to say at the junket." And they stuck with it, the six of them—they kind of formed this unit, drinking together, running around Turkey. They had bonded.
DETAILS: What made you decide to star in Argo too?
Ben Affleck: I liked the idea of being in the movie, pushing it forward. As an actor, you can steer a scene in another direction by playing it a little differently. And honestly? I like being an actor, and I want to keep having a career. It'd be very easy for me to get lost in directing for a year and a half or two. It's a business with a very short memory.
DETAILS: But when you're acting in your own movie, don't you miss having a director to lean on?
Ben Affleck: Every single director-actor I talked to, from Warren Beatty to Clint Eastwood to George Clooney, said the biggest mistake they made is not shooting enough footage of themselves. You go back to the editing room and you have virtually nothing to work with. And you think, "I could've done better—a director would have pushed me to do more." So I just said, "Okay, I'll push myself to do more."
I remember saying to Beatty, who I worship, "This whole thing makes me nervous." And he said, "Look, haven't you ever been on the set and you looked at the director and thought, 'I could do it at least as well as this fuckin' guy'?" [Laughs] So I felt emboldened to shoot a lot of film. And the direction of myself happened in the editing room. I found myself to be the easiest person to cut because I'm so critical of myself. There are some actors you just fall in love with. I don't have that issue.
DETAILS: People who see this movie will feel your love of seventies American moviemaking all over it.
Ben Affleck: That's so true that it's starting to make me self-conscious. I'm sure I can make a movie that doesn't feel like a seventies movie! But the truth is, that's my favorite era in American filmmaking. To me, those were the great years. The Friends of Eddie Coyle was a movie that I copied—well, copied, whatever, was inspired by—for The Town. The Verdict was the poster I had on the wall during Gone, Baby, Gone.
DETAILS: Which films were in your head for Argo?**
Ben Affleck: All the President's Men was a big one for the D.C. scenes. The Cassavetes movie The Killing of a Chinese Bookie for the seedy-Hollywood vibe. And Slap Shot. I know it doesn't seem obvious, but it has some of that character-based, slightly profane humor. I have a lot of influences. I like to sit down with the cinematographer a month before, and we'll watch pieces of 20 or 30 movies. You're basically the sum of all the experiences you've ever had, and they're sort of shaken up in you and reproduced in the things you create, and that includes seeing movies. And I think you're made better by watching the masters, that's for sure.
DETAILS: And you even committed to 1970s hair!
Ben Affleck: I wanted to lead by example, and I didn't want to be vain about it. There were times when I panicked and thought, "I'm gonna look like the Bee Gees in the CIA." But when I watched old movies, that's how it was. There are pockets in the culture now where long hair is like a thing. So some of it was reaching deep into hipsterism to find people who have hair long enough to play people from 1979. I wanted the seventies feel to be accurate, but not in-your-face. Everybody doesn't just go Afros-and-bell-bottoms-and-shag-carpets-in-the-back-of-the-El-Camino.
DETAILS: Do you think Argo is a political movie?
Ben Affleck: [Inhales sharply and winces]
DETAILS: I know that's a dangerous label, but the movie makes some strong points about Hollywood stagecraft versus Washington stagecraft.
Ben Affleck: Nobody wants it said about a movie, "This is really a political screed." And I tried to adhere to the research. But it's certainly about political life-and-death situations— among them, the unintended consequences of revolution, which we're seeing played out now.
DETAILS: You start the movie with some quick history about the Shah's fall and Khomeini's rise. That was clearly important to you.
Ben Affleck: I didn't want it to seem like, "Those people are crazy, so we sent in a CIA agent, and he's a hero." If we start with Middle Eastern people screaming at Americans who are trying to get out, and we don't know where we are and why we're there, it taps into this notion that they're just mad barbarians who yell for no reason. A lot of people are unaware of the history that predates the revolution. So to give them some context and complexity, you help them understand where we were as a country at that time. The Vietnam hangover. Watergate hangover. High unemployment. A lot of uncertainty about the role of our troops in foreign countries, particularly in the Middle East. Gas prices going up very high. It was a tough time, and what's nice about the movie, and satisfying, is that it's a genuinely good thing that gets accomplished by our government to rescue our people.
DETAILS: Let's go backward a little. I don't want to push you into a false magazine narrative that doesn't match your life—
Ben Affleck: That'd be a first.
DETAILS: —but by 2003, you were the star of two potential franchises, Daredevil and The Sum of All Fears, that didn't go forward. We probably knew more about your romantic life than you would have preferred. And then Gigli. I don't think a lot of people would have said, "By 2012, this guy will have directed three very good movies."
Ben Affleck: In our culture, we get very much into shorthanding people. And I got shorthanded as That Guy: Jennifer Lopez, movies bombed, therefore he must be a sort of thoughtless dilettante, solipsistic consumer blahblahblah. It's hard to shake those sort of narratives. If you were looking at that one-liner on me in 2003, which was definitely the annus horribilis [laughs] of my life—it's funny how that rhymes with Sacha Baron Cohen's pronunciation of "ah-noose"—
DETAILS: Well, you were kind of in that place.
Ben Affleck: Exactly! I made a bunch of movies that didn't work. I was ending up in the tabloids. I don't know what the lesson is, except that you just have to find your compass.
I liked Sum of All Fears. Daredevil I didn't at all. Some movies should have worked and didn't. At a certain point, it's just up to the movie gods. Anyway, this image becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And I just said, "I don't want to do it anymore. This is horrible. I don't want to be in this spotlight, this glare, in this way. It's tawdry, it's ugly, it's oppressive, and it's inane. So I'm going to try to get away."
And most of the way I did that was by not acting. I said, "I'm going to steer myself toward directing. I'm going to do something that takes me toward a place where the work that I do is reflective of what I think is interesting dramatically."
People bring up 2003, and I get it. Jennifer Lopez, and Gigli, and all this shit just kind of blew up. But, you know, in 2003, Barack Obama was a state senator in Illinois! Okay?
DETAILS: A lot can happen.
Ben Affleck: A lot can happen. And a lot has for me. Maybe not as much as has happened for Barack Obama! But you know, it really does feel like ancient history.
DETAILS: I was fascinated that you chose to play the 1950s TV Superman, George Reeves, in Hollywoodland. Because he was, among other things, an actor frustrated at the limits of being a superhero.
Ben Affleck: You know, putting on the uncomfortable, cheesy suit—I understood that. And I understood what it was like to feel limited by perceptions and having ambitions to do things that were more interesting.
And also, I got married, and I got older. And had kids. You know, the current of the river of life moves you downstream anyway. But I definitely reject the narrative that says, you know, Bad Guy Turned It Around. My life isn't Behind the Music. I wasn't a criminal!
DETAILS: Since Good Will Hunting, the pairing of you and Matt Damon in people's minds has never quite gone away. Did you ever feel, "This comparison is not helping"?
Ben Affleck: It's interesting. At the time, I didn't even realize that it was being used to promote a movie. I was 25, and I was naïve enough to think, "Well, Entertainment Weekly is just really interested in this!" And, you know, we really were friends and roommates, and we did write the movie together.
I started to realize that people conflated us, or particularly me, with the characters. People assumed that I was the amiable, dim-witted friend, right? [Laughs] Which wasn't exactly what I was going for! Matt and I have had a friendship for 25 years. We don't get wound up about that stuff. You learn to roll your eyes.
When I was doing The Town, I'd tour the actors around Boston. I was with Blake [Lively], and I saw Matt's childhood home. And I said, "Oh yeah, that's where Matt grew up." And she said, "Who?" And I said, "Matt Damon." And she said, "Oh my God! You know Jason Bourne?!" She really didn't know. And I thought, "There it is. The first age of people who are adults who missed the whole Matt-and-Ben propaganda campaign!" Mostly, it just made me feel old.
DETAILS: You've got three young kids now, so I imagine you've had to learn to conserve your resources.
Ben Affleck: Absolutely. Anytime you think, "I'm wasting my time here," the first thought you have is "I could go home and be with my kids." Now, you may go home and be with your kids and very quickly start thinking, "I wonder what's on the work front?" Because running around after three kids is very trying. Now everything has to compete with being with my family. I don't want to be a stay-at-home dad. Work is very important to me. I like to work. So does my wife. But I need my work to mean something to me in order for me to not be home with them.
DETAILS: As a director, you seem to pay attention to everything—the actors, the camera, the edit, the sound mix, the film stock, the lenses. Is there any part of the process you don't like?
Ben Affleck: I love all of it. I feel like when you're a director and you get to the point where everyone else is rolling their eyes at you and wants to go home, you're probably doing it right! [Laughs] Definitely the most frustrating part is visual effects. In this movie, it was all, like, changing signs into Farsi and taking satellite dishes off the roof. And I have no experience with visual effects, so I just go, "Make it better! Just make it look better!" And people look at me like, "Really, asshole? Make it better? Is that what you want? Ohhh, okay, better!" I'm still learning that language, and it keeps changing.
A lot of big movies are almost codirected by FX houses, because what can you do when the script says, "Here's our hero, he flies down, he turns into 30 monkeys, and they spin around and fight each other"? You know? They're the people who have to do it while the director sits there and says, "Uh, I dunno, can that monkey maybe stretch out a little more? What's the elasticity of the tail?" And the audience expects those movies to top each other.
DETAILS: When you're shooting, are you the kind of guy who goes to sleep thinking about the movie?
Ben Affleck: Always, always. I'm not very present in the rest of my life. My wife's very patient. She does everything. If I have time, I try to spend time with the kids, even if just to be a physical presence, the bath, whatever. But my mind's always going, "How are we going to light that shot tomorrow? What's the master shot for that scene? Is there even going to be a master?" Just ruminating endlessly. Because for me—I wish it was discipline or being a great artist. But it's just anxiety.
DETAILS: You're clearly attracted to the kind of adult dramas that studios are reluctant to make and that come out in the fall, between blockbuster seasons. You're sort of Mr. October, but it doesn't mean the same thing it means in baseball.
Ben Affleck: [Laughs] Yeah. It's like being Mr. May in baseball! It is tough, because there are a lot of good filmmakers making movies. If you look at who's out there, you look at [Alejandro González] Iñárritu, and you look at Paul Thomas Anderson, and you look at the Coen brothers, and you look at Scorsese, the list just goes on and on. David O. Russell, Darren Aronofsky. And all of those directors get relegated to September to mid-November, because Thanksgiving and December are just Blockbustersville all over again.
DETAILS: You're highly selective in picking the movies you direct. Does that now extend to your acting choices?
Ben Affleck: Probably. I'm acting a lot less. And when I have the time, I think, "It has to be a really good part, it has to be a director I want to work with." My life's different now. It's not as if when I'm not acting I'm in a club or playing video games. I have my family. I have philanthropic work that means a lot to me. So I've definitely turned down some things. Not because I suddenly have such great taste but . . . maturity, I guess. The kinds of movies that used to appeal to me don't necessarily appeal to me anymore.
DETAILS: When do you imagine you'd like to direct again?
Ben Affleck: I'd like to find another movie to do this fall. Or if not, not. Because I'm gonna whistle-stop this movie. Between Europe and here, it'll be two months of promotion. Which I would never do if I just acted in a movie. But if you direct, you'll basically do anything. It'll be exhausting, but there's a lot to talk about. Politics, Hollywood, history, the seventies, seventies movies! It's not just "Do you remember your first kiss?"
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