Can this be the same guy Hollywood (along with most of the world) considered just another former-talent-turned-train-wreck a couple of years ago, going straight to video with James Gandolfini in Surviving Christmas, and whose biggest hit was the high profile implosion of his relationship with Jennifer Lopez?
A quick Hollywoodland later, and we were all talking about Ben Affleck in the same reverent tones we used way back in 1997 when he and buddy Matt Damon blitzed Hollywood with their Oscar-winning script for Good Will Hunting.
Suddenly the artist formerly known as B-Aff has been attaining Weinsteinian heights of awards season buzz thanks to his three directorial efforts, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo.
He stars in and directs the latter, and talked about his career renaissance, politics and more in Los Angeles.
Argo is very different from your previous two films. What excited you about it?
Exactly that – it wasn’t a crime movie in Boston. Otherwise I thought I was going to be limited to a very narrow genre down the road. I was excited because it had a bunch of things that I was really interested in, including the history of Iran and its politics and our involvement with its politics. I was a Middle Eastern studies major in college, it’s something I’ve always been interested in.
The other was it had a sense of fun. 1970s Hollywood is the Golden Age of Hollywood to me, my favourite movies were made in the 70s, I modelled every section of this movie off 70s Hollywood movies. I took All the President’s Men vibe and put that in the CIA. The end of the movie had a sort of The Last King of Scotland thing. I steal from whoever I can.
How differently did you have to work considering it was a true story?
A true story gives you a whole set of responsibilities that you have to adhere to because you can’t just change things as you would another story.
But I really don’t know how to make a movie at all if it doesn’t feel real, that’s sort of been the metric I’ve used. Even when the other true stories were fictional I used as many real elements as I possibly could or made it real to me or imagined how it would be most likely happen in real life and I do that with research. And this movie had a ton of research, I had the pleasure of researching everywhere from the CIA to the State Department.
Was it hard not to demonise the Iranians and depict them as a mob?
I was very conscious of not wanting to demonise people. The footage I looked at of the students in these demonstrations got into a kind of a mania, yelling and shouting and burning things. I thought that mob energy was interesting and necessary to the story.
Probably the most important character in the story for me is the housekeeper. She represents the regular Iranian caught in the middle. Not a revolutionary, not an Islamist, just somebody who is trying to go to work. And then she’s put in a place where she might have to turn some people over who will probably get killed.
Cycles and stories like this play out all over that country and all over countries around the world where it’s the regular people that are really caught in the middle. She leaves and goes to Iraq and we have one last shot in the movie of a bunch of refugees left standing at the border whose destiny is uncertain. It’s the most important thing for this movie because it tells us not to pick sides.
It’s the second film where you’ve directed yourself in a major part. Is it getting easier every time?
A little. The first time I didn’t know if I could do it so there was an amount of terror involved that was absent a bit on this one. I still had nerves, I still felt like I had to be scared because if I’m not I won’t be at a 100 percent of my ability.
But I started to figure where my time was better spent and were it wasn’t, and that’s a big deal. Time is the main thing, time and energy. You need 100 percent of your time just to direct the movie and now it turns out acting is going to carve out 25 percent of that, so you have to figure out what you’re not going to do, what you’re going to delegate to someone else. And I knew what to delegate a little bit better the second time around.
Did you act in it at all to attract financial interest to get it made?
On the one hand it helps get the movie rolling and on the other hand the scripts I’ve gotten as a director are better or more interesting than ones I’ve seen as an actor. Or else maybe I just have a different eye that I apply to it.
But I find it really satisfying. I can definitely see a world in the future where I don’t act in movies that I direct because it takes so much time away but then I go act in smaller things. But for the time being it’s exciting to write, produce, direct and star and to take the whole movie on and see if you can make it work on your own merit.
Did your career reinvention, for want of a better word coincide with you having a family?
I was doing one movie after another, chasing my tail a little bit. Some movies didn’t work at all and I got into this tabloid glare in a really bad way. I thought ‘let me just get out of this, whatever I want to do can’t be worse than this professionally’. So I decided to segue out of it and start directing, and I put together Gone Baby Gone.
So I changed the focus of my life around that time I got married. I don’t know if the two have anything to do with each other. I credit her with all the good things in my life. So I’m sure that’s probably the case.