The one big surprise from this past week”s SAG Award nominations was that Ben Affleck”s hit and critically acclaimed ensemble thriller “The Town” wasn”t nominated for best ensemble. As Academy members begin to sit watch or re-watch their holiday screeners and DVD”s between Christmas and New Year”s, chances are that oversight will be remedied when Oscar nominations are revealed on Jan. 25. I spoke to Affleck before both SAG and Golden Globe nominations were announced as he did some awards-friendly press conveniently timed to “The Town”s” DVD and Blu-ray release this past Friday. It was a jovial chat about his genuine surprise surrounding the box office success of his second directorial effort, living up to the praise of a major studio chairman, working with Terrence Malick over the past few months and his next and arguably most important gig.
When I last spoke to you it was the Toronto Film Festival and just a week before “The Town” was going to open. The reception has been great, but most in the media and competing studios were surprised by how big the film hit and its playability throughout the fall. Was this, however, something you had expected?
Affleck: No, business-wise, I was hoping like, y’know, I knew that the movie was tracking well and playing to audiences, but I knew there were some really competitive weeks following us and I just really wanted to manage expectations. I thought if we could do enough business to break even I”ll be happy, because chances are I”ll be able to make another movie like this. So, I was very surprised and happy with how things turned out. We did better than I thought.
Any hints? Did you have any early reviews or test screenings that foreshadowed it?
Affleck: No, not really. It was very much, ‘Well, we”ll be happy if we do this or we do that.” Very conservative kind of feel and a lot of respect for other material that was in the marketplace. It was only just when we did a number on the weekend that they told me what to expect it was like, ‘Oh, wow. Is that good news?” (Laughs.) I think it was a legitimate surprise to Warner”s and everyone else.
You”ve always been very humble especially in terms of “Gone Baby Gone” and this, regarding the fact that you are just privileged you get to direct films. Now, you”ve got Warner Bros. Chairman and CEO Alan Horn doing public interviews mentioning you alongside Christopher Nolan and Clint Eastwood as filmmakers he wants to make happy. Do you feel like there has been a light switched on and you won”t have to be fighting to make your next film?
Affleck: Well, obviously Alan is being…y”know. He”s lumped me in with such successful directors and I”m lucky to be there, but I guess so. This is something I always felt like I wanted to do and as long as I had the opportunity to keep direct movies I would continue to do it. And I think the business is very much the same way it is for acting as it is for directing. It”s very ‘your last one worked, you get to do another one.” And you really have to fight up hill. I”m hoping that the movie I want to make next I”ll be able t. I”m feeling just generally comfortable not so much with the idea that it”s worked out for me, but I feel comfortable with the idea that this is what I want to do. And sometimes it will work and sometimes it won”t, but every time out I understand that it is a privilege to work in this business and you have to respect that. You have to really dedicate yourself to the work every time you go out there and if you can be comfortable with that you can be happy.
Is it safe to say you are being sort of picky about the project you”ll take next? There were rumors in various outlets about you being offered or talked to about the new ‘Superman” and you turned it down.
Affleck: I have found for sure as an actor it is more important about what you say no to than what you say yes to. That movie, incidentally, is gonna do great and be great and has that nothing to do with me. In general, going forward, for me it”s about ‘What movie am I interested in making? What movie do I really connect to?” If the director isn”t secure enough about it, the movie won”t work. Directing a movie takes a year or two years. You”ve got to love it as much on day 500 as you do on day one other wise it”s not going to work. So, It just means there is a forced judiciousness for me. Even the kind of thing I”d do as an actor for 10 weeks? I could try a character? I can”t do that as a director. I have to be part of a story I want to tell.
You transitioned from all this great success on “The Town” to almost immediately shooting in front of the screen with Terrence Malick. What was that like? Many would be intimidated to work with him or even interview him…
Affleck: I don”t think he”s going to be doing very many interviews on this one. (Laughs). [Note: Malick has rarely spoken to the press over his 40-year career.] It was very intimidating to work with someone you respect that much and especially someone who has a body of work that is to be as admired as his is. It definitely is an added burden. I dunno. I guess you wanna work as hard as you can every time you go out there, but I really felt daunted. Fortunately, he”s very gracious and serene and not at all like a sort of the “lord” or “genius” of the set or anything like that. I learned a lot about directing from him.
Can you say anything about what that project is about? It feels like it is draped in secrecy.
Affleck: Yeah, his theory, which I agree with — well, I think it”s his theory – I get the sense it”s that the more people know in advance about the movie the less they will enjoy it.. But I definitely think, although he”s never told this to me, that he doesn”t want me to say what the story is or talk about the movie too much. Although, I”m sure when the movie comes out I”ll be talking to you on the phone again. (Laughs.)
Jumping back to “The Town.” Was there anything you heard or people would come up to you or say why they liked it so much or reflect on something? Is there anything you found out post-mortem?
Affleck: So a lot of the discovery I found out occurred before it came out for paying audiences. There were so many things. I mean, doing a movie it”s really different from doing a play where you are in front of an audiences and you are really connected to how they feel. You are getting a lot of feedback. There”s something about doing a movie where you”re not only doing a 500-foot tile mosaic one foot from the wall, but you”re also doing it in a total vacuum. So, what I find, by the way, is that showing stuff even when it”s rough [to friends and select audiences is very helpful]. Like, ‘Did you understand this character was the bad guy? Did any of this make sense to you?” (Laughs.) And a lot of the surprises came from seeing just how quickly audiences got absorbed into things and that, in particular, if you have good performances, whether it”s Renner, Hamm or Blake, just how quickly the audiences get it. You don”t have to worry about ‘Do I have to tell this story?” When the performances are there they get it through osmosis. They get it through the performances at lots of different levels. And it”s also such a good lesson to learn. You just don”t have to indicate even though your anxiety as a director makes you think, ‘How are they going to understand this? I better paint a sign.”
Having broke out in an Oscar nominated film, “Good Will Hunting,” you’ve certainly had your share of awards season campaigns, but there is a lot of buzz about “The Town” this year. Not only is it a popular movie, but a lot of people in the industry really love it and respect it and it”s getting lots of talk as one of Academy members favorites. Does that make you uncomfortable? Do you just want to push it aside?
Affleck: Basically I view that stuff as completely out of my control. It”s great because there is a fun side to it and it”s great to be more sanguine about it. It”s a really nice thing. It”s a nice feeling, ‘I”ve been working on this a long time and really doubting it, but other people get it.” But at the same token, I don”t define my success or failure by that. I accomplished what I set out to do and I have my own metric for that. So, if I can really sort of internalize that I”m really in good shape. And most days, I can.
Do you know what you are doing next?
Affleck: Dude, I”m going to tell you exactly what I am doing next. I am going to be Mr. Mom while my wife [Jennifer Garner] does a movie, but you won”t see “Mr. Mom” coming to a theater near you because we are going to play it live. (Laughs.)
Do you guys trade off?
Affleck: We try to. She”s been quite accommodating, because the “Town” took all this time and then all of a sudden the Malick movie came along and it was like, ‘Well, you can”t turn that down.” Even though I was supposed to be [back home]. Now she has a movie and I”ll be hanging with my kids and taking care of the homestead for Jan. and Feb a bit and then after that? I can”t tell you about that.
You have an idea.
Affleck: I actually don”t. There are a couple of things that are in the hopper, but all of them are things that didn”t work out. ‘Wasn”t he supposed to be in that?” But I”m trying to find something, naturally, but its like we talked about, I”d so much rather not work than do the wrong thing.
“The Town” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Follow Gregory Ellwood and Awards Campaign on Twitter @HitFixGregory