SANTA BARBARA – As “Argo” star and director Ben Affleck took the stage of the Arlington Theatre last night to begin a two-hour Modern Master Award fete at the 28th annual Santa Barbara Film Festival, he settled into that on-going self-effacing tone immediately. “Ben Affleck, career retrospective,” he said. “That could go one of two ways.”
Indeed, the usual reminder reel of accomplishments that kicked off the evening was set to the Foo Fighters’ “Walk,” with lyrics ringing a note of redemption: “I think I lost my way,” “getting good at starting over,” “learning to walk again,” “I believe I’ve waited long enough, where do I begin.”
And maybe that angle is slightly played out to some at this point. How much can you really feel for a millionaire who cashed in early on and wants to be taken seriously as a craftsman now? That’s a point of view for the cynical, though.
Affleck, who talked with moderator Leonard Maltin about getting the acting bug early and relishing the responsibility and commitment of the job, said he was pulled aside once and given a speech of encouragement by an acting mentor that has stuck with him and gave him a leg up into the early stages of his career. Lately, as he’s looked to transition from tabloid beefcake to respected filmmaker, another vote of confidence wouldn’t be misplaced. And that’s what he’s been getting every step of the way this season — well, from everyone save the Academy’s directors branch.
Clips were shown in pairs throughout the evening, and the first tandem included Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” and Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy.” Affleck noted the striking difference in the two filmmakers’ approaches, how Linklater is open and fluid with improvisation and putting yourself into the role, yet Smith is so passionate about the words on the page and their power if delivered properly.
Quickly the discussion transitioned to Affleck’s breakout, “Good Will Hunting,” and how it came to Gus Van Sant via Robin Williams. Affleck and childhood friend Matt Damon wrote the script and were considering directing it themselves at a very low budget. Williams was working on an early incarnation of “Milk” with Van Sant called “The Mayor of Castro Street” and there’s the connection. Like he would all evening, Affleck noted lessons learned from filmmakers that he would take to his own career in the director’s chair.
“In retrospect, it’s been clear to me that Gus brought a lot of maturity to that movie,” Affleck said. “It could have been really adolescent if he hadn’t pulled back on some things.”
The “Good Will Hunting” clip was paired with a clip of “Armageddon,” which Affleck said was a role he took because, point blank, he wanted nothing more to be in a “real Hollywood movie,” the kind that he and his friends might have watched back at the Somerville Theatre in Boston while they were growing up. “A movie people would actually see, in essence,” he said. And that, of course, launched his time in the blockbuster trenches. He marveled at how you could make 400 “Chasing Amys” for one “Armageddon” and that the money being spent on these projects was just “madness.”
Films like “Pearl Harbor” and “Daredevil” would follow, but always sprinkled in throughout would be work in things like “Boiler Room” and “Changing Lanes” and “Shakespeare in Love.” He wanted desperately to be a part of the latter because Tom Stoppard’s script was the best he had ever read, but his career nevertheless bogged down in things like “Gigli” and “Survivng Christmas” (neither of which was uttered during the evening).
Then came the transitional point in the middle of the last decade. “Hollywoodland” was a project Affleck took very seriously. “It meant a lot to me,” he said. “I worked really hard on it and felt intensely responsible to get it right for the George Reeves.” The actor would listen to old “Superman” broadcasts on his iPod while working on Allen Coulter’s film, marinating in the role, desperate for a change in his life. And that desperation would soon give way to a stab at directing.
“I got really overexposed and sick of the paparazzi scene,” Affleck said of the years leading up to “Gone Baby Gone,” his directorial debut. “I was getting disillusioned. The only thing I knew how to do was withdraw myself from this circus. And I was thinking about this movie. I didn’t want to be in it, to spare myself the ugly exposure. And we just went off and made it.”
He was terrified, he admitted. And he fretted over how to gain the confidence to tackle the job of directing a film. He reached out to some actor/director friends and acquaintances like Kevin Costner and George Clooney, but he got the best piece of advice from Warren Beatty. “He said, ‘Look, look, look,'” Affleck recalled. “Have you ever been on a movie, looked over at the director and thought, ‘If this fucking guy can do it…'” Say no more, Affleck thought.
He began developing his style and process. For instance, he’s fond of doing a lot of takes, not because he’s obsessive about coverage but because he likes to create a sense of relaxation on the set so that “eventually it’s not about the slate and ‘action,’ it’s about it feeling the same when the camera’s rolling and when it’s not.” But he also learned about how to deal with other, more experienced personalities who might not share his philosophies, like Morgan Freeman, who’s so thorough and precise that he doesn’t need a lot of shots at nailing a take — and he knows it.
With “The Town,” things changed a bit because Affleck was directing himself for the first time. He reached out again to his actor/director friends for guidance and was told across the board, “Shoot more coverage of yourself than you think you need. Don’t be gallant.”
And now “Argo,” which Maltin noted had received this year’s “Golden Tomato” award for most critically approved film of 2012 from Rotten Tomatoes, and has also gone on to win more Best Picture prizes from critics groups than any other film this year. Talk turned a bit more serious as Affleck noted, “This is the kind of film where I haven’t run out of wanting to talk about it.” He believes its a crucial conversation, what our relationship with Iran will be going forward and what the role of diplomats really is in this day and age, and he was excited to tackle those ideas as a filmmaker.
At the same time, Affleck is a father now, and he said that has a huge sway over his choices as an artist now. He wants his children to pick up a paper and not read tabloid nonsense about their father, but perhaps read something that makes them proud.
“This last seven years is something new and also incredibly rewarding,” he said. “The central challenge of one’s lifetime is trying to make good people and having kids makes it profoundly important to me to do work that I’m proud of.”
With that, the stage was set for Matt Damon to present this year’s Modern Master Award to his friend and collaborator. In a wonderful speech, Damon noted that all those years ago, watching movies at Somerville, he and Affleck and their friends (which included ‘Gone Baby Gone’ and ‘The Town’ screenwriter Aaron Stockard) would huddle up after a movie and have a little notes session in the parking lot. It was always immature and not all that enlightening.
“And then we’d get to Ben,” Damon said, “who would have been quiet up until that point, uncharacteristically. He would say, ‘Well, it didn’t quite work for me. But had they done this and this and this at the beginning, what you could have done in the middle was have a scene where you did this, and then you could have had a great scene at the end where you could have done that.'”
It’s just a skill that Affleck had, Damon said. Whether he was born with it or not, he had it when he was 14 and they started going to see movies together. “He could lift up the hood and take a look at the engine and get in there and take it apart and put it back together and the whole thing would run smoother,” he said. “It’s what made him such a great writing partner. He could problem solve. And so much of filmmaking is just that. He’s made three fantastic movies, one better than the next. And one thing I’ve learned is you cannot make a great movie by accident. Anybody who makes a great movie is a great director. Period. He is undeniably two things: my very old friend and a very young master.”
It was one of the better tributes I’ve seen at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, owed largely to the affable Affleck’s storytelling panache (impressions of John Frankenheimer, Morgan Freeman and Warren Beatty were littered throughout a number of humorous anecdotes). And it was a positive stop on the circuit. For a few hours, the fact that he was unceremoniously passed over by his fellow directors didn’t seem to matter. And at an intimate after-party following the tribute, Affleck seemed as positive as ever that his film has a chance to beat the odds and win Best Picture at the Oscars.
The first potential step on that road comes tonight at the PGA Awards. Whether he pulls it off or not, though, it’s clear he’s more grateful than anything to have made a tough transition in his career and found his way as an artist behind the camera.