We talk to Ben Affleck about his latest film The Town.
Ben, I was wondering why you wanted to star in this film, as opposed to only directing, and do you have any Boston-related stories in mind for the future?
Ben Affleck: I do not have any Boston-related stories in mind for the future. I'm not looking to just specifically have a career making stories about Boston. I just happen to find two stories set in Boston and, probably, being from there helped me a little bit.
And stepping back from acting was really just a function of taking a step toward directing and toward some more unusual stuff, Hollywoodland and then Gone Baby Gone, State of Play after that, and this movie, which I was interested in. It was just kind of creative instincts; I felt ready to try being an actor and a director. So, it wasn't meta-planning stuff.
What were the challenges of the Boston accent, and who had the hardest time with it?
I think the accents are a big issue because if you don't do them well, as Jeremy said, they can really upend your movie. You have to hire really good actors to do it. You have to know they can do it. Blake came in and read the scenes for me and I asked her what part of Boston she was from, so that was handled. And then, with Renner, who I knew was a good actor-a great actor-I wasn't worried about his ability to do it; I was just worried, would he do it? To what extent would he invest? And so I sent him a lot of recordings. But more than the recordings, I found that it's about the people that you stand next to. So, I put the right people around Jeremy, and Jeremy's so smart, immediately you just see him sort of radiating towards the people, without them knowing who could be helping him. It was really fun to watch, and he showed up at the set and he had it dead right.
Blake also did her tour with some of these girls in the projects who took her around. She spent time with them-because it's not just an accent. It's not just vowels and diphthongs-it's a world with courage-it's so many different things. And particularly people in Boston are really hard on that kind of thing: 'I saw it. Yeah, the accents were alright.'
And Rebecca had a doubly challenging thing. Her character is from Marblehead. So, we recorded a bunch of dialects from Marblehead. It's almost an American kind of flat dialect, not meant to stand out as Charlestown or as anything else. And with Hamm, we talked about it. He and I had the same instinct that being from wherever he's from-Illinois, Missouri, Rochester, or something-being an outsider kind of said more, for him, than being somebody who had an accent.
In terms of your work as a screenwriter, what works best for you as a director? When it comes to the script changes, are you flexible to make changes on the fly?
Sure, I think style is a function of conditions. You'll do different things depending what the conditions are. On this case, I was already working with Chuck's fine novel. So, really he had given me most of what I needed. And the only difference between what was there and what was going to be on the screen was going to be the additional research I did, and the peculiar, specific choices that I made, as a director, about what I wanted to photograph.
In that sense, I view screenwriting in its best form-particularly if you're going to have multiple screenwriters-as one good idea on top of another. So, when I got good ideas and I had some of my ideas, I brought them to this table here that you're seeing. And add to that, Robert Elswit, and Dylan Tichenor, and all of our crew. They brought their ideas as well, with the stuff the cast does in their scenes, little changes, little moments. That's writing, that's directing, that's making the movie better. So, I continue to try to stay nimble and open and kind of dexterous to that stuff, because that's where you get the best stuff.
How much cooperation did you have from the law enforcement officials in the Boston area, and how do you think they'll react to the way they were portrayed in the film?
There were various levels of cooperation. We were not officially embraced by the FBI, for example. We don't use their actual logos. We're not sanctioned by the Department of Justice, for one thing. That's a long process. Another thing, you end up in an editorial situation where you have to really subject your film to creative concerns that you might not want governing what you want to do. That being said, people that work for the Department of Justice in the Boston area are extraordinary people. They're smart; they work hard; they're trying to catch real bad guys all the time; and they're no joke, these people. They were willing-on their own time, not while they are being paid by the taxpayer-to sit down and talk to us about Jon, about how they do their job, and why they think it's important. They told us what kind of cars they drove, and what kind of clothes they bought. We bothered them about what kind of socks they had, and that kind of thing.
They did not share all of their techniques with us. They were very clear with the boundaries that they have set. There were a lot of surveillance techniques, arrest techniques, that they didn't want us to know, because they thought we'd put it in the movie and would make bad guys smarter. They did not cross any of their boundaries and they did not give us official support. But, you know, outside of that context, they were supportive and I think they were portrayed the way I see them, which is with honor; their human beings naturally, but they're portrayed with honor and they do a good job, and so did the Boston Police.
There have been a lot of bank heist movies over the years, going back 60 years. How do you let yourselves be inspired by something while not being inspired so much that you can't do something different? Can you talk about that a little bit?
For me, there was a number of films, obviously, Heat is a huge influence. It looms quite large over this movie. It's extraordinary. And, you know, we had to kind of work to not be too close to Heat, in fact. Rififi is a great movie. The Bank Job is a great movie. Friends of Eddie Coyle is a big inspiration. An Italian movie called Gomorrah was a movie I watched a bunch before I got going with this.
The fact that there are a lot of movies in this genre points to the fact that it's kind of tricky to do it. You don't change the genre; you re-tell those same things over and over again. So, the danger is that the audience is going to feel it's a little predictable. But those movies stand as reminders that even living within the same genres or conventions, you can do something special. That's what we were trying to do-to walk in the footsteps of movies ranging from the great Warner Bros gangster movies to the great Michael Mann gangster movie to Italian movies, and so on.
How on Earth did you put together that car chase in Boston's North End? That was remarkable.
We had a lot of trouble in the North End because it's quite constricted. I mean, it helped us because it looked like what I wanted it to look like, which was rather like the walls closing in on us. The police would be unable to catch somebody if there were an obstacle thrown in front of their car, because they couldn't get around the obstacle.
That being said, the community is extremely powerful, politically, in the North End. If you were doing that in Dorchester or in Everett, you wouldn't be getting maybe the same kind of push back from the municipal authorities. So, it was very difficult for us and we needed to be judicious about how we worked in the North End-where we parked; how much we smashed; how much we burn the cars. And to make matters worse, it rained, so we kept postponing. We closed all these streets, and then we wouldn't be shooting. And the North End is now a great tourist destination, so we were taking money out of people's wallets when we did that.
This movie is nothing if not a long apology to the people of the North End, so I hope they like it. I wish there was a way where you can bring your phone bill and get in free. [Laughs] But anyway, I'm sorry.
Did you get any of your first picks for the cast? Also, did you consider possibly having your wife play your girlfriend in this movie, not that Rebecca isn't wonderful in it.
My wife is a great actress and I would be profoundly lucky to work with her. Something tells me that people don't want to see real life couples together in a movie. [Laugh] If I could pick a woman to work with, it would be my wife. She's magnificent. She's magnificent in her own movies, and maybe one day down the line I'd be lucky enough to direct her. I was fortunate in that I was able to get all the first choices that I have for this movie. I knew I wanted Chris Cooper back when I was doing Company Men right before this. I was buttering Chris up-'Can I get you coffee, Chris? Danish, Chris? Be right back!' Just sycophancy as a way of getting him in, and ultimately we shot near his house, sort of, and I just twisted his arm and got him.
Jeremy was my first choice. I knew him from Jesse James. My brother said, 'This guy is a genius. He's a genius actor. He won't give you a false note.' He said, 'You should see his new movie.' I was like, 'All right, I'll see his new movie.' The movie turned out to be good. I could not be more lucky to have Jeremy Renner. He crushes in this movie.
With Blake, she came down and read for it. I didn't watch Gossip Girl. I didn't know who she was, hadn't seen it, had no idea about it. She came in and read; she had a Boston accent, and I thought she was from Boston. I still have not seen Gossip Girl. I only have seen her in this movie. I feel as if she should ever only have been in this movie and no other movies.
And with Rebecca, she was somebody I admire a great deal as an actress from Vicky Christina Barcelona, and then I talked to Chris Nolan, who was a huge fan of hers, and that made me feel even more sure. I met with her and I felt great. And she's great; she's a talented actress.
And then, Jon had been involved in the first iteration of this movie, and I thought, 'You think we'd be lucky enough to get Jon Hamm to come back for this version? It would really, really make it great.' And what can I say, we got lucky. So I just felt incredibly lucky the whole time to be able to look at these cast members every morning and to watch them act, and just to know that every time I got in trouble I have something to cut to.
Do you intend to do any projects with Matt Damon in the future? And, secondly, the three films you have set in Boston are not only about Boston but also about class differences, and I was wondering if that was an important issue to you, and whether you were a socialist film maker?
I'm not a socialist film maker. I don't think you have to necessarily have a certain ideology behind films that you make. It's observationalist filmmaking, I hope. If I'm lucky, I've made some keen observations at best. Social differences are part of the fabric of our lives, and they're an aspect of people's coexistence that is often studied and from which many conclusions are often drawn. And I think it's in the conclusions, maybe, that you find the person's ideology, which is why I try not to point at too many conclusions.
Company Men would be my fourth movie there, which has also got some sociological stuff going on. It's about guys in the economic crisis who lose their jobs and reexamine their relationships between themselves and the corporation that hires them. This notion is that in the United States, we don't know who we are if we don't have a job-if we're not an auto worker, or if we don't sing, or whatever it is. And the character just rediscovers kind of his values and his identity.
It's been a pleasure working in Boston. And it's been a pleasure working with all these guys up here that made the movie way, way better.
The Town Is In Cinemas on 24th September