The truth about the hoax movie I made with Joaquin Phoenix
Casey Affleck comes clean about the year's most controversial movie to Marc Lee
Published 29/09/2010 | 05:00
It was a high-risk project from the start: making a documentary about a Hollywood star who abandons his career on a whim, deciding -- despite having no discernible musical talent -- to become a rap artist, and who then descends into a personal hell of drugs, hookers and mental disintegration. Especially when none of it was true.
For a year, Casey Affleck, an actor himself who starred most recently in Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me, filmed the apparently bizarre behaviour of his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix, Oscar-nominated for his roles in Gladiator (2001) and the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line (2006).
The results can be seen in I'm Still Here, which is in cinemas now. It is in equal parts hilarious, shocking and fictional.
Prior to its release, neither Affleck, nor anyone else involved, made any public statements about the film. Now, however, in the wake of the furore that it provoked, he says he wants to set the record straight and explain why he did it.
Why do you want to talk about the movie now?
Because I haven't been able to talk about it for two years, and I wanted people to know this was a planned, staged and scripted work of fiction. I didn't want to have anyone get the wrong idea about Joaquin or anybody else in the film. I wanted people to see the movie for what it really is.
My intention was never to fool anybody. There's a big difference between fooling someone and asking them to think. I just wanted people to see the film without any interpretative interference from me or anybody else. I don't know if that was the best way.
What did you hope to achieve with the movie?
I had never directed a movie. I wasn't sure I could see the whole thing through all by myself. I wanted to know if I could actually run this marathon from beginning to end.
Beyond that there were certain ideas that interested me, but I didn't want to make a didactic message movie. There were ideas at play, about the entertainment industry and the media. You can't make a movie about a celebrity without it in some way being about celebrity culture.
We are obsessed with celebrity. We create them and then destroy them, and for some reason I don't understand why there is this unassuagable desire to do it over and over again.
Things happen to people I know who I am very close to and to people I don't know that well. We build them up and then we just beat them down.
What was the biggest challenge making the film?
The challenges just came like waves. It was a challenge to create a story that was interesting; it was a challenge to create performances that were believable, other than from Joaquin, who is so utterly believable, incredibly hard-working, naturally gifted; it was challenging to pull it off technically.
I was filming it myself and I'd (never done that) and I think it's evident as the movie goes on that it gets better technically: I wanted it that way. It begins as a very innocent, naive endeavour as one friend makes a movie about another friend.
(At the start) it was a tiny, cheap camera, very shaky and grainy. Then, as the story begins to unfold, it starts to look a bit better, until, by the end, it looks technically so much better that it doesn't appear to be a documentary any more.
Was it easy bringing people like actor Ben Stiller and rap maestro Sean Combs into the circle of trust?
(They) were both willing to participate without knowing everything about the project. I really appreciated that; I was very moved by people's willingness to be a part of it.
I'm sure it looked a little bit outrageous, definitely unprofessional. Sometimes it was just me filming it; at most there were only three other people.
The key sequence is where a befuddled Joaquin appears on the David Letterman show. There was no going back after that, was there?
Having something at stake is a great motivator and once this became public that was very helpful because there was no question: I had to see it through, no matter how long it took.
I went broke. I hadn't worked for more than a year, and I was pouring money into the movie. I had to stop for a month to do The Killer Inside Me. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have been able to finish the film -- I was out of money. There was a lot at stake financially and, if we had left (the hoax) there, it would have been very damaging to Joaquin's career.
What did you expect the critics' response to be?
Negative. I'd seen the online buzz and what bloggers were saying. There was a feeling that (critics) were saying 'we know this movie isn't what it appears to be. We know that you're up to something, and we're not going to be fooled. We're going to write things and let you know you're not smart enough'.
Did you ever think you were going too far with the extreme behaviour?
I don't think so. It was pretty much all within the realm of possibility: people use prostitutes, people use drugs, especially in Hollywood. We didn't take it so far that it wasn't believable.
For me, the film was Dante's Inferno. Here was a guy midway through his life -- Joaquin's 35 years old -- and he just goes down farther and farther into this more and more hideous place until he gets as low as he can possibly go.
But then he breaks through to the other side and has some sort of redemptive experience -- that was the movie, that was my guiding light. Also, this was a movie about a man having a movie made about him.
So looking back on it, you'd do it the same way again?
Look, are you kidding?! The first time I saw that movie with a group of strangers was at the Venice Film Festival, 800 people. I had never shown it to people before that: I didn't want it out there, with people talking about it way ahead of time.
I learned so much sitting there in Venice. Every other cut in the movie I wanted to change, every other edit. There are so many technical things I wish I could do differently.
As for whether I should have done the movie in the first place, I wouldn't change anything.
If you had to categorise I'm Still Here, how would you describe it?
It's a talkie. In colour.