Sunday 21 January 2018

Ben rules this town

Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck

Paul Whitington

Ben Affleck extends a hand and apologises for being "a bit discombobulated". He flew into London the previous night, has spent most of this morning over there doing TV, before flying to Dublin to briefly hold court in the Merrion Hotel before disappearing back to Hollywood.

Not surprisingly Ben looks bleary, but also startlingly handsome, and the air of excitement among all attendant females is palpable.

Good looks we always knew he had, but some were surprised a few years back when Ben revealed some brains too. His debut as a director, Gone Baby Gone, which starred his brother Casey, was widely praised, and with his new film he's gone one better.

A handsome heist movie set in his native Boston, The Town is a gripping, moving, funny and exceedingly entertaining rollercoaster of a crime drama with an all-star cast that includes Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper, John Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall and Affleck himself. Not only does he star and direct, but he also co-wrote the script, and if he'd told me he knocked out the soundtrack between takes as well, I wouldn't have been too surprised.

Ben plays a career bank robber from Boston's traditionally Irish enclave of Charlestown, who pulls off an audacious raid then falls in love with a bank employee who might be able to identify him to a nosey FBI man. So what attracted him to the script? "To be honest, for one thing I wanted that part," he says. "It's the kind of part I haven't really had a chance to play: he's morally ambiguous, and he's obviously not doing the right thing all the time, but he's trying to change in a community where introspection of any kind is not particularly welcome."

The Town is based on an epidemic of bank robberies that swept Boston in the mid-90s, and is set not far from the neighbourhood where Affleck himself grew up. "Back in those days Charlestown was all Irish," he says. "You'll still see as many Irish flags there as American ones, and I remember kids coming into school with IRA T-shirts. It was as though the people in that neighbourhood considered themselves more Irish than people who lived in Ireland, and it made for a very distinctive atmosphere."

The film with which The Town begs obvious comparison is Michael Mann's Heat, and it is a comparison Affleck initially hoped to avoid. "That movie's really the gold standard of heist films, and I knew that doing this movie it was going to come up. At first I thought I could duck a bit, get away from it somehow.

"Then I started interviewing a lot of guys who were in prison, and invariably I'd say during the course of the interview, well what kind of things inspired you and they'd all say, 'have you seen the movie Heat?' And then I thought, 'well maybe this is just limited to the crooks', but then I went in to see the FBI and the fucking poster for Heat was on the wall, and at that point I thought, 'well, I'm just going to have to live with this!'"

Directing himself, he says, was not a problem. "For me, the direction really happens in the editing room: I shoot enough to give myself a broad range of choices, and then pull the whole thing together afterwards. And in my case, it's not that hard because I just hate so much of it that I throw most of it out and there's very little left!"

He likes to give his actors the freedom to find their own performances. "I suppose I do adopt an approach where I don't talk to them much, because it's not acting school and they're all great actors. You just try to give them the time and the latitude and let them follow their own instincts, and that seems to get the best results." Affleck found the idea of giving directions to Pete Postlethwaite especially uncomfortable. "Well, with Pete it's just so embarrassing, you know, Pete does it and then I go, 'I don't know Pete, that seemed great! D'you want to do it again, or are you done?' With this movie I overshot, I shot twice as much as I would normally use with the idea that the cream rises to the top, and every single moment, every word Pete spoke, is in the movie. He was brilliant."

The city of Boston has featured prominently in Affleck's career. He and his childhood friend Matt Damon used their city as the setting for the screenplay and subsequent film that launched both of their careers -- Good Will Hunting. Gone Baby Gone takes place in South Boston, as does The Town. Why does he return to work in his childhood home so regularly?

"I think it's a bit of crutch actually, because you know a lot about the place you're from without having to do a load of research. If I were to try and do a movie here in Dublin, I'd feel I'd have to live here for a year and even then I wouldn't have it in my bones. So if you work in a place you're familiar with it really helps, although I feel like next time I really have to go something somewhere else or it's going to get embarrassing."

His close friendship with Matt Damon is well known: the two have stuck by each other through thick and thin, and still run a production company together. They haven't appeared together on screen, however, in quite a few years.

"No we haven't for a while," he says, "but it feels like we do. Because every time one of us does a movie and it gets to that painful stage between when you're finished and when it comes out, we always get in touch. I see all Matt's movies and we talk about them, and he's seen five versions of this movie and had some really sharp advice, I think he's gonna be an excellent director.

"We've had a few things that almost happened and then didn't for various boring reasons having to do with budget and availability. This film has taken me two years, and Matt works with, you know, so many great directors, the Scorseses and the Coen brothers, that I think Ben Affleck's way back in line!"

After the success of Good Will Hunting in 1998, both Affleck and Damon became major Hollywood stars. But while Damon seemed to move seamlessly into the Ocean's Eleven films and the mighty Bourne franchise, Affleck endured a far bumpier ride. In the early 2000s, a mixture of bad script choices and a perceived handsome blandness began to dog his acting career. He was associated with a few stinkers, Pearl Harbor being the most conspicuously disastrous. Then he entered the showbiz vortex commonly known as J-Lo.

Ben and Jennifer Lopez, or 'Bennifer' as they would come to be known, began dating in 2002 and quickly announced their engagement. But from the start, Affleck seemed curiously lost and ill-at-ease in the media scrum that Lopez likes to call home. Like a rabbit in the headlamps, he seemed to flounder in the constant spotlight and his career followed suit.

He and Lopez separated in 2004 in advance of their wedding, but there was a silver lining looming on the horizon. Among the disastrous projects Affleck had appeared in around this time was Daredevil, a bad superhero film that happened to co-star one Jennifer Garner. They were married in 2005 and are now the proud parents of two little girls.

It was Gone Baby Gone that resurrected his career. He remembers being "very nervous" about the reaction to his directorial debut. "I knew that people would be lining up to knock it -- you know, the media covers the planes that crash, not the ones that land, so it's so much more fun and appealing for folks to look at something that's a disaster. And I think coming out of where I was at the time and having the audacity to try and direct something, I was definitely inviting a certain kind of criticism."

When I remark that he seems a lot more comfortable in his own skin these days, he agrees. Fame, it seems, takes some getting used to. "It does. I mean, I was a guy who had success very young, and when you have success that young it's very difficult to have perspective. But I've been lucky in that I've been able to work long enough in this business to see great success and great failure, and it's really instructive. In the end you figure out what kind of films you want to do, rather than just working all the time and not have a clue what you're doing. This one took me two years and so did Gone Baby Gone, and that's the way I work now, more slowly, but hopefully better."

After he's finished his publicity for The Town, Ben will begin working on a new film with the legendary Terrence Malick, a prospect he says he's "thrilled about".

As we wind up, he looks around him and says, "you know, this is the first time I've ever been in Ireland -- and my mother was an O'Brien! My first time in Dublin and I get to see the inside of a hotel room".

It is at least, we agree, a very nice hotel room.

The Town is in cinemas today, see review page 12

Irish Independent

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