By Greg Vellante Eagle-Tribune Movie Reviewer
---- — There’s a funny moment in “Argo” where Alan Arkin’s producer character claims, “You can teach a Rhesus monkey to direct.”
In some ways, this is a unintentional shot at director Ben Affleck who, especially in his heyday as a Hollywood pretty boy actor, seemed the odd choice to begin directing when he debuted with the film “Gone Baby Gone” in 2007.
But that year, he surprised us by delivering a critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film that ignited promise in Affleck as someone even more valuable behind the camera than in front of it. Then, in 2010, he made the blockbuster Boston crime thriller “The Town,” and surprised us all once more. Perhaps this Rhesus monkey was something far, far more.
And now, with Affleck’s latest release “Argo” out tomorrow, the filmmaker is taking a clear deviation from his typical realm of Boston-area crime films, expanding globally and historically to the true story of a CIA mission in Iran, in which operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) snuck out six American hostages by disguising them as a fake Canadian film crew for a fake science fiction film called “Argo.”
“This would be the worst movie ever made if it wasn’t true,” said Affleck. “It would just seem completely absurd and people would be checked out from the beginning.”
But the story is true, and Affleck — a Middle Eastern studies major — was definitely looking for a film to develop his resume as a director beyond the Boston area, and “Argo” is most certainly that film. When the screenplay found its way to Affleck’s desk, he knew immediately that he wanted to pursue this project.
“I felt like I had something to prove. Everyone just thought of me as ‘Boston guy’. Like, ‘sure, he can do a movie set in Boston, but you can’t take him to Providence,’” joked Affleck. “But then I thought, ‘f***, if it’s not good, I really am going to only be able to do sequels to ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle.’’”
Now no longer classified as just the “Boston Guy,” Affleck recently visited his hometown to discuss “Argo,” along with insights into his family life, celebrity status, upcoming projects, and being from Boston. Just don’t ask him about the recent failing season of his beloved Red Sox. On that, Affleck had to say: “At least it’s Pats season again, so we can watch Tom Brady be a genius.”
Eagle-Tribune: Were you worried about the politics of the film at all?
Affleck: For the politics of this, it’s such a tricky balance. I want my Republican friends and my Democratic friends to come see this movie, like it, appreciate it, and look at it as ‘These are the facts and this is the movie.’ They may try to draw conclusions from it, and they may not. I think one thing we can all agree on is that Tony Mendez is pretty heroic. He saved all these American lives, and that is a pretty exceptional thing. I don’t think you need to have any political leanings to appreciate that.”
ET: As a celebrity, what are some of the challenges or sacrifices you have made?
Affleck: Naturally, I haven’t had to give up anything like Tony Mendez, where I’m in harm’s way or risking my life for the country. There are sacrifices that you make when being an actor, most of them I have come to grips with. The only thing I don’t like is when my kids are brought into focus, I think that’s inappropriate and it crosses the line. I got in this business — so if people are going to bother me on the street, or take my picture, or put me on TMZ, then OK, there are worse prices to pay. So in a way, it’s not really my sacrifice, it’s my children’s. And I really like to protect my kids’ privacy.
ET: You still stay very true to your roots though. Why have you been so intent on casting Boston natives in your films, obviously not for “Argo” but for your first two films and future ones as well?
Affleck: What I think I’ve really benefitted from as a filmmaker is having grown up here and knowing, not just how many incredible actors there are here, but how many incredible people are here. It will make your movie so much more real, and rich, and interesting. So on films like “Good Will Hunting” or “Gone Baby Gone” or “The Town,” we always went out of our way to cast locals. It just seemed so obvious and seemed to make sense.”
ET: Speaking of Boston, you have the task of creating a Whitey Bulger film on your plate. What can you tell us about that?
Affleck: Terrence Winter’s writing it, we’re working on it now. I’m really glad I made ‘Argo’ so that I could then say ‘OK, now I can go make another Boston movie.’ I’m really excited for it. I got two things: one, I really want to wait to get it right. You can’t mess up Whitey Bulger. Otherwise, that’s it, that’s the only thing you’ll remember for the rest of your career. But, I know there’s other guys out there who want to make the movie, so do you want to be second? You diminish the appetite. People will say ‘we saw that already.’”
ET: And what about your adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Stand?”
Affleck: I’m a big Stephen King fan. He has got very good taste in sports teams, and he’s a great writer. “The Stand” is very tough; it’s just a massive thing. So we are trying to figure out if it’s two movies or three movies. And there has to be a whole first movie, you can’t just say ‘To be continued,’ because the whole arc of the book is a huge story but it is still a beginning, middle, and end. So we are trying to pull apart the movie and figure out how to make it. Ironically enough, The Stand was written right around the time the events in this movie took place. But it is still incredibly current and contemporary, and you see how much of it has been ripped off by other movies. So it makes it tricky.
ET: You are also in “Tree of Life” director Terrence Malick’s latest film, “To The Wonder.” What can we expect from that?
Affleck: This movie that we just did together — it’s very experimental. It’s out there. It’s like, you got to want some Malick with your Malick. It’s “The Tree of Life” without all the dialogue. I just say that because I want people to be ready, because the art looks really conventional — it’s me and Rachel McAdams, it looks like a sequel to “The Vow,” and it’s not that, at all. It’s an impressionist movie, a tone poem. He has this theory from Chekhov about relationships, where one is near and one is far. I always thought it was sort of a literary first-person device rather than a filmmaker device, but basically what it comes down to is the whole movie is an over-the-shoulder shot over me. And there’s this woman, I follow her and watch her and periodically I come into the frame to kiss her and stuff… and we didn’t have a script. We didn’t know what it was. There are things I really love about the movie and things I still don’t understand. But I really am glad someone’s out there making their own movies. Like when I make a movie I’m thinking ‘Ah, is the audience going to like this, will they understand this, how will this play in Middle America,’ all these insecurities. I don’t think that ever crosses Terry’s mind. He makes his movie, you’re along for the ride, and it’s a great experience.”
ET: What are the difficulties you find in balancing both acting and directing in the same film?
Affleck: “When I’m dedicating myself and my energy to doing something that I am really passionate about, naturally the actor part of me goes, ‘I want to be in this movie! You need to hire me!’ And I have, so far. The thing about acting and directing is that it is complicated. As a director, it demands a lot of your mental space. So the acting can kind of eat in to that stuff, and you end up not having thought about something because you were thinking about what you’re doing in the scene. But those complications are overridden by my need to give myself a job.”