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by Gabriel Chong | 21 October 2010

Ben Affleck isn’t the name that comes to mind when you think of gritty heist films a la Heat or crime dramas like The Departed, but his latest “The Town” is about to change that. Affleck stars, co-wrote and directed the Boston-set thriller- based on the Chuck Hogan novel “Prince of Thieves”- which has garnered solid reviews (95% “Fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes), robust box-office numbers and even Oscar buzz. How’s that for an actor who was once considered the easy punchline of a joke?

Affleck started out in Hollywood in the early 90s with bit roles in indie films like “School Ties” and “Dazed and Confused” before taking Hollywood by storm with “Good Will Hunting”. Co-writing the screenplay of that movie with a then-equally unknown Matt Damon, the duo sold it for $600,000, landed auteur Gus Van Sant as director, took the lead roles in the film and finally leaped onto stage at the Shrine Auditorium to take home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

His meteoric rise quickly elevated him to leading-man status and Affleck got top-billing in two Jerry Bruckheimer blockbusters- “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbour”- in between other equally high-profile projects like “Daredevil” and “Gigli”. But a stint in rehab in 2001 and an embarrassing relationship with Jennifer Lopez that also spawned the awful flop of “Gigli” cost him dearly, and soon Affleck was back to indie films like “Jersey Girl” and “Hollywoodland”. The failure of studio fare like “Surviving Christmas” further sealed his fate as box-office poison, and many did not hesitate to label him as a “has-been”.

“The Town” deserves to be appreciated in this light- it is a revival that looks set to ignite Affleck’s career the same way “Good Will Hunting” did when he was just 25, and the comparison isn’t lost on him. “That moment—before Good Will Hunting—and this moment now are really similar periods in my life,” he said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “Good Will Hunting was a sort of Hail Mary idea, where we were young enough not to realize how foolish it was. And now, with this second period of my life, I wanted to start over. I wanted to reboot my career.”

That reboot actually began three years back with the similarly Boston-set crime thriller “Gone Baby Gone” which marked Affleck’s first foray into directing. Affleck said of his decision to step behind the camera: “It was the only option I felt I had to do good work, because the quality of scripts I was seeing was just getting worse and worse. I felt like I was either going to believe in myself and try directing, or just give in. And I decided, ‘I am going to walk the plank, and maybe there will be sharks and maybe there won’t’.”

With taut pacing and an assured realism of the working-class lives it portrayed, “Gone Baby Gone” earned him newfound respect among critics- though they remained cautious if Affleck’s return to his native Boston was no more than a fluke. The movie was also by no means a box-office success (earning US$20 million in limited release during its theatrical run) but it was enough to convince Warner Bros. that he may just be the right guy for “The Town”.

Both Jeff Robinov, president of its film group, and Alan F. Horn, Warner’s chief operating officer, saw potential in Affleck. “The Boston ambience brought out the best in Affleck,” Horn said in an interview with the New York Times. “It is as comfortable for Ben as New York is for Scorcese.” Even so, Affleck himself was initially wary- he didn’t want to be pigeon-holed, partly because another director, Adrian Lyne, had been trying to make the film, and partly because he feared becoming too closely identified with stories rooted in the blue-collar environs of Boston.

“I was nervous about directing the movie because I thought it would pigeon-hole me as Boston Crime Johnny, but I wanted to play this part,” Affleck said of his character, Doug McCray, the bank robber with a conscience trying to get out of the life of crime he has known all his life. “Boston is an environment and it's just something I'm familiar with and it's a bit of a crutch. But I saw in the movie different elements that wanted to be combined in an unusual way.”

That doesn’t mean directing the movie was a breeze for Affleck. For starters, he actually grew up in the more-affluent neighbourhood of Cambridge, away from Charlestown where the film is set. Affleck said that while he had definitely heard of the place, he didn’t know enough about it. So to prepare for the movie, he talked to FBI agents and visited former bank robbers in prison. Insuring the ex-convicts, he said, was a problem. Even more difficult was persuading parole officers to let his consultants handle guns- even fake ones- in scenes.

But the greatest challenge for Affleck was pulling double duty both in front and behind the camera. “It was really challenging to do both. I'm still new to directing and I need all my time and focus and the acting takes some time away from that,” he said. He describes his approach to directing as providing an environment that his actors would feel comfortable in- “where they would feel they could take risks, give their own ideas, what they’ve thought about and what they’ve worked on, to try different things”.

“I wanted to create a world where they’re completely free, supported, loved, admired, at ease and that they are not rushed. I think if you do that you take away a lot of the sub-consciousness and artificialness and panic that can happen just before someone shouts ‘action‘. That feeling closes people down,” he added. Already, Affleck has won praise from his actors.

Amy Ryan who won a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role in “Gone Baby Gone” said that what impressed him most was how he treated the nonprofessional actors on set. “Some of the locals who were cast in the film, they’d never acted before, and so they might be way off the mark. And Ben would kill them with kindness. ‘That was great! Now can you try it like this?’ He always built everybody up. And that’s how you get great performances.”

Now that he’s coaxed Oscar-worthy performances out of respected actors like Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner and Chris Cooper, Affleck has just about established himself as a serious and legitimate filmmaker in Hollywood. There was talk that Affleck was offered directing duties on the reboot of Superman- until Zack Synder was confirmed- and if Horn’s words are anything to go by, it seems that Affleck might just be the studio’s new perennial.

Affleck is keenly aware that many in Hollywood would be quick to label him as a comeback kid. “It’s a little bit more complicated than that in my case,” he said. “Because my life has had a lot of different twists and a lot of different ways in which sometimes I’ve tried to do things and worked really hard, and it hasn’t worked. And sometimes I’ve worked equally hard, and it has.”

“If anything, it’s kind of a drift, a natural progression over the last five, six years. Maybe it’s being more mature, or just being interested in different kinds of movies—making Hollywoodland and making Gone, Baby, Gone, and making State of Play, and this movie.” Hollywood loves a good comeback- and “The Town” has placed Ben Affleck right square on that road of return. .

THE TOWN opens 21 October 2010





GIGLI (2003)



THE TOWN ((2010)

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