Exclusive: Ben Affleck talks ‘Live by Night,’ ‘Batman’

WATCH: Speaking to Al Arabiya English, Ben Affleck reveals why he's taken off the cape and put on a fedora

William Mullally
William Mullally - Special to Al Arabiya English
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There’s always been two Ben Afflecks—the artist and the movie star. While his first real moment in the sun was winning an Academy Award for co-writing the now-classic Good Will Hunting (1997), for a long time, Ben the Artist went into hibernation, and Ben the Star soared higher and higher.

With Armageddon, Ben Affleck was a bona-fide leading man, and for most of the late 90s and early 2000s, Affleck could be seen in big budget films, either on the decks at Pearl Harbor or in tights as Daredevil—or on the front page of tabloids for his off-screen romances. When the box-office bombs came—and come they did—some wondered if he still had the talent he promised so readily early in his career.

Doubts were put to rest in 2007, when Ben the Artist came back to the forefront. Gone Baby Gone (2007), which Affleck wrote and directed starring his younger brother Casey, was a critical smash, bringing Affleck a new level of respect in the industry. The follow-up, 2010’s The Town, put Affleck in front of the camera as well as behind it, finding huge box office success to go along with continued critical support. Argo (2012) continued that trajectory, bringing him an Academy Award for Best Picture.

With Argo, Affleck was firmly atop the Hollywood A-list both in front of the camera and behind. For his next directorial effort, he chose to aim even bigger with Live by Night—a sprawling gangster film set in the first half of America’s 20th century.

What attracted Affleck to the time period? “It’s such a great era. The clothes are great, the cars are great, the chicks are great. The tommy guns! What’s not to love.”

Though ‘the chicks’ may be great, this would not be all fun and games, as Affleck knew this was a much more complicated project than any he had taken on before.

“That’s one of the most difficult things about a movie like this—capturing that scope. Transporting the audience, carrying them, showing them, and immersing them in another world. It’s as complex as doing a movie on a spaceship. You literally have to manufacture everything because the world doesn’t look like that anymore.”

According to Affleck, Live by Night’s scope isn’t one that he could have tackled earlier in his career.

“I feel I’ve grown a lot. I feel I’ve learned an awful lot. I’ve learned from directors I’ve worked with and learned from my own mistakes as a director. I don’t think I would have been able to make this movie until now. It’s too complicated and too rich and difficult. But I’m at the place where I’m at now where I think I could take this on.”

Affleck loved the idea of harkening back to the days of old Hollywood, but there was more to it than that. Live by Night has a serious side. The film tells the story of Joe Coughlin, played by Affleck himself, who is hired by a crime boss in Boston to take over his moonshine business in Florida. While there, the obstacles he faces take on a political tone, as the heroes are often immigrants and people of color, while the villains are prejudiced against them, including hate groups such at the KKK. For Affleck, this vision of America was deliberate.

“What I was most moved by in the story was an image of America as a country built by immigrants. It’s one of the fairly unique things—most countries aren’t made up of people who came from all over the world to that country to build a new life. All these different cultures, people from different countries and speaking different languages, many of them marginalized and shunned aside, who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and built this country.”

But while Affleck loved the film’s setting, this may be the last time we see him direct a period piece. When I asked if he would be open to doing another film of this nature, he seemed to have fully moved on.

“Oh man, I would like to do something contemporary. Period stuff is just so….it’s so nice to be able to just take the camera, go outside on the street, and shoot. I can look in any direction. It’s so onerous to always be limited by seeing off the set, where the period cars are, where the extras are, and so on.”

Passion projects

Four films into his directorial career, Affleck is still trying to balance the two versions of himself. After starring in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and 2017’s Justice League, he’ll next don the cape in The Batman, film he was previously attached to direct, but now will reportedly only produce and star.

If Affleck doesn’t direct The Batman, it won’t be a huge surprise, or a huge loss, as it could allow him the time to write and direct the smaller films on which his reputation has been built. When I asked if he’ll have time to make another passion project like Live by Night under the huge demands of The Batman, it seemed he was itching to get the chance to do a film like the one for which his brother Casey Affleck just won a Golden Globe for Best Actor—Manchester by the Sea (2016).

“If the right thing came along, I would do a little movie between now and Batman. It just depends on how much time it takes to get that one together. Right now we’re working on the script, doing concept art, delving deep into it. But I could also see doing a palette cleanser, a little Manchester by the Sea-type movie. That would be fun too.”

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