Daredevil. Gigli. Paycheck. In 2003, Ben Affleck wasn’t a popular bunny.
With those three titles, which ranged from honourable failures to sewer-scraping turds, the Oscar-winner confirmed what many had begun to ponder after 2001’s disastrous Pearl Harbour – the Affleck bubble had burst.
But Hollywood loves a rollicking good comeback story. And Affleck found surprise salvation in the form of 2007’s Gone Baby Gone.
Retreating behind the camera, the California-born Boston native started flexing the one bit of bodily matter that seemed to have been in hibernation throughout much of his post-Good Will Hunting acting career - the one in his skull.
Earning rave reviews (“Back, baby, back - an excellent police procedural and a personal triumph for Ben Affleck” said we, awarding the fella four well-deserved stars) and numerous ‘New Filmmaker’ trophies, Affleck was back with a vengeance.
But now it was time to head in front of the camera again, as Affleck took on another directing/writing job – The Town – that would return him to the spotlight with his first lead role since 2006.
“There was a concern, for me anyway, to have one guy do all three,” admits producer Graham King. Could he pull it off?
Next: Prince Of Thieves[page-break]
Prince Of Thieves
In 2004, American author Chuck Hogan penned his third gritty novel - a break-neck thriller entitled Prince Of Thieves.
Far from being a belated novelisation of Kevin Costner’s rambunctious ‘90s Robin Hood yarn, it followed a doomed romance between Boston career thief Doug MacRay, and Claire Keesey, the now-traumatised manager of a bank that he has just raided.
With its blend of true grit characters and strangulating violence, Prince Of Thieves proved a massive hit. Fellow suspense author Jeffrey Deaver lapped it up, defining it as “smart, speedy, and stylish - a literary Pulp Fiction”.
The literary loving didn’t stop there. Horror figurehead Stephen King also counted himself as a fan – laying on the kind of high praise that dissolved Hogan into a wittering, babbling fanboy.
“The mere fact that Stephen King had read something I’d written really blew my mind,” the author says. “And then to find out that he liked it - that I’d gotten inside the head of the man who has been getting inside of all our heads for all these years - was a unique thrill, and a real morale boost.
“I wrote him a rambling thank you letter that probably got tossed in the ‘crazy fan’ file - but for him to use his position to champion the work of other authors tells you everything you need to know.”
After the tome won the 2005 Hammett Prize for excellence in crime writing, Hollywood pricked up its ears.
In the end, it was British producer Graham King (who has worked on everything from The Aviator and The Departed to The Young Victoria and the upcoming The Tourist) who bought the rights to a movie adaptation.
“It seemed fitting after Departed that I’d do another movie about gangsters in Boston,” says the producer with a chuckle.
By 2007, funding studio Warner Bros. had bagged a director in the form of Fatal Attraction and Jacob’s Ladder helmer Adrian Lyne.
“I'm working on a movie that I love called The Town,” the Brit director confirmed at the time.
“It's a love story between a bank robber and the victim of one of his robberies in a bank, which he doesn't know, because he was masked when he did the robbery. It's a terrific story.”
Despite his undeniable love for the story, and as is often the way with big Hollywood projects, Lyne eventually moved on from the gig.
King didn’t worry too much, though. Having caught and loved Gone Baby Gone, itself shot in Boston, the producer had the perfect man in mind for the newly-retitled The Town…
Next: Ben Affleck's Town[page-break]
Ben Affleck’s Boston
“That was one of the things that almost made me not want to do The Town,” says Affleck, confirming that the prospect of filming in Boston again after Gone Baby Gone was not an altogether attractive one.
“I thought, I’m going to be the guy who makes crime movies in Somerville, [Mass.]. I guess from an actor’s point-of-view, you worry about being typecast.”
Still, he couldn’t help falling in love with the material. And, having grown up in a Boston suburb mere minutes away from so-called crime centre Charlestown, he would definitely have his own unique perspective on the subject.
“We had heard about this neighbourhood and we knew they had a code of silence,” he says. “Over a course of years only about 25% of 49 murders had been solved.
“The idea of someone being able to kill you with impunity, with a bunch of people watching and they wouldn’t get convicted. So while I knew that, I didn’t feel that I really knew it enough, so I went back when we were making the movie and did a lot of research on the subject.”
(For the record, Affleck counts The Departed, Mystic River and The Friends Of Eddie Coyle as his favourite Boston-set movies – clearly he didn’t include Gone Baby Gone on account of overwhelming modesty.)
There’s no denying that, no matter what Affleck’s fears of being ‘location typecast’ are, he and Boston go together like Stephen King and Maine.
Town star Jon Hamm (Mad Men) agrees, revealing that walking around the Boston streets with Affleck is like taking a stroll with the mayor, such is the level of attention he receives.
“He’s probably exaggerating,” Affleck laughs when hearing said anecdote. “People probably know who I am in Boston just because of Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone. It’s a double-edged sword: being the local boy you definitely get some support and you also… there’s tougher scrutiny.”
Still, the insider knowledge, paired with the aggressive research that the budding director gathered, helped him no end in adapting a pre-existing script from the days when Lyne was still onboard – something that actually proved something of a blessing.
“There was an adaptation already. There was an adaptation that I fooled around with, but it was strong,” Affleck reveals.
“The author adapted it and it was really good. I’m lucky that it was there. With Gone Baby Gone, there was no previous writer. This somebody already did all the hard work and all the really good work. I’m kind of coasting on that.”
Graham King had expressed concerns about Affleck taking on the triple role of writer, director and star, and Affleck himself agrees that it was a “daunting prospect”.
“I’m nervous but excited,” he said before filming commenced. Clearly, though, the film’s success or failure wouldn’t rest on his shoulders alone. What he needed was a cast…
Next: Hamm And Hall[page-break]
Hamm And Hall
Rebecca Hall, she of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Prestige, had just arrived back in London after a stint in New York when she received a call asking her to return to the Big Apple for a meeting with Ben Affleck.
Perhaps sensing that she’d be daft not to dash back over the pond, Hall jumped straight onto a plane and met her future director to discuss the character of Claire - the bank manager who falls for thief Doug, unaware that he’s the one who raided her bank.
“She was a part unlike I’ve ever played, in a way,” Hall says. “She says exactly what she feels, she’s incredibly emotional. It was important that she be this beacon of change as well as someone who’s been through enormous amounts of trauma. That’s always very appealing.”
How about that American accent? Is it a hard trick to turn?
“It takes work, but my mum’s American, so I’m not alien to the sounds,” reveals Hall. “For me it’s part of the work of creating any kind of characterisation. I do that even if I’m playing a Brit.”
Next, the aforementioned Jon Hamm joined Affleck’s crime saga. In the smooth-talking Mad Men star, Affleck spied the very qualities that he needed for his well-intentioned Boston cop, who is on crime boss Doug’s tail.
“I play the cop that kind of is going after Ben’s character, who is the bank robber,” Hamm revealed during a Mad Men press junket in August 2009. “And there is a girl played by Rebecca Hall, [it’s] sort of a love triangle-ish, it’s kinda hard to explain.”
Like Affleck, Hamm was excited to be filming in Boston. “I am indeed. I have not spent a lot of time in Boston, but I’m looking forward to working with Ben as an actor and a director, I’m a huge fan of his first film and I can’t wait to start work on it.”
Meanwhile, Affleck revealed his vision for the movie to website Collider, stating that despite the heist-heavy theme, the emphasis would be firmly on character and realism.
“Rather than a heist movie it’s very realistic,” he said. “You see how the guys really operate and what they really do. It’s about their lives, the connection to one another, and the way that where they live is changing. It’s unusual and kind of complicated for a movie that has a conventional genre at its root.”
Despite the serious tone of The Town, Hall revealed there’s more to Hamm than that infamous smoulder. “He is definitely a jokester, you must’ve seen him on SNL, he’s hilarious,” she says. “Everyone on this job was really funny, we always laughed a lot. He’s very, very witty.”
Naturally, having worked as an actor previously, Affleck had his own approach to directing other actors.
“My approach to acting and the other actors is just to do what I would want, just to provide an environment that the actor would feel comfortable in, where they would feel they could take risks, where they can give their own ideas,” Affleck says.
“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’.”
Next: Renner And Lively[page-break]
Renner And Lively
In July 2009, Jeremy Renner entered negotiations to join Affleck’s cast. Having earned himself much attention for his performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s war drama The Hurt Locker, Renner was being lined up to play a member of Doug’s gang.
As that was going on, though, the actor was still adjusting to his newfound fame in Hurt Locker’s wake, and was gaining some very unexpected fans.
“The first one, and the craziest one,” the actor told GQ, “was Sean Penn. I was backstage at the Palm Springs Film Festival, and it was really dark back there, and he comes over and gets in my face.
“And he’s like, ‘Dude, you were tremendous in Hurt Locker. You’re going to the afterparty, right? ‘Cause me and you are gonna have a few drinks, and I’m gonna talk to you.’”
No word what that conversation might have entailed, though we’re sure there will have been some advice on not dating pop stars. Luckily, Affleck turned out to be more of a laid-back movie star. Not that he wasn’t brimming with similar praise.
“He’s somebody who audiences aren’t so familiar with that they bring a set of expectations,” Affleck says of Renner. “Like, ‘Okay, I know that at the end of so-and-so’s movies, A, B, and C happens.’ He’s still really enigmatic and mysterious.”
For Doug’s druggie ex-girlfriend, Affleck wanted a similarly fresh face. Eventually, he found what he was looking for in Gossip Girl (and soon-to-be Green Lantern co-star) Blake Lively, whose previous movie experiences ranged from The Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants movies to The Secret Lives Of Pippa Lee.
Lively, though, would have to juggle her time on the set of Gossip Girl’s third season with shooting The Town – something that she was more than willing to do.
“It’s been a challenge just because of the hours,” she said at the time of shooting in August 2009. “I’m working on The Town on my weekends and holidays, flying to Boston overnight and then shooting the next morning.
“But also, when you are on a TV show, a character can get stale, so getting to also portray another character simultaneously, and come back to this character, it makes the character on Gossip Girl fresher. It also is very exciting to get away from it and to play another role.
“And, just anytime that I get to do a film, I’m so thrilled because I love watching movies, I love making movies and the movies that I’ve made, I’ve been very proud to be a part of.”
It’s a role not only that she fought tooth and nail for (Krista’s hard-up life couldn’t be any further from the glamorous Serena in Gossip Girl), but also a role that Affleck altered to suit her.
“My character was originally 37, but when they cast me, we had to write it down to 29,” Lively reveals. Of her director, she adds: “This is his baby project, and he’s done a lot of the rewrites, and he’s directed it and starred in it. It’s been just a wonderful experience.”
Next: Fenway Park[page-break]
Shooting on The Town kicked off at the tail-end of August 2009, with filming taking place mainly in the film’s central location of Boston. The cast and crew also filmed in Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, a Connecticut casino and the MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole, Massachusetts.
Filming on location was obviously an integral part of Affleck’s mission to create a film imbued with realism. Not least in his portrayal of Charlestown, a Boston neighbourhood that became renowned in the mid-1990s for a sudden crime wave. (“It was just so remarkable that this one very small community was the locus for bank robbers,” noted Prince Of Thieves author Hogan.)
In its quest for realism, The Town even name checks real-life crimes that took place during that time period – in particular, there’s passing reference to a bank robbery in Hudson, New Hampshire, in which two guards lost their lives.
Not that Affleck wanted to slur Boston’s good name – something that he was concerned about when it came to getting permission to shoot the flick’s devastating climax in Fenway Park, Boston’s renowned baseball park.
“We are in discussion with Fenway Park right now,” Affleck said at the time. “We have to get their permission. If they say ‘No’, I don’t really know what we’ll do. We’ll have to come up with a new climax. Is it going to be Gillette stadium? I don’t know.”
In the end, Affleck had little to worry about, as Fenway Park granted him permission to shoot on their grounds (clearly he really is as influential as the mayor).
“We shot 13 days there for The Town,” Affleck says. However, he admits that “there was some concern” regarding the themes of the movie.
“I’ve done some stuff with [the Red Sox] for the Jimmy Fund charity, and they’re good people. I promised that I wouldn’t actually show the real way money was brought in and out of Fenway Park. The new owners have really opened up the place. They actually have weddings on the field.
“So we were shooting with automatic weapons there and we fired off a full mag and, we didn’t know it, but there were some people getting married. People were screaming! They thought they were under attack! I don’t know if we ruined a wedding or if it will end up a great story.”
Evidently the people at Fenway Park were happy with the outcome of Affleck’s filming (nuptial disturbances aside) – the movie would later have its premiere there.
Next: Media Buzz[page-break]
Wasting no time in beginning to build buzz for the movie ahead of its 2010 release, the first two images from The Town surfaced online at the beginning of December 2009.
The first showed off Affleck and Renner in cop uniforms, while the second revealed Hamm’s real cop involved in a heated chase.
They would be the first and last images we’d lay our eyes on before the film’s trailer hit on 15 July 2010. Just a month later we got the flick’s first poster, a creepy affair that debuted the nun costumes that Doug’s gang use in their raids…
Where did Affleck get the costumes from?
“I wanted off the rack real costumes,” he says, “I didn’t want costume designers and special effects people to make masks, because what these guys would do in reality was go into Halloween shops.
“These guys are Catholics, where they’re going to rob is a traditional catholic Italian American neighbourhood, between the two neighbourhoods there’s been a long standing rivalry and tradition of thumbing ones nose at each other.
“They thought it would be a sort of panache to do that and rob the place at the same time. Basically to keep it grounded in their characters. There’s no significance other than the realism of the mask and the fact that it’s an arresting image and it basically says bank robbery movie.”
Next: Man About Town[page-break]
Man About Town
The Town appeared at both the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival this month, and has earned itself high plaudits in both cases.
“Affleck proves he's no one-trick pony,” wrote Moviefone after catching the film at TIFF. “It's just as smart and well-executed as Affleck's last, and with him back in front of the camera too, it delivers on all that promise of Affleck's earlier career as an actor.”
Meanwhile, the film has proved a massive critical hit. It currently stands at 93% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, the critics aggregator, who confirm that Affleck is “a director to be reckoned with”.
This weekend, The Town opened in the number one spot at the US box office with an impressive total of $23m. Proof that Affleck really is back with a vengeance? Apparently so - Town has easily eclipsed Gone Baby Gone's box office total; Affleck's first flick took just $20m.
“Crime and horror are both genres of existentialism,” original Prince Of Thieves author Hogan once mused. “And I am drawn to stories of man at his extremes, of people who find themselves tested, haunted, or threatened.
“I believe a writer should challenge himself in his work just as he challenges the characters in his story - anything less would be inauthentic and dishonest.”
Though he’s talking about writers in general, he could just as easily be referring to the director of The Town. Clearly Affleck has been revitalised by his second pop at the movie industry, and found himself a comfortable nook behind the camera.
Affleck’s take on it all? “I can say that I was very lucky in this movie, I had decided who I wanted and all my first choice people said yes. I took some comfort in knowing no matter what happened with my performance I knew I would always have someone really good to cut too!”
Modest to the end. Now, is that another Oscar nomination we spy on the horizon?
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