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Ben Affleck says 'Live by Night' a 'love letter' to the films of his youth

By Bruce Kirkland, Special to Postmedia Network

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Ben Affleck’s latest multiple-threat film as an actor, writer, producer and director is a gangster epic called Live by Night. Prepare to be thrown off-kilter: Hollywood’s golden boy has taken a sudden new-old turn in his filmmaking career.

Live by Night is set in the 1920s and ‘30s, which is 50 years earlier than any of his films ever ventured before. After directing Gone, Baby, Gone; The Town; and Argo, the new project also is old-fashioned in style. That suits the story’s setting during American Prohibition and the Great Depression.

Just look at the movie’s poster, with Affleck as the criminal protagonist sitting in a dark brown armchair in an elegant if oversized off-white suit while staring us down and pointing a black handgun at us. The image makes Affleck’s sharp turn crystal clear: Live by Night has nothing whatsoever to do with his other life as The Batman, nor as a movie star for hire in titles such as The Accountant.

Instead — as Affleck explains in a hectic cellphone interview from a New York City airport — Live by Night is a reflection of his enduring respect for classics.

“I wanted to make it into a love letter to the kind of movies I grew up loving,” Affleck says, emphasizing his appreciation for the gangster genre, which Warner Bros. Pictures perfected in the 1920s.

What he calls “the big sweeping epic” used to be “the currency of Hollywood,” Affleck says. “Now it’s much more visual effects based.”

One inspiration for Live by Night is Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (1991), starring Warren Beatty as the real-life American gangster Bugsy Siegel. “It informs it for sure,” Affleck says of his project, which he adapted from the Dennis Lehane novel. “It definitely is part of the history of movies that underline my approach to making this one.”

On a larger scale, the 44-year-old Affleck has his personal gangster favourites spanning decades: “You get to judge by different eras.”

Going back to when James Cagney trumped Edgar G. Robinson as the greatest early movie gangster, Affleck cites The Public Enemy (1931), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and White Heat (1949). “There were some really great, old-fashioned movies that actually don’t feel old-fashioned when you watch them now. They feel contemporary because they include so much more ambiguity.”

For “the modern era” starting in the 1970s, Affleck selects four titles from the masters, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese: The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995). “Those are the greats and maybe you even put Heat (Michael Mann’s 1995 thriller with De Niro and Pacino) in that category.”

In Live by Night, Affleck plays a fictional character named Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston police captain. After his harrowing military service during WWII, young Joe turns to petty crime. Eventually, inspired by romantic complications, he evolves into a gangster in Florida, where he specializes in rum smuggling.

The film version of Live by Night, just like Lehane’s 2012 novel, delves into class conflict, racial discrimination, religious bigotry and a Pandora’s Box of other social ills, including sexual predation and child abuse. “A lot of those themes are present and are what drew me to the book,” Affleck says. “They definitely were part of what I wanted to explore doing the movie.

“In general, gangster movies do let you explore this moral ambiguity because you have protagonists who engage in morally dubious behaviour. We, as the audience, have to decide how much we are going to empathize with them and how much we’re going to stand apart. They are also great stories about ambition because the gangster is always trying to get ahead and cut out his enemies and stay one step ahead of the law. This genre allows for that. It allows for really fun storytelling in that way.

“So, when a big book like this — with such big, punchy, sexy themes and crackling dialogue and great characters — comes along, it just makes me think: ‘This would snap really nicely into this tradition of films and filmmaking!’ ”

Like the California-born Affleck, who grew up in Massachusetts in the orbit of Boston, Lehane is part of the unique Boston culture. He knows the city’s history, criminal and otherwise. He wrote Gone, Baby, Gone, which became Affleck’s directorial debut in 2007.

“Dennis is just a flat-out great writer,” Affleck says with affection. “What I find really interesting now, and what I found really provocative about Gone, Baby, Gone, is that moral ambiguity that we talked about. Dennis is reluctant to ever judge any of his characters in his books. They are just fed by motivations and circumstances and they’re all colliding against one another. And it feels very much what real life feel like. But he also tells stories in such a startlingly visual, cinematic way that it makes the step of adapting it to film feel natural.”

AFFLECK’S BATMAN NOT SET IN STONE

With his superhero project The Batman thrown into limbo because of his public comments, Ben Affleck is coming to a fascinating career crossroads.

The 44-year-old actor-filmmaker seems determined to at least consider taking the road less travelled — and not to just blindly pursue the path paved with gold.

“That’s the idea,” Affleck recently told The Guardian about his plans to direct and star in The Batman. “But it’s not a set thing and there’s no script. If it doesn’t come together in a way I think is really great I’m not going to do it.”

That level of uncertainty is a revelation. Especially because it comes in the aftermath of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and before the 2017 release of Justice League on Nov. 17. Affleck’s Batman character has a major role in that Zack Snyder film, too.

But a stand-alone project for the caped crusader? It seemed like a slam dunk before BvS muddied the waters. Now it appears to be a long shot that depends on Affleck’s mood when he sees a polished screenplay from Geoff Johns, his co-writer on The Batman.

There is no question that Affleck wants to separate his superhero experience from the rest of his filmmaking career. When I last saw him in person, prior to the release of The Accountant, Affleck made it obvious that he valued his acting career in films like that one, films in which he appeared as himself and was not buried under a cowl.

In addition, it is critical for Affleck that he continues as a well-rounded director. He has already segued from Gone, Baby, Gone to The Town, Argo and the 1920s-30s gangster story Live by Night, which is being released wide on Jan. 13.

The feeling now is that Affleck needs to direct a version of The Batman that lets him develop the more mature elements of the title character, and not just end up in a string of superhero fight scenes. It might not happen.

Live by Night opens Friday, Jan. 13.

Twitter: @Bruce_Kirkland

BKirkland@postmedia.com