Ben Affleck may have caught filmgoers’ attention in front of the camera, but he’s been just as busy behind it of late. He co-wrote and co-starred in “Good Will Hunting,” then later directed and co-wrote “Gone Baby Gone.” With “The Town,” Affleck has achieved triple-threat status – directing, co-writing and co-starring.
Ben Affleck may have caught filmgoers’ attention in front of the camera, but he’s been just as busy behind it of late. He co-wrote and co-starred in “Good Will Hunting,” then later directed and co-wrote “Gone Baby Gone.” With “The Town,” Affleck has achieved triple-threat status – directing, co-writing and co-starring in the thriller about a small gang of Charlestown criminals who commit a series of heists and are being tracked down by a determined FBI agent (Jon Hamm), all while the head crook (Affleck) is falling for one of his gang’s victims (Rebecca Hall).
Affleck insists that there was no grand scheme of things to put directing over acting.
“It was really just a function of wanting to take a step toward directing, toward doing some more unusual stuff,” he said last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. “And with this movie I felt ready to try being an actor and a director. So it wasn’t really any meta-planning stuff. It was just creative instincts.”
In bringing Chuck Hogan’s crackling crime novel to the screen, Affleck proved to be in collaborative mode.
“I was already working with a fine, fine novel as well as a fine treatment from Chuck,” said Affleck. “He had given me most of what I had needed. The only difference between what was there and what was going to be on the screen was going to be the additional research I did and the specific choices I made about what I wanted to photograph. When I got Chuck’s good ideas for the script and I added some of my own ideas, I brought them to the actors and the crew folks, who brought their ideas as well.”
Of course, crime films are a dime a dozen. “The Town” has a different take on the genre, but Affleck freely admits these are the kind of movies he not only enjoys but also studies.
“Obviously, ‘Heat’ was a huge influence,’” he said of the 1995 Michael Mann film. “It looms quite large over this movie.” He also listed “Rififi” and “The Bank Job” as great films, called “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” a big inspiration, and said of the 2008 Italian crime epic “Gomorrah,” “I watched that a bunch of times before I got going on this.”
But getting going wasn’t all that easy. Affleck had to deal with the task of getting the Boston accents right, of working with law enforcement, and, in order to pull off an exciting car chase, trying not to wreak too much havoc in Boston’s cramped North End.
“The accents were a big issue because if you don’t do them well, they can really upend your movie,” he said. “You have to know that your actors can do it. I knew Jeremy Renner” – who plays the psychotic Jem Coughlin – “could do it. I sent him a lot of recordings of the accent, but more than the recordings, I found that it’s about the people that you stand next to. So I put the right people around Jeremy without telling him. And Jeremy is so smart, you could immediately see him sort of radiating toward the people without them knowing they could be helping him.”
Affleck’s previous directing experience was with the kidnapping film “Gone Baby Gone.” This time he had to learn about how law officials dealt with heists.
“There were various levels of cooperation,” he said. “We were not embraced by the FBI, and we were not sanctioned by the Department of Justice. For one thing, that’s a long process where you have to subject your film to creative concerns you might not want governing what you want to do. That said, people working for the Department of Justice in the greater Boston area are extraordinary. They’re smart, they work real hard, and they’re trying to catch real bad guys all the time. They were willing, on their own time, to sit down and talk to us about how they do their job, and why they think it’s important. They talked about the kind of cars they drive and the kind of clothes they buy.”
But officials didn’t cross the line about certain components of crime fighting.
“They were very clear about the boundaries that they had set,” Affleck said. “There were surveillance techniques and arrest techniques they didn’t want us to know because they thought the movie could make bad guys smarter. But they were supportive, and I think they’re portrayed in the movie with honor.”
When it came time to shoot a daring robbery and getaway in the North End, the film hit some snags.
“We had a lot of trouble there because the space is quite constricted,” Affleck said. “If you’re blocking up traffic and causing those kinds of problems ... well, it was difficult for us. We needed to be very judicious about how we worked there, where we parked and put things, how much we smashed, how much we burned the cars.”