Back in the day, Warner Bros. was known for making tough crime movies and the roster of stars — Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft — who headlined them.
Things have changed a lot in Hollywood since the old contract-player days. However, if there’s any talent who’s identified with a particular studio at the moment, it’s Ben Affleck.
The square-jawed, 44-year-old Bostonian produced, directed and starred in Warner Bros.’ last Best Picture Oscar winner, Argo. He’s also made The Town and The Accountant for the company in the past few years. And Affleck not only plays the most important character, Batman/Bruce Wayne, in Warner’s latest round of DC Comics-based movies, the studio’s even handing him the writing and directing reins for the next Batman standalone movie, which he’s currently working on.
How does Affleck feel about being Warner’s golden boy? Good. So good, in fact, that he just directed his fourth movie, Live by Night, as a kind of love letter to those crime classics of the 1930s and ’40s.
“Oh man, this to me is a dream come true,” enthuses Affleck, dressed in dark jeans and a sweater, during an interview in Los Angeles. “I wanted to make something in the spirit and tradition of Warner Bros. gangster movies. It’s such an honour to be working at that studio and the history is so rich. I’m really interested in film history and watch a lot of old movies and study how the art form has developed. So I wanted to be part of that legacy at Warners and make a really rich, pulpy gangster movie with the kind of craftsmanship that went into movies like White Heat or Angels With Dirty Faces.”
So that’s what he did.
“It’s big, it’s sprawling, it’s a lot of fun and it’s got all the gangster tropes, but in a hopefully updated way,” says Affleck. “I just love the movie and I’m really proud of it. It’s a little bit more like The Town, in a way, a movie that fits into a genre but is done a little bit differently, I guess. It plays with genre in that way.”
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a Prohibition-era Boston bootlegger with scruples. Joe’s principles drive him away from the New England mob scene to Tampa, Florida, where he learns that rum running can be just as compromising. Brendan Gleeson and Chris Cooper play tough guys and Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning and Sienna Miller play women in Joe’s life.
“Even though he was carrying a lot of weight and under super-stress, Ben was very happy and collaborative with everybody,” says Saldana over the phone. She play’s Joe’s Cuban love, Graciella. “He’s the kind of director and writer who prefers input and considers it highly, but he also has his own vision. He’s not aggressive about it, he’s super-gentle, but he’s very determined. The environment he created on set was very artistic and professional — and excellent.”
Affleck adapted Live by Night’s screenplay from a novel by Dennis Lehane. Another Boston boy, Lehane’s books have been made into four other movies, including Affleck’s 2007 directing debut, Gone Baby Gone.
“Dennis is an astute writer,” Affleck says. “He writes great, punchy characters, great dialogue, and has really good story architecture. The characters in his books, I find so inspiring. They make me feel like I can speak their language and add to that and incorporate them. You know, I’m not the only one; Mystic River and Shutter Island were both his, and James Gandolfini’s last movie, The Drop. So he’s had a lot of adaptations. Not that many writers have had five movies made of their books. He’s really just got something special.”
Warner Bros. is hoping Affleck can bring something special to its DC Extended Universe. Despite making a lot of money worldwide, and introducing Affleck’s Bruce Wayne, last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad didn’t enjoy the critical acclaim of some of the titles in Disney’s rival Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Affleck says his next DC film, which he executive produced, is designed to be more popular.
“Justice League, you probably saw the teaser that came out of Comic-Con; I thought it is nicely emblematic of the kind of minor tone shift and segue in storytelling,” he says, comparing the November 2017 film to the dark and brooding Batman v Superman. “It’s a little bit lighter, the characters are a little bit more comfortable in themselves, so they can express a wider array of emotions. And there are just more people in it, so it’s more fun. It’s all of these different characters bumping up against each other and the team dynamic offers a lot of dramatic possibility.”
As for the Bat-script he’s currently writing, “We’re still working on it, taking a little extra time and a little extra care to really get it right on paper first. But it’s looking very good and I’m excited about it.”
Affleck’s take on the Dark Knight not only differs from previous screen incarnations by Michael Keaton, Christian Bale and the few one-offs in between, but will evolve through the future DC films.
“It’s different in terms of tone and, obviously, just a different actor,” Affleck says of his Caped Crusader. “I think the most profound difference is that I’m playing the part at an older age than those guys were when they played it, and it’s about a guy who’s had a long life of this experience, rather than someone who’s just setting out on the journey to become this guy. He’s older and wiser, I guess. And he was pretty pissed off in Batman v Superman, but now it’s not about finding revenge in Justice League, it’s about protecting the Earth. So the feel is different.”
Live by Night hits Cineplex theatres January 13th - Click here for showtimes.