Inflicted with the acting bug at a young age, Ben Affleck began pursuing his dream early on. Although he definitely knew what he wanted in life, how successful he would become was a gamble. The aspiring actor started with commercials, which progressed to TV movies and in 1993 he landed a role in Dazed and Confused, leading to Affleck teaming up with independent film master, Kevin Smith. Starring in Smith’s Mallrats followed by his amazing performance in another Smith classic, Chasing Amy, audiences began to do a double-take at the handsome actor. However, it was when he and best bud, Matt Damon, wrote their first screenplay, Good Will Hunting that Affleck officially appeared on Hollywood’s map, scoring him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Since then, Affleck has starred in films such as Armageddon, Shakespeare in Love, Pearl Harbor, Forces of Nature, Reindeer Games, Dogma, The Sum of All Fears, Daredevil, Paycheck, Hollywoodland, and numerous others.
Despite Affleck’s win for Good Will Hunting, it appeared that his screenwriting days were short-lived. That is, however, until now. Bringing his career to a whole new level, Affleck has written his second script and directed his first film. Affleck risked it all by putting himself out there with his biggest artistic challenge so far, Gone Baby Gone.
Privileged with the great opportunity of speaking with this true legend-in-filmmaking; both my photography team and I were filled with excitement when the day of our interview/photo shoot finally arrived with Ben Affleck.
At our location, which was a beautiful, multi-million dollar castle, and as A-list photographer, Ash Gupta dramatically flung his scarf around his neck and puffed on a cigarette, his assistant placed muffins, juice and water on a long dining room table. Cameras were set up in the enormous living room with high ceilings, marble floors and a window view that overlooked all of Los Angeles. A publicist from Miramax paced up and down the long hallway while routinely checking his blackberry. Stylists brought in a rack of clothes and began rummaging through them.
Waiting for Affleck, I sat in a room by myself and thought about his new film. It was only a few months earlier that I
first heard of the movie and before seeing it, I honestly had no idea what we were going to get from him.
It was back in May when I entered the screening room to Gone Baby Gone, and plopped down in a plush comfy seat. When the room grew dim, the film opens with private investigator Patrick Kenzie (played by Casey Affleck), walking through his urban nest full of birds who forgot how to fly as we hear the words of Dennis Lehane, the original author of this brutally honest book-turned-film about two of the most prevalent kinds of crime inflicted on children – abduction and molestation.
Set in Boston’s hardscrabble, blue-collar neighborhood, a place where local Cops view these rougher parts of their beloved city from the outside looking in, Gone Baby Gone’s storyline officially begins when a heartbroken family member (played by Amy Madigan) seeks help from the inside. Turning to detective Kenzie for assistance, he is awakened by a loud knocking sound and as our leading man goes to answer the door, we follow close behind.
Standing before him, a little girl’s aunt pleads for Kenzie to take a stab at solving the now three day abduction of 4-year-old Amanda (played by Madeline O’Brien). This is the moment where Kenzie’s life is about to drastically change. Despite the detective’s live-in love, Angie Gennaro’s (played by Michelle Monaghan) fears over swapping the investigation of credit scofflaws for child snatchers, something buried inside Kenzie’s unconscious nudges him and impulsively, he chooses to take the case.
Back at the castle, as I continued to think about Gone Baby Gone and its film creator, Ben Affleck casually waltzed into the interview wearing a T-shirt, jeans and running shoes. He waved and immediately began chatting to all of us as if he’d known everyone for years. His friendly yet sarcastically-charged sense of humor shined through and instantaneously, we all loved him! As he joked about turning the ripe old age of thirty-five on August 15th, leaving behind his youth and entering a “no more excuses” era where being irresponsible went from rad to bad, Affleck turned this Hollywood-style interview/shoot into something down to earth and chill. Even when our photographer gasped at the site of Affleck’s worn-out running shoes, our new favorite Boston star shrugged his shoulders and kicked off his shoes and socks with no qualms. Although this has been said many times before about certain individuals in Hollywood and with some of them, you can clearly see that it isn’t true, in Ben’s case, I promise… he genuinely keeps it real.
I led Affleck to a large oak desk where he sat opposite me. Fumbling with my recorder, Affleck must have noticed that I was a bit nervous and said, “I’m the easiest guy in the world, trust me. I just talk and talk and talk. I’ll do your job for you.”
“Right on,” I replied. “You can write the article.”
“Yes, yes,” laughed Affleck. “Amazingly enough, Ben Affleck is the greatest thing that ever came along.”
“Perfect in every way,” I added.
He continued, “There’s nothing I can say about this man that is critical in any way. Feel positively towards him.”
Instantly, I saw what was so charming about Affleck. Along with his humorous nature, he has the ability to make you feel like everything is going to be alright. Although this is a man with a lengthy acting career and a new film that he wrote and directed, Affleck is one of the coolest guys I’ve come across in Los Angeles or anywhere else for that matter.
“How did you decide to tackle such a difficult story like Gone Baby Gone?” I asked.
“I read the book and really liked it,” he replied. “I thought it was a challenge in so far as making it into a movie. There were some structural challenges, for me, anyway. I talked to another writer I was looking at it with and asked him to help me adapt it.”
Immediately following his meeting with the head studio execs at Paramount, the company who owned the rights, Affleck and co-writer, Aaron Stockard, took over the project that was collecting dust and began tackling the screenplay version of Gone Baby Gone in 2002. However, Affleck’s initial plan was not to direct it but to act in the dramatic thriller.
“After years developing it and putting it together, I got more attached to the project,” explained Affleck. “And at the same time, the idea of directing something had become more and more appealing to me. And those two serendipitously came together and it made more sense.
“When this idea came to the surface, it was the obvious choice to do. It was pretty daunting, though, because here was Dennis Lehane and when it first started, there was no Mystic River and all of a sudden that had come out and I was following that giant success with a guy who is my hero.
“The sort of person I would like to be when I grow up and become twice the man that I am now is Clint Eastwood.”
“Eastwood is my favorite, too!” I responded, excitedly. “I love him!”
“Yes, and I had to pretend Mystic River didn’t just happen, otherwise, I would be paralyzed by second guessing myself in a lot of ways,” Affleck stated. “So, I just closed my eyes and leapt.”
“Blind faith,” I said.
“Yeah,” replied Affleck. “At a certain point you have to say, ‘I’m committed to this.’ Once you make the decision that
this is what I want to do, there’s always going to be factors that cause you to second guess yourself. Those nagging
voices, like, ‘Boy, maybe you shouldn’t do this. They already have this great, successful movie out.’ But, I made the choice.
“You never know if it’s the right bet but once you are committed to that bet, you make the bet, and see where the cards lie. Good poker lessons for life.”
With a story that carries a strong message about child abuse issues, Affleck didn’t divert from the book’s ugliness regarding crimes against children. And regardless of how it may be perceived by audiences, Affleck did what he does best. He remained true to the reality of child abuse cases and the devastating impact they have on the victims and families involved.
“As this movie takes on these issues of child abuse and child neglect,” said Affleck, “it takes on some unconventional situations and, ultimately makes an unusual choice in how it deals with the ending.
“Like the book, I also wanted to keep it [a graphic scene] in the movie in a strong way because I didn’t want to suggest that this doesn’t happen. I didn’t want to say, ‘Ok, this isn’t real – child sexual abuse, child abduction isn’t real. Even child murder isn’t real.”
“Child murder is substantially less common. But child sexual abuse is extremely common. Terribly common,” added Affleck.
With help from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Affleck was able to bring the severity of crimes committed against children to the screen, accurately. One scene in particular, while hard to swallow, was supported by the organization.
“We are doing a benefit screening with them in October in Washington, D.C.,” Affleck said, enthusiastically.
Challenged with a movie based on incredibly disturbing issues, along with his determination to keep the rawness in tact, Affleck knew that the background settings were equally as important as the plotline itself. Therefore, once again, he set out to ensure that the locations and people in them were the real deal.
“The thing with this movie was I could have done the film on a bunch of different levels,” explained Affleck. “I could have done the Pulp Fiction end side of it where a lot of people get killed.”
“Thrilling kind of version,” he said. “High adrenaline, sort of.”
“Or it could have been the sort of middle ground version where it’s more elevated and not as shoot em uppy.’ And then there’s sort of the version that I did, which was where I wanted to make the abduction story the most pronounced aspect of it. So, if everything around it is as grounded and real as it can possibly be, that’s the one that sticks out the most.”
“I wanted the city [Boston] to be a part of the movie – a character in the movie,” stated Affleck. “And I didn’t really want to use extras. Producers were terrified by this.
“I didn’t want SAG actors. I just wanted people. I kept saying, ‘No extras, people will just be there because the camera’s there.’”
Smiling, Affleck reminisces, “I know they just thought, ‘he’s crazy.’ Still, they brought SAG extras in. They’d try and sneak them in and I’d have to go around and be like, ‘Who is this guy? Get him out of here.’”
He laughed, “So, I was constantly throwing extras out, and having to battle them.”
“How could you tell who was who?” I asked, amused.
With a burst of energy, Affleck said, “You can tell!”
“That’s why I only wanted locals,” he reiterated.
Nervous about winging it, the producers reluctantly went along with Affleck’s vision but always hired two people for one role, which Affleck admits was needed a few times. However, he still felt that they were “being unnecessarily cautious.”
“In some ways I felt like… you know, they were thinking poorly of my people,” said Affleck, light-heartedly.
Along with Affleck’s decision to cast locals, he took two camera teams on a field trip around Boston where he told them to get footage. “I wanted to shoot people on the streets and weave it into the movie,” explained Affleck. “We went out into Boston and we just drove around.”
“At first, they wanted to organize everything,” Affleck said. “It’s hard for people who are used to a call sheet and planner. They started saying, ‘we are gonna go here and here,’ and I was like, ‘No guys, just get in the car with the cameras and just go and I’ll take you places. We’ll look around and we’ll stop and get out and shoot people.’”
Stated Affleck, “I think they initially thought, ‘This guy has no fucking idea what he’s doing. He is a total hack. He has no idea about directing.’ I could actually tell they thought that but I figured they’d probably think that anyways, so hey!”
Despite the crew’s obvious fears when Affleck brought them into those areas where there’d be no way in hell you’d get out of the car and ask for directions, the fact that he was recognized made things much safer.
“Fortunately,” said Affleck, “one of the benefits of being a recognizable actor is people shift pretty quickly from being menacing to being like, ‘Heyyyyyyyyyyy, I know you.’”
While Affleck mingled with locals, he told the crew to shoot. Unaware of the camera, the crew captured people in their natural state.
“It was amazing,” said Affleck, enthusiastically. “This stuff… I wish I could use it by itself. We got people’s subconscious behavior because they were paying attention to the actor getting out of the car rather than the camera.
“We got this incredible documentary footage. Once these guys got inspired and realized what I wanted, everybody figured out what the movie was, the feel of the movie, the rawness of it.
“I was hoping the footage would bleed into the other stuff and make it feel more authentic. Therefore, we got the stuff shot on the stage with actors you recognize mixed with these non-professional actors in Boston so it all sloped up and down and melted together. In the end, you have this overall feeling of total authenticity.”
“I loved it,” continued Affleck. “I wish I could have used more of that stuff. In fact, in the editorial process, Billy, the editor, kept telling me, ‘You gotta take some of this out. You can’t have all of this.’ But it was one of the most satisfying elements of it. I loved the nontraditional thing that we managed to pull off. It’s not that it hasn’t happened before in movies but it was really successful.”
Putting together a loose twelve minute montage of stuff, Affleck showed his footage to the actors, saying, “This is the movie. This is the degree of realism that I want for the movie. In other words, I don’t want any artifacts. Just reflect the city.
“It was nice to have an interesting piece of film to show everyone in the beginning that said, ‘We are all going to be on this page,’ even though it came from right off the street. It still was sort of unifying because you thought, ‘Ok, alright, this is as real as you can possibly be and sort of align ourselves with this.”
Along with Affleck’s decision to use real folks in his flick, he also worked with an incredible cast of pros such as Ed Harris, Amy Ryan, John Ashton, and of course… Morgan Freeman.
“What was it like to direct Morgan Freeman?” I asked.
“Well, luckily,” said Affleck, “I spent one-hundred days working with the guy as an actor. That helped with the terror but also, quite frankly, he’s a very generous, professional guy. He could easily have made it difficult for me.
“He could have really intimidated me and made it tough but he didn’t. It was really his choice. But, you know, even being the professional that he is, I also could have fallen apart on my own.”
“As a first-time director, I could have intimidated myself,” stated Affleck. “So, every little bit of my own confidence I was able to hold onto, helped. I knew that if I let my worries and insecurities overwhelm me, they could possibly hurt the movie.”
It was Affleck’s fantastic cast, which he credits for the smooth-sailing production. “Not only were they all talented actors,” said Affleck. “Not only did they show up and do outstanding work and make the movie great but they also brought so much just in terms of their presence. Because of those guys, everyone on set worked twice as hard.”
Laughed Affleck, “So, if you can bring Ed Harris to your job every day, it would increase productivity one-hundred and fifty percent.”
Taught to Affleck by Gus Van Sant during the production of Good Will Hunting, casting is key in good directing. With an enormous amount of respect for the work his brother Casey does as an actor, Affleck knew that he was the perfect person for the lead role.
“One of the things that is too bad about movies is that because of the star system in relation to financing, only certain people who are recognizable merit certain budgets,” said Affleck.
“They [film investors] go, ‘I know who you are… ten guys, twenty guys… and anyone who is not one of those ten-to-twenty people, well, we haven’t heard of them so we won’t finance the movie based on them.’ So, you have this limited range of guys. You are used to seeing these people. You like them. They are good actors and you’ll see movies with them BUT there’s a certain kind of familiarity and you’re familiar with their behavior.”
“I gottcha,” I said. “You are one of those twenty actors on the list.”
“Yeah, and that’s fine,” Affleck said. “The list is great but on a certain subconscious level, I think you know what will happen because you think, ‘I’ve seen this person in so many movies where things have gone their way, and I know things will work out for them.’ Because Casey hasn’t been that guy, I thought the great thing about casting him is that there’s not that subconscious security with him in the role.
“You’re not really sure what’s going to happen with him in this part. You get a sense that he might make a mistake. He might not be strong enough. Something terrible might happen to him. I thought that was a really rare opportunity because you don’t have that safety net as you go through and this movie, wants to… you know, it asks some, I think, provocative questions.”
During detective Kenzie’s investigation, he gets involved in a separate child abuse case where he makes a choice that ultimately changes the core of him. Therefore, Kenzie’s final decision regarding Amanda’s disappearance is based on the outcome of something else and he is forced to live with the end result.
“It’s about becoming a man and Kenzie had to learn that as he becomes an adult, the decisions you make have lasting consequences and they impact not only you but other people, as well,” Affleck explained. “In the real world, often times, you never know if you were right or wrong. And you have to live with that.
“You have to live with the consequences of the choices that you made,” continued Affleck. “And beyond that, you get precious little.”
Gone Baby Gone ends with a scene, powerfully told through Kenzie’s facial expressions and body language. As he quietly sits beside the person that was directly impacted by his actions, it is the silence that speaks a thousand words and provokes a million questions.
Days after the screening of Gone Baby Gone, I kept asking myself the same recurring question: “Did detective Kenzie make a mistake?”