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For 'Argo's' Ben Affleck, complex stories and characters work best

Intelligent crowd-pleasers have become a mark of Ben Affleck's filmmaking savvy, with his latest, hostage drama 'Argo,' making waves on the film festival circuit.

October 06, 2012|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times

"They were not groundbreaking stories but they were really well told," Heslov said of "Gone Baby Gone" (which brought Amy Ryan a supporting actress Oscar nomination) and "The Town" (whoseJeremy Renner was a supporting actor pick). Clooney said he was disinclined to say Affleck has grown as a director. "I'm not sure about 'growth' because that would imply that his first two films were somehow lacking," Clooney said. "I loved them both."

Just because Affleck is now focused on directing doesn't mean that he's abandoned acting. Far from it. He feels an almost equal duty to be on screen when he's behind the camera, fearing that otherwise he would disappear from the radar.

"The thing about directing is that it takes a year or two years to do, and if you're not in a movie, Hollywood's kind of like dog years. 'It's been forever — what happened to him, we haven't seen him in anything,'" said Affleck, who stars in Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder" and has a part in next year's gambling drama "Runner, Runner."

PHOTOS| Ben Affleck life in pictures

Terrio's script makes a number of departures from actual events, most notably toward the film's climax, which was far less suspenseful in fact than in the finished film. Affleck also added a preface to the story, delineating America's complicated relationship with Iran, and how our sheltering of its deposed shah played a role in the region's revolt.

"I wanted to have the audience have a context. Which isn't to say that we were going to lay blame on the United States — or on Great Britain, which was the much more involved power colonially — but to look at the complications of the story," said Affleck, who in person is more confident than cocky, willing to make fun of himself and his career missteps. For someone in the celebrity spotlight, he is unusually willing to be candid. For example, asked what Malick's "To the Wonder" was about, he said, "I have no idea. It's 'Tree of Life' without dialogue."

One of the trickier issues presented by the "Argo" screenplay is its blend of satiric comedy and life-or-death drama. At one point in the story, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who has been enlisted by Mendez to produce the fake film, jokes to the CIA agent about the Writers Guild of America, "You're worried about the ayatollah? Try the WGA." But within a few minutes, hostages inside the American embassy are being lined up for what looks to be a firing squad.

"My only hesitation at the beginning was figuring out what the tone would be — you don't want it to be a smug movie," said Terrio, who has adapted the French thriller-love story "Tell No One" as a remake for Affleck to potentially direct. "It could be a movie that is full of nudges and winks."

To avoid that trap, Affleck and Terrio excised some of the Hollywood gags from the film's later chapters, so that the urgency of the real situation could lead the way. And that's where Affleck's understanding of storytelling is most apparent; the tension feels organic.

"Two-thirds of American movies are extensions of commercials — they tell you how to feel and they tell you how to think — rather than letting you figure it out on your own," said Arkin, who has been acting since the 1960s and won the supporting actor Oscar for "Little Miss Sunshine." "Ben treats the audience like adults. He doesn't shove you into endless close-ups, and the music doesn't tell you what's going to happen next, which is something I hate in American movies."

Even if Affleck relaxes between takes as an actor by doing crossword puzzles, he's more than a little obsessive about his work. He will occasionally go back and tinker with his editing of "Gone Baby Gone," "The Town" and "Argo," asking whether he could have made better cuts here or there. "I get neurotic about it — did I make a mistake there? Should I have done something else here?" he said.

But for all of his self-examination, Affleck isn't sure how he would define his filmmaking style. What he does know, however, is that he is drawn to certain ideas.

"I hope the consistent theme is that the characters are complicated and that there's nobody who's particularly good and there's nobody who's totally bad," he said. "The idea that there's complexity to the character of a man or a woman is really interesting to me. Tony Mendez is interesting to me — he's got failings.

"You look at the houseguests being rescued — one of them is a coward and obstinate. You see people's weaknesses as much as their strengths, and then you get surprised by what they do. Or at least I do."


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