You know Ben Affleck's "Argo" won last year's Best Picture Oscar for its remarkable balance of comedy, suspense, and relevance. And while we may have called it a near-perfect film then, upon second viewing, we got to wondering: did we really see enough of Affleck's abs?
On the occasion of a jam-packed new "Argo" extended edition box set being released this week, we got a chance to speak with Affleck over the phone about directing, producing, and acting in 2012's most celebrated film. We were keenly interested to find out how he balanced so many tasks so powerfully.
About half way through our fascinating Q&A (printed in full below), Affleck's abs just happened to come up. Though it was intended as more of a humorous question, Affleck's response to our six-pack inquiry offered far more depth than we would have expected.
If you'll recall, the "Six-Pack Scene" sets the table for the climax of the film, when Affleck's character, the real-life CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez, is getting ready to escort the six American "houseguests" from the Canadian embassy in Iran out of the country. The beautifully sequenced scene shows everyone preparing for the daring and unlikely escape, including Mendez, who briefly stares at his well-formed six-pack in the mirror before buttoning his denim shirt.
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"That’s all special effects. In fact, I weighed 280 and I said, 'You know, we can do this with technology now, right?' So, it turns out, if you got 10 thousand dollars …," joked Affleck. "Actually, you raise an interesting point which is: Where is the overlap of the actor’s vanity and the director’s choices? We really had to be careful of those two things coming up against each other — what’s good for the movie and what’s good for the vanity of the actor, or even the career of the actor. When they are the same person, you have to really be rigorous."
"That scene probably would have been a lot different if I weren’t directing, because in the script, it was about how Tony gets out of the shower and he walks to the room, and looks out the window, and puts his watch on, and his shirt on … It was meant to be this sort of long building thing where he is putting his clothes on. But doing it myself, it just felt like that would really stand out because people would say, 'He’s wandering around naked and he's directing the movie,' which seems suspect in many different ways. So I trimmed it all the way down to basically just putting a shirt on and looking out the window, but I get no credit for my austerity there."
Perhaps not, but we certainly give Affleck credit for giving us one of the best films of last year, and for giving us a darn good interview.
How has winning the Oscar, now that you have had some time to reflect, how does that change things?
Ben Affleck: Well, I've always been sort of a more looking forward rather looking back kind of guy. I think that’s been good and bad for me. But having gone through that experience and won, and felt super lucky, and the second time around really having some perspective on it, I guess it takes away some pressure to feel like I have something to prove, and it puts me in a spot where I can just try to do what I want to do, you know, what’s interesting to me. The great thing about this business is that you have one movie that's successful, but then you sort of start all over the next time out. You can't really rest on your laurels; you just have to try to do the best you can.
Well, the nice thing about Blu-Ray is you get to revisit.
BA: Yes. You don't rest on your laurels, but you revisit them.
So how was producing the Blu-Ray? What was the best part about that?
BA: Well, it’s exciting because with this movie, like with "The Town," I really saw what it was like when the studio was excited about doing something extra. There’s a whole team of people, all of whom were really interested in trying to find a way to make it something fun for the fans to buy and to really enrich their experience of the movie, beyond just a few minutes of footage here and there. They really shot a lot of stuff for the specials. There's maps and badges and photobooks, and really kind of a rich amount of integrated information.
And also, I got a chance to put back in eight or nine minutes of stuff that is really interesting and makes it different, and it’s something that I cut out of the movie — it was Tony’s family basically, his wife and son— and It just didn’t sort of fit organically, somehow with the whole rest of the movie. But if you’re interested in the movie, it’s a really interesting thing to look at: how it jived, whether it should or shouldn't have been removed.
Taylor Schilling, who has since become quite well known and so well respected for her television show ["Orange Is the New Black,"], played my wife, and she did great stuff. But it just felt to me like the movie wanted to be about Tony and the houseguests and their jeopardy, and by cutting away from that, you kind of let the air out of the movie a little bit. But it really is an unusually sort of coherent amount of footage to have to be able to reinstate, and it’s an interesting experiment to wonder whether or not I made the right choice.
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Speaking of your movie son, how much fun was it decorating his room?
BA: I just sat there and spent an hour with all the toys that our art department brought, because it was almost overwhelming for me because I am exactly the same age as the character of Tony’s son in the movie. In 1979, I was seven-years-old. So, they were not only the kind of toys from my childhood, but THE actual exact toys that I played with at that exact age.
As you know, those things kind of disappear over the years and you never see those toys again. And so, somehow they tracked them all down. And it was kind of moving. I sat there with this kid, and he’s sort of cast to look a little bit like me, and to stare at your own history and childhood in the face was a really interesting thing, and also just so fun. I mean, I was manipulating with great fastidiousness the way the Storm Troopers should be sitting and the way the TIE Fighter should be resting against the wall. We actually reshot it because the walls were too light for the cards that we were overlaying against them. So I got to do the whole thing again!
Where are those toys now?
BA: I snagged a couple of them and then they said, "We really have to get these back to the rental house." So I got kind of admonished, but I stole a couple of them, which I have here with me in my office for safekeeping.
BA: I have an X-Wing Fighter, I have a Star Strek Spock, and I have the Cheron guy from Star Trek, the black and white guy. Yeah, it was cool.
And who got the "Star Wars" sheets?
BA: I already have "Star Wars" sheets, so that wasn’t an issue for me.
That’s fantastic. How much help did you and your producing partners give Chris Terrio with the Hollywood-bashing part of the script?
BA: Screenwriters don’t need any help bashing Hollywood. They see the the ass-end of that machine the most. And so he had some brilliant insights I think were very hard-earned from his own career as a screenwriter and his own frustrations. One of the really satisfying things about this movie and this experience was how I much I love the script, and then getting to see how much everyone else liked the script, and to see that Chris is able to work and be appreciated in the way that I think he should.
In the extras of the Blu-Ray, I saw that Grant Heslov said that it wasn’t really a thriller until you came on board. Is that true?
BA: Well, I mean the tone was slightly different. I think it was somewhere in the middle. And those guys had a plan to sort of weigh the movie a little bit more towards the comedy stuff, ala Grant's movie, "Men Who Stare at Goats," and George definitely has an affinity for the sort of Coen brothers, intelligent comic sensibility. Not that I don’t like those movies, but I was nervous about it, and didn’t know that I could pull it off; that I would be able to manage a genuine sort of almost farce, and still be able to have the audience be invested in the fate of the houseguests. And that’s what I was really drawn to. This guy is trying to save these peoples’s lives who’s trying to do something that he can be proud of, and that the agency can be proud of, and his son can be proud of.
In order to do that, I felt we had to really believe that everything you're seeing was kind of tape recorder real. I was more conservative about how much comedy. My philosophy was I don’t care how big a laugh is, I’ll cut it out if I feel that it is undermining the movie’s credibility with the audience in terms of its authenticity and realism.
Obviously, those guys were great. They're great producers, they're great guys, they're very supportive, and they said, “Okay, cool. That's your take on it. Give it a shot."
The way that you were able to balance the tones, to deflate and then inflate tension, that was what I walked away with when I first saw it. And then as I was watching the extras and listening to you describe bouncing back between the story lines in the sequencing, I thought that was a stroke of genius. When did that come to you?
BA: There are two people who really deserve, I think, the most credit for the successful aspects of that weaving together: one is Chris Terrio who really wrote it like that. I think he envisioned it in that way. And the other is Bill Goldenberg, the editor, who really relished the opportunity. For an editor, it's sort of like being a curve ball hitter going against a curve ball pitcher. He knew it right away that there was going to be a lot of editorial storytelling. So I was working with really good people and I just tried not to get in the way.
Well, you kind to have to get in the way when you’re acting right?
BA: You're always in the way when you’re acting, yeah!
So how do you overcome the challenges of directing yourself?
BA: Actually, my own way of working, the way that I work best as an actor, is very much in line with the kind of environment that I try to create for other actors to be successful. I don’t think everyone likes the same environment or technique that I do, but I found that enough actors do. I can sort of just create this environment of relaxation and ease, and where people feel comfortable taking risks, and they don’t feel criticized or judged. And they can, on the one hand, be really comfortable and on the other hand be really brave.
And this sounds very simple, but I shoot a lot of footage and I make the acting the priority in the film. I make accumulating a lot of different small pieces that are interesting to later be cobbled together kind of bit by bit, a priority. So that’s good for me and it’s good for the other actors.
If you feel relaxed and if it feels like we can shoot forever with the other actors, if I feel that way as well, I tend to be more successful because I really do the directing of myself in the editing room where I'm making selections about what’s the least bad thing.
Do you think you can make more of a political impact as a filmmaker than as a politician?
BA: Well, I don’t know. I'm told that "Argo" is the biggest black market movie in Tehran and all of the Persians that I know here—there's a lot now, after making this movie — all talk about how people saw it and how it affected them, and they issued statements about it, and it had an effect. I don’t know if it’s a greater effect than something really important that a politician could do, probably not, but what it does do is hopefully serves to create a sense of connectedness between countries.
I think that in the humanist tradition of Renoir and others, the real value to filmmaking is in kind of enriching the human spirit and the recognition that we all share the same goals in terms of our basic humanity. In that way, I try to follow the footsteps of really great filmmakers and hope that that means that making a movie about Iran and the United States is, even in some incredibly miniscule way, a good thing.
Does that kind of motivation drive the choices that you make to direct?
BA: I think that motivation is more of an approach than a way of selecting projects. It’s a prism through which I sort of view anything that I might be interested in. In terms of how I pick projects, it's got to be something that excites and find it interesting and I think I have the skill set that might work in terms of telling the story. But, I suppose I wouldn’t want to do something if didn’t feel that it was what I consider to be redeeming in that way or something that has something interesting to say about the way that we are connected to one another. And it doesn’t mean it needs to do that in a sort of didactic way or a preachy way, it just means that the themes of the story have to speak to who we are to one another.
If you pick your projects based on what excites you and what you find interesting, how is Batman in this prism?
BA: You know, it’s just something that’s probably better discussed, like this thing with "Argo," once we both know what we’re talking about, after we've both seen the movie. I will tell you that it’s just a very exciting idea and an exciting filmmaker, they have an exciting approach, and I don’t want to give anything else away.
Can you tell us how you felt when you wore the Batsuit for the first time?
BA: I will do "Batman" interviews when "Batman" is happening, but I don’t want to upstage the "Argo" of it all.
In other words, "Argo F--- yourself!"
BA: [Laughs] Yes. Well, sort of.
See Ben Affleck and the 'Argo' cast talk to Yahoo Movies: