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The Way Back is the sort of movie it’s become popular to say Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. For starters, director Gavin O’Connor’s new film—out tomorrow—cost about $25 million to make, a budgetary no-man’s-land in our modern cinematic universe-and-streaming age. The film is a genre outlier, too—nominally a sports movie, but also a weepy, raw adult drama. Ben Affleck stars as an alcoholic former high school basketball stud who returns to coach his alma mater’s team. Some lessons are learned, others ignored. It’s set in Los Angeles’s unglamourous South Bay. A franchise-IP tentpole, this is not.
O’Connor specializes in these theoretically extinct films. He knows his material, and his themes; he’s become expert at smuggling real-deal feelings into men’s lives using the familiar contours of other genres. Miracle, the story of the 1980 US hockey team’s Olympic victory over the Russians, put him on the map, while Warrior, a tale of estranged brothers finding each other (and themselves) in the mixed martial arts octagon, was the first I saw of two then up-and-coming actors named Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. Both projects, along with The Way Back, follow many of the traditional sports-movie beats; all three contain a training montage best described as fuckin’ sick. But mostly they are about men—fathers and sons struggling to be better to each other, and to themselves. And for popular movies about and starring men, they are notably and remarkably sad.
O’Connor is also the man behind The Accountant, which is not about sports, and is without question among the most gloriously strange objects in recent Hollywood history, if not all recorded human storytelling. The 2016 film was the director’s first outing with Affleck, who stars as Christian Wolff: an autistic accountant with a wicked case of prison body who works for criminal organizations, dabbles in freelance murder, and collects Jackson Pollock paintings. (I was not kidding about it being weird!) But the film—which, again, is about a Mossad-grade accountant-assassin on the spectrum—is nonetheless among the most compelling action movies of the last decade. It is slick and gritty and satisfying. A grip of excellent character actors give steel-toed performances; Anna Kendrick and Dogs Playing Poker both factor prominently. There are no Infinity Stones. That it exists at all, much less managed to triple its production budget, is its own movie-industry miracle.
Only four years have passed since Affleck and O’Connor last teamed up, but their reunion wasn’t guaranteed. In the years between, Affleck found himself slogging through Batman films, and, more painfully, a grueling public divorce from his wife Jennifer Garner, along with multiple stints in rehab for alcohol addiction. The Way Back is, at times, difficult to watch. Affleck’s recent, well-publicized struggles flicker through every scene. It’s also a deceptively slippery film: on one level a sure-handed genre piece, and on another a treatise on the psychic prison that is contemporary masculinity. In other words, it is definitely a Gavin O’Connor movie.
GQ: How did you wind up pursuing The Way Back as a project?
Gavin O’Connor: It initially came to me through Brad Inglesby, the writer. Through channels, he had gotten me the script, and I had a pretty powerful response to it. We met and we discussed doing it, but there were things going on in my life—I had just had a baby, and some other things were going on. So I ended up, after several conversations, kind of ejecting myself from it.
Six months later, I got a call from Ben, and he had read the script. He called me up and said he wanted to play this role, and started telling me the story. And I'm like, "Dude, I can answer that. I can finish the story for you. I know the script." That's very rare—usually, an actor is bringing something to a director, or a director is bringing a project to an actor. Once that happened, we met for dinner and discussed it, and then brought it to Warner Brothers.
You said Brad had reached out to you specifically. Was that because he knew of you as kind of our last remaining adult sports movie director?
I hope I'm just not a sports—
Well, I don't mean to put that on you. They're movies before they’re “sports movies,” but you’ve done a couple now, and they are dramas that occur in the world of sports, right?
It's valid. By the way, one of the reasons I didn't want to do [The Way Back] was because of that. After Warrior, I was finished making sports movies, even if the subject matter isn't entirely sports. And I don't think the movie we made is a movie about basketball—the basketball is a vehicle. To be honest with you, I think we probably minimized some of the basketball [in the script]. It was probably a little more basketball-heavy when I got it. But yes, I think that's an accurate guess.
Did you have movies you drew on as references for The Way Back?
You know, I didn't watch any sports movies. I was initially going to shoot the film in Super 16, so there were some Super 16 films that we looked at. But I really watched a lot of movies that dealt with alcoholism and addiction. And then I made a list for Ben of what I thought were the best alcoholic performances, and I had Ben watch those. I remember shooting a scene—he was in a bar and he was playing really drunk. And it's hard, because you can't play drunk. It has to come from a real, deeply inner place.
And when we finished the night, I pulled him aside. I said, "Ben, remember all those movies I sent you, and the performances?" I said, "You just went to the top of the list of playing drunk." And you know what he said to me? He said, "I've had a lot of practice."
What was on that list?
Number one for me, no question, was Paul Newman in The Verdict. I thought Bradley in A Star Is Born was fantastic. Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses is at the top of the list as well. Then there were some that I remember liking when I was young, and I revisited, thinking, "Oh my God, is that some scenery chewing, overacting”—Leaving Las Vegas being one of them.
I read the other day that you weren't aware of the stuff going on in Ben's personal life when you started talking about the movie. How did having those conversations then inform or change the movie you ended up making?
I'm just not on social media, and I don't read a lot of this stuff, so I just wasn't aware that he had been in rehab before. When I knew Ben from The Accountant, he was sober—I knew sober Ben. But when Ben called me and we talked about it and we met for dinner, he was very open about his disease, and where he was in his life. And at this point, once again, he was still sober. It was right after we agreed to do the movie that he ended up going back to rehab. We had just started prepping. So that was precarious.
It's a very raw, vulnerable performance. And I think, especially as he's been doing press for it, he's been really open about where he's been. Did you both ever have any trepidation about it being so close to home?
Yeah. The only trepidation was Ben's willingness to really open up the box of demons and let them out for an audience to see, and to go to these deep, dark places that are reflective of his own life. I needed to feel comfortable that he was willing to go there. It's scary. And I'm going to capture it on film. I'm going to capture his demons in a very sad way. But he assured me he was willing to go there.
My job was just to create a very safe set for him, and a safety net there for him. I really cleared out the sets when we were dealing with certain subject matter. A lot of times I just rolled, and I'd just keep rolling, come over and talk to him. Let's try this, let's try that. And just explore it.
And is that a situation that's a little more comfortable because you two have this working relationship, and you've done this before?
Yeah. 100%. I have to imagine it's probably one of the reasons he called me to do it. I think he knew what this entailed, and he trusted that I was going to not only allow him to feel safe, but also to push him to go deeper, and know that I would be there for him. And also that I'd never embarrass him.
There are these little moments, when Ben taps on the top of a beer can or something, where you're like, Oh. There are these specific details and choices that feel lived-in and earned.
We were always looking for things like that. These are things that are not in the script. The way he rotates the beer cans, these were all discoveries that we made along the way, doing research. [In one sequence, Affleck’s character drinks a beer and stashes his next in the freezer, repeating the gesture until he finishes a case’s worth.] I started going to AA meetings, and listening, and talking. I had meetings with a lot of alcoholics. A lot of beer drinkers. That's where that scene came out of.
Your movies focus on men who seem like they're suffering from trying to live up to a version of masculinity that just doesn't work anymore. I'm curious about how that's become a big theme for you, or something that you keep returning to in interesting ways.
I have no idea. I guess there must be something unconsciously I'm trying to work out in that arena. My father's deceased, but I guess I'm still—the Nolte character in Warrior, I wrote him to be pretty close to my dad. I guess I'm trying to work something out.
I guess a different way of asking that would be to say that you're in conversation with a prevailing idea about what works in the world—what kind of man a man should be.
My internal struggle as a boy was always that I felt this artistic spirit inside of me that was bursting to get out, but I was a good athlete as a kid. And when my parents divorced, my guarantee to see my old man was if I played sports. It was a guarantee. I knew he'd show up. So I played sports all through high school, into college. I played four years of football in college, and my dad was at every fucking game. [But] I felt like an artist. I had this artistic thing inside of me that was fighting to get out. So once I got to college, I was really tapping into the artist part of myself, too, while playing football—which created the oddball guy on the team, and all that other shit.
You've worked with Ben twice now. What makes you two work so well together?
During The Accountant, very early, Ben said to me, "You know why you and I are good? Because we have the same taste, the same aesthetic." I think that's really it. Artistically, I love his movies. He digs my movies. We're on the same side of the street. We both grew up in a very blue collar, working-class world. Both our dads were alcoholics, both our moms were school teachers. There's just a sensibility that we have that's similar.
The Accountant has become a little bit of a cult classic. It obviously did really well at the box office, but I feel like it's had a second life, in maybe a way that no one expected. What's that been like for you?
It's been great. It's so funny—the press tour that Ben and I did, we kept looking at each other, because there were so many people that kept bringing up that movie, saying, "Are you going to make another one? Is there going to be an Accountant 2?" That was funny. We were like, "Do we need to do another Accountant?” People really dig that movie. I was really surprised.
I don't know. I've thought about doing it as a television series. Maybe there's a movie. It's requiring the time to figure out what the movie would be.
My theory on it is that it has such a pitch-perfect, specific log line that it sounds like a TV show—you can sort of see it unspooling over 10 or 12 episodes. And then for us to have gotten it as a movie—it's two hours, it's awesome, it's super stylish. I think people were really excited by that.
It's a weird movie, though. I had the script. It wasn't set up anywhere. Actually, that's how Ben and I met. His agent called me, saying, "What do you think about Ben to play the accountant?" I'm like, "Dang." I never thought about it. He was so busy directing, and he was doing Batman and Justice League. I was like, "He doesn't have time to breathe." And they said, "We think you guys would like each other, and we think he'd like the script." Honestly, the reason that movie works, hands down, is because of Ben's performance. That could've been a disaster. Come on: you're playing with a guy with Asperger's.
Who happens to be a homicidal killing machine.
Yeah. But fortunately—and I love Ben for this, because I am such a pain in the ass about research—we spent a lot of time, a lot of time, meeting with men who are all over the spectrum. [The character] became a composite of all these different guys.
Like you said, it's a weird movie, but in the best possible way. Is that a challenge, to go out into a Hollywood universe that is maybe not always receptive to knottier, weirder stuff, and try and get that made?
Yeah, it is. It's funny. I got Warrior green-lit at $30 million with two unknowns—that's when no one knew Tommy [Hardy] and Joel [Edgerton]. They didn't want [Nick] Nolte. I just held out until it was too late. Nolte kept saying to me, "Gavin, when am I going to get an offer for the movie?" I was like, "Trust me, it'll happen. I just have to wear them down."
My attorney asked me, "How the hell did you pull that off?" I'm like, "I don't know. I really don't know." Somehow you just keep pushing the rock up the hill. It's probably my football mentality. If it's an obstacle, I’ve got to knock the fucking thing down somehow, and get through it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Originally Appeared on GQ