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His Kind of Town

Ben Affleck stays in Boston for his new film

Leave it to the entertainment press to dig for the deep issues. During a press conference held at the Toronto Film Festival last week for The Town, the big-ticket movie being launched here (it opens in Buffalo this weekend), one enquiring mind wanted to know why Ben Affleck dyed his hair. (A few days earlier the New York Daily News ran a photo of him at the Venice fest with a salt-and-pepper look.)

Well, what’s the guy going to say? “I thought it would look good,” he shrugs. “Vanity. I didn’t have a single grey hair until I started directing. Directing movies gives you grey hair. And my brother—those things give you grey hair.”

More about that brother later. Affleck, who surprised a lot of people a few years ago with his debut film as a director, the first-rate crime drama Gone Baby Gone, is both behind and in front of the camera in The Town. Like its predecessor, it’s set in Boston, this time in the neighborhood called Charlestown, which has the distinction of producing more bank robbers per capita than any other area in the United States.

Affleck stars as the leader of one such quartet, who under the supervision of a local crime boss pulls off a series of increasingly lucrative but daring heists. It’s a life he wants out of, especially when he starts to fall in love with a bank manager (Rebecca Hall) who may be able to identify them. But it’s not the kind of job with a retirement option.

There’s no question that The Town is a genre film, but it’s one that Affleck (who also worked on the screenplay, adapted from Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves) feels is far from played out. Asked to name any influences, he admits that “Obviously [Michael Mann’s] Heat looms quite large over this movie. We had to work not to be too close to it, but it’s a great movie. The Bank Job, Rififi, The Friends of Eddie Coyle [another Boston-based thriller] was an inspiration. I watched the Italian movie Gomorrah a lot before I got going on this.

“It’s kind of tricky to try change the genre, and you run the danger that to tell those same kind of stories, the audience is going to find it predictable. But those same movies stand as reminders that even within the same genre conventions you can do something special. So that’s what we were trying to do, walk in the footsteps of great movies.”

It wasn’t too long ago that Affleck was better known as tabloid fodder for his romantic life, especially with Jennifer Lopez, a period he can laugh about now. Answering a question about whether he would ever cast his wife, actress Jennifer Garner, in one of his films, he reminds the questioner of his ill-fated experience starring with Lopez in Gigli: “My wife is a great actress and I would be profoundly lucky to work with her. But something tells me…that people don’t want to see real life couples together in movies.”

His younger brother Casey has been the target of that kind of press lately, both for some lawsuits threatened by former employees and for his own debut as a director, of the already-notorious Joaquin Phoenix documentary I’m Still Here (reviewed elsewhere this issue).

Asked to expand on his brother’s movie and the earlier “grey hair” comment, the elder Affleck struggles a bit: “As you might imagine that’s something that, um…I’m not the best person to ask, it wouldn’t be right for me to comment one way or another on the specifics of it.

“What I can say is that I think [I’m Still Here] is a really interesting film, with a lot to say about something that’s happening right now. It leads you toward some questions which merit asking. My brother’s a very gifted actor and director, piercingly smart, and he and I are about to start writing a movie together, I’m told, so…look for more grey hair.”

Back to his own film, Affleck was blessed to be able to get a cast of familiar faces and newly hot actors, including Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) as his partner in crime, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm as the FBI agent on his trail, and Chris Cooper as his jailed father.

“I knew that I wanted Chris Cooper back when we were filming [the as yet unreleased] Company Men. I was buttering him up—‘Chris, can I get you some coffee? Danish? Tire flat, Chris?.’ Jeremy was in The Assassination of Jesse James [with Casey]. My brother said, ‘You gotta see this guy—he’s a genius actor, never makes a false step.’ So I said, ‘Okay, okay, I’ll go see his new movie.’ And that movie [The Hurt Locker] turned out to be good. And Jon had been involved with an earlier version of this movie, and I hoped we’d be lucky enough to get him to come back for this version, and he did.”

The film’s action centerpiece is a scene where Affleck’s gang is chased by the police and FBI through the North End of Boston, a neighborhood of tight streets and neighbors who don’t put up with obstructions.

“We had a lot of trouble in the North End because it’s very constricted. It looked like what I wanted, like rabbit warrens, with the walls close enough that the police would be unable to catch them if there were an obstacle thrown in their way because they wouldn’t be able to get around the obstacle. But the community’s extremely powerful politically. So when you’re doing that and blocking traffic, you’re getting pushback from the municipal authority. So we really needed to be very judicious about how we worked the north end—where we parked, how much we burnt, how many cars we smashed—it got very very hard to do, and to make matters worse it rained. We kept postponing, closing all the streets, then not shooting. The North End is a tourist destination, people are making lot of money, so we’re taking money out of people’s wallets. So this movie is nothing if not a long apology to the people of the North End—I wish there was a way to let them show up with their phone bills and get in for free to see it.”

Affleck also has high praise for those in law enforcement who advised him on the movie, if not always officially. “There are various levels of cooperation,” he explains. “We’re not officially sanctioned by the Department of Justice. For one thing, that’s a long process. Another thing, you end up in an editorial situation where you have to subject your film to creative concerns that you might not want governing what you want to do.

“But that being said, the people who work for the DOJ in the Boston area are extraordinary people. They’re smart, they work hard, they’re trying to catch real bad guys all the time, and it’s no fucking joke to them. They were willing—on their own time, not while they’re being paid by the taxpayers—to sit down and talk to us and Jon about how they do their job and why they think it’s important. They told us what kind of cars they drove and what kind of socks they have and that kind of thing. There were a lot of surveillance techniques they didn’t want us to know because they didn’t want us to put them in the movie and make the bad guys smarter. [The people we talked to] did not cross any of their boundaries, and they did not get official support, but outside that context they were supportive and I think they’re portrayed the way I see them, which is with honor.“

Watch the trailer for The Town

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