Q&A: Ben Affleck on Directing 'Argo' and Surviving Hollywood

'I'm at the point now where I have nothing to hide'

Ben Affleck
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Ben Affleck
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In Rolling Stone's 2012 Hot Issue – on newsstands today – we named Ben Affleck Hot Director for his amazing political thriller Argo, the true story about the daring rescue of Americans trapped in Iran during the height of the hostage crisis. (You can read the Hot Issue piece in the new issue.) In our interview Affleck, 40, was open, candid and fully engaged. The conversation ranged from his approach to directing films, Iranian politics, his dislike of his 2004 Rolling Stone cover, the idea of a Dazed and Confused reunion and what it feels like to be hounded by the press.

Was the Hostage Crisis an important event in your life?
I vaguely remember it, but I didn't really participate in it – either I was kind of immature or I was a hair too young. I was exactly the age that the kid who played my son was in 1979; I was seven. This probably tells you something about Boston: I was aware of Ted Kennedy's primary run against Jimmy Carter. It was such a big deal – "Vote for Kennedy! Vote for Kennedy!" I went to the polls with my mother and told her to vote for Kennedy. That was a much bigger thing in my mind. The first thing that I really understood politically and was old enough to get was the failed assassination attempt on Reagan. I came home from school. I remember that – that was a big deal.

Argo started as a magazine piece, and then became a book. You've stretched the drama a bit here. Why did you feel the need to that?
It's obviously not a documentary. It's not even docu-drama, we were making a drama. I knew that I absolutely had to preserve the central integrity and truth of the story and hew to the most important details: Americans left the embassy when it was taken over, hid out with the Canadians; the CIA came up with the idea for a movie scout as a cover; they went in and got them out; Tony Mendes got the intelligence star and that's all a hundred percent, absolutely true.  Chris Terrio, our screenwriter, is really good at taking real life, which does not have a three-act structure, and turning it in to something that does. We wanted people to be interested enough to watch it.

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What did you change?
A few things were altered: One was the story had so much detail, in terms of what everybody did. You have all these people and they have all their stories and there's a little bit of a Rashomon component. Also, the Canadians did a bunch more and that's not included in the story because really it's a story about Tony at its heart, and the CIA. At the end they kind of went to the airport; they were nervous; they sat in the waiting area, you know; they said "Your flight's delayed"; they got a little more nervous; and then they got on the plane and, like, a day or two later the Iranians found out that they had left. That is not really a third act for a story. It would feel a little clumsy and not very exciting. It wouldn't give you the kind of genuine thrill that those people really did have when they left. You're always juggling that back and forth. I would say that we're definitely on the good side, the upper 50th percentile of movies based on true events, in terms of using actual true events in the story.

So the Canadians got pissed off. Are you a little worried about the Iranians?
[Laughs] I'm more worried about the Iranians than the Canadians, I can tell you that! The Canadian thing was interesting. We showed the movie in Canada, in Toronto and got a huge reception Ken Taylor, who was the ambassador, naturally felt that, "Hey, there's a lot of stuff that went on that's not included in the movie," and he's right. But we couldn't tell everything – we would have ended up with a 10-hour mini-series if we tried. For example, the Canadians took up a vote to print up the passports. So, you make choices.

But the Canadian ambassador asked you to change the ending and you did. Why?
In normal circumstances, I would have said, "Hey, this is what happens when you make a movie about something true." But because this is a guy who did personally shelter two Americans and probably save their lives, I said, "Tell me what is important to you." And he said, "What matters to me is, cooperation between governments and that this was a model for cooperation." And I said, "Then I'll put in a card at the end that says, 'This is cooperation between governments'." I think it adds something to the movie and it's fine with me and if a guy who saved some Americans' lives feels that he got his stamp on it, then, good.

What do you think the Iranian reaction is gonna be?
Who the FUCK knows – who knows if their reaction is going to be anything? This is still the same Stalinist, oppressive regime that was in place when the hostages were taken. There was no rhyme or reason to this action. What's interesting is that people later figured out that Khomeini just used the hostages to consolidate power internally and marginalize the moderates and everyone in America was going, "What the fuck's wrong with these people?" You know, "What do they want from us?" It was because it wasn't about us. It was about Khomeini holding on to power and being able to say to his political opponents, of which he had many, "You're either with us or you're with the Americans" – which is, of course, a tactic that works really well. That revolution was a students' revolution. There were students and communists and secularists and merchants and Islamists, it's just that Khomeini fucking slowly took it for himself.

It's the same ruthless people in charge today.
Exactly. What's ironic is that this system of government is really not all that different from the Shah's. You have one guy who makes all the decisions. It's a very unpopular regime. It stays in power by oppression. You have a titular, bullshit, civilian government that's virtually meaningless. People say that they're between 10 and 15 percent support in Iran. You got to understand, Iran thinks more positively of America than any other country in the Middle East. Our movies, our music, they read Rolling Stone. They're fucking into it. They just have a government of assholes.

Your first two movies are set in your hometown of Boston; this is a much larger scale of a story. Did you feel the need to change the scenery?
I knew I had to get out of Boston and stop making movies there, at least for one movie, otherwise no one would ever consider me for a movie that took place south of Providence. I honestly felt like I would kind of end up being pigeonholed as Boston Crime Guy – not that there aren't interesting and good movies to be made in the crime genre in Boston, but I wanted to tell different stories. So part of what appealed to me about this is that it was on such a broad palette: it was a period movie. It was in California. It was in D.C. It was in Iran. I got to stretch in a lot of different directions.

Do you like directing yourself?
I like acting for myself as a director. I act and I know that I'll have a chance to have some say in what gets used and that I'll be able to give myself enough takes and be on the same page as myself about how the scene should play. I try to create an environment of total relaxation for the other actors. You can do anything you want. You can walk off-camera. You can have Tourette's Syndrome. It doesn't matter. Anything might be good, and I also afford myself that same luxury.

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Well, you've probably been on some sets where it's the opposite, I would imagine.
Yeah, I've been on sets where you and the director have opposite ideas about what's good. And I'm chafing at that person's sensibilities, saying, "No, I don't agree with this. This is bad. Let's not do this." That's why I started directing in the first place, because I wanted to see if I was just full of shit and should listen more, or if I was on to something.

So what was your conclusion?
A little bit of both, I guess. [Laughs]

Ten years ago, you told Rolling Stone, "I don't want to be this guy anymore. Like, I'm havingthis is reallythis really sucks for me."  And it's been so great to see you not be that guy anymore. What happened?
Well, for one thing, I saw the fucking David LaChappelle photos that got taken [for the 2004 Rolling Stone cover] and I was like, "I look like the mayor of West Hollywood on Rodeo Week." That was the last time I ever went along with anybody. I was like, "He's smart. He knows. I'll go along with was he says." People on The Tonight Show just spontaneously made fun of me for that cover. Like, "Oh, and another thing, look at this picture!" Like, a propos of nothing. What a shithead you look like! And I had, like, a kerchief around my neck, you know? Oh, dude. It's the only one I regret. Ever.

Really?
Yeah. Truly. And I've had a few that didn't work. I mean, the picture obviously wasn't amazing, although I was, like – ugh, it was just another way that I'd allowed myself to turn in to some person that I wasn't. That photo was really emblematic of my life at that time. Like, "I'm not this fucking guy. I look like an idiot. I would hate this guy if I saw this picture. I have nothing to do with this. Why have I become this?" I'm over it all now. I don't care. The only thing I give a shit about now is my kids.

Someone just told me the other day, "Fatherhood is the only thing that lives up to the hype."
It's true. And it also makes all of the things that are bullshit and that you hoped you wouldn't care about, well, you actually stop caring about them. I find forgiveness to be really healthy. Like, I kinda got fucked on that cover story, but whatever, that guy's got a job to do and I've gotta take responsibility for myself. I did feel like, the fact that the cover story was about Jennifer Lopez – and there's this, like conventional wisdom that set in that I had something to kind of apologize for because I was with Jennifer Lopez, which is a curious notion, you know? I definitely have some things to apologize for in terms movies that didn't work, and I take responsibility for that, because that is my responsibility. You ask people to pay their money, it's your job to make the fucking movie work, you know?

Is that why you got into directing?
I took that sense of responsibility to directing and really took it to heart, because that's a place where you can control all the different facets of the movie instead of just the little box of your performance. But, anyway, yeah, I got sick of being that guy and I tried to do stuff that was different and I made some mistakes. I did some things right, and then I got married and had kids and that helped a lot, and then I decided to just do movies that I believed in. At some point I'll make a shitty movie, because it's a game of risk.

The movie that seemed to turn it all around was Hollywoodland. Was there something about that role that spoke to you?
Yeah. That was the first one, I'm not doing anything else for money or to position myself somehow, box office-wise or, because I want to compete with anybody else. I just felt like, if I like it, if I think it'll be good. That's it. Fuck it. And forget about other people. And I read that script and I was like, I love this story. I know it's moving and I also understand this guy. I understand what it's like to feel like an idiot in red sweatpants.

George Reeves is such a tragic figure . . .
I don't liken myself to Reeves, because he obviously had a lot more pain and suffered through a lot more than I do. But sometimes when you understand a small part of a person, it gives you an entree into building that performance. So then I did that movie and it didn't make a lot of money, but I liked it.

That helped help jumpstart you creatively . . .
Yeah, so I went and started to direct a movie [Gone Baby Gone] and was really scared. Just really scared that I would fuck it up, and I didn't know what I was doing and had a ton of anxiety and had my first migraine headache. But it was working with my brother in a place that I grew up, so that helped. Once I had that experience of going through it and coming out the other end and feeling that rush – I hate to use a cliché, it was like a roller-coaster, you know? You're, like, terrified going up, and then you feel kind of breathless and it all goes by so fast and, at the end, even though it was kind of traumatic, you want to get on it again. It's like writing a blog or a column or a play – anything where you're expressing an idea that's interesting to you is fun for me.

Are you more comfortable now as a director?
Yeah. Definitely. I still have anxiety. You have to have some healthy anxiety, because it puts you in that sort of fight or flight, hyper-aware, let me make sure I've done everything I can to avoid being eaten by the velociraptor mode. You're working as hard as you can. In my first movie, that anxiety almost got overwhelming. Now I've learned a little bit better what to focus on, how to delegate. That first movie was like running a marathon, and I wasn't sure I could even finish.

You played one of the great assholes of all time in Dazed and Confused. You need to bring that guy back.
I don't know. I like to think that role set me back 15 years.

No!
[Laughs] No kidding. It was really fun. I loved doing it. I realized, when the movie came out, that I played the one really unappealing character in a huge movie full of really appealing characters. I love it. If they did a sequel, I would do it in a second. I mean, how awesome would it be to see what O'Bannion is doing now?

It'd be fantastic. Why hasn't that happened yet?
I don't know. I think it's gonna be the 20th anniversary at some point very soon. I don't know, if Richard Linklater did it, I know that he would get people. I'd be up for it. I bet you he'd get McConaughey and Parker Posey and Joey Lauren Adams. What a cool Where Are They Now? It could be fucking spectacular.

How do you look back on your career?
I had two clusters. One was a cluster of movies that really worked, and then one was a cluster that didn't. I suppose my life would have been different if those were more, like, ABAB, instead of just all good and all bad but that's just the way it is. Luckily, at this stage, I feel free of the negative shit. Eventually, one day, I'm gonna do interviews that don't involve the 2003 tabloids thing.

I feel like there was some hating on you simply because you were dating some really pretty girls . . .
Dude, you're telling me! I don't even care anymore. At the time, I was confused and scared and not sure what was happening. I made plenty of mistakes, don't get me wrong. I just don't view that as one of them. I've had pretty good serious relationships, and there it is. At a certain point, these cultural, tectonic shifts happen where it's about one person and everybody focuses on them. It gets focused on Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears and there becomes all this negativity around it and it's like, why? What did Britney Spears do? Except get fucking hounded by people. But I guess that's how we do it culturally. It's tough. It reflects that part of human nature that's really unappealing. It's like those YouTube videos where two people are fighting and one guy falls down and then, all of a sudden, a bunch of other people come over and kick him?

You seem to be in a pretty damn good place these days.
I feel like actually my work gets judged on what it is, and that's a really good feeling and that's all you can ever ask for – is for people to take a look at what you're doing, on its merit. I work really, really fucking hard and I really care about it. It's an honor to get to do this. A lot more people want to do it than get the chance. I want to make sure that I can look back 15 years from now and say, "On balance, I really I like the films I made. I'm glad I made these films." I'm at the point now where I have nothing to hide. I do know that I'm really happy now. I like the movies that I'm making. I like the opportunities that I'm getting to make movies. So, that's a win, in Hollywood. You know what I mean?