Ben Affleck talks The Town

Crime pays again for Boston's actor-turned-director.

BEN THERE, DO THAT Affleck, center, offers Jon Hamm, right, a few Bostonian tips.

BEN THERE, DO THAT Affleck, center, offers Jon Hamm, right, a few Bostonian tips.

Ask any film fanatic—one who obsesses over movies, makes them or both—what today’s action flicks don’t do as well as their predecessors, and you’ll get some revealing answers. For Ben Affleck, the don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to bugaboo of the moment would be car chases. “There was a time when coordinating an amazing car chase—I mean one where you felt a real sense of danger and I-can’t-believe-they-did-that sense of awe—was considered an art form,” the 38-year-old actor-director says, calling from Los Angeles. “But the main reason why the chase in, say, The French Connection works so well is not just because you’re right there with [Gene] Hackman in the car; you’re invested in who this guy is and what catching this villain means to him. That’s what’s missing now. You can slap on all the visual histrionics you want, but if there’s not a human being at the center of all that movement, who cares? It’s just a lot of explosions and noise that ends up numbing you.”

This sentiment would explain why his second directorial effort, The Town, feels like such a throwback. Based on Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves, the thriller revolves around a group of career bank robbers in Boston’s rough Charlestown neighborhood. Problems arise when head crook Doug MacRay (Affleck) falls for a teller (Rebecca Hall) who might be able to finger his gang for a recent job. For the scene in which the crew lead cops on a high-speed pursuit, Affleck purposefully “went the retro route” and staged the showstopping sequence with old-school stunt choreography instead of digital wizardry. The focus, however, remains as much on what’s at stake for MacRay in this getaway as it does on squealing tires and twisted metal—evidence that the balance of genre thrills and character-based drama that Affleck demonstrated in his directorial debut, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, wasn’t a fluke.

Not that the Beantown native was itching to do another regional potboiler. “I was initially worried that I’d be typecast as the 'Boston crime-movie guy,’?” he says. “What if I eventually wanted to direct a science-fiction film or something set in Dubai? My fear was that people would just go, 'Oh yeah, you can do something can make another Boston crime movie is what you can do, kid! Tell you what, we’ll give you Rhode Island. Go film a crime story in Dubai, Rhode Island!’?But the story was too good to pass up, and it’s not as if people were beating down my door with offers.” Asked if he felt that people viewed him differently after Gone Baby Gone, Affleck gets quiet for a second. “I don’t know. I love actors, and my goal was always to create an atmosphere that’s conducive to them doing great work. I figured if I do that, at the very least other actors would take me seriously as a director and I could get another shot at it.”

“He’s being extremely modest,” Rebecca Hall says, phoning from Venice on the eve of the movie’s world premiere. “I wouldn’t say that Ben is a good filmmaker simply because he likes actors, or because he’s an actor; he’s a good director because he thinks like a director, period. It’s clear to me that he’s already developed a distinct sensibility and style of storytelling, and this is only his second movie. Plus his performance shows that he has the ability to switch modes with incredible ease.” She laughs. “His talent and his ability to multitask so well never failed to irritate me.”

For Affleck, the chance to prove that he can wear several hats at once may be a bid to turn the corner; in a recent New York Times profile, he said The Town was “an emblem of the person I want to be going forward.” It’s tempting to interpret the statement as a refutation of a career phase in which external factors overshadowed the work (the less said about the two-headed tabloid monster known as “Bennifer,” the better). “Yeah, I could see someone saying that,” he says. “But that’s really only part of it. Basically, I want to make movies that are representative of the actor and director I’d like to be, where I don’t have to qualify: 'Well, this is what I wanted to do, but the director did this, and the studio wanted that.’

I believe in this more than anything I’ve done in a long time, because everything, including the mistakes, are mine. People may not like the result. But at least I know I was the guy behind the wheel.”

Read our review of The Town

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