Despite working at the epicenter of modern Hollywood’s superhero addiction, Ben Affleck pines for the big studio pictures of old, the genre of crime films James Cagney used to make. Angels With Dirty Faces, White Heat, and their ilk were action-packed entertainments about dark men (sans tights) who met their fates in a single film, without worrying about sequel potential.
That affection pushed Affleck, 44, to adapt Dennis Lehane’s period gangster novel Live by Night (out Dec. 25) as his fourth directorial effort and first since the Oscar-winning Argo. “As soon as I read this book, I wanted to make the movie,” Affleck says. “I love the gritty characters and the great dialogue and this role. At the center of it is his journey, his internal struggle, and how he defines himself.”
As with his last two films, Affleck cast himself in the lead role — this time as Joe Coughlin, a disillusioned WWI vet who turns to a life of crime as a way to make his own rules, especially when it comes to his affections. Coughlin is in love with a Mob boss’ girlfriend (Sienna Miller), and at the film’s outset the two work together to outsmart the organized-crime ring. “It’s a little bit like a Bonnie-and-Clyde thing,” Affleck says. “At first we take it lightly, thinking we can get away with it. We end up paying the price.”
To Affleck’s fans, Live by Night may seem like a sideline to his role as Batman, but he says the exact opposite is true. “I’ve spent more time on Live by Night than I did on my two DC movies combined, and that feels really good,” he says. “I have nothing against superhero movies, but I’m nostalgic for the kind of movie that Live by Night plays homage to, when that was what constituted a big Hollywood movie. That was why I wanted to spend my time there when I wasn’t wearing a cape.”
While Live by Night has a similar feel genre-wise to Affleck’s sophomore effort The Town, his filmmaking approach was much more ambitious. Rather than build the film in the edit bay, he approached each scene in a more formal manner, meticulously planning each take to give the film a grand, sweeping scale.
“It was a different kind of movie,” says Affleck. “You have to be very specific. You have to know how far you have to see in the shot because you have to build the set far enough out where you won’t pick up a contemporary streetlight. It was much more deliberate on purpose.”
With a $65 million budget, Live By Night is Affleck’s biggest-budget endeavor to date — that is until he tackles his standalone Batman film, which Affleck says is still in script stage while they work out a budget. No start date has yet been set. His purposeful approach to Live By Night may not only be appropriate to pull off a credible homage to his favorite films, it may also be just the kind of practice he needs for his future endeavors.
“This is definitely a movie that I would have not been able to make before now,” he says. “It reflects my experience thus far as a filmmaker.”