Ben Affleck Discusses His Gangster Epic Live by Night & Compares Outlaw Character to Batman

13 Jan 2017

“One of the biggest joys of this movie was to show up every day and be immersed in that world,” Ben Affleck says of his 1920s crime thriller Live by Night.

Ahead of the release of Ben Affleck’s crime thriller Live by Night (in cinemas January 13), we caught up with the leading man to chat through his all-star cast, juggling the role of writer, director and producer, as well as some of the challenges he faced in bringing Dennis Lehane’s award-winning novel to the big screen. Affleck also compares his Live by Night character, Joe Coughlin – a WW1 vet turned anti-establishment outlaw – to his recurring role as Batman, noting that while different on the surface, the two characters likely exist at a similar place on the moral spectrum, “which is deep into the gray.”

QUESTION: Live by Night is your second film based on author Dennis Lehane’s work. What was it about this novel that spoke to you and made you want to bring it to the screen?

BEN AFFLECK: I read the book and loved the idea of making this film as an homage to the old Warner Bros. gangster movies – the kind of rich, pulpy, sexy movie that isn’t made anymore, but that I really miss seeing. It’s what used to be called the Hollywood blockbuster. They were defined by scope and scale, and all the big themes that made those movies feel so epic – crime, murder, love, betrayal, punishment, redemption. I wanted to make the film as a love letter to movies that I really do love, and to honor that kind of cinema.

QUESTION: What would you consider some of the biggest challenges you faced in bringing this epic, sprawling novel to the screen?

BEN AFFLECK: Well, the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to take out as much as we had to take out in order to have a reasonable running time for a movie while preserving what’s great about the book. That’s tricky. There’s a kind of long division that you have to do in terms of breaking down a book that’s hundreds of pages long and shaping it into a 120-page screenplay [laughs]. You don’t want a movie that’s small or diminish the story in any way. So, there were a lot of those tough moments where I had to discard a scene that I really loved just because we just didn’t have the space for it. There’s definitely signature stuff from the book that’s not in the film simply because we couldn’t fit it in.

QUESTION: In addition to writing, directing and producing, you also star as Joe Coughlin, who has just come back from World War I when we meet him. How do you think that experience shaped him and sets him on the path he takes in the film?

BEN AFFLECK: I think he went into the first World War believing in the bromides he was told, and subscribing to what everybody else subscribed to when they went off to war – that it was their patriotic duty. The first World War disillusioned millions of people who experienced horrors yet they couldn’t even tell you what they were fighting for. 

In Joe, the disillusionment is shaped around the idea of taking orders from other people. He’s not going to listen to any boss; he’s not going to march in line to his death because some guy told him to. He’s going to make up his own mind and be his own man and make his own rules. And he becomes an outlaw. This is right when Prohibition has been enacted, so not only does he become an outlaw; so do millions of Americans who are otherwise law-abiding citizens, but who are drinking booze, which is all of a sudden illegal. 

Prohibition really created a slippery slope in terms of respect for the law in America. It was a time when gangsters really flourished; they were the celebrities of the day. That’s the world Joe comes back into – the sort of every-man-for-himself Roaring ‘20s.
Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin in Live by Night.

QUESTION: Joe has two very significant relationships in the film – with Emma, played by Sienna Miller, and Zoe Saldana’s character, Graciela – but his experience of love is different with each of them. Can you talk about the impact these women have on his life? 

BEN AFFLECK: With Sienna’s character, Emma, that’s the younger, reckless, head-over-heels kind of love. It’s blind love, and he does crazy, reckless things because of it. He’s just swept away by it emotionally; there’s no rational thought involved. 

With Graciela, Zoe’s character, that’s a much more mature, adult version of love. It’s more about recognizing that there are things you love about one another and the failings that each other has, and coming to a compromise view that this is actually happiness. It’s sort of the real-life version of love, and that eclipses everything else; that’s heaven.

QUESTION: Can you talk about the qualities that Sienna, Zoe, and also Elle Fanning, who plays Loretta Figgis, bring to their roles and the film as a whole? 

BEN AFFLECK: Sienna just has this incredible spark and spirit that she brings to all the things she’s in. In our film, she brought to life this conspiratorial energy, this kind of Bonnie and Clyde spirit, that made those scenes really magical. 

With Zoe, her humanity is so evident that you just empathize with Graciela and feel that she’s every inch a fully realized three-dimensional person. Zoe is such a professional and an expert at what she does. She’s so dedicated and worked really hard to make sure everything was right, down to the last drop, period and comma.  And she was just a joy to work with. 

And Elle is almost a prodigy as an actress. The interesting thing about her is that she’s right on the cusp of being a young woman. With one look she can seem childlike and then she can turn around and look completely grown up. It was a fascinating dichotomy to have in the movie, and it was really important to capture that quality in Loretta.

QUESTION: Brendan Gleeson plays Joe’s father, Thomas Coughlin, who is Deputy Superintendent of the Boston Police. Can you talk about working with him and why you wanted him for this role?

BEN AFFLECK: Brendan’s just a great actor. He brings a nuance and subtlety, a resoluteness, and a kind of moral integrity to the movie. Thomas is just this big, strong presence in the film. He’s going in the direction he’s going and he’s not going to be deterred. But, at the same time, Brendan is so delicate and precise with his acting, and put out so much detail and texture to that part.

QUESTION: Can you talk about what drew you to British film and stage star Robert Glenister and veteran Italian star Remo Girone for the roles of Albert White and Maso Pescatore, respectively, the bosses of Boston’s Irish and Italian mobs?

BEN AFFLECK: Robert and Remo are both known in their countries and very well respected, but they weren’t as globally known as the kinds of actors you’d expect in those roles, and I thought that was good. I didn’t want to somebody who is a rock star famous all over the world because audiences would be more comfortable seeing faces they knew. They needed to believe that these characters were capable of doing anything, so I wanted to get people they may not have seen before. And Robert and Remo are just amazing actors to boot.

QUESTION: Looking back on the experience of making this film, was there a moment on set that was particularly memorable or just an aspect of this production that you enjoyed? 

BEN AFFLECK: Well, the story covers a good span of Joe’s life, so production was a little bit episodic in the sense that one actor would show up and it would be their movie for two weeks, and then another actor would show up and it would be their movie for two weeks. So it felt a bit like making a string of interconnected short films – one that stars Sienna Miller; one that stars Zoe Saldana; one that stars Brendan Gleeson, etc.

It was a wonderful experience because it was as if each of the actors was the lead of the film for two weeks, and we got to devote all our attention to really working very hard and gelling the scenes. And then boom! That would go away and you’d have something new to fashion all of a sudden. And each actor brought something so special and unique that I felt just refreshed and buoyed by new energy every time each of these actors came in. It was just a pleasure. This was a really fun movie to work on, and I think that comes across in the way that it plays.

QUESTION: When we spoke to the actors, they talked about how effortlessly you seemed to move from director to embodying this character fully. Are you used to these dual roles or is it still a bit of a balancing act? 

BEN AFFLECK: It’s just something that’s part of the job and it’s what I’m used to. When you direct, you do the kind of research that you should do for every part, but don’t have the time. Usually months and months ahead of time I’m preparing a character and doing research and by the time you get to the set, the character should be second nature. I shouldn’t be out there thinking about, ‘Oh, how am I going to play this?’ I’ve already made those decisions. So I spend most of my time thinking about the other actors and the challenges that kind of come up in production.

QUESTION: Taking off your director hat for a moment and just speaking as a fan of this era and gangster movies in general: what was it like for you to wear those suits and drive those cars, and just play in that environment?

BEN AFFLECK: Maybe one of the biggest joys of this movie was to show up every day and be immersed in that world. Jackie West’s costumes were so fabulous and so specific, and Jess Gonchor’s production design was so all-encompassing. I mean, everything from the extras to the cars to the outfits to the sets. It worked to sweep you away into this other time and other place, and that was a lot of fun.

QUESTION: You also brought in acclaimed director of photography Robert Richardson to shoot the movie. What kind of visual thumbprint do you think he brings to the movie?

BEN AFFLECK: Bob is just a genius. He’s a master. I’ve always been a huge fan of his, and it’s been a lifelong dream of mine to get a chance to work with him on a movie, particularly one that I was directing. It was just a tremendously special thing for me and it made the movie so much better. The cinematography is extraordinary in the movie. It’s beautiful and yet it’s unpretentious and realistic. He’s one of the very best. I learned a lot working with him because he’s truly deeply gifted.

QUESTION: What do you hope audiences take away from Live By Night when they go to see it in the cinema?

BEN AFFLECK: I just hope they find it a really enjoyable experience and that they have fun, and feel as swept up in this story as I did watching those other movies in the past. I guess any director hopes that the audience will find something in the story that resonates with them and onto which they can project themes from their own life and its events; and that seeing the movie brings up for them memories and awareness, in the sense of allowing them to see those things made real but maybe in a fresh way. But, for the most part, I hope that people just come away enjoying it as much as we did making this wonderful kind of fantasy movie.

QUESTION: You made Live by Night in between playing Batman in consecutive films. How do you think the two characters compare?

BEN AFFLECK: [Laughs] Well, both universes are sort of morally complicated. This is a more grounded, realistic movie than the Batman movies, but I think the two characters probably exist at a similar place on the moral spectrum, which is deep into the gray.

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