Ben Affleck’s latest film foray as director and star opens in theaters tomorrow, and he recently confessed to me that he tends to find directing agonizing.
When it comes to directing, Ben Affleck is not a confident man. His new film Argo tells the madcap, real-life story of a mission to rescue six Americans during the 1979 seize of the US Embassy in Tehran.
“I think that you have to have a lot of fear. It's like running a marathon,” Affleck said. “You know, you've done it once now at least you know that you can finish. So some of the fear is about why even complete this. Will it even be comprehensible? Or get pushed aside?”
So far, it’s a fear unfounded. His first two films as a director, Gone Baby Gone and The Town were critical and commercial successes. Now Argo is already drawing mountains of praise.
“But you know every director I talk to talks about, talks about the fear. Talks about halfway through the movie where they think this whole thing is a disaster, you know? It's really hard to do and I think if you don't have some of those feelings pushing you and driving you, at least if I don't, I wouldn't do as good a job,” Affleck continued.
Argo is test of Affleck’s confidence and boundaries. This is his first non-Boston based film—a thriller in which he plays a CIA specialist drafted to sneak the six Americans out of Iran at a time when anti-American fervor is at its bloodiest.
When asked about the filming of Argo as it coincided with the Arab Spring in the Middle East, Affleck said the uncertainty conveyed by the actors in the film started to feel quite real.
“As we were getting ready to make it, the Arab Spring was happening, these unintended consequences of revolution, these people that we had been kind of in bed with, and then they had this democratically-fueled revolution, but then there's fear about well, what will happens after this revolution. It seemed to be, you know, almost identical to what happened in Iran,” he explained.
John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck in Argo (Claire Folger/Warner Bros.)
Affleck, a Middle Eastern studies major in college, is a master of tension here as Iranian revolution forces close in on the CIA operation. You almost need a bottle of Pepto Bismol to cope with the amount of stress in Argo. Affleck’s methodology for achieving that rhythm is to give the audience more information than the characters are working with.
“Yeah, I think the way of accomplishing stress, you know, anxiety in an audience has to do with, you know, the way I've had success with it is setting up things that the audience knows that the characters don't know. It always has a sort of good tension to it. And making sure that it's grounded. Like, I think I check out of a movie when I start thinking ‘this isn't real.’ Or ‘this is a video game. I could just put another quarter in and have another life.’”
But for all its suspense, Argo is also superbly funny. To make its rescue mission credible, the CIA put a fake science-fiction film called Argo into pre-production, allowing them to claim the six Americans were part of the production team scouting locations in Tehran.
Then you’re gonna sneak 007 over here into a country that wants CIA blood on their breakfast cereal and you’re gonna walk the Brady Bunch out of the most watched city in the world?
“I think humor is really critical to tension,” Affleck said. “You can't hold it in the whole time. People’s face turns blue and they get tired, and then the mind wants to stop. If you give these release valves, it gives you arcs, you know, that you can use. You build the tension -- [sighs] – then let it out.”
Back to that confidence issue: Affleck says he’s perfectly happy to coast along as a director without buying the hype.
“You know what, I'm very cynical about good reviews or good notices. I know that these things come and go. I try to keep my own perspective. In terms of my own ego, I've been around this business long enough to see it come and go. The work that you do is the only thing that matters,” he said.