Ben Affleck was bingeing: on mobsters, on molls, on lousy loansharks, on bootleggers, enforcers, and thugs. On Cagney, Raft, Bogart, Muni, Harlow, Blondell.
"I had been watching a lot of the old '30s and '40s Warner movies one summer, and I was really getting into that style, that energy," recalled the actor, whose homage to the genre, the swaggering Prohibition-era crime saga Live by Night, opens in theaters Friday.
"And it was the same summer that I got sent this book" - "this book" being the 2012 Dennis Lehane novel that Affleck's movie is based on. "So I was really getting into these pictures, and then all of a sudden I get this book that Dennis wrote that was just this spectacular love letter to classic Hollywood films, to the old gangster movies, and also to the days when 'Hollywood blockbuster' meant extras and sweep and scale."
So Affleck, who made his directorial debut in 2007 with the adaptation of another Lehane title, Gone Baby Gone, set out to write a screenplay for Live by Night. And then he set out to make it, casting himself as the central figure - Joe Coughlin, a Boston police captain's son who returns from the bloodied battlefields of World War I to rise through the ranks of organized crime.
The action starts in New England and then veers southward to Florida's Gulf Coast, where Affleck's ambitious antihero runs booze and plots to build a casino. Of course, there are lawmen, judges, a charismatic evangelical, and dueling mobsters who get in his way.
The actor recruited Chris Cooper to play a Ybor City, Fla., lawman, Elle Fanning as the sheriff's troubled daughter, Brendan Gleeson as Coughlin's dad, Chris Messina as Coughlin's right-hand man, Sienna Miller as Coughlin's Boston lover, and Zoe Saldana as Coughlin's Floridian amour.
Affleck, who won a screenwriting Oscar (shared with buddy Matt Damon) in 1998 for Good Will Hunting, and whose third effort as a director, Argo, won the Academy Award for best picture in 2013, says his love of crime dramas isn't focused solely on between-the-wars shoot-'em-ups like Angels with Dirty Faces, The Public Enemy, and the original Scarface.
"You can go all the way up through the '70s, the '80s, and beyond." he said. "Important gangster films have been made, obviously, at every turn. . . . The Godfather is the best of all time; there's Goodfellas, and Chinatown I consider in the same mold." (It's no coincidence, Affleck acknowledged, that the broad-lapeled white suit he wears in the second half of Live by Night, when his Joe Coughlin is hobbing and nobbing with Cubans and Floridians, was referred to on the set as "the Chinatown suit" - a nod to Jack Nicholson's getup in the 1974 classic.)
"There's something about the genre that makes it a very effective device for storytelling," Affleck, 44, said of the gangster canon. "It allows you to tell a story with a protagonist who is not altogether a good person. . . . You have this interesting conundrum of how much do you identify with this character, how much do you push the audience away? What's forgivable? What isn't?
"Do we give them slack, or do we judge them? And those kinds of stories about moral gray areas are really interesting to me, especially when they are set in this era that has the power to sweep you away.
"Now, of course, all the blockbusters are superhero movies. And I have nothing against superhero movies - but this is a salute to a time when they made different types of blockbusters."
He'd better not have anything against superhero movies, I remind him during our phone call, as he wears DC Comics' famous cape and cowl in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, will be seen in the Batsuit again in November in Justice League, and is readying his own solo Batman reboot, which he has cowritten and plans to direct.
"I'm safely on the side of those movies, too," he said, laughing.
But he is really on the side of Dennis Lehane movies. Asked what it is about the writer's work that lends itself so readily to the screen, Affleck considers.
"Dennis is very cinematic in his writing. He's very descriptive and he's got this crackling dialogue - these rich, punchy, sexy, big characters that almost jump off the page. You don't have to use much imagination, reading his books, to envision what a film would be like.
"I've experienced nothing but joy directing Dennis' material, believe me, and I'm not the only one. Scorsese and Eastwood have adapted his stories to great success."
Yes, those would be Shutter Island and Mystic River, respectively. The Drop, starring Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace, also from a Lehane story, isn't too shabby, either.
Affleck shot part of Live by Night literally in his own backyard - in and around the 83-acre place he keeps near Savannah, Ga. (Because of Georgia's generous film-production tax credits, most of the movie's Florida locales are actually in the Peach State.)
"We shot on my own property for a couple of days," he said. "I was like, 'I know some back roads, some winding roads,' because we needed someplace where they hadn't painted the stripes on the road and where they didn't have street signs - somewhere more rustic looking and old-timey. And where my house is, it's buried back up a river in Georgia, so it takes a long way to get there, you've got to wind through all these country roads, so I knew where to find them, where to shoot them."
Asked about Casey Affleck, his younger brother - and his Gone Baby Gone leading man - and all the buzz and accolades surrounding his performance in Manchester by the Sea, the older Affleck not unexpectedly is full of praise. He said he was rooting for Casey's awards-season run.
"I'm excited. I'm proud. I cast him in Gone Baby Gone years ago, and I've always known what a great actor he is. This is an opportunity for more people to see how formidable a talent he is."
In addition to the forthcoming Batman work, Affleck has a remake of Witness for the Prosecution on his docket. The original, released in 1957, starred Tyrone Power as a man accused of murder. The courtroom thriller, based on an Agatha Christie mystery, also starred Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, and Elsa Lanchester. Affleck will take the role played by Power. And he plans to direct.
Directing projects in which he also takes the lead role (and writing and producing them) shows a certain amount of audacity, or confidence, or something, doesn't it? Wouldn't it be simpler just to let somebody else yell, "Action!" and, "Cut?"
"I love working with great directors," Affleck said. "I love being guided by them, whether it's David Fincher [Gone Girl] or Terrence Malick [To the Wonder] or Gus Van Sant [Good Will Hunting]. I've had the privilege of working with a lot of really fine, fine directors.
"So, yeah, there's a part of me that misses that when I'm there directing. I do feel a little bit lonelier - it's a lonelier exercise. And Clint Eastwood - he's obviously the paradigm, he's the guy who has done it the most, the best, acting and directing.
"But there are others, other actors who have worked behind the camera, successfully. And I think it's because actors have to understand a movie from the inside out to really play a role. In a weird way, you're directing your own performance every time you go to a job, and you're developing those skills and sharpening that blade.
"Directing is just the next logical step."