January 15, 2013
Guest: Ben Affleck
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. At Sunday's Golden Globe ceremony, my guest Ben Affleck walked away with two big awards for his film "Argo": best picture Drama and best director. Affleck is also one of the film's producers, as well as its star. "Argo" was nominated for an Oscar for best picture.
"Argo" is based on a true story. The film begins in 1979, at the start of the Iranian revolution, when an angry mob storms the American embassy in Tehran, taking the diplomats hostage. Six Americans escape and eventually find refuge hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Affleck plays CIA agent Tony Mendez, who comes up with a scheme to get these six Americans home by having them pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for a science fiction film called "Argo."
Mendez flies to Tehran with fake Canadian passports for the six and cover stories that will enable them to pass themselves off as members of a Canadian film crew. In this scene, he's in Tehran at the Canadian ambassador's home quizzing the six on their cover stories to make sure they've committed the stories to memory and can convincingly repeat them under pressure.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ARGO")
BEN AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Where was your passport issued?
TATE DONOVAN: (as Robert Anders) Vancouver.
AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Where were you born?
DONOVAN: (as Robert Anders) Toronto.
AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Toronto, Canadians don't pronounce the T.
RORY COCHRANE: (as Lee Schatz) Some Komiteh is actually going to know that?
AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) If you're detained for questioning, they will bring in someone who knows that, yes. Mary, who were the last three prime ministers of Canada?
CLEA DUVALL: (as Cora Lijek) Trudeau, Pearson and Diefenbaker.
AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What's your father's name?
DUVALL: (as Cora Lijek) Howard.
AFFLECK: (as Mendez) What's his occupation?
DUVALL: (as Cora Lijek) Fisherman.
AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Where were you born?
DUVALL: (as Cora Lijek) Halifax, Nova Scotia.
AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What's your date of birth?
DUVALL: (as Cora Lijek) February 21, 1952.
AFFLECK: (as Mendez) Good. What's your job on the movie?
SCOOT MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) Producer.
AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Associate producer. What was the last movie you produced?
MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) "High and Dry."
AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Who paid for that?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Joe Stafford) CFDC.
AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What's your middle name? What's your middle name? What's your middle name?
MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) Leon.
AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Shoot him, he's an American spy. Look, they're going to try to break you, OK, by trying to get you agitated. You have to know your resume back to front.
MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) You really believe your little story is going to make a difference when there's a gun to our heads?
AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) I think my story's the only thing between you and a gun to your head.
GROSS: I recorded this interview with Ben Affleck last Tuesday. Ben Affleck, welcome to FRESH AIR. I have to tell you, I always get scared when I hear that scene because, you know, I put myself in the shoes of the houseguests, the hostages staying at the Canadian embassy home, and I have such a bad memory. So I know, like, if you were grilling me, and I was in that situation, I'd go: My birthday, oh my God I forget when my birthday is. Oh, I forgot the Canadian prime ministers name.
GROSS: And you'd be going: Shoot her.
AFFLECK: You'd get killed, yeah. The irony of that scene is that that was one where I said to them, I actually had all those houseguests live on that set for a week together before we started shooting to create a bond for them to sort of understand what it was like to be holed up together with somebody. And I said: If any of you feel like you can create a biography and give it to me, we'll use it in some of the scenes at some point.
And the only person to do it, actually, which is surprising, was Clea DuVall. So she's the one who ended up getting the little sort of getting interrogated a moment, and I thought, well, I'm going to hit her with, you know, in the middle of this take with her answers that she wrote down. And she was pretty good. She had them memorized and prepared.
And then we said cut, and all the other actors were like: Oh, I didn't know it was going to be in the movie.
AFFLECK: I would have prepared something.
GROSS: I didn't know that was going to be on the test.
AFFLECK: Exactly, exactly.
GROSS: So you were, what, about eight when the hostage crisis actually happened?
AFFLECK: Yeah, that's right, I was eight years old.
GROSS: So were you watching the news then? Do you have memories of it from that time?
AFFLECK: You know, the earliest memory I have of sort of world events is President Reagan's assassination attempt, which was 1982. So I really wasn't - sort of hadn't fully figured out that there was a big, broader world out there. I don't even remember the yellow ribbons particularly. I was just - for whatever reason kind of hadn't gotten there yet. So this was the sort of, like, history in the same way, doing a movie about the Revolutionary War would have been history for me. I had to start from scratch.
GROSS: So when you went back to look at news footage, and I should say that you really tried to, and I think succeeded in capturing images for your film that looked, you know, like some of the iconic moments of that time, and at the end of the film, you even juxtapose news footage, like news stills with shots from your movie.
But were those scenes all basically new to you?
AFFLECK: Yeah, they were new to me except that I kind of - Chris Terrio, who is the writer, wrote this incredible screenplay, and he started me off with here is the research that I've done, take a look at this. And it really blew my mind because, you know, it included like the footage of the guy who says, you know, he's mad as hell, and he references "Network," you know, some specific things like that that were just so rich.
And then from there I kind of dove into it. And I got so interested in the research and so kind of obsessed with it that I started handing it out to the various department heads and saying this is exactly what I want, this is what I want it to look like, this is how I want it to feel.
And I was so proud of their work and so impressed by it, I wanted to showcase it, that I - maybe in a touch of, like, self-aggrandizement, you know, - or at least collective selective self-aggrandizement - put it up at the end for people to see. And also because I wanted them to see, yeah, this is actually what it was really like. This real - this takeover of the hostage - of the U.S. embassy really happened, and this is how it happened and - because there was a part of me that was amazed by that, as well.
GROSS: And you have a little history lesson at the beginning, which I was glad you did because a lot of people, like you, were too young to remember what happened or weren't even born yet. And so without some kind of historical context, you don't really know what the real story's about.
AFFLECK: Yeah, as I - I was a Middle Eastern studies major, so I had taken a couple, mostly focused on the Arab world but had taken a couple of classes about Iran and the Islamic revolution there. And so jumping into this movie I already had a context for, you know, why this was happening.
And all of a sudden it occurred to me that I was going to start a movie off where audiences were just going to think these are bearded sort of meanies who arbitrarily just don't like the United States and are frothing at the mouth to tear down the bricks of our embassy. And that really, really neglected decades of, and even almost a century of interplay between our nations and between the West and Iran that led to this moment.
Even more than that, I thought it robbed the audience of an understanding of the way in which this was really quite relevant. For example, you know, we deposed this guy Mosaddegh, who was an elected, secular leader. We installed the Shah because he was sort of be our friend, sell us oil and because he had the patina of being Western, you know, and he sort of said the right things.
And we turned a blind eye to his corruption and to his cronyism and to his oppression, which I thought was very much like what happened with Mubarak. And then both situations, you know, ultimately ended up in revolutions, and both those revolutions produced results that weren't predictable and that were tricky for us to try to navigate or even understand.
So I wanted that historical context in the beginning so that the audience could kind of get where this all came from.
GROSS: So one of the things you had to do in the movie was recreate the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran and have, like, mobs of angry Iranians chanting what I assume is death to America, in Farsi.
AFFLECK: Yeah, there were two or three chants. The main chant was (speaking foreign language), which is death to America, yeah.
GROSS: So you shot on location in Turkey. How do you cast all the extras to be chanting death to America?
AFFLECK: Well, that was quite a difficult thing, as it turned out. I was really convinced that we didn't want to use digital extras, that that would take away the potency...
GROSS: Boy, that hadn't even occurred to me.
AFFLECK: Yeah, that's what people do now. You go see movies about, you know, baseball stadiums, and they're all digital people created by visual effects artists. And that's great, and those artists are really talented, but something about dragons and fire and that stuff lends itself to visual effects in a way that people don't.
You know, digital effects extras tend to do - you know, they put their arm up, their arm down, their head to the left and then to the right, and then they repeat those motions. They're sort of repetitive. They're not complex at all. And to me what that does is it takes away the potency of the power of a crowd, and how that can be really scary.
And so I wanted to use real people, made a big thing out of it. We wanted over 2,000 people for the takeover, which was hardly - you know, it would have been a light day for David Lean, but for me, it was....
AFFLECK: It was a big deal. And the problem was - it was really a student's revolution, but all the students were in school. And I thought we could put a little money out there and get a lot of Turks. It turns out their growth rate is like 6 to 8 percent. I mean, they're just - things are booming in Turkey.
So we couldn't get any students. The professional folks are naturally working and making more money than we were offering them. So the only people that were available to us were folks over 65. So we turned it into a bit of a seniors' revolution.
GROSS: That's so funny. It hadn't occurred to me watching it that, oh yeah, it should be students.
AFFLECK: Yeah, I know, well, I'm glad.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Affleck, and he directed "Argo." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about "Argo." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Affleck. We're talking about his new movie "Argo." I want to play another scene from the movie, and this is a scene in which you, playing the CIA agent who comes up with the cover story to smuggle out, or exfiltrate as the word is, the Americans who are in hiding at Canadian embassy houses.
So you're talking with the makeup artist. You're telling him you need his help for the cover story. And you're talking about how to disguise the Americans as a film crew. So he's looking through the dossiers of the Americans, trying to figure out what role they should play in this fake story that you're cooking up.
AFFLECK: Exactly, what covers they should have, yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ARGO")
JOHN GOODMAN: (As John Chambers) Well, this one's got an MA in English. She should be your screenwriter. Sometimes they go along on scouts because they want the free meals. Here's your director.
AFFLECK: (As Tony Mendez) Can you can teach somebody to be a director in a day?
GOODMAN: (As John Chambers) You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day. Look, if you're going to do this, you've got to do it. The Khomaniacs are Fruit Loops, but they've got cousins who sell prayer rugs and eight-tracks on La Brea. You can't build cover stories around a movie that doesn't exist. You need a script, you need a producer.
AFFLECK: (As Tony Mendez) Make me a producer.
GOODMAN: (As John Chambers) No, you're an associate producer at best. You're going to do a $20 million "Star Wars" rip-off. You need somebody who's a somebody to put their name on it, somebody respectable, with credits, who you can trust with classified information, who'll produce a fake movie for free.
GROSS: That's a funny scene. So the little joke John Goodman makes in there about how you can teach a rhesus monkey to direct in a day...
AFFLECK: In a day, yeah.
GROSS: Having directed your third film now, what do you think of that joke?
AFFLECK: I think maybe not a day, but...
GROSS: Is that a joke that's commonly made in Hollywood?
AFFLECK: No, I think in truth what it's about and why I like the joke is it's sort of got two - one aspect is yes, there I am, I'm the director. He's saying it to me. It has that kind of cuteness to it. But, really, it speaks to something that people don't often think about Hollywood, which is the kind of class hierarchy, that this above-the-line, this narrow strip of people - director, star, sort of prima donna, that kind of thing - and then the huge - they're sort of the icing, right - and then the huge bulk of the cake, who are all the workaday people, the lunch-pail folks who do that job.
And I wanted to liken them to the folks at the CIA who sort of do a similar job and that he's expressing a cynicism about the kind of vain, you know, sort of maybe fools that he has to work with periodically; the guy who's, you know, basically kvetching about his boss.
GROSS: So as we heard, like the tone really shifts back and forth in the movie between, you know, drama, where everything is at stake, and comedy. And the comedy parts are, of course, in Hollywood, where this cover story is being created, and where real Hollywood and fake Hollywood collide and that parts of real Hollywood it's colliding with are sometimes, like, really cheap, like low-budgety parts.
AFFLECK: Yeah, low and B sci-fi stuff, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Was it hard for you directing it to shift back and forth not only between like, you know, lots in L.A. and shooting on location in Turkey but also between like the high drama and the satirical comedy parts?
AFFLECK: Well, one of the things that was - if the Hollywood stuff had been tacked on, it would have been very confusing, for me as the director. But, you know, John Chambers is this real guy who won the Academy Award, the first Academy Award for Makeup, for "Planet of the Apes" and had a longstanding - and again, this is something I wished I could have gotten into, too, because it's fascinating. But he had a longstanding relationship and partnership with the CIA that went back through, you know, putting on all sorts of disguises and giving them to exfiltrate people from Laos and Vietnam and so on when that was the focus of, you know, when we were focused on Southeast Asia, in terms of our foreign policy.
So this partnership really did exist, and it existed actually in a kind of deeper and realer way than is presented in the movie. The Alan Arkin character is not quite so sexy and bombastic in real life, (unintelligible), he's a great guy, but he wasn't quite as - as I say, he never met Warren Beatty, you know.
But the John Chambers stuff was so real that I just trusted in the fact that this really took place. And when the acting from Alan and John was so real, it somehow just grounded it, so that it flowed rather easily back and forth. And I found that as long as it wasn't mugging or winking at the audience or being over the top, the audience would accept moving back and forth through these various environments.
GROSS: Did you approach Alan Arkin for his role?
AFFLECK: Alan Arkin was the first guy we went to. He seemed - the only worries I had about Alan Arkin was he was almost too obvious a choice, you know. I talked to him, he was like: What made you think of me, the old cranky guy with a heart of gold? I wonder how you found me.
AFFLECK: He was like - and then so when he did this whole thing at the beginning about, you know, I've got a lifetime achievement award. He just, he was getting constantly, you know, feted with lifetime achievement awards and very cynical, and it's very much who Alan - I mean Alan is a gentler soul, but - and smarter, you know, but he has that quality.
So - and John looks just like Chambers. All the people who know Chambers, his family, have come up and say this is incredible, you just like him, this is amazing. You know, you even had his limp. John's like: That's my own sciatica, I'm not trying to do his limp.
AFFLECK: But he was one were everything sort of fell into place. And those two guys, John had such a fondness and admiration for Alan that he just had fun sort of being around him, and so that part of really worked out nicely.
GROSS: So we talked a little bit about having to, you know, kind of compress events and leave things out because it's a movie, and you have two hours, and this is a story that took a long time to actually play out. And a question I always wonder about when I see a historical film is, like, what actually happened and what's been fictionalized for the purposes of storytelling in the movie.
So watching your movie, of course, I thought about that, too.
AFFLECK: Sure, of course.
GROSS: And there are some things that are, you know, pretty different in the film compared to the reality, and - like one example is, you know, there's a very thriller aspect of it toward the end. Without giving anything away, there's always something happening that's threatening them every step of the way so that they're going to be discovered.
And I think most of those things didn't happen with that kind of timing or maybe didn't happen at all in reality.
GROSS: Which isn't to say reality wasn't really terrifying and dramatic, but these, like, split-second escapes and nearly getting - nearly getting discovered and so on didn't happen that way.
AFFLECK: Right, well, you know, I always feel like that's what they pay me for as a director, you know, is to - if you accept the fact - and I do - that the escape for them was extremely harrowing and scary, you know, and it was mostly about getting from where they were to the airport, getting through these checkpoints and getting on this airplane, that that was the story of it.
So what I did with the end, in order to have a third act that I felt sort of worked, that wasn't just a bunch of people, like, walking through checkpoints and looking at their paperwork, was to add elements to that and to cross-cut it in ways that, you know, used what I bring to it, what I had to try to make it more exciting and to make it more tense.
You know, as you point out, it's tricky because you can't flash up subtitles that say OK, hold on, this part right here when the guard looked over at them, that didn't happen, or those cars were not on the runway, but they did in fact take off.
Also there's a sort of uncertainty because we don't really know from the Iranian side, you know, where everybody was; when they found out, what they did. We just know that they went through the checkpoints and got on the plane. And at some point between that and when - and the next morning when the Iranian minister went on television saying that Canada would pay, they found out.
And it's that struggle between, as I said, the bookkeeper's reality and the reality - the poet's reality. And you make judgments as a director. And my judgment falls really cleanly on the line of it's OK to embellish, it's OK to compress, as long as you don't fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened.
GROSS: So just one more question about this. As a viewer, whenever I see, like a biopic or historical film, I'm always wondering, like, what am I learning - like what's true and what's false, and what can I trust? Like if I'm - because I think movies that are historical have usually a dual goal. One is to, like, enlighten you about this, like, really interesting story that actually happened, and the other is to entertain you because it's a movie.
And as somebody who's interested in historical accuracy and in journalistic accuracy, I know movies aren't journalism, except for documentaries, and your film...
AFFLECK: Unless they say they're journalism, yeah.
GROSS: Right, right. But I mean your movie isn't trying to be journalism. But I walk away, and I wonder, like, how do I know what to believe. Like I walk away thinking, like, now I know really what happened, and a lot of it really is what happened, but some of it isn't what happened. So how do I know which is which?
AFFLECK: Well, here's the one answer that I have is that the reason why this exact thing was so important to me is that I felt like it was such an incredible story, I wanted people to be able to know the details - and I'm not hawking additional product - but you can get the DVD - on the Blu-ray, there's every documentary in - I mean, we spent, you know, Warner Brothers' money interviewing people, people who aren't in it, people from every detail, people who talk about it in a very robust way.
So if you really want to follow up, we present to you in a very thorough way exactly what happens from the people in their own words. And I do think it's a fundamentally really interesting question, and it's one that's been raised about a number of films this year. You know, to what extent are you permitted...
GROSS: Most obviously "Zero Dark Thirty," yeah.
AFFLECK: Sure. There's all kinds of cases, you know. And you go: To what extent is it OK to make these alterations? And I wouldn't want to comment on any other filmmaker's work except to say that I understand that there's definitely a push and pull. And for me as a filmmaker, the line is about what I believe is, you know, in the deeper essential truth rather than - you know, I mean, you can look in historical movies, dialogue gets changed because people don't really speak like that anymore, so it would be inaccessible.
And did the guy really sort of have this type of relationship with this woman? You know, unless the movie's about that, you - to me I go OK, that's part of the storytelling. But I deeply, deeply believe that one has to stay true to the essence of the events that you're telling because you're conferring meaning.
You want people to walk out of there and say I understand this more deeply. And that - if you corrupt that, it's a tremendous betrayal.
GROSS: Ben Affleck will be back in the second half of the show. He directed and stars in the film "Argo." "Argo" is nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ben Affleck. He won two Golden Globes Sunday for his film "Argo," best director and best picture drama. "Argo" is nominated for an Oscar for best picture. The film begins in November 1979, when Iranians storm the American Embassy in Iran, taking the diplomats hostage. "Argo" is based on the true story of six Americans who escaped and went into hiding with the help of the Canadian ambassador. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who came up with the scheme that got the six out of Iran and safely home.
During the close credits, the actual President Jimmy Carter speaks. And what he says during the close credits is, you know, this operation was kept secret until it was declassified by President Clinton in '97. So, you know, no one knew about the story outside of the CIA until then. And so President Carter says, at the end of your film, that it was a great temptation to reveal this history, so that he could take a little credit for it.
GROSS: He says, eventually we got every...
AFFLECK: Further evidence that Hollywood is just like politics.
GROSS: He says, eventually, we got every hostage home safe and sound, and we upheld the integrity of our country and did it peacefully. Did you feel for him when he said, like - because he's being funny when he says it, but, you know, he means it, too. Because he got such - I mean, he lost the election over it. And he lost his reputation, in a lot of ways, over the Iranian hostage crisis because he was seen as weak. But he did get the people home, and he did prevent us from going to war.
AFFLECK: Yeah. And it's funny that we tend to perceive it as it took long time. There wasn't a lot of patience, as you point out. There's no question - if you ask him, or virtually anybody else - that he lost the election in large measure because of that hostage crisis and he didn't get them - that they weren't released until Reagan's Inauguration Day. Khomeini had come to hate Carter so much, that he kind of wanted to punish him.
You know, the thing - I didn't want to make it a referendum on the Carter presidency, because it's a different thing. What I liked actually speaks exactly to what we were just talking about, which is if you go with the audience and they go all the way through this movie, and you get to the end of the movie and the guy who was president of the United States during that time says yes, this, in fact, happened. The CIA went in as a movie company and got these people out, and no one could know about it. To me, that gives you a, all right, that's basically the story. We know that's true.
We'll grant that, you know, maybe the Carters went a little faster or somebody said, you know, a joke that they didn't say or that kind of - about rhesus monkeys, or whatever. But the essence of this story is really true, and here is Jimmy Carter saying it, and here it cost him his presidency. And what that means is that the country went in a completely different direction.
And when he says I wish I could've taken credit for these six people getting out, I think what's underneath that is: Maybe I wouldn't have lost the election. Maybe I would've looked like I could do something successful. Maybe, you know, this would have been good for me. I don't like necessarily feel bad or feel good for him, but I do think that he's - that he makes a really valid point about this, and it does raise the profile of this incident of six people to something that you think, you know, this might have - were it not secret in the way that it was for the United States - it might've changed the course of American electoral politics.
GROSS: This is the third feature film you've directed, before that "The Town," and your first directorial feature, "Gone Baby Gone."
AFFLECK: "Gone Baby Gone."
GROSS: I love that film.
AFFLECK: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so what was it like the first time out as a director, directing without any experience? And, you know, it turned out good.
AFFLECK: Thank you. I was very, very scared. You know, I just didn't know if I could do it. The only thing I can think of a good metaphor is running a marathon, where you just don't know, am I even going to finish? You know, maybe I'll fall over at mile 15 or something. Or, you know, it seems so daunting and so far. And, yet I had been prepared in the sense that I had directed shorts. I'd always wanted to be a director. I've been on a lot of sets. But that just felt like very little compared to the task of directing a movie when I went into it. And every day, I was scared and I probably stayed that scared throughout. And when I looked at the first assembly, I thought it was terrible. And so I just started, you know, dove in and started working on it, and worked on it until I didn't so...
GROSS: So you've re-edited the whole thing?
AFFLECK: Yeah. I mean, I actually changed editors in the middle and hired another editor, but he couldn't come on for a couple of months. Incidentally, he's William Goldenberg, who did both our movie and "Zero Dark 30" this year. So he's the CIA real story specialist, that is.
AFFLECK: But - and so, in that interim, I was by myself cutting the movie. And my wife was in a movie in Arizona, and so I was just in this room in our house in Arizona cutting away. And - but, you know, I guess the short answer is: I was really, really scared and not sure of myself at all.
GROSS: Were there things you felt you have to fake at first until you had done it enough to know for real? Because I think it's that way in most positions, that you have to just kind of fake your way through, initially.
AFFLECK: Yeah. I talked to - the one advantage I had is I could talk to other people who have done it. And I remember talking to Kevin Costner and saying, like, what do I do? I'm going to direct a movie. Kevin said: Make sure that on your first day, you know what your second shot is. And I was, like, what you mean? He said, everyone goes there and knows what their first shot is, and they do the first shot, and all of a sudden think: What am I going to do now? He's, like, make sure you know the second shot, and that'll get you rolling into, you know, we're going to do this. We finished that. OK, guys, let's go over here. And now the crew trusts you.
GROSS: Was that good advice?
AFFLECK: It was definitely good advice. I had great advice from a lot of those different guys, mostly centered around - I thought this was interesting - not being - not trying to be noble about anything. In other words, if you need more takes on yourself, do more takes, because if you don't, you're going to end up in the editing room without enough material.
GROSS: But, you mean by being noble, like if your performance needed another take, but the actor, the other actor in the scene did good, don't feel guilty about asking for another take?
AFFLECK: Noble in terms of don't - in other words, let's say - so you do takes - I'm going to do a close-up on you and a close-up on me.
AFFLECK: So say we do a close-up on you, and we do nine takes. He's saying don't be noble by just turning around on yourself and doing one take and going, oh, I think we're fine. Don't worry. We're not going to wait on me, that sort of thing.
AFFLECK: You know, be willing to allow people to wait on you, as well, as you would if it were just another, you know, actor.
GROSS: How do you direct yourself? What do you tell yourself? Like, when you have a director, they can say well, we need another take, or give me more, give me less. Or...
AFFLECK: There's a couple of things. One, there's a monitor, so you can go over and kind of watch it. And eventually, you just have to get rid of this - you have to slough off this kind of insecurity about looking at yourself. You know how you hate to hear your own voice on an answering machine? You must be over that, because you do it all day, right?
GROSS: Not really.
AFFLECK: But the other thing is, you know, you get to - I just shoot a lot of film, and as I go through it, I try different choices. And I'll be a little more afraid here, a little more angry, a little faster, a little slower, that sort of thing. And I'll do 10, 11, 12 takes. And I really do the direction of myself in the editing room. So I can, you know, go throw this out, throw that out, throw this out, and then get down to the few things that I think have merit and calibrate those there. And I don't pretend that I'm going to have the sort of perspective on the day that I'll have later. And so I just try to throw enough stuff in the bag that, you know, I'll have something left when it comes time to look at it all.
GROSS: In "Gone Baby Gone," Amy Ryan is one of the stars of the film, and she plays somebody who's basically a really tough lady from the neighborhood, and she's kind of running a scam. And she's great in it. And then her friend in it is somebody who's actually from the neighborhood. And I'm thinking of Jill Quigg.
GROSS: And when I saw her, I thought, like, who is that person? So in preparing to interview you, I figured I'd look her up and see what was up with her. And it turns out, like, a couple of years ago she was actually arrested for stealing a television. And I don't know whether she was convicted or not, but I read that she'd been in and out of rehab for drugs and everything.
GROSS: Tell me a little bit the story of working with her.
AFFLECK: Well, she - yeah. She's had a lot of problems. As I recall, there was an even worse aspect to the story now, which was that they claimed that it was some African-American guy, and then that turned out to be...
GROSS: Well, she have a boyfriend who allegedly robbed the TV...
AFFLECK: Yeah, that's still the TV together...
AFFLECK: ...you know, made up this story and it's just like - you know, it was very depressing and sad. The - she's had problems with drugs since she worked with us. You know, she's a really - I really liked her, and she was - she worked hard.
GROSS: She's amazing in the movie.
AFFLECK: And she's really good in the movie, because she doesn't even know that there is a camera. You know, she really is able to just be herself, because she's kind of totally unselfconscious, anyway. And the best part about her was that I could stick - I always believe there is a sort of osmosis that happens, you know, where some people rub off, so I could stick Amy next to her, and because Amy was with her, you kind of believed that they were of the same - cut from the same cloth.
I did the same thing with my brother and this guy Slaine. You know, they hung out together, and you thought, well, if this kid's friends with this guy, he must be, you know, pretty rough himself. And Jill, I mean, Jill was more nervous - she didn't know what a camera was. She didn't know what it was as it was filming her. I mean, she was like - didn't know where it was or what was happening. And she was more nervous after I said, OK, that's good. We're going to take a break and then we'll fill somebody else. She was more nervous wondering, well, where do I go? Where do I stand? That was the thing that made her more self-conscious. And it shows you that A, obviously, what you bring to a part is so important. And B, creating an environment where people aren't self-conscious is, you know, so critical.
GROSS: What did you learn from that about working with people who aren't actors, but who look the part because they are a part?
AFFLECK: You know, what I would do is just kind of bring them into the scene, and I have this whole other process than what you would normally have, which was just everybody kind of be quiet. We don't have a slate. We don't make a big thing out of it. I don't care if there's noise on the line. People still sort of move around the set, and then you just turn the camera on quietly. And I'll talk to them or rehears with them, or they'll think they're rehearsing and then somebody else comes out and says a few lines. And you just are capturing them at a moment of unselfconsciousness.
And then, eventually, if I need him to say, you know, what did you expect, or whatever, then, you know, I'll have him say that line 50 times. And, but it's a whole other kind of art form, one I really like, because when you get it, it's so magical. It'll take half of your day. I mean, there's no question, but if you get it right, it's - I think it's really special.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Affleck, and he directed and stars in the film "Argo." Let's take another break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Ben Affleck, and he directed and stars in the film "Argo." You started acting when you were eight?
AFFLECK: I did, when I was eight years old. Yeah.
GROSS: So was that helpful? Like, is there anything you learned then that you still use now?
AFFLECK: You know, what I learned then that's helpful was to be the - a sense of comfort being in front of a camera, and maybe some sort of early adult-ification(ph) that was helpful. What wasn't helpful was that there was no premium placed on the emotional truth of acting. It was kind of, like, you know, it was like getting through the day. You know what I mean? Say the words. You look to the right way. You sort of move on. And so that early on, I took that on as my idea of what acting was, and then really have to relearn it when it occurred to me that, you know, it should be interesting to watch. You should have emotional honesty.
GROSS: When did that occur to you?
AFFLECK: In high school, I had a great high school teacher named Jerry Speca, who, you know, me and Matt and my brother and all these - and a lot of other really good actors who are working now still went through his classes and, you know, he taught that it had to be - you didn't just say the words. It had to be good. It had to have an emotional reality to it.
GROSS: So when you were a kid, you auditioned for the "Mickey Mouse Club" and for "Batman and Robin," didn't get the part. And Matt Damon was auditioning with you for that.
AFFLECK: Yes, don't leave Matt out. Yeah.
GROSS: Did that hurt your self-esteem? I mean, I think one of the really hard parts of acting for any actor is you get rejected so much of the time, until you have - until you finally establish yourself, if you ever establish yourself. And a lot of actors don't ever even reach that point. So it's just, you know, a career of rejection.
AFFLECK: Yeah, no, it's true.
GROSS: Yeah. So what was it like to handle that as a kid? And we're not talking about a school play.
GROSS: I mean, we're talking about TV shows.
AFFLECK: Well, I didn't do very many - I mean, I did - you know, I came out of "Voyage of the Mimi," and then I did this afterschool special with Madeline Kahn. And then I did a TV movie with Forest Whitaker and Blair Brown and Beverly D'Angelo and Armand Asante. And then I started sort of auditioning, kind of going to New York. Matt and I would go down and audition.
And, at first, I would say for the first half of the bell curve as an actor, that rejection is good for you. It coarsens you to, you know, getting turned down, because you know you're going to get turned down a lot, and you have to just sort of keep rolling and keep believing that you can do this, despite the fact that the last 30 people you read for didn't want to hire you, and recognize that those are kind of your odds.
Eventually, you need to get some work. Otherwise you come down on the back side of the bell curve and exactly what you describe happens, which is, I mean, people start to get a very defeatist attitude. They get very depressed. They get sad, and then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You just - you know, my goal - from growing up and auditioning in high school to moving out to L.A. after high school and auditioning, to when I first really started getting, you know, work when I was 24, 25 - was I just wanted to work enough so I didn't - I could say that I was an actor, not an actor-waiter, you know, that I could just, you know, with pride, look myself in the mirror and say this is actually what I do for a living.
GROSS: How did auditioning as a child affect you as a director auditioning people today?
AFFLECK: Enormously. I hate directing young actors. I hate auditioning them, rather. I don't even like having them in the movie. I like to get them in and out. I don't - I would never in a million years allow my children to be actors.
GROSS: As children.
AFFLECK: As children. Yes. I would never allow them as adults, although I think I'll have very little control over that.
AFFLECK: And I think the - I find it difficult, because I had some, you know, complicated experiences as a young person. When I look back on that, some of it was really valuable, and some of it I think was not. And I just see kids, you know, oftentimes getting pushed out there and forced to do stuff. And maybe I'm over, you know, reading something into it, because I know a lot of - you know, Blake Lively was, I think, a young, you know, kid actress. She turned out great. She's a great actress.
GROSS: You turned out OK.
AFFLECK: I did, but, you know, it's a tricky thing. I think it says something that I wouldn't let my kids be actors. Put it that way.
GROSS: Right. Right. So I've got to ask you about the Ben Affleck senator thing.
GROSS: So there's a big rumor of, like, Ben Affleck might be the next senator from Massachusetts to replace John Kerry. And then you did a Facebook message recently saying that no, you weren't running. It's going to be an exciting - exciting to watch, but...
AFFLECK: Exciting - the other people will be fun.
GROSS: Yeah. So, like, how did that start?
AFFLECK: I think there was, like, some sort of - you know, the press, I think, you know, get bored. And in politics, there's not much happening. Somebody in - maybe in Politico or another one of these websites wrote a sort of, I think, half-tongue-in-cheek thing about: You know who should be a senator, is Ben Affleck.
And then as these things go in the Web age, it just got picked up, picked up, picked up. And a guy asked me - I was doing - I was talking about I had testified in front of the House Services Committee about Congo. And then I went on "Face the Nation," and Bob Schieffer says: So, I hear - what about, you know, being a senator?
And I thought this is - you know, I just said the first thing that I could think of which is we already have two senators in Massachusetts. And then that was taken as a non-denial denial, and it turned into a whole...
AFFLECK: So I thought this is ridiculous. You know, I mean, I suppose it's sort of flattering, but I just posted on Facebook, like, no, won't be running for senator. Won't be running for, you know, putting my - throwing my hat in the ring for the, you know, to run the U.N.
GROSS: So, before you go, I just have to ask you. You did, on "Saturday Night Live," a really funny impression of Keith Olbermann a few years ago, when Olbermann still had a show on MSNBC. And I played it for Olbermann when he was on. So I have to ask you: Was that an impression you had already worked up and that you told "SNL" about and said, hey, I can do this on the show? Or did...
AFFLECK: They came to me when I got on "SNL" and said, you know, we have this Olbermann thing that we've been wanting to do. We think you could do it. Are you up for it? And so I looked at - they hadn't had the full material, but I said, yeah, like, definitely. Let me work on him. Let me watch a bunch of his stuff and try to go, you know, go after it a little bit.
And then the material started getting better, and I started getting, like - finding more things to do with the impersonation. And it was great, because I - initially, they - you know, the idea was, oh, it's eight minutes, just you in a chair. It's going to get cut. And, you know, they don't want to see it. But by the end, we had it down enough where I kind of said to Lorne, like, I think this works. You've got to let us keep it in the show.
And they did. And it's one that I get comments on. Interestingly enough, I get - all the comments are from liberals. You know what I mean? Like, it's the rare one from a conservative. You would think the conservatives would say ha, ha, you made sport of that liberal guy.
But it's like the liberals that all watch the show. You know what I mean? So they got the - whatever the joke was. But it was fun. It was a really good time. And I actually saw him. He came down. You know, his office was in the building. He came down during one of the rehearsals, and - so I saw him briefly, and I think he got the joke. Having been, you know, the subject of that kind of thing many times myself, I feel like you've got to have a sense of humor about it, you know?
GROSS: Have you always done impressions? I mean, is that part of...
AFFLECK: I like to do impressions. Yeah, I do. I feel a little bashful of it, because I know it's not really acting. Like, once you get into mimicry and impressions, it is a gift, and a gift that I love to watch. You know, the guy on "SNL" who can do Denzel, to me, is just amazing, you know.
But I try not to rely too much on it, because I know that it's sort of like - I used to play chess a lot with my brother and Matt when we all lived together, and then we got into speed chess. And all the teachers would say you can't play speed chess. It'll ruin your game. And I think there's something about impressions a little bit that will ruin your game, because it's just the, like, fast, Chinese-food-accessible version of a character.
GROSS: Nevertheless, who do you do?
AFFLECK: I used to do Denzel. I do Morgan Freeman. I used to do Al Pacino. You know, a whole bunch of them. Olbermann's, like, a face thing. You know what I mean? And a little bit of a, you know, he kind of likes to have himself be sort of down here. You know, he has that kind of I'm-a-serious-newsman kind of thing.
You know, and Denzel is like: It doesn't matter if someone saw me or not. It doesn't matter if I win this case or not. I'm a find out the truth. I'll guarantee you that.
AFFLECK: Goddamn it, Denzel! That's Morgan. What'd I tell ya? Mm-hmm. Come down here and talk about folks. Come around here. You know, he's got that kind of, like, whatever he says, he says down here. You don't need to understand it.
AFFLECK: That's Morgan, and...
GROSS: That was great.
AFFLECK: ...Al is, like, hello! Al Pacino. What do you know? Welcome. This is FRESH AIR. Hello. What we talking about? I hear - I want to see his "Glengarry." I hear it's really good. I'm excited.
GROSS: Thank you so much...
AFFLECK: Thank you. It's a pleasure.
GROSS: ...for talking with us. It's really been fun. I really appreciate it.
AFFLECK: Thank you.
GROSS: Ben Affleck directed and stars in the film "Argo." Coming up, the best book you'll read this year - at least that's how George Saunders' new book was described in the New York Times magazine. Coming up, we'll see what our book critic Maureen Corrigan has to say. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: George Saunders is the author of several collections of short stories, and he's been praised by the likes of fellow writers like Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, and the late David Foster Wallace as the quintessential writer's writer. Still, he wasn't exactly a household name until a couple of weeks ago. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan plays catch up by reviewing Saunders' latest collection, called "Tenth of December."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I was baffled by the cover of The New York Times Magazine two Sundays ago. You may remember that the headline of the cover story was: "George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You'll Read This Year." I was baffled because the only George Saunders I could think of was that old movie star who was always playing cads in films like "Rebecca" and "All About Eve."
Actually, that actor's name was George Sanders. Adding to my anxieties was the fact that, according to the article, everybody else in the literary world had already anointed Saunders the writer for our time. So, I asked a few serious reader friends - the kind of people with subscriptions to n+1 - if they've read George Saunders.
One friend said she thought she'd read a story by him in The New Yorker. The others came up blank, except for the one who suggested Saunders might be that debonair actor who always played cads in old movies - which is all to say that it's tough to make a mainstream name for yourself as a writer, even when you're a writer who's won a MacArthur genius award.
Hence, that deliberately provocative headline of The Times Magazine article, which succeeded in its goal of making me want to read Saunders' new collection of short stories called "Tenth of December." It would be so satisfying to topple that Olympian Times pronouncement, but in good conscience, I can't do it. "Tenth of December" probably will turn out to be one of the best new books I read in 2013 because Saunders is, indeed, something special.
The 10 stories in this collection are mostly told in the first person: Thoughts and conversations ramble, and they always seem to have begun an hour or so before the reader shows up. Saunders' style is postmodernism with a friendly face. His technical scaffolding insulates heart and humor, stories that are actually about something beyond their own gleaming nuts and bolts. Even my least favorite pieces here - ones like "Escape from Spiderhead," that fall into the futuristic sci-fi genre - carry an emotional charge.
That's especially true of the longest tale, "The Semplica Girl Diaries," which is a dystopian domestic comedy. Our diarist is a hapless suburban dad of three. He keeps alluding to a status symbol yard decoration called "Semplica Girls."
When the dad splurges on a "Semplica Girl" arrangement to surprise his surly teenage daughter, we find out that Semplica Girls - or SGs - are poor young women from places like Moldova and Laos who've sold themselves as tableau vivant garden ornaments. At installation, a wire is threaded through their brains, and they're hoisted up, as on a clothesline.
As the dad excitedly jots in his diary: "SGs up now, three feet off ground, smiling, swaying in slight breeze. Effect amazing. Having so often seen similar configuration in yards of others more affluent, makes own yard seem suddenly affluent. You feel different about self, as if at last you are in step with peers and time in which living.
That entry reads as though goofy Phil Dunphy from "Modern Family" were exulting because he finally could afford slaves for Claire and the kids. What barbarities are normalized in a culture? That story asks, but with a light touch, no preaching.
Other tales start out as comedy or satire and mutate into near-tragedy. In "Puppy," a mother who's furiously trying to construct a happy childhood for her kids arranges to buy a puppy from another woman, also a loving, if misguided, mother. When the two moms meet, their worldviews chemically collide to blow up each other's cherished illusions.
In the opening story, "Victory Lap," we hear about a sad teenager named Kyle who's down to one friend, a guy, we're told: Who was always retrieving things from between his teeth, announcing the name of the retrieved thing in Greek, then re-eating it.
Just as you're wincing at the exuberance of Saunders' description, events swerve into violence. By the end of "Victory Lap," nerdy Kyle has faced down evil, while his parents who sought to cosset him are the ones who need to be told reassuring fictions.
Saunders' short stories have it all: the flexibility of language, the social criticism, the moral ambition, the entertaining dark humor. Check back with me at the end of 2013. If his collection isn't in this year's top 10, it will really have been an extraordinary year for books.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Tenth of December," by George Saunders.
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