FRANK DISCUSSION WITH BEN AFFLECKBack to Chasing Amy
by Mike McCarthy
Actor Ben Affleck recently held court (press day, that is) in Boston to promote Kevin Smith's new film Chasing Amy, in which he stars as Holden, the guy who falls for a lesbian. You may recall his performance as the guy who looked "like a date rapist" in Smith's last film Mallrats. Or maybe you recall seeing him in Dazed and Confused or School Ties? Truth be told, it doesn't matter. His performance in Chasing Amy is quite the antithesis of his work thus far. Certainly took me by surprise, though not as much as his passion for Boston, which, it turns out, is his hometown. Sort of. "Well, I wasn't actually born here, to be perfectly honest," he admits, "but I moved here when I was three. I grew up in Central Square in Cambridge. Went to the public schools there." And his family? "My brother now lives in New York City. He goes to Columbia. My mother is a teacher in Cambridge, teaches 6th grade. My father was an auto mechanic at Autotorium and a bartender and such. Now, he lives in California working at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center writing grant proposals and counseling people."
MM: Had you known Kevin Smith prior to working with him, being fellow New Englanders?
BA: No, I met him on Mallrats. One of the casting directors also cast Dazed and Confused. I didn't want to do any more bad guys because I started getting all those scripts. I'd go, well, I'd like to play this role, but [they'd respond with] we're really interested in you for Bart, the school bully. I thought it was so boring. But, I really liked Clerks and the screenplay of Mallrats, believe it or not, depending on what you think of the movie. It was actually uproariously funny. I really wanted to do it. I didn't want to play that part, but the Dazed guys were like, look, if you come in you can basically be in the movie if you'll play this part. So, I figured, all right, it'll be working with Kevin. At the time I was interested in finding out how to make movies cheap and I figured who better to talk to then the guy whose last movie cost 27 thousand dollars. So, I did it and ended up becoming friends with him. He called me up and said, hey, I'm writing this movie about a guy who falls in love with this woman who's gay and I want you to play the guy. I said, well, I'd love to. He sent it to me as he was writing it. It was really nice to be involved from the beginning, for somebody to put that much faith in me.
MM: Did it put a lot of extra pressure on you knowing that Kevin wrote the part for you?
BA: Yeah, in a certain sense. It's a personal story. He obviously cared about it quite a bit and you want to honor that. I wanted him to be really happy with my work so he wouldn't feel like he made a colossal mistake in asking me to do his movie.
Something that could be putting pressure on Ben right now, and could perhaps even make him feel as though he made a mistake in doing the film, is the sexuality of Chasing Amy, depending on how the public perceives it. "So far, I've done five or six screenings. They were skewed toward younger audiences, but they had some older folks there. They have gone better than I could have possibly imagined," he says. "It really surprised how much people seem to love the movie. The sexuality is . . . frightening. The frank discussion and unusual sexual situations take people by surprise and freak them out. I hope we can come down on the side of people who find the movie funny, and kind of moving in itself, but for whom there's the additional appeal of getting to see how people who live a different lifestyle live. Even if that's a voyeuristic kind of experience, I'll take it."
Still, you have to wonder, does he worry that some people won't take it? "It may alienate some people," he admits. "My mother's best friend said she felt generationally challenged. This is not a movie I would particularly want my grandparents to see. The irony is that nobody has sex on camera and nobody gets killed. You have a movie with people talking the entire time. Yet, there's definitely a segment of the population that will find it just . . . bothersome.
Are there really so many idiots out there who can't see a lesbian in a movie without having a hard on? [Laughs] I mean, Ellen Degeneres is gonna come out as a lesbian on a big prime time TV show. And anyone who didn't know she was a lesbian before had their head in the sand."
MM: I wonder how the average male Kevin Smith fan will react to the proposed resolution to the whole situation?
BA: I've noticed it makes people nervous to watch it. It challenges the notions these people previously had in their mind, who they were. I consider anyone who's seen Mallrats a rabid Kevin Smith fan [Laughs]--they really like it. While they're seized with a little bit of sickness, they're interested in following through, really paying close attention. Put it this way: I've been impressed by people's open-mindedness and willingness to take the movie for what it is, which is a pretty honest, interesting story that feels a lot like real life in its complexity, open ending, roughness and rawness.
A conversation between Ben and another member of the press (an older woman):
Q: When [Silent Bob] is explaining Amy in the restaurant the gentleman beside him is eating sugar. That distracted me.
BA: Yeah, he was eating spoonfuls of sugar.
Q: That bothered me. Why is he upstaging?
BA: He did upstage it. That's because the director was looking the other way. [Laughs] I don't know if he had singles on it or if it had coverage.
Q: Was he really eating sugar?
BA: Yeah, he was eating sugar. I was sitting right there. He's a weird cat. I don't really know what to tell you, besides that he eats spoonfuls of sugar. Gave him something to do in the scene, I guess. It is kind of nasty. I said, wow, that's a lot of refined sugar.
Q: I'm distracted. During the important scene, he's explaining what Amy means to him, and this guy's eating sugar. I'm distracted.
BA: Well, you're right to be so and I'm going to pass that on to Kevin and raise some cain.
MM: The only thing that distracted me was in the beginning, at the comic book convention, Jason Lee is yelling like he did throughout Mallrats. After a while, he tones it down and I can see him as Banky, but during the first 10 minutes he seemed more like Brodie with a beard.
BA: That's an interesting point. I think that, while the characters are different, that's an archetype that Kevin's used in all three of his films. The Dante/Randal dynamic. That straight guy/more outrageous guy thing seems to be a format that he's quite comfortable with. Jason Lee played that character in both those movies. So, certainly there's going to be some commonality. Though I think Jason showed a tremendous amount of nuance and range over the course of the movie. Kind of subtle stuff, you know? Obviously, a lot of the stuff he did was big, but there were a lot of subtle things in there that I noticed after watching it five or six times.
MM: Was that convention scene filmed first by any chance?
BA: It wasn't the first scene shot, but I think that scene called for a bigger performance because he was supposed to lose it about being a tracer. Initially, it wasn't supposed to be the first scene in the movie. There was another sequence that took place before that which got cut out.
At one point an openly gay critic points out that, "Some gay people will be like oh, no, another gay character getting together with a straight character."
Ben jokes, "Another? What was the other one?"
After the laughs pass, Ben adds, "I talked to a guy who writes for a gay magazine. He said what he personally liked about the movie was that it wasn't necessarily a gay positive movie. Often when you're making a movie about gay people it's like they have to be put on a pedestal. He said he felt this movie included gay characters at face value. In other words, they were who they were. It was an attempt to write honest characters, be they gay, straight, or, as Kevin seems to be suggesting, that their sexuality--their orientation--exists along a spectrum. If 10 is totally gay and one is totally straight, you have characters who are sprinkled along this gamut, which I thought was an interesting theory."
So, is Alyssa really a lesbian? "Whether or not she is clearly a lesbian or clearly bisexual, she doesn't fit easily into any label. She's just a person who has had relationships with a bunch of different people, who had made a choice in one point to live her lifestyle one way then kind of reconsiders and rationalizes. To me, from a purely objective point of view, someone who sleeps with both men and women is defined as bisexual. But, if a woman says I'm a lesbian, I'm gay, regardless of whether or not she has slept with men in the past, one has to respect that.
At one point I'm saying why are you with me and she's saying, I didn't want to halve my options. I'm looking for this one person who's my soulmate, who completes me, who I want to spend my life with. Her personal rational--not the rational of all lesbians or all people--is that by saying I can only take this person from one group of people is limiting. That's her theory. I think it's pretty clear that to say all a woman really needs is a good man is offensive and certainly silly. This movie articulates that sentiment and puts it in the mouth of its most buffoonish character, who's the brunt of all the jokes. Of course Kevin's not trying to suggest that.
I really like the character Dwight plays--Hooper. The really great thing is he's a character first, sexual orientation second. His orientation doesn't dictate his behavior. It simply exists and it doesn't upstage anything in the story. He's part of this group of people and they're all friends who hang out. It's not made to feel cutesy or waved around. Personally, I like that. And, ultimately, I think the medium of cinema is too small to ever try to speak for all people of any sexual orientation or anything else.
If you're gonna make movies that are predictable and about things you could expect, why make the movie? The whole point of making a movie is that things happen that you wouldn't necessarily imagine. People say things that take you by surprise. People do things that create situations where there's a lot of conflict."
On the flipside of surprises and conflicts would have to be predictability and resolutions. That said, what are Ben's thoughts on the film's open ending? Where does he think the characters end up? "I like that it's left to your interpretation. My interpretation is that when you have a friend you're that close to and you have something really traumatic break that it leaves a rip," he explains. "After the course of a year, Holden is left with a lot of warm feelings toward Banky and picks up his comic, which I think is a sweet moment. Especially since they were partners in their art and they'd both gone on to pursue separate projects artistically, which is a pretty significant kind of break up. I think after a ripped break like that it's almost more uncomfortable to try to be friends again because you're very aware of what's not there in a relationship.
This ties into one of the things Kevin's talking about, which is rather than saying that Banky is gay, or that anybody is gay, the idea is that often close male relationships operate quite a bit like love relationships in a lot of ways. You care about one another very deeply. You're loyal to one another. You spend a lot of time together. You can be jealous if some woman comes in and takes your friend away. Ultimately, it's about how you care about other people in your life, not necessarily who you sleep with. I don't really see Holden spending a tremendous amount of time with either Banky or Alyssa in the future. I think of him spending some time with himself, writing his Chasing Amy comic and living by himself. That's why I like that shot in the end where he goes out the door. He's gonna see what it's like to be a little more independent in the world. Grow up a little bit, I think."
It's clear that Ben has put a great deal of thought into Chasing Amy, not just in terms of his own performance, but in regards to the film as a whole. No doubt he's given it the sort of thought only writers and directors generally give their films. That said, it isn't surprising that he recently co-wrote a film with fellow actor Matt Damon (who has a cameo in Chasing Amy). The two will star in the film, entitled Good Will Hunting, along with Robin Williams under the direction of Gus Van Sant.
Should we expect something of the, well, offbeat variety? "There are parts of it that are a little offbeat. It's not as edgy, and certainly less profane, than Chasing Amy," Ben states, adding, "It's a different movie, yet it's also a coming of age story with a very classic structure in that sense. What's different and unusual about it is that it's geographically specific to the environment of Boston and the culture here. Everything from the dialect to the particular way that people live their lives that's different from other cities in the country. We want that to come through to the audience because we grew up here, Matt and I. He and I grew up two blocks apart, right out of Central Square. Right down Pearl Street. And we've never felt as though the city has been done well. It wasn't the way we perceived it growing up here. It always rang false. Everything down to some kind of weird, bastardized Kennedy accent. It's not a city of leprechauns, you know what I mean?"
Indeed I do, but does Gus Van Sant? After all, he certainly has a unique signature. Is Ben afraid Good Will Hunting will come out looking more like Gus Van Sant's world as opposed to true life Boston? "I hope that Gus' signature and sensibility will be on this movie because I think he's an excellent filmmaker," he says. "I also know Gus is really invested in making a movie about Boston. It was Gus' idea to hold a huge audition for non-actors, people who are really from Boston. He definitely wants an authentic sense of the city, not a false, glossed over sort of version of what it's like here. That would be a real underachievement. So, in that sense, hopefully we get the best of both worlds. We get Boston and we also get Gus, who lends a more mature, seasoned eye to the whole thing than either Matt or I could offer."
Were Robin Williams not in the cast one might just assume Good Will Hunting will be made on a low budget. However, as Ben points out, "It's hard to make a low budget movie when you have Robin Williams and Gus Van Sant. Those guys definitely took substantial pay cuts. But, then your production costs all of a sudden go up, ironically. People say, who are you trying to fool, I'm not gonna give you a deal, you've got Robin Williams in your movie! It's hard to go in and say can you cut your rate to the boom guy or the caterer. They say, cut my rate? If I can't make my rate on a Robin Williams movie where can I make my rate? Those costs add up. So, while it certainly isn't a low budget movie, it's certainly low by big studio budget movie standards."
MM: Did you consult with Kevin Smith when you were writing the script?
BA: Not really, although it's because of Kevin we're at Miramax, which is why he has a co-executive producer credit. We were running into trouble with another studio because they wanted to shoot it in Toronto, among other things. We said, this is the most geographically specific movie that's ever been made. Shooting this is Toronto would be ruinous. And they talked about the rates. Boston has an extremely bad reputation in LA, because of the Teamsters and some things that happened in the 70s. I'm not bashing the unions by any means, but it's not about people showing up and you get to charge them what you want. It's about you having to bring your rate to a point where you can attract people, where you're competitive. I think the perspective is, these people have money and they just don't want to pay us. Well, yeah, they have money and, yeah, they don't want to pay you, but if you ask for too much money they're not gonna give it to you--they'll go to somebody else who doesn't ask for as much. And those people are the Canadians. And there's no reason why Toronto should have 20 or 30 films in production at any given time. Boston is an infinitely more interesting city with a tremendous amount of character. I worked on School Ties for four months and it went well. And I know a lot of the Teamsters here. That's not the problem. It's just a matter of perception. And, in all fairness, the fact that the Canadians have the exchange rate in their favor, which is about 25 cents on the dollar. Also, Canada gives a very significant tax break to movie studios that go up there. On a federal level, they pursue actively the business of attracting filmmakers.
MM: What percentage of Good Will Hunting will be filmed in Boston?
BA: We're getting all the exteriors here. What Matt and I want to do, because we have this deal with Miramax, is demonstrate that you can make a movie in Boston and it doesn't cost you a lot of money.
MM: It will help if Brass Ring (which recently shot in Boston) does well.
BA: Yeah, they just wrapped. They had a low budget agreement, which is good, that they'll make low budget agreements with those movies. I think they were very helpful with those guys. A couple of my friends were in that movie. They came in under budget and such. And if you can spend a million and a half I don't see what the problem is with shooting in Boston. I'm sure that's cheaper than Canada. But, anyway, I'm just stuck on this idea. I'd like to convince the studios to come back here for larger budget stuff. I find it interesting. It's also my home, where I grew up. I certainly know this city better than any other city. So, it makes sense for me to want to make movies here. That's why it's so disheartening to find so much resistance. Let me tell you, if it weren't for Matt and I basically getting to the point where we said, we will quit if you guys don't agree to shoot in Boston, as opposed to Toronto, it wouldn't be here. At all. That's why we left Castle Rock. We said, forget it, we'd rather just not do the movie. That's what it takes. Miramax fought it, but then they, to their credit, understood that and why we cared about it. And, even so, we only get to do half of it here.
Further thoughts on Miramax and the Weinstein brothers? "I think the Weinstein brothers demonstrated to the market that independent, low budget movies were profitable, potentially. That if you could keep your costs down you could make money producing them as well as acquiring and distributing them. The first thing they did was acquire and distribute these movies and demonstrate that people would pay some money. They paid small money to acquire the movies and they'd spend advertising money, but in local market places. People came to the movies and they made money. Slowly, the larger machinery of Hollywood has begun to recognize that, which is why you see Sony Pictures Classics, Fine Line and Fox Searchlight, these indy shingles on the hat of the Warner Brothers kind of castle. Harvey and Bob have demonstrated that if Adam Smith were around today he'd be financing low budget, interesting independent movies. It's simply good venture capitalism, really. In addition, I really do believe those guys care about movies and making good movies, which is not necessarily the rule in Hollywood."
That's for sure. In fact, it has reached a point that some feel there's a deliberate, consolidated movement of young actors, producers, directors and writers in the independent film world. Would Ben agree? "Yeah, I do. To a certain extent," he says, explaining, "It looks a little more like that from the outside. It's still acting and getting your movie made. It's still very much about opportunity and trying to get the opportunity. Actors who do independent movies are still auditioning. You still have to scrap to get your movie made. But, there's definitely a group of people who have in common the fact that they essentially came out of the independent film market. People who became successful via that route, rather than the studio."
Any further thoughts on the independent route? "In a way, the independent route is more director driven than studio movies," he point out. "Usually when you hit studio movies people don't talk about directors as much. The independent movies seem to be more about filmmakers. In a way, less about actors, actually. There are a lot of good actors in independent films, but it takes people three or four movies to catch up and go, yeah, he was good in that, too."
Hmm. Could this mean people are about to catch up and start taking note of Ben's talent with Chasing Amy? Indeed.
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