Ben Affleck—the Director’s Cut
On a Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, Ben Affleck and David Fincher take their seats in front of a poster that seethes with outrage.
The poster, hanging in a conference room at Fincher’s office, is a proudly blown-up piece of wall art that was created out of a movie review. A very negative review. In fact, the critic, Alexander Walker of the London Evening Standard, seems to have been so disgusted by the movie in question that you can practically see the spittle of fury collecting on his lower lip. At a certain point, Affleck leans back in his chair and reads the angry excerpt out loud in the stentorian cadence of some old Tory in the House of Lords: “The movie is not only anti-capitalism but anti-society and, indeed, anti-God, sir!!!”
(The exclamation points and the “sir” are Affleck’s. The guy can improvise.)
So what was the flick that got Walker so torqued up? Fight Club, naturally—that bloody, grimy, twisted, and darkly hilarious landmark, directed by Fincher and released in 1999, about men who try to live life to the fullest by hitting each other in the face. Some critics hailed it as an instant classic. Others assailed it, calling it an affront to human civilization. “That’s where I want to live, man,” Fincher says. “I want people fightin’ over it.”
It could be said that both Fincher and Affleck became members of that particular fight club a long time ago. For all the acclaim that has come their way—most recently, a Best Picture Oscar for Affleck’s Argo, which he directed and starred in—these are men who can’t seem to eat a sandwich in Hollywood without its somehow being viewed as divisive. And if they relish having audiences clash over what they do, they’re about to have a satisfying autumn. This month, Affleck plays Nick Dunne, a failed writer for men’s magazines (ahem) who might or might not know something about his wife’s sudden disappearance, in Fincher’s bloody and twisted Gone Girl. It’s an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novel, whose depiction of the brutal deceptions of contemporary marriage makes Fight Club look like The Breakfast Club.
Gone Girl is dark stuff, even for the guy who directed Seven, Zodiac, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s bound to generate tens of thousands of apoplectic tweets, op-ed chin-scratchers, and parking-lot spats between presumably loving couples.
Affleck—who has gone from being roasted (the J. Lo nadir) to being toasted (the Argo triumph)—seems geared up for impending controversy. When he enters Fincher’s office, it’s a surprise to see that this once-wiry actor has the chest and biceps of a Navy SEAL. A year ago, he was cast as the Caped Crusader in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the inevitable rain of spite poured down from the Internet. He has been working out ever since and has recently been shooting the superhero saga in Detroit, but if you spend a few hours with Affleck, 42, and Fincher, 52, you realize that this combat-hardened duo have figured out that humor is the best weapon for disarming the haters. Whether they’re talking about filmmaking, marriage, or gambling, it’s clear that though the tabloids and the Internet swarms may draw first blood, Affleck and Fincher tend to get the last laugh.
Details: If you’re wandering through an airport or a beach bookstore, you see thousands of mysteries and thrillers. What is it about Gone Girl that turned it into a phenomenon?
Affleck: I don’t read too many airport husband-and-wife-killer thrillers, but my guess is that what set this apart is that Gillian is very skillful, obviously. And it points more specifically, more elegantly, and more directly at this theme that we all kind of identify with, on some level, about marriage, about relationships, about what we show one another. And that was adeptly wrapped in the shell of a thriller. But underneath it was something thematically more resonant than your common thriller.
Details: And what is that theme?
Affleck: [smiles and exhales a huge, theatrical sigh] Well …
Fincher: I think it’s a kind of narcissism. It’s about the façade. I think it’s first and foremost that people see themselves deserving a certain kind of mate. So they sort of fabricate an identity to ensnare that other person. What they don’t realize is that that other person is doing the exact same thing. And there’s this unspoken contract that eventually runs out of steam because people get to a point in a relationship where they go, “I don’t care to keep up my end. I can see you having a hard time with keeping up yours.” And there is resentment. I mean, most interpersonal relationships are complex sort of systems of building resentment.
Affleck: And that right there is what they’re going to put on David’s tombstone.
Fincher: I’m not talking about healthy relationships. I think a healthy relationship’s when you truly have revealed yourself to another person, and they have to you.
Details: When I find a healthy relationship, I’m going to check that out.
Fincher: Well, it’s an extremely difficult thing. I mean, I didn’t do it for a number of years. I was—I fully, readily admit that my first relationships were extremely fraught with exactly this kind of “Holy shit! How did I find myself in this?!” And then, of course, when it happens three or four times in a row, you go, “What’s the control here?”
Affleck: [laughs] Who’s out of step? Johnny or the rest of the band?
Fincher: You can’t look much further than oneself to find the culprit.
Details: Ben, you want to take on a movie like this because it’s a great role, a great director, etc., but do you also flinch in anticipation of the scrutiny and questions about marriage the film will bring?
Affleck: You know, I’m accustomed to all kinds of absurdity, so I expect that. No matter what. So I know some people will react in a ridiculous way. And I’m just at a point now where it could have been about anything, it could have been about the most painful thing in my life—which this doesn’t happen to be—but to me it’s just all about the director. Who you work with. Really, that’s all that matters at the end of the day. Finding somebody who’s interesting and inspired and has a take on something and who can inspire you to follow them. Are people going to ask me asinine questions, from the press? You just can’t get away from that. I can promise you that will happen.
Details: There’s a point in the film in which your character, Nick Dunne, caught in the middle of a media storm, blurts out something along the lines of “They like me, they don’t like me, they hate me, they love me.” It was the Affleck Arc, right there.
Affleck: I think that there are meta-comparisons that could be made. That wasn’t something that I was thinking about, playing that scene. The one aspect of this character that I can identify with is finding oneself thrust into a media narrative about oneself that’s totally unrecognizable. You might go, “Who is that person? This bears no relationship to me.”
Details: The night before that first press conference, Nick Dunne just gets drunk.
Affleck: When you look at a movie and think, Oh, that’s the real guy, that’s probably a good thing. You know what I mean? Like, in the book, for example, it said that he was puffy and hungover. And I dedicated myself to that, and I think it’s quite convincing.
Fincher: It was six months of real dedication to being hungover. It was extremely Method.
Details: Did Ben’s tangles with the tabloid media affect how you cast Nick Dunne?
Fincher: Well, yeah. I did not want to entrust that character to somebody who doesn’t understand what that is. Nobody signs up for this. If you showed people how absurd this kind of attention is, they would never sign up to be a movie star. They would go, “Thank you, but no thank you.” What’s Nick Dunne’s mechanism? His mechanism is, “I want you to like me, and I will use my charm to disarm any situation that starts to feel uncomfortable for me.” And you had to have an actor who understands what a slippery slope that is.
Details: And that’s Ben?
Fincher: There you go.
Details: Charm gets Nick Dunne out of—and into—trouble. Has it ever messed you up, Ben?
Affleck: I don’t know. That’s a weird thing to be asked. Nobody has a really good sense of themselves. “I think I’m really charming!” “You do?!” [laughs] “Who have you charmed recently?” In a way, Nick’s not putting on airs. He’s not bullshitting. He’s not playing the role. And what he learns, ultimately, is: (A) to play the role, and (B) how to use that and use people’s expectations. And I thought that was really, really interesting. Because he’s like, “Well, I’m going to be myself. I’m not going to pretend to grieve. I’m going to be really honest. That’s just who I am.” And he gets obliterated.
Details: So “being yourself” can be perilous.
Affleck: Yeah. I definitely can remember times when I thought, Look, I’m just going to be myself and do what I want to do and live my life in a really honest way …
Fincher: Cut to …
Affleck: YAAAAAAA. “That was the worst mistake I’ve ever made!” [laughs]
Details: Speaking of keeping it real, there have been reports lately that you’ve been caught counting cards in casinos.
Affleck: That is a true story. I mean, that took place. I took some time to learn the game and became a decent blackjack player. And once I became decent, the casinos asked me not to play blackjack. I mean, the fact that being good at the game is against the rules at the casinos should tell you something about casinos.
Details: The house always wins, right?
Affleck: Yeah, they don’t even want you to have a sporting chance, really. There’s a lot of hospitality, backslapping, when they think you’re gonna come in and dump money, and if they think you might leave with some money, it’s like, “You know what? Why don’t you try craps or roulette?”
Details: Why’d you get so good at it?
Affleck: I had always liked blackjack. I don’t play any other games of chance. I don’t bet on football games, and I don’t gamble at all, really, outside of that. But I knew with blackjack that there’s a way you can improve your odds. And so I started trying to learn. And then I just got to a point in my life where I’m like, “If I’m going to do something, I’m going to try and do it really well.” It was sort of presented like I did something illegal. You know what I mean?
Details: You just got good.
Affleck: Yeah. I got good. I’m sort of obsessive. I tend to get myopic and get into one thing. And really get into it. And then get bored and switch to something else.
Details: Isn’t it kind of badass to be escorted out of a casino? It sounds very Ocean’s Eleven.
Affleck: I wish I could say they were afraid of me in every capacity, but they only said, “No blackjack.”
Details: So it’s not like they grabbed you by the shoulders and threw you out?
Affleck: No, I wish! That would be awesome. “Get him outta here! He’s a magician!” Unfortunately, they just came up and said, “We can’t let you play blackjack. But we have other table games! We have Chinese poker!”
Details: You’re not hesitant to talk about it.
Affleck: Because I get to correct the impression that there’s something wrong with it or that it demonstrates some, like, compulsive activity. Usually, when you’re a compulsive gambler, the casinos don’t ask you to leave because you’re beating them. You know? I will say this. There were a number of casinos that said, “Hey, you can’t play blackjack here. We know you count cards. But, you know, you’re welcome to come, do whatever you want, see a show, have dinner. We’ll comp ya. Play roulette, we know you don’t play craps, but hang out, we still want your presence and business.”
Details: I would imagine that regular folks are psyched to sit next to Ben Affleck at a casino.
Affleck: They certainly offer you all kinds of stuff to show up. I think they’re just hoping that you’re going to be some dumb celebrity that’s gonna dump money. And I guess I was that! Until I figured it out, and then they were like, “Fuck him, get him outta here!”
Details: One report that cited gambling said something like “He looked disheveled and upset.” There was this sense of you being at your wit’s end.
Affleck: That’s the thing: It’s really hard for people to understand—it would be hard for me to understand—that people can freely write that shit, almost completely fiction, and pass it off and run it. And you’re going, like, “I can’t fuckin’ believe this! Not only do they invite me over there, then they don’t let me play, then they said I was, like, gambling, which also is not true, and then they said my hair was fucked up. When will the indignities end?”
Details: And there was a suggestion that your wife, Jennifer Garner, can’t take it anymore…
Affleck: See, that’s tabloid shit. That’s all bullshit. They completely lie. I mean, I can show you 10 articles of Star and OK!—those magazines feel totally comfortable absolutely fictionalizing every single element of the story. And there’s nothing you can do about that. My only hope is that people with any common sense recognize that those stories are false. And, I don’t know, there’re worse stories …
Details: As fictionalized celebrity sagas go, it’s not a bad one.
Affleck: Yeah, it’s like saying you’re good at something! Usually they say, like, “He’s homeless!” He’s good at blackjack! Well, I’ll take that.
Details: It implies you’ve mastered something.
Affleck: Yeah. My hair was fucked up, though.
Details: Parts of Gone Girl were shot in Missouri, and the Batman film is being shot in Detroit. Sounds as though you’re exploring America’s heartland.
Affleck: I don’t think I was naïve, but I remember driving through Missouri and Illinois and Michigan and looking out at very ordinary folks of various weights and ages and genders looking like they’re going to church or going to Walmart or whatever and just thinking, All these people just have sex toys at home and weird fetishes. And they’re all just burying the same shit just like everybody in L.A. The façade of ordinariness is just that: a façade. Underneath, they’re doing, like, amateur porn.
Details: So that’s what you were thinking?
Affleck: That is what I thought in Middle America. Now, if you run that, I’ll never be able to go back.
Details: It’s interesting, because Gone Girl is about marriage, but it’s also about the difference between what’s real and what we perceive. And up until the very last note, the media narrative is pretty much always completely wrong.
Affleck: There’s a sort of unapologetic shift from one story to the next. To use Brad Pitt as an example, never once have they run a cover story that says, “Oops! Sorry! Brad and Angie? Still together. Last week was a complete fabrication!” There’s no looking backward. It doesn’t serve anybody.
Details: So I take it when you read Gone Girl, you could relate?
Affleck: I could definitely relate to the way—the need of media outlets to tell brief, digestible, readily identifiable stories that include two-dimensional archetype characters—
Fincher: And which always lead to righteous indignation.
Affleck: And that you kind of get cast in a soap opera that you have no desire to be in.
Fincher: You’re cast in a soap opera with no knowledge of what the pages are. But there’s almost this understanding that “hey, hey, it’s just entertainment.”
Affleck: Yeah. “What are you so mad about? It’s all bullshit.”
Details: Then there are other narratives that just keep churning. One is “the Ben Comeback,” which, by my reckoning, has been going on for the better part of a decade.
Affleck: Yeah, people like to apply easy, simple arcs. You know, three-act structures. We’re comfortable with that kind of storytelling. And so there are parts of my life that fit into that and parts that don’t. And the parts that don’t are discarded because they’re inconvenient. I’m a little tired of talking about that. Everybody does things that work and don’t, and I can’t take responsibility for how things play out in pop culture. You can’t control it.
Details: Seven. Zodiac. Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The Game. Fight Club. The word darkness is just going to come up if we discuss the David Fincher body of work. And Gone Girl is arguably one of the darkest. Why are you drawn to this?
Fincher: I don’t know. It’s the shit that you’re interested in. When I was home sick as a kid, and it was a question of watching Rear Window or some William Wyler movie, it was like you want to see the one where there’s more—
Affleck: [laughs] More killing! More death. Yeah. Sure.
Fincher: I like the lurid. And by the way, how many motherfuckers are out there doing the hero’s journey? It’s 8 out of 10 movies. I’m just not interested in that stuff. There’s plenty of people to fill that role. But I don’t say, “Fuck, let me try and find something where people just really hate each other.” I don’t want to be the Prince of Darkness. But, but—
Details: But Satan came to me and said, “You are.”
Fincher: People keep whispering to me. I’m trying to sleep, and the voices keep telling me…
Details: But this gets to that word you hear so often in media circles: likable. Your film The Social Network was not about being likable.
Fincher: Likable is …
Affleck: … not real.
Fincher: Likable is not important.
Affleck: It’s funny because Seven is, I think, one of the best movies ever. It’s, like, the perfect movie. I’m only really saying this to get another job with David. People love it, but I think it would have even a higher place in the pantheon if—people think it’s a genre movie, a serial-killer movie, so we put that over here. But the elegance and the perfection—the Swiss-watch nature of the way that movie works, in all dimensions: script, performance, story, photography, tone, mood. I watch that before all the movies I direct, over and over, thinking, How did he get that shot? Why’d he do that?
Details: How are you different as directors?
Fincher: He wraps a lot earlier than I do.
Affleck: I just go home by lunch. I gauge a day by how early I go home. No, I mean, I don’t put myself really on a par with David in terms of “I’m this, he’s that.”
Details: What was your takeaway from watching David work?
Affleck: The biggest thing I learned from David, really, is that he has a kind of insistence on “This is what I want to do, this is how we’re going to do it.” Because this business has a lot of people saying no—like, “This is going to be too hard” or “This is too expensive” or “No one’s going to want to see that” or “We can’t have it this way.” And I have tended, to my embarrassment, in the past to go, “Oh, you think? Really? We can’t do that? I guess we can’t do that.” And David can push through by force of will what he wants. And I know that the next movie I do, it’s going to be colored much more by “Well, this is what I want to do, so we’re going to find a way to do it.”
Details: You’ll be an asshole the next time.
Affleck: Yeah, I’ll be more of a prick. “He was a nice guy till he worked with Fincher.”
Fincher: For the most part, people are either embarrassed or feel it’s not their place or their right to impose their sense of how it should be on other people. I’ve never had that issue.
Details: You seem to have had a vision and a professional strategy from the very start.
Fincher: I have no plan. I just have interests. Look, I had three movies fall apart in the last two years! And by the way, I don’t ever feel like, “Fuck them!” I always feel like if they don’t come together, they don’t come together for a reason. You can’t force a good seduction. You just can’t. It either works or it doesn’t. And you do not want to be in a two-year relationship with a movie studio that—
Affleck: That you don’t love.
Fincher: That you don’t want to fuck. You can’t make movies in spite of the people who are paying for them or in spite of the people who are there to put asses in the seats.
Details: Obviously, this looks like a film that will generate controversy.
Affleck: That’s going to happen with this movie, I think. I feel like this is one where couples are going to be, “Do you think that was okay?” And the husband’s got to decide, “Do I be honest, or do I live a comfortable life?”
Fincher: At the point in time they were going to give me the money to make it, I tried to warn everybody what was going to happen. But instead …
Affleck: Here we are.
Fincher: I took the 50 mil.
Affleck: Made a movie about married people who hate each other. [laughs] “Welcome! Come on down! It’s kind of like Hoosiers!”
Fincher: It’s about hope.
Affleck: You hope he didn’t murder his wife. And then you hope he did.
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