Live By Night: Interview with Ben Affleck

Oscar winner Ben Affleck (“Argo”) wrote, directed, produced and stars in the crime thriller Live by Night.

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Affleck also wrote the screenplay, based on the award-winning bestseller by Dennis Lehane.  It marks the second collaboration for the Boston natives, following the acclaimed drama “Gone Baby Gone.”

“What you put out in the world will always come back to you, but never how you predict.”  Taking fatherly advice is not in Joe Coughlin’s nature.  Instead, the WWI vet is a self-proclaimed anti-establishment outlaw, despite being the son of the Boston Police Deputy Superintendent.

Joe’s not all bad, though; in fact, he’s not really bad enough for the life he’s chosen.  Unlike the gangsters he refuses to work for, he has a sense of justice and an open heart, and both work against him, leaving him vulnerable—in business and in love.

Driven by a need to right the wrongs committed against him and those close to him, Joe heads down a risky path that goes against his upbringing and his own moral code.  Leaving the cold, Boston winter behind, he and his reckless crew turn up the heat in Tampa.  Revenge may taste sweeter than the molasses that infuses every drop of illegal rum he runs, Joe will learn that it comes at a price.

The son of a high-ranking Boston cop, Joe Coughlin went overseas to fight valiantly for his country, but quickly found himself utterly disillusioned by the war.  He ultimately finds himself back home in, as he tells us, a life he didn’t expect…paying the price for the American dream.

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“Joe fully acknowledges that he’s chosen to be an outlaw in a town run by gangsters, with the Irish and Italian mobs at war,” offers writer-director-producer Ben Affleck, who also plays Joe.  “What I find most intriguing about him though is that, while he breaks the law and makes his own rules, it’s his own morality that prevents him from considering himself one of them, a gangster.” But it’s Joe’s inherent sense of decency that could be his undoing.

Live by Night was a true passion project for Affleck, who says, “As a filmmaker, this was a chance to pay homage to the classic Warner gangster movies of the 1930s through the 1970s.  I grew up watching them and they had an epic, sprawling feel that really took you into a different world, a different era.”

Affleck adapted the screenplay from author Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name; the two first collaborated when Affleck made his acclaimed directorial debut with his screen adaptation of Lehane’s crime thriller Gone, Baby, Gone.  Lehane served as an executive producer on “Live by Night.” “Creatively speaking, Ben and I are a unique fit—and it’s not just the Boston thing, though the Boston thing is big,” Lehane smiles.

“There’s something special about Ben’s aesthetic.  His first time in the director’s chair was with ‘Gone Baby Gone,’ and he did such a beautiful job, I love that film.  So when I heard he was going to adapt Live by Night, I was happy to be working with him again.  And watching this book transmogrify in Ben’s hands, from the screenplay on, was a special thing.”

A lifelong film buff, Affleck posits that the story has all the tropes that made him a fan of the gangster genre in particular: beautiful women, dangerous men, cops, the mob, shootouts, car chases…the whole fiery, combustible mix.  “As soon as I read Dennis’s book I knew that there was something there for anyone who just really likes to have a great time at the movies.”

Leonardo DiCaprio’s production banner, Appian Way, held the rights to the book, which Affleck read at the suggestion of DiCaprio’s producing partner, Jennifer Davisson.  “Our company is constantly looking for stories about great men—which doesn’t necessarily mean good men, just that they have greatness in them in one way or another—and what they sacrifice for that,” she explains.  “One of the things Dennis does so well is dissect the male ego in a really complex and interesting way, and that’s something I think Ben does equally well.  We had the property, but when Ben was reading the book, it was clear how much he liked it and that it was right for him.  When we read Ben’s beautiful script, the same Lehane sensibility jumped off the page.”

Producer Jennifer Todd agrees.  “Ben is attracted to Dennis’s stories, and this one in particular really excited him: the time period, the characters, going from Boston to Florida.  It all felt like nothing else we had looked at.  Add to that the central character Joe, who is not quite a bad guy and not quite a good guy but caught somewhere in between the two, so he makes his choices, but he feels the consequences.  Where does he really belong?” Joe leaves Boston after a short prison stint for the warmer environs, and even hotter underground rum trade, of Tampa.

In addition to working in and around the greater Los Angeles area, the production shot extensively in various sections of Boston, especially Lawrence, and recreated the exotic Florida locales in various parts of Georgia, which better represented the Tampa from that era.  In collaboration with Affleck, designers Jess Gonchor and Jacqueline West and their teams recreated the time and place, with Robert Richardson capturing it all and William Goldenberg cutting.

Affleck notes, “Diving into this world, this era, with Bob and Bill and Jess and Jackie all encapsulating it so deftly, and all these great actors populating it and turning in tremendous performances, made this one of the most enjoyable films I’ve been involved in.  Everyone came in and did such a great job that it felt like we were there, in that life, going through that experience.”

For the ten years following the war, Joe Coughlin managed to live like an outlaw—under his policeman father’s roof, no less—before it all caught up to him.  “The things that Joe witnessed as a soldier made him decide there wasn’t any meaning to the rules we follow in life, to playing it straight,” Affleck states.  “He even sees the organized hierarchical nature of the gangster life as an equal anathema to the hierarchy of the military.  He wants no part of that, no part of taking orders from anybody.  He’s going to make his own rules.”

He does so with a fair amount of success, so long as he keeps it, as Affleck describes, “small-time, running around with just two other guys and doing little stick-ups, that kind of thing.” But it isn’t Joe’s distaste for authority, or even an ill-chosen robbery, that causes him to make his gravest error.  It’s love.  And it’s that singular emotion in its many forms—from passion to compassion—that will continue to be his downfall for years to come.

 

 

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