When Ben Affleck took the recommendation of several friends and read Dennis Lehane’s novel “Gone Baby Gone,” he immediately started thinking about adapting it into a film. He just didn’t know he’d end up directing it, too.
Originally, Affleck says he was so taken by the book - about a pair of detectives investigating the kidnapping of a 4-year-old girl in working-class South Boston, the actor’s home turf - that he optioned the film rights and set out to turn it into a script alongside collaborator Aaron Stockard.
Gone Baby Gone
Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Amy Ryan, Edi Gathegi
(Miramax; US theatrical: 19 Oct 2007 (General release); 2007)
Writing scripts is something Affleck knows a thing or two about, having won an Oscar with his best friend Matt Damon in 1998 for penning “Good Will Hunting” as a vehicle for themselves to star in. And “Gone Baby Gone,” with its central protagonist of a street-smart P.I. who uncovers a crime much more complex than it initially appears, would have given Affleck a juicy part.
It would have also fit in nicely with his newfound career track. After earning several huge paydays for big-budget fare such as “Pearl Harbor” and “The Sum of All Fears,” Affleck had made a switch, opting for smaller, more intimate projects such as “Jersey Girl” and “Hollywoodland” that, no matter their box office fate, satisfied him creatively.
But in the process of writing “Gone Baby Gone,” Affleck, who recently turned 35 and has an almost-2-year-old daughter Violet with wife Jennifer Garner, realized that no matter how good the part of Kenzie was, what he really wanted to do was direct.
“I don’t know that I can point to the exact moment when I made that decision,” says the unfailingly polite Affleck via telephone from Los Angeles (after apologizing for being late due to baby-sitting complications). “But in the year or two that I spent developing this as something to act in, the idea of directing became more and more appealing to me. Writing this script was difficult, because it has a very hard structure. When I realized I hadn’t mucked it up and felt really good about what we had done, I also realized I really was ready to direct something.”
Unlike many actors-turned-directors who cast themselves in order to secure financing, Affleck had the liberty of making his filmmaking debut without having to act.
“I didn’t want to act in it, because I want to keep directing movies for a long time and you have to set your best foot forward when you make your first one,” he says. “I would have hamstrung myself if I had acted in it because it would have taken twice as much work and would have divided my head. My hat’s off to the guys who can do it so well.”
Luckily, Affleck found an avid supporter in Daniel Battsek, the new president of Miramax Films. “Daniel read my script and said if I could make it for a certain number (a reported $19 million) I could direct it and it didn’t have to have any stars in it. That was a real blessing.”
Affleck still rounded up the likes of Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman and Amy Madigan to play key supporting roles. But for the lead role of Patrick Kenzie, the casting didn’t fall into place until Affleck finished tinkering with the script and made a dramatic change from the book.
“As I was moving forward into production, I was still doing rewrites, because I wasn’t fully satisfied with the way the story circled back on itself,” Affleck says. “One of the problems I was having is that this was the fourth book in a series, and these characters are in their late 30s and already well on their way. But in the movie they’re actually starting out on their journey.”
So Affleck decided to transplant the younger version of Patrick, first seen in the pages of Lehane’s “A Drink Before the War,” into the plot of “Gone Baby Gone.” “If something really bad happens to you when you’re 40, it can definitely scar you, but it doesn’t change the road of your life or the path that you’ve taken the way it might when you’re 30. In your 30s, you’re still defining where the road is going to lead you.”
The change in age brought an unexpected benefit. Although Affleck says he had been having trouble figuring out who to cast as Patrick in the original script, the new younger version of the character immediately brought an actor to mind: his brother Casey.
“He was the only guy of the right age who could play the part, who understood the neighborhood, who I had a good relationship with and who would return my phone call,” Affleck says, laughing. “I knew how good Casey was. I knew he would be amazing in this movie. The only downside in casting him was that it might diminish the perception of what we were doing - that it might sound like we were making a home movie in our old neighborhood. But I was so confident in him that that stuff didn’t really matter. Part of why I’m so proud of this movie is how good he is in it. “
The early reaction to “Gone Baby Gone” has been so positive (with more than one critic comparing it positively to “Mystic River,” another Lehane adaptation) that distributor Miramax decided to give it a national release instead of an incremental, city-by-city opening.
And despite the spin that “Gone Baby Gone” has already gotten in some publications as Affleck’s Last Chance - if the movie bombs, some pundits say, his career may be over - he says he is immensely happy with the film, no matter how it ultimately fares.
“Most of what gets written about my career is often hysterical or glib or flip or mostly people just trying to be funny. But I have my own perspective on that, so I don’t take that stuff too seriously. The ways that I succeeded and failed with `Gone Baby Gone’ are defined for me already. You have to have your own criteria and be willing to accept it before someone else gives you a review or before you see how much money something makes.”
And Affleck points to the audience reaction at early screenings as proof that he acquitted himself just fine as a rookie director.
“It’s a morally complicated dilemma that Lehane sets up in this story, and the ending is the crux of the movie. It’s a vital thing, the conflict between our intellect and our emotions - what you think is right and what you feel is wrong. People have come up to me at screenings after the movie and said `Well, what do you think’ and of course what I’m supposed to do is validate them and say `Well, of course, you’re right!’ But the whole point of this movie - the entire exercise in this piece of writing - is that you get to the end and you don’t know. The movie doesn’t tell you whether or not a certain character did the right thing. So I feel pretty good about that.”