In the last shot of Ben Affleck's "Argo" — relax, there are no spoilers here — the camera pans slowly along the shelves of toys in a young boy's bedroom. The year is 1980; the film spends most of its time on the true story of how a CIA operative named Tony Mendez (Affleck) used the faux production of a low-budget sci-fi picture as the cover to sneak a handful of American embassy workers out of an Iran in the midst of post-revolutionary upheaval.
But this bedroom sequence, no less important. When it arrives, notice the loving linger given every "Star Wars" and "Battlestar Galactica" action figure and half-remembered 1970s tchotchke.
Notice that the film is about the beauty of a well-told story, and how in the hands of a rich imagination, ephemera are raw tools. But also notice that Affleck — who just turned 40, has three kids, a wife (actress Jennifer Garner) and one of the most unlikely great-directing careers going — is putting away childhood things.
When we met for lunch recently in River North, it was hard not to notice the white streaks in his hair. Or that, as with many directors, he seems to have grown into a living embodiment of the movies he directs — serious and thoughtful, a little stony, but affable, entertaining and unpretentious, with a keen self-awareness.
Longtime students of history may struggle to place the little-known footnote at the heart of "Argo," but even the casual students of US Weekly will vouch: A decade ago, no one imagined we would find ourselves here. A decade ago Affleck was the star of "Pearl Harbor," a member of the ubiquitous Bennifer. Despite sharing an Academy Award for writing "Good Will Hunting" with his New England buddy Matt Damon, Affleck himself had become ephemeral. And then he directed "Gone Baby Gone" in 2007, a tiny, taut genre exercise in moral ambiguity and genuine dread. The film also was made with surprising confidence, which seemed less surprising when he followed it in 2010 with a terrific crime film, "The Town."
As a filmmaker, you could argue he has yet to falter but only gotten smarter and more ambitious with each new picture. Indeed, "Argo" (almost certainly an Oscar contender), probably will put to rest whatever backhanded compliments of surprise that his promise as a director still generates.
The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.
Q: Can you see your own progression as a director, or are you too close?
A: No, I see it. I've consciously taken on material that's a bit too much for me but not an overreach. The first movie, just about performances. "The Town," I learned how to work broader material, develop tension, direct bigger scenes, action sequences. "Argo," I experimented with film stock, widened the scope of my geography. It's a period movie, which is also a stretch but not outside my understanding. I would do a special-effects movie, maybe. I have nothing against that kind of thing. What Ridley Scott did with "Alien" and "Blade Runner" — I would love to try something like that, if it had the tone of what I'm making now.
Q: If you had started directing before you became tabloid fodder, while your acting career was going well, do you think the films you directed would have been different? Bigger? Less serious?
A: I don't know. That's a hard question. I was too young, probably. I hadn't been through enough pain. The movies might have been OK, but they would have played skin-deep. I didn't understand things then. I wouldn't have had enough to prove. But when I felt like I had something to prove? Then I got up early every morning and worked all day long. I didn't know if I had any more talent than anyone else directing, but I knew I could work hard at it, and so I did. I simply put in the time. I didn't do anything for two years but work on "Gone Baby Gone," and it was miserable and hard, but at the end? It is a good movie. I liked it very much. If it had been dismissed and deemed worthless, it would been definitely devastating. But that didn't happen.
Q: No, but you also started modestly ambitious — you didn't go for a bombastic, epic statement (in "Gone Baby Gone'). Which is, I think, somewhat the kind of film that people expect from an A-list actor-turned-director.
A: Right, and so the idea was to make something gritty, about the darkest parts of ourselves but also about recognizing your failings and paying the price for the things you've done. Not an easy sell. At the time I had gotten burned out on acting and was making (expletive), expensive, glossy (expletive). After 2000 or so, I started to realize I wanted to be doing something else. I didn't want to be in front of a camera. I was frustrated. I didn't think I would stop acting, but I didn't want to be seen. You have to understand — the intensity of being everywhere, on the cover of every magazine, it's corrosive to your career, to who you are. You're a rat in a maze. But also, my taste was going up against the taste of the directors I was working with. I would suggest doing something a different way, and to them I would become "that actor being difficult." The chance to direct was partly about that, about wanting to know if I knew what I was talking about.
Q: You weren't in "Gone Baby Gone," your name wasn't mentioned in the trailers or posters.
A: Absolutely, because otherwise it would never have been a movie I directed, just a movie I acted in and kind of directed. Not that it entirely matters: There is a perception that all actors make their movies. A lot of people assume you're responsible. George Clooney told me actors get all of the blame and all the credit.
Q: Still, even in "Argo," three films on, you're in the lead but quiet, arguably not even the focus. You probably could have given yourself one of those big moments where you explode and go —
A: "I want answers!"
A: Two reasons: Tony Mendez is taciturn. He does what a spy does. He fades into woodwork. But also that speaks to me wanting to make serious movies and not make myself heroic just because I made the movie.
Q: Were you ever sick of seeing yourself during the tabloid days?
A: Sick of seeing myself in the context I was seeing myself in, yes.
Q: Starting out as a director, I assume you spoke with other actors who turned to directing?
A: As many as I could. I wasn't thinking the Warren Beatty or Kevin Costner model, but the new guy angle — how do you do this when nobody wants to listen to you? Which is a helpful place to be. ... Warren Beatty called and said how much he liked "Gone Baby Gone." It was the happiest day of my life. I got goofy. I said, "Wow, and I love 'Reds'!" We're on the same wavelength, Warren! "Bonnie and Clyde"? Pretty good, Warren!
Q: Did you just ask these directors about their movies that worked or about their failures too?
A: Well, everybody fails. It's more instructive, I think, to talk about successes, because the people behind them rarely feel the movie would work: They had to change something last minute or some disaster fell on them. Yet it worked. I talked with Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Jack Goes Boating"). Clint Eastwood a bit. Being able to talk to directors you admire for even 15 minutes is invaluable. I did talk to Costner. He gave me a tip. He said make sure every day you know what the second shot will be. Everybody knows their first shot, but once you get that, then what? If you have a second shot in mind, then people think you know what you're doing.
Q: Did you have directing in your mind when you started acting?
A: I started as a child, in this PBS series "Voyage of the Mimi," which led to driving down to New York for "Afterschool Special" auditions, which led to moving to Los Angeles. I wanted to be an actor. But in LA, I got into film technology, and I was building cheap editing systems and would edit my friend's acting reels.
Q: You built them?
A: It's not that hard. But I was pretty good with computers then. If I took apart a motherboard now it would be a disaster, but even then, when I started cutting (on computers), the hard drives were incredibly slow by contemporary standards and would drop frames. Matt (Damon) and I tried re-cutting movies. We re-cut "Glory." Like an early version of a mashup. To answer the question, though: I didn't always want to direct. I just liked the idea of it. If a friend was making a short and needed someone who knew screen direction, I would jump in. It would be horrible, but it led to a short, then another, and another. It was like student films.
Q: What were they about?
A: One was about feminism and the indulgence in Hollywood and license given. (Laughs.) It was called "I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney."
Q: So you never had a movie epiphany as a kid?
A: I think I didn't really appreciate movies until "Back to the Future." I remember coming back and saying it was the greatest thing I had ever seen and gave my friends some analysis and explained it to them. (Laughs.) It gave me a vague sense of possibilities. By high school, the movies of the '70s were big for me. Now I collect DVDs. I can write them off as a business expense! I'm working my way through "1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die." But also, movie histories have become comforting, to know that people went through the same things you're going through is very helpful.
Q: What did you watch before making "Argo"?
A: Rodrigo (Prieto, the cinematographer) was really into the vampire movie "Let Me In," which does some interesting things with focus, and I watched "Killing of a Chinese Bookie," one of my favorite seedy LA movies. The long lenses, the saturated look. For Iranian scenes, we watched "Battle of Algiers." I looked hard at "All the President's Men" — I wanted the CIA in "Argo" to be workaday, cigarettes, stacked files.
Q: Did you watch any Iranian films?
A: It's hard finding Iran films from the period (of the film), but yes. Mostly for the look. "Circumstance," about these lesbian girls. "A Separation," of course, is amazing, and on a different level really. You know, though, for better or for worse, I think it's the '70s thing that's becoming my aesthetic. I like a wide frame, having people walk in and out of the shot. And my movies are also mostly about the acting and the writing.
Q: This is not a backhanded compliment, but your movies are also not overtly stylish. They're direct, economical and confident — confident enough to be straightforward, which is rare.
A: Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula — what you're describing is me being influenced by them. There are people who came up making videos or commercials who have talents and can do things that I never will be able to handle, and that's OK. I prefer to whittle the leg of a table until it can stand. My grandfather, who was in World War II and a boxer and a lawyer, once said to me the biggest crime is using a 25-cent word when a 10-cent word will do. When I use 25-cent words, I hear his voice. I think that if you can't say something plainly then sometimes it's probably not true. Intelligence is often about distilling ideas, not revealing how complicated they are. I think I'm developing a reflective sense of whether or not I'm bull------- an audience.
Q: The truth is, and this is also not a backhanded compliment, but I'm not sure anyone would feel like they were missing anything if you stopped acting altogether and decided to stay behind the camera all the time.
A: You mean, if I just committed to directing. I like acting. People have a short memory, and I was worried that if I stayed away from acting I wouldn't be thought of anymore. But directing is the priority, and it gives me a choice. I have a family and movies I want to direct and I don't have time to idly take on acting jobs anymore that have a low probability of turning out well. I've come to see the last 10 years as the rich years, the productive years. I am in a zone now. I feel that, and basically, this is where I'm going to make a stand.