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‘Town’s’ unfussy authenticity

Drama takes story to streets of Charlestown

A slick, modern caper movie directed by and starring Ben Affleck, “The Town” might seem to be another in a long series of caper films with a kinetic, ingeniously filmed heist at its heart. True, the film climaxes with the protagonists waltzing into Fenway Park and helping themselves to millions. But according to cinematographer Robert Elswit, Affleck saw “The Town” as a tragic story involving three very well-drawn characters.

The title refers to Charlestown, the insular neighborhood north of Boston known as a breeding ground for notorious bank robbers. Affleck’s character falls for a bank manager (Rebecca Hall) who is the victim of one of his heists.

“It was extremely important to Ben that we film the story in the actual locations in Charlestown,” says Elswit, who won an Oscar for “There Will Be Blood.” “We set out to create images that were unfussy and unselfconscious, and to avoid noirish shadows that would make it feel moody and atmospheric. The homes, bars and banks where the story unfolds all had to look and feel like real spaces. Shooting in them was difficult sometimes, but that gives the film an authenticity that you can’t build or fake.”

Affleck and Elswit chose the Super 35 film format, which results in a widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The heists and shootouts tended to be shot handheld to ratchet up the tension. Dialog-driven scenes were usually lit simply and feature extensive close-ups.

One similarity to the classic caper film was an extensive car chase through the narrow streets of Charlestown, filmed by second unit director/cinematographer Alexander Witt.

“The car work is just remarkable, and it cuts really well with the first unit stuff with the main actors,” says Elswit. “I don’t think anyone has ever done car chases and gunfights like that in the streets of Charlestown, and it really helps build a real sense of the world these characters live in.”

More from Eye on the Oscars: The Cinematography
From pretty pictures to fatal beauty | Filming ‘Hours’ a challenge | Is it real or is it fx? | Sensuality floods frame | ‘Town’s’ unfussy authenticity | Read my lips | Gothic tone asserts itself

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