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As Ben Affleck Rolls Out ‘Live by Night,’ Crafts Take Center Stage

Following guild screenings earlier this week, Ben Affleck’s “Live by Night” unspooled for press in Los Angeles Wednesday night. The writer/director/producer/star was on hand to discuss the Prohibition-set Dennis Lehane adaptation with stars Chris Messina and Sienna Miller, as well as Oscar-winning film editor William Goldenberg (“Argo,” “The Imitation Game”).

Affleck said, both before the event and during a post-screening Q&A, that the idea for him was blending a throwback vibe with modern energy. And that’s fitting: In Lehane’s novel, Affleck has found a gangster yarn akin to the ’30s and ’40s genre pictures that inspired him, but one with a fresh face. It moves from the Depression-hit Boston metropolis to the melting pot of Tampa, Florida (filmed largely in Georgia), giving Affleck’s below-the-line team a rich opportunity.

“This is the first movie I’ve made that was really constructed on purpose,” Affleck said. “I wanted it to feel classic, like it could have been made in the ’70s or even the ’40s, not doing too much cutting, not having very tight close-ups, allowing scenes to play and giving the actors space to play across the frame. But also we’re aware of contemporary audiences’ acclimation. The grammar of film is different now. So it was a challenge.”

The images in the film are “a little wider, a little more stately” than typical modern coverage, Goldenberg said. “Often I’m cutting because I’m trying to impose an energy or a style or a story, but there was so much richness in the images, it allowed me to cut in a more traditional way.”

The production design was a classic undertaking, too, as Jess Gonchor’s art department constructed a town just north of the Florida-Georgia border. Miller explained that the sets were fully practical, with period-correct items scattered in drawers and cabinets, which is helpful for actors. “That kind of generosity and attention to detail is the most informative, extraordinary thing,” she said.

And Messina, who packed on 40 lbs. to play the role of Affleck’s on-screen henchman, spoke about coming to costume designer Jacqueline West with Al Capone in mind for his character. But she turned him onto Capone’s own right-hand man, Frank Nitti, as inspiration.

It makes sense that Warner Bros. is leading the conversation on “Live by Night” with crafts, because all of those bits and pieces — as well as the sound design — are what could register in the upcoming awards race. But Warners has been very low key in positioning the film as an Oscar contender: In June, the studio shifted the film’s release date from October 2017 to January, yet held off on announcing a December 2016 limited platform for several months.

Lehane’s story is simplistic, but it provides a foundation on which Affleck can build something romantic. And that’s what he appears to have delighted in doing; he said before the screening that “Live by Night” is his favorite experience as a director so far.

“[It used to be] a big, crowd-pleasing, punchy, sexy movie was one with costumes and extras and production design that was going to show you a different world,” he said. “Now a blockbuster — you have to wear a cape … not that I have anything against capes.”

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