Ben Affleck‘s “Live by Night” is an unapologetic throwback to the era of Cagney and Bogart. It was a time when the big screen was full of fedora wearing criminals, who lived the high life before their cinematic crime sprees ended in a hail of Tommy Gun fire.
“This is a love letter to the great Warner’s gangster films of the ’30’s or ’40’s,” Affleck told Variety at a tastemakers screening at New York’s Metrograph Theater on Tuesday night. “Whether it’s ‘White Heat’ or ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ or ‘Public Enemy.’ Even going to the great gangster films of the ’60’s or ’70’s — ‘Godfather’ and ‘Chinatown.’ There’s this tradition of gangster genre movies that’s really rich and fun to mine. This is a homage to those films.”
“Live by Night” follows Joe Coughlin, a World War I veteran who becomes the top rum runner in Florida during Prohibition, as he tries to navigate the world of organized crime. Affleck stars in the film, as well as wrote, directed, and produced the picture. That required a lot of juggling.
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“I’m always tempted to not act,” Affleck confessed. “Every day when I come to the set, I think it would be nicer if I could just direct this. But it was a really great part.”
He noted that his acting and directing careers have fed into each other. “Argo,” his previous effort, won the Oscar for best picture and provided Affleck with a meaty role as a government agent trying to sneak embassy workers out of Iran during the height of its revolution. His next film, “The Batman,” finds him donning the cape and cowl again. He will also slide behind the camera. Affleck indicated that he expected the film will begin shooting in the spring.
“We’re on the right track with that and everything is coming together,” he said. “We’re still finishing up a script. I’m very excited.”
There’s been a string of films featuring the Gotham avenger — some good (“The Dark Knight”), others not so much (“Batman and Robin”). But Affleck had nothing but praise for the directors and actors who have put their own imprint on Batman.
“I respect all of those [Batman] movies,” he said. “Christopher Nolan did an incredible job, Christian Bale did an incredible job, Tim Burton did an incredible job. At a certain point you have to look forward and try to believe in your own vision for it and not be looking over your shoulder the whole time. I go into that movie with a tremendous amount of respect for the people who came before me.”
The “Live by Night” crew was out at force at Tuesday’s screening, along with a phalanx Manhattan media types like gossip maven Cindy Adams, CNN’s Brooke Baldwin, and political reporter John Heilemann. Elle Fanning, who plays a religious leader and anti-gambling preacher in the film, was also on hand. She praised Affleck and the production team for their work in capturing the historical backdrop.
“Everything was authentic from the period,” said Fanning. “The clothes, the smells, you were very transported back. The clothes were so delicate. They were beautiful. They were works of art, but you had to be careful not to tear them. You couldn’t spill or rip anything.”
Chris Cooper, who plays Fanning’s father, a stern police chief, marveled at Affleck’s ability to balance so many different responsibilities.
“I just hope I’ve made his job easier,” he said.
Jennifer Todd, Affleck’s producing partner, took a break from preparing for the upcoming Oscar telecast to attend the screening. She is producing the broadcast with Michael De Luca, and said the team had begun editing clips and writing the script. Todd’s been looking at old shows for inspiration, citing the 2009 show with Hugh Jackman as host and the 2007 broadcast with Ellen DeGeneres running herd, as particular favorites.
“I love the ones that are reverential or have a nostalgia to them,” she said. “To me they’re the grande dame awards, so I like it when they’re treated as such.”
Todd also heaped praise on Jimmy Kimmel, the late night host who was named Oscars emcee last week.
“He’s so universal in his comedy,” said Todd. “He’s really appealing to older and younger generations. That’s the thing about the Oscars, you watch them with friends and family. I think he’s got a real broad reach and Matt [Damon] and Ben love him too.”
Chris Messina, who plays Affleck’s partner in crime in the film and is Todd’s husband off-screen, said “Live by Night” delivers on the formula for a perfect gangster film.
“It’s got to be fun,” said Messina. “There’s got to be car chases and shootouts. A nice love story is always good. It’s got to have people who are struggling with who they want to be and how they want to live their life.”