Ben Affleck was bingeing: on mobsters, on molls, on lousy loansharks, on bootleggers, enforcers, and thugs. On Cagney, Raft, Bogart, Muni, Harlow, Blondell.
"I had been watching a lot of the old '30s and '40s Warner movies one summer, and I was really getting into that style, that energy," recalled the actor, whose homage to the genre is the new swaggering Prohibition-era crime saga "Live by Night."
"And it was the same summer that I got sent this book" -- "this book" being the 2012 Dennis Lehane novel that Affleck's movie is based on. "So I was really getting into these pictures, and then all of a sudden I get this book that Dennis wrote that was just this spectacular love letter to classic Hollywood films, to the old gangster movies, and also to the days when 'Hollywood blockbuster' meant extras and sweep and scale."
So Affleck, who made his directorial debut in 2007 with the adaptation of another Lehane title, "Gone Baby Gone," set out to write a screenplay for "Live by Night." And then he set out to make it, casting himself as the central figure -- Joe Coughlin, a Boston police captain's son who returns from the bloodied battlefields of World War I to rise through the ranks of organized crime.
The action starts in New England and then veers southward to Florida's Gulf Coast, where Affleck's ambitious antihero runs booze and plots to build a casino. Of course, there are lawmen, judges, a charismatic evangelical, and dueling mobsters who get in his way.
The actor recruited Chris Cooper to play a Ybor City, Fla., lawman, Elle Fanning as the sheriff's troubled daughter, Brendan Gleeson as Coughlin's dad, Chris Messina as Coughlin's right-hand man, Sienna Miller as Coughlin's Boston lover, and Zoe Saldana as Coughlin's Floridian amour.
Affleck, who won a screenwriting Oscar (shared with buddy Matt Damon) in 1998 for "Good Will Hunting," and whose third effort as a director, "Argo," won the Academy Award for best picture in 2013, says his love of crime dramas isn't focused solely on between-the-wars shoot-'em-ups like "Angels with Dirty Faces," "The Public Enemy," and the original "Scarface."
"You can go all the way up through the '70s, the '80s, and beyond." he said. "Important gangster films have been made, obviously, at every turn ... . The 'Godfather' is the best of all time; there's 'Goodfellas,' and 'Chinatown' I consider in the same mold." (It's no coincidence, Affleck acknowledged, that the broad-lapeled white suit he wears in the second half of "Live by Night," when his Joe Coughlin is hobbing and nobbing with Cubans and Floridians, was referred to on the set as "the Chinatown suit" -- a nod to Jack Nicholson's getup in the 1974 classic.)
"There's something about the genre that makes it a very effective device for storytelling," Affleck, 44, said of the gangster canon. "It allows you to tell a story with a protagonist who is not altogether a good person ... . You have this interesting conundrum of how much do you identify with this character, how much do you push the audience away? What's forgivable? What isn't?
"Do we give them slack, or do we judge them? And those kinds of stories about moral gray areas are really interesting to me, especially when they are set in this era that has the power to sweep you away.