Life is a fish bowl

Life is a fish bowl

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ACTOR, director, screenwriter and two-time Oscar winner Ben Affleck was preparing for his next directorial project when the opportunity to work with David Fincher on a film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s global bestseller Gone Girl arose. Admitting it was “a dream come true”, Affleck postponed his production to take the role of Nick Dunne, a former journalist who becomes the prime suspect when his wife Amy (played by Rosamund Pike) goes missing.

Gone Girl the novel has already topped bestseller lists around the world, becoming a publishing phenomenon. The book, which explores marriage and the media against the backdrop of a troubled economy, was written by former Entertainment Weekly writer Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay for the film.

Affleck is currently in Detroit filming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but he took time out of his busy schedule to discuss working on Gone Girl and having to live life in a fish bowl.

When did you first become aware of Gone Girl?

The book was a hot property in Hollywood. Everyone was reading it.  As you know, Hollywood is the kind of place where there’s one thing and everyone is talking about it, until there’s the next thing. And this was that. When I heard about it, I read it and really liked it. I thought, “God, this would be hard to make into a movie.” Then I put it down and I didn’t think about it really until I got a call, saying, “David Fincher wants to meet you about Gone Girl.” I was actually going to direct another movie, but the chance to work with David Fincher was a dream come true. So I put off my other movie I was directing and Warner Bros. was very accommodating. I got the chance to do this, which was an amazing thing for somebody to walk in and hand you a dream on a platter. It was a thrill.

What were your first thoughts both on the character of Nick and the story in general?

I knew that it was going to be a deceptively hard part to play because of the way that audiences’ perspective on the character had to be delicately calibrated, the idea being that you can change what you think about this guy as the story goes along. Neither David nor I wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t realistic, or wasn’t dramatic. So we had to fine-tune little things. Those are the things that, in some ways, are hardest to do because they’ve got to all be kind of convincing—“Oh, maybe he did it…,” “Maybe he didn’t do it…—that sort of thing. And if you don’t have that question in the audience’s mind, the movie isn’t going to work, as well.

 What specifically did you and David discuss?

For example, he said, “Look, there can’t be any vanity in this performance. This is a guy who gets kicked around and who we see the pale underbelly of.” I like that idea. I’ve recently become turned off by the vanity I can see in movies because it just doesn’t feel realistic. So, I said, “Okay, I’ll go for it. Let’s do it.” Maybe with another director I wouldn’t, but with David, I would have done the phone book. And so we set off trying to make a character that felt real, that you could identify with in terms of his marriage and his relationship…and who you could also then believe maybe killed his wife.

So was one of the challenges playing someone who knows he’s being watched? It’s like you playing a person playing a role.

Yes, I think what’s really important to this is the theme of role-playing. It was really powerful and resonant to me in this movie. The way that the media casts you in certain roles: “Okay, you’re gonna be the adoring husband” or “You’re gonna be the murdering husband” or “You’re gonna be the scandalous backstabber” or whatever it is, we turn people into easily digestible archetypes within the media. And, of course, there’s also the role-playing that goes on in relationships. You know, you expect something from someone, they expect something from you in a spousal relationship—the dutiful wife, the obedient husband—and anytime you behave in ways that don’t sync up to those expectations, it causes problems. And, when Nick doesn’t behave the way that a grieving husband is supposed to behave, it really inflames people who are watching through the media.  I thought that was really interesting.

You’re someone who has experience of media scrutiny.

Yes, I’ve definitely experienced that in my own life, both in terms of being characterized in ways that were totally unrecognizable to me and also during periods in my life where I decided, “I don’t care what’s going to happen, I’m just going to be who I really am and let the chips fall where they may.” Seeing the negative response I got from that was so powerful and I thought to myself, “Why do you care about this so much? Why is this engendering so much hostility?”

 There are also quite a lot of media outlets, particularly online, where perhaps traffic is more important than truth.

Certain media outlets seem to have no care at all for the truth, but their material is then picked up uncritically by more “responsible” media outlets and then, because of the Internet age, it’s just easier to cut and paste and “hurry up and get it up” than it is to stop and sit down and say, “Wait a minute, this doesn’t sound right. Let’s do research. Let’s give this a more thoughtful look….”

If you look at the comments sections on many of those stories, it sometimes seems like the Internet is just populated by a lot of angry people.

It is crazy. Recently I was looking up something on my iPhone. I was on a Google page or a You Tube page and these guys got into a full-on war about Android versus iPhone. And it just degenerated into ‘F%@k you, I’ll stab you in the heart, you c#$ksucker!’  I mean, how much can a person hate a phone?

Has the world just got angrier? And is that something Gone Girl explores?

I think part of it is self-selecting because the people who tend to be angriest tend to be likeliest to write the comments. You perceive it as a general sample of the population, but is really isn’t. I mean, I don’t know anyone who writes in the comments or talkbacks on the Internet. You know what I mean? It seems to be people who are filled with a lot of self-rage and then they vent that at whatever it is they read.

Because there’s almost no story on the Internet that merits the real hatred and rancor that you see in the talkback section. Not only that, but the stories that arguably could merit that kind of reaction—like the resurgence of the Janjaweed in Darfur, or the situation in Iraq today—those will generate maybe six comments. That’s what generates apathy for something.

Besides modern media, do you think the film reflects on modern marriage?

Ultimately, at its root, the book is about marriage. So the movie is also about marriage, although it’s David’s take on it. It’s skewed again slightly. And Gillian’s take is somewhat perverse. So you have this perversion on top of a perversion! But ultimately I think the movie is about the way that in relationships, we kind of wear masks initially—to make the other person attracted to us, to be more appealing to them, to change ourselves to fit in to what their expectations are, to play that role.

And then there comes a time often with marriage when the masks come off, you close the door and you sort of find out who you really are and who they really are. Often there are surprises in that process.  I think that process is the one central thing that unites all the other themes in the book and in the movie.

Do you think the film’s take on these themes will prove controversial?

Well, David is…he’s either a contrarian, or he’s a flat-out subversive person, but his take on these issues is quite strong and quite interesting, and, yes, quite provocative, frankly. I haven’t done a movie in 20 years, where I think could create that kind of conversation between men and women that this film can. I think when people walk out of this one, they can really hold different views and feel strongly about their point of view because I think it touches quite acutely on the ways men and women view these things differently.

In that way, is it similar—in terms of the potential reaction it might provoke—to films like fatal attraction, or even indecent proposal, where audiences come out divided in their sympathies.

Yes. I think that’s a really astute observation because I think this film does what other kinds of cultural touchstone gender role films have done, which is take issues that are common to all men and women in relationships, or to many of them, and draw them on a larger scale for the sake of illustration and discussion. At their root, they really ask basic provocative questions. I think this is one of those films. I hope it’s as successful as those movies. But it definitely has those qualities, like Fatal Attraction, War of the Roses, Indecent Proposal… movies where there’s no easy answer, and that look at relationships in an uncomfortable way.

Directed by David Fincher and distributed in the Philippines by 20th Century Fox, Gone Girl is now showing in theaters everywhere.