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Let the record show that one question asked of Ben Affleck at Sunday night’s The Tender Bar premiere inspired a five-minute answer. That might not seem noteworthy for an interview that takes place far from a red carpet, but when it happens behind a stanchion and with an in-demand A-lister who is stopping for every outlet on a full press line, it is most definitely a moment.
When it was over, even Affleck felt the weight of what had just happened.
“That was my filibuster,” he said, flashing his signature grin and stepping down to face the final two reporters before making his way inside TCL Chinese Theatre for the premiere of George Clooney’s latest film. In it, he plays Uncle Charlie, a bartender who doubles as a father figure to a gifted nephew, played by Tye Sheridan. Affleck is earning raves for his performance and nominations, too, as he just picked up a Golden Globe nod for best supporting actor for his work in the Amazon Studios film.
Full disclosure: There were two questions dropped at Affleck’s feet. The first was about whether or not his good luck as of late — being singled out by glowing reviews for his work in back-to-back films The Way Back, The Last Duel and The Tender Bar — feels as different from the inside as it looks from the outside. “It does feel different to me, but maybe not in exactly the way you think,” answered the Oscar-winning filmmaker, producer and veteran star, who showed up to The Tender Bar with girlfriend Jennifer Lopez on his arm. “I mean, look, part of being an actor, and I guess people don’t like to say this often, but it’s just the simple math of it. At the end of the day, you’re never going to be better or more interesting or more moving than the material and the director. The material, inherently, is the role that you’re playing and as a younger guy, there weren’t as many opportunities to play characters with as rich, varied, complex lives.”
Some of that is chalked up to playing lead roles, he explained, because there used to be conventional wisdom that protagonists must check certain boxes in order to appeal to audiences on a mass scale. “When you’re the protagonist, you have to do this and you can’t do that and there’s a certain essential virtuousness that has to be present or people think, ‘Well, the audience will lose their ability to identify with this person, and then we’ll lose $100 million.’ That may be true in the case of $100 million, but I’ve found it more interesting and always have, actually, to play rich characters. The similarity, for me, is playing parts in films where I’m not the protagonist, whether it was Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love, The Last Duel or [The Tender Bar] where I get to be somebody on the side who is allowed to be more complicated, flawed and interesting.”
The mention of The Last Duel and how a film could lose $100 million was merely coincidental, but the pairing opened the door for an obvious follow-up question, as the Ridley Scott epic was one of the year’s biggest box office bombs. With an A-list cast of Affleck, Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Jodie Comer, the well-reviewed film (with 85 percent raves on Rotten Tomatoes) has barely topped $10 million at the domestic box office since its October debut, a massive loss from a reported $100 million budget.
During an appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Scott blamed millennials. “What we’ve got today [are] the audiences who were brought on these fucking cell phones,” he told Maron. “The millennian do not ever want to be taught anything unless you’re told it on the cellphone.” Scott has been feisty in interviews as of late, telling a Russian journalist, “Fuck you. Go fuck yourself, sir,” after the writer said The Last Duel looked more realistic than his previous films, Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood.
Expletives aside, this is the question that sparked Affleck’s five-minute filibuster: Ridley Scott blamed millennials for The Last Duel underperforming; what’s your take?
Before getting into it, Affleck wanted to point out that aside from the possibility that he was “slightly misquoted,” Scott’s great quote as of late was, “Go fuck yourself” or “fuck yourself,” because, “I mean, let’s be honest, who hasn’t wanted to say that in a press junket?” Affleck said with a laugh. “Ridley is at the stage in his career where, obviously, he’s completely unencumbered by concerns about what people think.”
With that said, Affleck opened up about what he thinks about The Last Duel’s box office returns and what it signals about the present and future of the movie business. Now, time for me to get out of the way and present Affleck’s entire filibuster unfiltered.
“Really, the truth is that I’ve had movies that didn’t work that bombed, that weren’t good. It’s very easy to understand that and why it happened. The movie is shit, people don’t want to see it, right? This movie, The Last Duel, I really like. It’s good and it plays — I saw it play with audiences, and now it’s playing well on streaming. It wasn’t one of those films that you say, ‘Oh boy, I wish my movie had worked.’ Instead, this is more due to a seismic shift that I’m seeing, and I’m having this conversation with every single person I know. Though there are various iterations, the conversation is the same: How is [the movie business] changing?
“One of the fundamental ways it’s changing is that the people who want to see complicated, adult, non-IP dramas are the same people who are saying to themselves, ‘You know what? I don’t need to go out to a movie theater because I’d like to pause it, go to the bathroom, finish it tomorrow.’ It’s that, along with the fact that you can watch with good quality at home. It’s not like when I was a kid and the TV at home was an 11-inch black-and-white TV. I mean, you can get a 65-inch TV at Walmart for $130. There’s good quality out there and people are at home streaming in Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. It’s all changed.
“And you know what? I knew it was changing before the pandemic hit with The Way Back. I remember feeling like, ‘Shit, I really love this movie, and no one’s going to see it.’ I could just tell; it’s not going to land in the theaters. People don’t want to go see dramas. Then the pandemic hit, and ironically, one of the first few films that was rushed to streaming was The Way Back, and people did see it. I said, ‘You know what? This isn’t bad.’ I would rather have people see this and watch it, and I don’t need to be stuck to the old ways [of doing business].
“The theatrical experience is great, I love the theatrical experience, but the business has changed over time. First it was vaudeville, and then silent pictures, and then the talkies, and then color, and the radio came out and everybody said it was going to kill movies. TV came out and everybody said it would kill movies. Every time it’s the same, people watch stories that move them in different ways [on different platforms]. I think that’s OK.
“Actually, the good news is — and I don’t have the numbers in front of me right now — but I would strongly guess that people are watching more [content] now, and are consuming more. So, that’s a good thing, and one of the reasons for it is that streamers are doing such great stuff. I mean, the content is spectacular. Succession? Spectacular! Ozark? Spectacular! When I started in this business, television, per se, was OK. It was serial programmers creating content, and some of the shows were done great, but they were still one thing and movies were trying to be art. That’s not the case anymore. You see shows on streaming that are just magnificent.
“A lot of the time, and I’m even guilty of this myself, I can lament it. I went to see one movie theatrically. That movie was Licorice Pizza. There are probably two or three directors, people like Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, who have people saying, ‘OK, I’m going to see two or three movies in the theater this year, I’ll go see theirs.’ I think you’re going to see 40 movies at least [released] each year now. When Gone Baby Gone came out [a 2007 film directed by Ben Affleck and starring Casey Affleck], there were something like 600 movies being released every year. We had seven movies debuting on the same weekend. It was really difficult, and I think maybe [The Last Duel] would’ve done better on streaming because the way [studios and streamers] have of identifying and marketing directly to people who like it is really effective. For God’s sake, think of this movie [The Tender Bar]. I mean, Amazon has an enormous reach. Everybody uses Amazon. They may be buying groceries, refrigerators, whatever, but they still use it, and you can reach people that way. I think you have to adapt with the times or you risk becoming a dinosaur, as my children tell me.”
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