He's no stranger to the camera. But sitting behind it -- that was a first for Ben Affleck.
The Oscar-winning actor made his directorial debut with the much-anticipated film "Gone Baby Gone," out today.
The crime thriller, adapted by Affleck and based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, unfolds in Affleck's hometown of Boston, specifically in the neighborhood of Dorchester.
"Gone Baby Gone" falls in the genre of previous Beantown hits like "Mystic River" and "The Departed," and coming on the heels of these works -- both huge hits at the box office and recipients of much critical acclaim -- poses no small challenge to even a seasoned director.
But for Affleck, the challenge was enticing, if not also humbling.
"I thought, 'Why don't I just follow Martin Scorsese?'" he joked. "'Or Clint Eastwood? Why don't I just throw myself off a cliff?' But in a way, it's almost better. Because those guys are mountains, and I'm just a man. Nobody would expect me to compete with a mountain."
And in fact the specificity of the Boston crime thriller, which like "Mystic River" unfolds around a sudden disappearance, proved to be one of Affleck's strongest assets. Even in his earliest conception of the film, Affleck could see the minute details of the Boston backdrop in his head.
It was from reading Lehane's book and envisioning the familiar Boston scenes that Affleck decided he "wanted to make the movie." And with the success of first Eastwood's and then Scorsese's works, Miramax was onboard. Affleck marvels that, in the end, the success of his predecessors aided, rather than deterred, the project. He joked that "suddenly the studio got really enthusiastic about the script."
Affleck tapped a cast of varied faces for the project. With humble humor, he expounded on the oddity of directing veteran talents like Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris.
"Morgan is a wonderful actor, and I gave him a chance to shine," he said. "I think you're going to see a lot of this actor Morgan Freeman. Ed Harris? He's a pretty good actor."
But Affleck refused to frame the project around the economic advantages of star power. The director of "Gone Baby Gone" appreciates the artistic freedom that relatively unknown actors bring to a project.
Such was the case with theater veteran Amy Ryan, whose theatrical prowess was unrecognized and therefore unhindered on the silver screen. Ryan was therefore allowed to completely re-create herself into a female character Affleck jokingly described as "the worst mother in America."
But Affleck's most important decision was whom to recruit as the film's protagonist, private investigator Patrick Kenzie. For that decision, Affleck looked no further than younger brother and former co-star Casey.
"The strongest instinct I had, I knew no one could play this better than Casey," Affleck said. "He's from Boston, he could do the accent, he understood the world, he understood the worldview."
Affleck knows there will be critics who think of the film as "two brothers making a home video," but he couldn't care less.
For a novice in the director's chair, Affleck displays a surprisingly laid-back attitude. Reflecting on his broad catalogue of films and his illustrious -- and, at times, lackluster (remember "Gigli"?) -- roles in those films, Affleck found that a laissez-faire approach often proves more productive.
It was his background in acting that allowed Affleck to visualize his new directorial role with a fresh perspective. He understood his role in the chair "in terms of his relationship to the actors, in terms of the actors' relationships with their scenes." It was thus important for him to "allow the actors to have as much room to experiment with as they possibly could."
As for the director himself, Affleck cites past experience to understand the lessons of this new phase. "It's like something I felt when I was first auditioning for roles in movies: ... as long as you did your best."