'Argo' director/star Ben Affleck grows smarter and more ambitious with each picture

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A: Sick of seeing myself in the context I was seeing myself in, yes.

Q: Starting out as a director, I assume you spoke with other actors who turned to directing?

A: As many as I could. I wasn't thinking the Warren Beatty or Kevin Costner model, but the new guy angle — how do you do this when nobody wants to listen to you? Which is a helpful place to be. ... Warren Beatty called and said how much he liked "Gone Baby Gone." It was the happiest day of my life. I got goofy. I said, "Wow, and I love 'Reds'!" We're on the same wavelength, Warren! "Bonnie and Clyde"? Pretty good, Warren!

Q: Did you just ask these directors about their movies that worked or about their failures too?

A: Well, everybody fails. It's more instructive, I think, to talk about successes, because the people behind them rarely feel the movie would work: They had to change something last minute or some disaster fell on them. Yet it worked. I talked with Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Jack Goes Boating"). Clint Eastwood a bit. Being able to talk to directors you admire for even 15 minutes is invaluable. I did talk to Costner. He gave me a tip. He said make sure every day you know what the second shot will be. Everybody knows their first shot, but once you get that, then what? If you have a second shot in mind, then people think you know what you're doing.

Q: Did you have directing in your mind when you started acting?

A: I started as a child, in this PBS series "Voyage of the Mimi," which led to driving down to New York for "Afterschool Special" auditions, which led to moving to Los Angeles. I wanted to be an actor. But in LA, I got into film technology, and I was building cheap editing systems and would edit my friend's acting reels.

Q: You built them?

A: It's not that hard. But I was pretty good with computers then. If I took apart a motherboard now it would be a disaster, but even then, when I started cutting (on computers), the hard drives were incredibly slow by contemporary standards and would drop frames. Matt (Damon) and I tried re-cutting movies. We re-cut "Glory." Like an early version of a mashup. To answer the question, though: I didn't always want to direct. I just liked the idea of it. If a friend was making a short and needed someone who knew screen direction, I would jump in. It would be horrible, but it led to a short, then another, and another. It was like student films.

Q: What were they about?

A: One was about feminism and the indulgence in Hollywood and license given. (Laughs.) It was called "I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney."

Q: So you never had a movie epiphany as a kid?

A: I think I didn't really appreciate movies until "Back to the Future." I remember coming back and saying it was the greatest thing I had ever seen and gave my friends some analysis and explained it to them. (Laughs.) It gave me a vague sense of possibilities. By high school, the movies of the '70s were big for me. Now I collect DVDs. I can write them off as a business expense! I'm working my way through "1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die." But also, movie histories have become comforting, to know that people went through the same things you're going through is very helpful.

Q: What did you watch before making "Argo"?

A: Rodrigo (Prieto, the cinematographer) was really into the vampire movie "Let Me In," which does some interesting things with focus, and I watched "Killing of a Chinese Bookie," one of my favorite seedy LA movies. The long lenses, the saturated look. For Iranian scenes, we watched "Battle of Algiers." I looked hard at "All the President's Men" — I wanted the CIA in "Argo" to be workaday, cigarettes, stacked files.

Q: Did you watch any Iranian films?

A: It's hard finding Iran films from the period (of the film), but yes. Mostly for the look. "Circumstance," about these lesbian girls. "A Separation," of course, is amazing, and on a different level really. You know, though, for better or for worse, I think it's the '70s thing that's becoming my aesthetic. I like a wide frame, having people walk in and out of the shot. And my movies are also mostly about the acting and the writing.

Q: This is not a backhanded compliment, but your movies are also not overtly stylish. They're direct, economical and confident — confident enough to be straightforward, which is rare.

A: Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula — what you're describing is me being influenced by them. There are people who came up making videos or commercials who have talents and can do things that I never will be able to handle, and that's OK. I prefer to whittle the leg of a table until it can stand. My grandfather, who was in World War II and a boxer and a lawyer, once said to me the biggest crime is using a 25-cent word when a 10-cent word will do. When I use 25-cent words, I hear his voice. I think that if you can't say something plainly then sometimes it's probably not true. Intelligence is often about distilling ideas, not revealing how complicated they are. I think I'm developing a reflective sense of whether or not I'm bull------- an audience.

Q: The truth is, and this is also not a backhanded compliment, but I'm not sure anyone would feel like they were missing anything if you stopped acting altogether and decided to stay behind the camera all the time.

A: You mean, if I just committed to directing. I like acting. People have a short memory, and I was worried that if I stayed away from acting I wouldn't be thought of anymore. But directing is the priority, and it gives me a choice. I have a family and movies I want to direct and I don't have time to idly take on acting jobs anymore that have a low probability of turning out well. I've come to see the last 10 years as the rich years, the productive years. I am in a zone now. I feel that, and basically, this is where I'm going to make a stand.

cborrelli@tribune.com

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