Q: And what do you think of his rapping? A: I made no secret about it. He could improve with practice….
Q&A: Casey Affleck makes sense of ‘I’m Still Here’
Though it opened in 20 cities on Friday, the same day as its first public screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, the much-discussed documentary was still one of the most anticipated titles on this year’s lineup.
The often humorous, sometimes gross and occasionally aimless warts-and-all account of Joaquin Phoenix’s year or so spent molding his disheveled self into a mediocre hip-hop artist after announcing his retirement from acting certainly benefits from the feverish speculation about its intent.
Are we watching a celebrity meltdown, a self-indulgent piece of performance art, a winking put-on in the mode of Borator some combination? Anyone looking for simple answers won’t get them — at least not yet — from Casey Affleck, the actor who makes his directing debut while capturing his best friend and brother-in-law’s misguided pursuit of a musical career with an unblinking handheld camera.
For the record: The 35 -year-old Phoenix’s rhythmic ramblings are labored at best and painful at worst, a point underlined by the hilariously stunned look on the face of producer Sean "Diddy" Combs as he graciously endures a sampling. Just as there are talky art-house films known as mumble core, the Oscar-nominated star of Gladiator and Walk the Line seems to have stumbled upon a musical equivalent — mumble rap.
Early word after the film was shown to potential distributors focused on multiple instances of frontal male nudity, drug use, appearances by call girls and one scene of apparent defecation that is, thankfully, dimly lit. Whatever is left of a sullen and verbally abusive Phoenix’s reputation seems to go down in flames.
But, as Affleck told a press conference at the Venice Film Festival earlier this week, "I have a lot of love for him and I don’t feel that’s been compromised at all."
The novice filmmaker, whose souvenirs from his efforts include two sexual harassment lawsuits filed by women, a producer and a cinematographer, did not make it to Toronto. But he did speak to USA TODAY by phone from Venice for a rare one-on-one to discuss I’m Still Here, which is unrated but contains sexual material, graphic nudity, pervasive language, some drug use and crude content.
Q: You finally got to see I’m Still Here with an audience. How did it go?
Affleck: Yeah, I saw it for the first time with a large group of strangers. It’s difficult to assess what they thought. I am the worst judge of what was happening in the room. They politely applauded at the end, so it wasn’t a total disaster.
Q: This is a film about an actor who is retiring doing a film about an actor who is retiring. That is a rather strange situation.
A: It’s so interesting to hear people’s reactions. I would love to comment but maybe in a couple weeks, we can discuss it in greater detail.
Q: What everyone wants to know is if this is all real. Were there scenes that were staged? Is it a hoax? The end credits especially raise questions, starting with the fact that you and Joaquin are listed as screenwriters.
A: Let me speak to the credit issue. No matter what the film, the Writers Guild insists on naming a screenwriter. With documentaries, usually it’s the director and the subject. So that’s that. As for how much is real? Look, I’ve never seen a movie or read a historical textbook that didn’t have subjective treatment of the material. It is not possible to make something without manipulation. You move a frame here or there, you take a scene out or put it in. It is a subjective vision of what happened. You can infer whatever you will. But let audiences discover it for themselves.
Q: When was the decision made to film this? You seem to have been involved pretty early on with Joaquin’s decision to switch careers.
A: It was a long time in the making. You very rarely wake up and think, "I’m going to make a life change today." I knew about it, the hip-hop music. It was more an organic thing rather than a decision.
Q: Your rather primitive and raw approach to shooting this certainly suits the material.
A: Feel free to praise the direction. When I watched it, I couldn’t get through five seconds without thinking there was a mistake. You live and learn. I can’t imagine watching my first performance in a movie again, either. Making this was satisfying creatively, but exhausting in all other ways.
Q: How so?
A: By the end, I was just completely drained. Not only by the experience, but also the experience of putting it together. I got through a whole other journey and had my own difficulties. I was pretty new to it. I had done commercials and short films, but I had something like 400 hours of footage and I watched every minute.
Q: What did sharing this with Joaquin do to your friendship?
A: An experience like this was incredibly difficult, but it is a drop in bucket next to 20 years of friendship. He’s my brother-in-law. If we had been strangers, it probably would have transformed our relationship and lives. But we have stayed very close.
Q: Joaquin is apparently in Venice with you, clean-shaven and slimmed down. Will he be doing any interviews for I’m Still Here?
A: He is here. He came to the movie. He will try to embrace the film and be supportive as it rolls out. But when will he do interviews? That’s your guess.
Q: And what do you think of his rapping?
A: I made no secret about it. He could improve with practice.