I’ve been unwilling to talk about the movie for two years and I’ve demanded that the people who worked on it with me were likewise quiet about it
So is the Joaquin Phoenix doco I’m Still Here a media prank? Well, not for director Casey Affleck. He talks to Helen Barlow.
Whether being the younger Affleck brother has something to do with it or not, Casey Affleck, 35, is more out there than his older movie star idol brother Ben, 38. He’s more adventurous in his movies – not only in his roles but now in the ones he directs, his debut feature being the already notorious, I’m Still Here, a supposed fly-on-the-wall documentary account of Joaquin Phoenix’s year of living dangerously.
Sitting at a Venice Film Festival press conference last week, Affleck refused to admit to the truth of his film, though he insisted it was not a hoax. Having followed and filmed his best friend and brother-in-law (he is married to Joaquin’s sister Summer) for over a year as Phoenix attempted to start a hip-hop career, Affleck delivers a strange behind-the-scenes account of celebrity life.
And one, allegedly, of what happens when Phoenix’s dreams to become a rapper are crushed by P. Diddy Combs – who has proved a better actor in his few film roles than Phoenix is a hip-hopper – which sends Phoenix into a downward spiral that is far from pretty. Cue full frontal nudity, vomiting, defecating and drug use.
“Everybody is familiar with the celebrity meltdown so often depicted in little tiny glimpses in magazines and new shows,” Affleck says.
“This movie was an opportunity to pull open the curtain on one of those moments and to see both the gory details, the misconceptions and how somebody rebounds from something like that to get back on their feet.”
Naturally the American media has been dwelling on what he calls the film’s “salacious moments” for some time, ever since they leaked at a buyer’s screening several months ago. Certainly when the world’s media saw the film they were in a quandary, even angry, especially given their feelings of being duped as well. How is Affleck dealing with that?
“Do I have to deal with it or do you have to deal with it?” he asks at our later interview. “I felt like I’ve already dealt with it by how it was included in the film. Now I’m more interested to see how other audiences are going to deal with it. I hope they will be kind and understanding.”
He also hopes that those who have seen the film will not spoil the surprises, because it’s definitely better to go fresh and to plan a discussion over a drink with friends afterwards.
“The film was never for me about celebrity or necessarily about fame. Obviously it factors into Joaquin’s life in a big way, so the film has to reflect that a little bit, but to me it’s also about friendship and ambition and about dreams and about the artist in general.”
There’s no doubting Affleck’s film-making talent. One of the most hilarious moments – and where the film picks up – is when sporting his beard, dark glasses and a tubby belly, Phoenix appears on Late Night with David Letterman to promote his supposedly final film, Two Lovers.
Affleck cleverly integrates the sequence into his film, together with the endless send-ups it generated. He admits his great influence in developing the film was Gus Van Sant, who taught him the wisdom of allowing a film’s theme to find itself.
“The beginning of any creative process is to have a feeling and see how it unfolds,” he says. “I feel the film unfolds in an organic way. I first met Joaquin when we worked together on Gus’ film To Die For 18 years ago. I worked with Gus on Good Will Hunting and then in Gerry with Matt Damon about two guys who get lost in a desert and one kills the other one. The story was concocted by Gus and Matt and myself together. It was a definitely a lesson that I reminded myself of during the process of making my film – that you have to let it happen and not try and control everything.”
Nevertheless Affleck was stringent with his crew. “I’ve been unwilling to talk about the movie for two years and I’ve demanded that the people who worked on it with me were likewise quiet about it. Of course that made people speculate in all different ways and that was something I anticipated.”
So where was Phoenix, when he failed to turn up to publicise the film? “He’s here in Venice trying to embrace the film,” explained his director. “He’s not hiding from the movie; I hope that he will support it, but in which capacity he chooses to show that support is up to him.”
The Oscar-nominated star (for Gladiator and Walk the Line) was there all right, secretly having his photo taken by the paparazzi with and without his sunglasses and looking much trimmer and clean-shaven.
Wasn’t Joaquin unhappy making the movie, given he was so overweight? “That is his natural weight. It is, it really is,” Affleck responds emphatically, strangely thinking I might not believe him. “For all the other movies he’s on the treadmill constantly. Yeah, he’s got weight issues.” Meanwhile he is confident Phoenix will return to acting. “I think he misses it and I bet he’ll do a movie soon.”
As for acting himself, Affleck, who had us on the edge of our seats in his brother’s directing debut, Gone Baby Gone, as well as in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (for which he was Oscar-nominated), is coming as a serial killer in Michael Winterbottom’s grim and violent The Killer Inside Me.
“The only way to depict this violence is to make it realistic,” he told The Independent. “Otherwise you glamorise it. Movie after movie after movie shows violence in an ordinary way where the victims are dehumanised and people are jailed left and right and nobody cares about it. There’s never blood. It’s usually shown in a super-stylised, unrealistic way. I would prefer that all movies show violence in a realistic way. Because it’s upsetting and it should be upsetting.”
“I’m just drawn to things magnetically,” he says. “Really, though these parts are very different from each other and they show I can do different things.”
Whether he has successfully pulled off the task of being a fully-fledged feature film director remains to be seen. So often after the first film has our attention, the second marks the true test. In any case his big brother is impressed.
“I’ve seen a number of versions of I’m Still Here and I think people will really enjoy it,” says Ben. “I think it says something really relevant, even important about what’s going on in the culture and the zeitgeist in terms of celebrity and people wanting to see behind the curtain and all that stuff. It’s an extraordinary work and I think Casey’s a great director.”