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The Town – Ben Affleck walks in the footsteps great gangster movies

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The Town - Director/Screenwriter/Actor Ben Affleck
Director/Screenwriter/Actor Ben Affleck on location during the filming © 2010 Warner Bros

There are over 300 bank robberies in Boston every year. And a one-square-mile neighborhood in Boston, called Charlestown, has produced more bank and armored car robbers than anywhere in the U.S.

Ben Affleck’s new movie The Town, which is based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, spotlights a gang of bank robbers in Charlestown. Affleck stars as Doug MacRay, the leader of a ruthless band of thieves who pride themselves on taking what they want and getting out clean – that is, until their last job, when one of his partners in crime, Jem (Jeremy Renner) takes a bank manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca  Hall) hostage for a short time. When they discover Claire lives in their neighborhood, Doug seeks her out. Not knowing that her chance encounter with Doug was no accident, she is intrigued by him and their relationship deepens into a meaningful romance.

Ben Affleck not only stars in The Town, but is the screenwriter and director of it as well.

How would you describe The Town, would you call it a heist movie?

The Town - Director Ben Affleck and Jon Hamm
Director/Screenwriter/Actor Ben Affleck and Jon Hamm on location during the filming © 2010 Warner Bros

It’s interesting because, on one hand, you have this outer shell of a heist movie, but, at its heart, the story is about a guy who’s dealing with being stuck in a place he doesn’t want to be and wants to change his life, which was much more compelling to me.

It’s about how rooted you are in how you grew up and also about children paying for the sins of their parents. I think that’s something many people can identify with, even those of us who can’t necessarily relate to the criminal aspect.

What kind of research did you do for the movie?

We did a ton of research. We went to prisons and talked to former bank robbers and also met with guys at the FBI who were counterpoints to Agent Frawley, the character played by Jon Hamm. We started incorporating what we learned into the architecture of the story to bring in as much detail and verisimilitude as we could

The Town - Ben Affleck
Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) © 2010 Warner Bros

The trickier part of our research was getting into the mindset of the Charlestown underworld, but we found people who were willing to speak to us. Although every conversation ended with, ‘Don’t tell anyone I talked to you.’ (he laughs)

How much cooperation did you have from law enforcement in Boston?

We were not officially embraced by the FBI, we don’t use their logos. We were not sanctioned by the Department of Justice. It’s an editorial situation where you have to really subject your film to creative concerns that you might not want governing what you want to do.

That being said, people that worked for the Department of Justice in the greater Boston area are extraordinary people. They’re smart, they work hard, they are trying to catch real bad guys all the time and they’re no joke, these people.

They were willing on their own time, not while they were being paid by the taxpayer, to sit down and talk to us about how they do their job and why they think it’s important.

Rebecca Hall is a British actress, what was it about her that you thought was right for the role of Claire?

She is beautiful and incredibly talented, and has this way about her that feels real. That kind of honesty and normalcy was especially important for this role. You believe she is somebody who could work in a bank. She seems like she could be someone who just moved into this neighborhood.

Claire comes to represent the way in which Doug can finally change; the version of his life that could be different from what he’s known.

Has screenwriting gotten easier or harder for you? And what works best for you in terms of your directing style, when it comes to script changes are you flexible to making changes on the day of shooting a scene?

The Town - Ben Affleck and Jem Coughlin
Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) and Jeremy Renner (Jem Coughlin) © 2010 Warner Bros

I think style is a function of conditions, so you’ll do different things depending on what the conditions are.

In this case, I was already working with not only a fine novel, but also a fine screenplay that Chuck worked on. So really he had given me most of what I needed. The only difference between what was there and what was going to be on the screen was going to be the additional research I did, and the peculiar and specific choices that I made as a director about what I wanted to photograph.

I view screenwriting in its best form, particularly if you are going to have multiple screen writers, as one good idea on top of another. (The actors) brought their ideas as well. So I continually try to stay nimble and open to that stuff, because that’s where you get the best stuff.

There have been a lot of bank heist movies over the years, how did you allow them to inspire and influence you, but also not inspire you so much that you could do something different with this one?

The Town - Ben Affleck
Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) © 2010 Warner Bros. Photo by Claire Folger

Obviously Heat was a huge influence; it looms quite large over this movie. We had to work to not be too close to Heat. The Bank Job is a great movie. The fact that there are a lot of movies in this genre points to the fact that it’s kind of tricky to do. You don’t change the genre, you retell those same things over and over again. So the danger is the audience is going to feel it’s a little predictable.

But those movies stand as reminders that even with doing the same genre conventions, you can do something special, so that’s what we were trying to do, walk in the footsteps of movies ranging from the great Warner Brothers gangster movies to the great Michael Mann gangster movie.