Ben Affleck’s The Town opens today across the UK and is already going great guns in the US.
This last Sunday I attended a BAFTA screening of the film and took part in a Q&A with Ben Affleck and Rebecca Hall afterwards. Here are Five Things about The Town I found particularly interesting, complete with contributions from Affleck himself.
1. Nature vs. Nurture
The Town opens with some title cards bearing statements about Charlestown, the area of Boston that gives the film its name. If we take them on face value and buy into them as fact, here’s what we learn: bank robbing is the family business of choice in the town. It’s handed down from generation to generation, and has made Charlestown the robbery capital of America.
Immediately this proposes a nurture argument, over a nature one and this is something the film is keen to express throughout. There’s father-son stuff, which is quite obvious; slightly more subtle – but only just – is how the life of crime and the town itself, as a physical location, are made analogous. Beyond this, there’s a smattering of imagery to further push the idea. My favourite is a shot of a statue of a baseball player passing his cap to a small child – a real statue at the real location, beautifully apt for what Affleck is talking about. Blake Lively’s character gets a bleak and tragicomic line about her mother that nails the idea too.
You can almost play bingo with the “nurture themed” images and ideas in The Town. There’s truckloads. Many of them are persuasive and very well integrated.
2. The Support
There’s two crucial supporting roles in the film, both of them drawn into the narrative as a result of the opening bank heist – it’s a very tidy inciting incident and perfectly placed at the very top of the film. The first of these is a hostage taken at the heist who (not quite slowly enough) becomes a love interest for Affleck’s character; she is played by the wonderful Rebecca Hall. The second is an FBI investigator that picks up the trail of the robbers after this job; he is played by the also wonderful Jon Hamm.
There are rest periods in the story arc of each character, where they take some time off and don’t appear on screen for a good number of consecutive scenes. This is always difficult, structurally, and with the Ms. Hall’s character in particular, she is at risk of becoming conspicuous by her absence. Ultimately, though, both are woven back into the story for the climax and the story does pay off all three character arcs in the same short chain of events.
Affleck talked about the casting of these roles:
With the lead female character it was really important to me that she feel like a real person. If you dropped a very recognisable Hollywood whoever-it-is or starlet that everyone knows into that role, somebody who depends on a certain kind of acting that was sort of “recognizable”, the immediately the audience would know “Okay, it will be hard for her, but then she’ll come back and she’ll be winning and we’ll all go home happy” and it would allow the audience to feel comfortable.
I wanted to cast somebody whose performances previously hadn’t been marked by those easy expectations but had been really interesting, and who audiences could make those sort of assumptions about. But that person also had to be winning and the audience have to sort of fall in love with her.
We wanted the antagonist, in a sense, who is Jon Hamm, to feel like what he should feel like, which is the protagonist. Which is a guy who’s really doing what is morally just. And Jon, I thought, is somebody who feels very real, a real person but is somehow heroic.
3. Set-Up By Edit
During the first act, where clear set-up is paramount, Affleck employs a similar technique a few times over. Here’s how it goes: one scene will end with a point being made or idea being expressed, largely in dialogue, and then we will cut directly to another scene, typically to a close-up or a “single” of a character, and we won’t be able to help but connect the idea of scene A to the character in scene B.
I asked Affleck about this, and about how it was planned. These scene transitions could well have been written into the script, or they may have been found in the edit – turns out it was a little of both.
In phrasing my question, I gave a couple of examples – cutting from the discussion of “some punk” to Jeremy Renner, though it wasn’t explicitly him being discussed; and a little parable about Eskimos and being saved by love that cuts to Rebecca Hall, establishing very clearly that her character is a possible saviour for Affleck’s.
Here’s what Affleck told me:
Some of that stuff was found in the edit when I was making trims. I had lots of stuff and I was trying to find ways to tie together elements that didn’t use to be so close to one another. And some of it was planned stuff – going from faces to faces, particularly with Jon and my character. Sometimes I was trying to lead the audience editorially into some of this thematic stuff, like the Eskimo story as you point out, I found a little bit hard to land. So I reconfigured it, so it ended up going into Rebecca walking out of the door. I had always planned to do this counterpoint of this obsessive guy, turning his addictive energy and unrest [against] this AA meeting of these people talking about their own lives and struggles. And then I thought this sequence has been a little bit meandering and maybe not even working so having the Eskimo story shoehorn right into seeing her helped drive the narrative in a more specific way without being lazy and self indulgent.
4. Shooting The Shooting, Shooting the Shooting the Shit
For the most part, The Town is a well staged and shot film. Here’s what Affleck said about his techniques in position the camera, starting with one of his aesthetic inspirations:
Gomorrah feels incredibly and urgent except it’s fixed in a specific place, and though I’ve never been to that place I think “I bet that’s exactly probably how it is”.
I kind of wanted to take a similar approach with this. We shot pretty traditionally, but it’s all about either the kinds of close ups where I hoped there’d be these kinds of nuanced, granular acting on the part of all of the performers, which may be kind of intimate, or I wanted to do a more kind of macro approach, sort of contextualizing people in their environments.
The security camera footage, I wanted to use so that the audience would subconsciously feel as if it were more realistic. I think we’re actually used to seeing crime and violence through that prism, that 15 frames per second, no sound, black and white security stuff. So when you see that happen, “this feels real” and then you cut into the 35 stuff and maybe at some level in your mind you’re feeling like it’s more kind of authentic.
With all the action stuff that I wanted to do, I didn’t want to do any objective shots… I didn’t want to put the camera somewhere a person couldn’t really be watching something. I wanted you to feel you were either in there with the victims or in there with the perpetrators.
I would shoot dialogue scenes on two cameras, if I could. I don’t like compromising with multiple cameras, and sometimes it’s hard to light… and eye lines can be an issue, but I really like to use two cameras because I’m not sure where I want to do size changes, kind depending on what happens with performances. And matching [elements of performance in the shots so the edit will be smooth] is a really big thing.
At the end of the film, there’s another title card about Charlestown. This time, it’s virtually an apology for ideas first sewn in the opening ones.
Affleck makes it clear that while he wants us to invest in and believe the reality of his drama, The Town has neglected the good people of Charlestown and focussed only on the bad. He’s telling us now, after two hours swimming in the opposite direction, that it’s a lovely place.
Unfortunately, as this very moment that the film is going to extreme measures to dispute allegations of stereotyping, the soundtrack is at its most fiddle-dee-dee. With the title card and music together, it seems like we’re being sold a romantic notion of happy, Irish Bostonians as counterpoint to the cut throat crooks with whom we’d just spent a couple of hours.
It’s unfortunate too that Rebecca Hall’s character – pretty much represented as nice and humane young woman – is revealed to be an outsider. Had she been a native, the overall representation of Charlestown would have been at least a touch more balanced.
I’m recommending this film pretty strongly. There’s a lot of good work, and the cast are, for the most part, very compelling – I didn’t get to mention Jeremy Renner above, but his admirers will be impressed.
The Town is in cinemas across the US and UK now.
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