As many locals can attest, Ben Affleck's first foray into Santa Barbara with a frenzied phalanx of global media in tow, didn't turn out so well. The over-reported and ultimately aborted 2003 nuptials between Affleck and Jennifer Lopez ("Bennifer") marked a (self-admitted) low point in the actor's trajectory.
Tonight was a different story. As Affleck hit the red carpet, rushing to greet the legions of screaming fans who braved evening showers to watch co-star/conspirator and best friend, Matt Damon present him with the Santa Barbara International Film Festival's centerpiece accolade, the Modern Master Award, he returned a conquering hero; a fitting metaphor, establishing the leitmotif of resilience and redemption that would permeate the night's proceedings.
Inside, Leonard Maltin once again handled hosting duties and set the tone in his opening remarks. "Hollywood is a fickle mistress," he declared, noting that among the previous Master recipients, Affleck has suffered the industry's heaviest slings and arrows. This was mirrored in the opening reel, a hard-rocking montage heavy on action and conflict, appropriately cut to the Foo Fighters' Walk (learning to walk again), prompting Affleck to comment, "Wow, based on that, I can always fall back on stick-fighting."
Settled into the conversation pit at the side of the stage, Maltin and Affleck started at the beginning, literally, with the actor's childhood aspirations leading him to star in the 1984 PBS children's series Voyage of the Mimi. Later, as teens, he and childhood pal Matt Damon would make weekly sojourns from Boston to New York for auditions, fueled by (as we have often discovered in these tributes) the inspiration of an early drama teacher who told him, "You can do this."
One of the few Modern Master recipients to gain recognition from acting, but win acclaim for writing, producing and directing, Affleck learned the craft from both sides of the camera, witnessing the scrappy 90's DIY spirit from indie stalwarts Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) and Kevin Smith (Mallrats, Chasing Amy) as well as veteran giants like John Frankenheimer and Warren Beatty, who gave the young actor an esteem boost by telling him, "During the shoot, look over at the person in the director's chair and ask yourself, 'If that guy can do it, why can't I?'" Affleck also credited Gus Van Sant for bringing a level of maturity to Goodwill Hunting, which, he revealed, was originally intended as an acting "demo reel" to showcase himself and Damon for future roles, but became the ultimate industry calling card, earning Damon and Affleck an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
A curious array of clips were shown (Affleck seemed to agree) featuring a preponderance of carnage, conflict, and death scenes (probably a daunting task to assemble, considering Affleck's vast, varied, multi-decade filmography) and the actor added insight and humor to each, including a ribald table reading of Shakespeare in Love, "Me, Gwenyth and a cast that seemed to be made up of all knights," Goodwill Hunting, Dazed and Confused, Boiler Room, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon and Hollywoodland.
The focus then turned to Affleck's latest vocation as director, distilling decades of experience in front of the camera and advice from those behind it, into his own vision, culminating in 2007's critically acclaimed adaptation of Dennis Lehane's Gone Baby Gone and the 2010 taught and tender breakthrough hit thriller The Town. He shared the secrets of directing an icon like Morgan Freeman, "You don't," (Affleck does hilarious impersonations of both Freeman and Matthew McConaughey) and how he became the premier chronicler of Beantown culture, "I cast locals I found at a bar at 8 am." Another challenge he's overcome is the duplicity of directing oneself in a film, "Intense focus on one job (actor or director) at a time, shoot way more footage of yourself than you think you need, and deal with it in post." He also stressed the need for on-set creative collaboration, "Always keep that window open, to engage and inspire your people they'll kill for you on set."
Ultimately the conversation turned to his latest film, "Argo is the reason we're really here tonight." With a Golden Globe and PGA award under his belt and DGA and Oscar (Best Picture) weeks away, Affleck reflected on his current sensibility as director, influenced by elements like fatherhood, the geopolitical climate and the Shah-sham redemption of Argo, that continues to contribute to his ever-rising stock.
In the evening's full-circle moment, Damon arrived on stage to present the Modern Master trophy, "This thing is heavy... this is a serious award!" Delving and dishing like only a lifelong brother in arms can, "A Modern Master, huh?" Damon recalled Affleck's uncanny analytical abilities as a youth, when they would post-mortem films in the parking lot of their local theater. This would carry over into many of Affleck's questionable role selections in the future, "I would read these scripts and ask Ben, 'Why are you even taking this role? And he would say, 'If we do this, and change that and add this, it can be better,' but unfortunately the director is God and that's why many of the films came out the way they did." In regards to his friend's directing prowess (and perhaps a dig at the Academy for Affleck's Best Director omission) Damon remarked, "You can't make a great movie by accident."
Affleck then took the podium and returned the favor to Damon, "We grew up together, playing sports. I've seen him in the shower. You can't roast someone you've seen in the shower." He then extolled at length the virtues of all things Matt, prompting Damon to exclaim, "Who's getting the award, man?!" to which Affleck replied, "Now on to my 10 pages of written remarks." But it was here that Affleck revealed the essence of his position among the Modern Masters, culminated from the odyssey of child actor to A-List director, "I got over the fear to express myself. I make the movies I want to see. If there's a mastery, it's in partnership." Spoken like a true Master.