In "The Accountant," Ben Affleck plays a CPA on the autism spectrum with mad math skills and even madder martial arts skills. It is an exceptionally entertaining thriller with some deliciously surprising twists right up until the last second. In an interview, director Gavin O'Connor talked about blurring the lines of genre and the research he and Affleck did to explore the world of non-neuro-typicals.
Like your last film, the underrated "Warriors," this one straddles genres and focuses on family relationships -- fathers, brothers.
Being a dad is like: there's nothing more important. So the exploration of that in stories, with parents and fathers and brothers, siblings, I just think that you're always in the terrain of love, whether it's absence of love or the giving of love or the desire for love. There is nothing more powerful than love so I just like living in that very fertile kind of terrain.
How did you and Ben Affleck develop the Christian Wolff character?
You can't show up on day one and play someone with autism. It's going to require a lot of work and a lot of research and I told him, "I just need to know right before we do this together I need to get you committed to doing that because it's really important." And he did, he was unbelievable. We went on a journey together because I said, "Look, I am going to do this with you. We're going to do it together because I need to know it too." We all have people on the spectrum in our lives but the thing that Ben and I agreed on was, "Let's go in like we know nothing. We're like a blank canvas and let everyone start painting on the canvas for us." And that's how we approached it.
That was actually liberating. Laura Stephens was our guide through everything but she kept reinforcing that what works for one person doesn't work for another. What we started doing is cherry picking different things from different people. I remember one day when we were in a class environment there was this guy, he was maybe early 20s and he was rocked, and he never said a word. I said, "You lift weights?" And he goes, "I am a wrestler. My dad was a wrestler." Ben and I just looked at each other like "ding ding ding ding ding." We needed to keep finding people that would substantiate, corroborate our guy.
How do you go about casting a child to play Affleck's character and his brother for the flashbacks? They have to look right and they have to do martial arts -- how do you find them?
I love the kids; these kids are great. I just said, "Just get kids who never acted but they are athletic." The kid Seth Lee, who played young Ben, actually he had done martial arts, he's been in tournaments but also he was acting. So I got a two-for-one in that one but we found him in a mixed martial arts tournament. And Jake Presley who plays his brother had never acted in his life, but by the end of shooting he was absorbing it all, asking how tight the shot was. I was like, "You are a quick study, my friend."
The challenge with Seth was once Ben and I figured out the behavior for the character, he had to coordinate. So I got them both on the stage one day and I shot it. Ben went through the whole artillery of behaviors and Seth just kept doing it over and over again like Simon Says. And Seth is like a little method actor. There's a school called Exceptional Minds in Southern California where both Ben and I spent a lot of time with guys on the spectrum and we got access to a classroom with 10 to 13-year-old kids on the spectrum and Seth just stayed in the classroom to observe.
One of the things that I really like about your work is the way your films blur the boundaries of the typical genres. This is an action movie but it has got a lot of heart in it and it has got a lot of humor in it.
Yes and that was important to me. The script that Bill Dubuque wrote was brilliant. That was the reason why we all signed up because it's an incredible, intricate puzzle. It has this high IQ plot with setups and payoffs and twists and turns and sleight-of-hands and so I never touched any of that, it was brilliant. But I didn't want it to feel sterile. I wanted to have some gold here with the plot and I want to make it a certain tone and certain depth of character and a certain emotional kind of feeling, I want people feel things in the movie, so I was really going for that.
That is why I wanted Anna Kendrick in the movie, knowing the tone I was going for which was tricky. Some of the flashbacks are heavy, they are intense, so it's tricky to try to capture the intensity and depth of that relationship with his father yet also try to keep it light at times. And I knew I could do that with Anna in regards to relationship with [her character] Dana and [Affleck's character] Christian Wolff, that they would play with each other really well because she's really good at that. When you're making a movie like this you just start getting calls from agents going "What about this actress? She would be great." My marching orders to myself -- I would always ask this question, "Would that actress ever look twice at Christian Wolff? No, he would be invisible to her, he would be wallpaper, she would never look twice." Then I thought of Anna. She would go deep, she would see his heart, she would see his amazingness. And she did.