Gavin O’Connor is an American filmmaker whose work includes Tumbleweeds , Miracle , Warrior , and Jane Got a Gun . His latest film, The Accountant —which stars Ben Affleck as Chris Wolff, an autistic mathematician under siege—opens today.
Maybe I’ve got the wrong impression, but you’re a genre filmmaker working primarily in the studio system, and with non-astronomical budgets. Does that make you a rarity?
I guess the movie business has evolved toward tentpole movies, popcorn movies, superhero movies, thing like that. And this movie [The Accountant] is such a blurring of genres that it’s hard to categorize. It’s a thriller, an action movie, a character study, an odd kind of love story, a puzzle film. What I loved about it is that it’s hard to categorize. But that being said, yeah. I think making the kind of films I like to make requires the right elements being put together to get them financed.
That would be the actors?
That would be the actors.
Do you feel it’s getting easier or harder? You’ve been directing genre movies at this sort of scale for more than ten years.
I think it’s hard because the studios are looking for the big I.P. movies [ones that are based on recurring or pre-existing characters]. They love the superhero genre because it makes them a lot of money. And they’d rather spend a lot of money to make a lot of money, than spend less. And there are the Harry Potter’s of the world, where the book is selling big, and there’s already an I.P. To do something that’s original—that isn’t off of an I.P.—they’re harder to make. The bullseye is getting narrower.
And has that narrowing changed the way you write or direct?
No, the only reduction would be the cost of the film. To get this movie made, we had to get it made at a price tag that was palatable for the studio, vis-à-vis the math equation that they apply to cinema: How much it costs, then how much it’s worth, based on the actors you put in the movie, the overseas value, that whole algorithm that gets applied. So we made it for a responsible number, where the studio was like, “We’ll take a shot on this.” It made sense economically, and they liked the package. After that, it in no way affects the intention of the film, or the style of the film. The art of it remains the same.
One thing that struck me about The Accountant—given it’s an American studio picture released in 2016—is the rhythm. The movie is very patient, especially in the scenes with J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson, where we’re watching conversations for minutes at a time, despite them not having an immediate impact on the plot. I say this because even the good studio-financed genre movies I’ve seen lately feel like they were edited and paced by someone on methamphetamine.
I like to linger. And live inside the characters. This movie was interesting. We went to Warner Brothers, but there were a couple other studios that were sniffing around. And we kept hearing, “Can you put more action in it? It needs more action.” I liked the idea that, when the film opens, it’s not even an action set piece. He’s behind the action. There’s no faces. We hear things—sonically, there’s action. But the character, I don’t want to give spoilers here, but the character is behind the action. So there’s action in the opening set piece. And from there, it’s an hour into the film before the action starts.
Even more than action movies, I was thinking about noir. Especially because the scene is so directly tied to the perspective of an individual person.
Exactly, it’s a very subjective approach. But we’re hearing action. Something is happening inside, but we’re just not privy to what it is. So it’s a complete sleight of hand in regard to what you would think is an action set piece. Like, I worked out all the action in the room sonically.
There’s also comedy, to go along with all the other genres we’ve mentioned. This movie is funny. Did you know how you were going to use comedy before you got to the set, or was that something the actors brought along themselves?
I knew that I wanted the movie to be fun. That was really important to me. And you start casting the movie in a way that can bring that out. Then, whenever I thought there were opportunities to find humor, we were going for it. If it happened organically, we’d give the actors license to play, and see what happened. I’m a big believer in the [idea] that if you have an impulse as an actor, you shouldn’t deny it. Because we do a lot of biography work on all the roles, and really understand these people. And I’m always looking to be surprised. So if I’m watching the monitor, and something happens that surprises me, that’s a really good sign.
I know you must’ve seen the movie one hundred times, but how many times have you seen it with an audience?
Not one hundred times. I see a film thousands of times in the editing room. But with an audience, I saw three test screenings. And then the other night in L.A., I caught the end of it, and last night I caught the end of it. That’s it.
There was a really fascinating reaction last night. It was a thing where some of the violence was funny and some of it was not. The scene where there’s a raid on Anna Kendrick’s character, then [character redacted] arrives and kills a few of the enemies with headshots—that got huge laughs.
I was surprised by that, because it’s hard to play headshots as comedy, right? But I think people are laughing because we spend an hour with our guy, and we understand his behavior, his proclivities, and his uniqueness. What I was trying to do was draw the audience into his world. Just immerse the audience in this guy, until they really understand him. So then when he starts to really shift gears, once he goes out to the farm … that’s the stuff I was trying to make fun. That first fight that he has, where he takes out his belt, I was going for it there.
And there are even “punchlines” on occasion, although usually it’s just people on the sideline saying something to the effect of “Who the fuck was that?”
When the fight is over, and he waves to the couple on the truck? That was an improvisational moment. He did that, and I thought, “I’m going to put that one in there.” It made me laugh. It’s the balance: they’re watching this violent act, where this guy he’s fighting looks puny next to him; but then he’s back to his social cues, which he’s not good at.
There was a lot of talk during the Q&A last night about research into autism. Does that change how you work on the set—would there be moments where you’d have to pull Ben Affleck back, because his acting choices weren’t aligning with your profile of the character’s psychological state?
I would never say that to Ben. The rule was really like … basically, we had boundaries. One thing I had said to Ben right out of the gate—and we agreed on this—was that I didn’t want him to play Chris just one way. You know, monosyllabic … because if I get in the editing room, and we didn’t get it right, then I’m fucked. Because we’d have two hours of this one choice we made. So we had these boundaries … and then, say I’m doing coverage of Ben. On the first take, we’d play it one way. On the second take, a couple degrees more. On the third take, a couple degrees more. And sometimes, within all that, he would try things, or I would say to try something. We may lop on the wrong side, but if it didn’t work, I just wouldn’t print it.
Which takes did you use most often?
It was all over the place. It really allowed me to build a performance, with regards to shaping and carving the arc of this guy’s character over the journey of the film. And so the audience is always a little off-balance about what he’s going to do. And also, like you say, the rhythm of the movie—if I want to shift gears, and I can get maybe get a laugh when the audience has been in a [serious] mood or emotional state, it can allow you to do that. I love being off-balance during a movie.
That’s what’s interesting to me in light of this movie’s fun side—that after watching it, there can be a Q&A where the vast majority of questions and comments revolve around the subject of autism, and the treatment of people who have autism. Is that another balance that you have to be conscious of during the production: That it has to be a ‘rollicking experience’ but also a legitimate consideration of the subject
Everything you’re citing, it all makes it sound like it’s not going to work, because there’s too many balls in the air. So I don’t know if I was thinking about it, but … in regards to autism, that was the one big spotlight I always shined on. I had to make that accurate, I had to make that right, I had to be honest with that. I felt confident with the work that we did, and that we built a character that was honest to who we were interpreting in the movie, vis-à-vis a lot of people we met who informed who Chris could be. But after that, you just go for it. I never wanted to play it safe. I always wanted to attack it in the most honest way. And you never know until it’s over, when you put it all together, whether it’s going to work or not.
THE ACCOUNTANT. RATED R. NOW PLAYING EVERYWHERE.