Ben Affleck reflects on The Town and the memorable scene inspired by a prison visit
On the heist thriller's 10th anniversary, the director-star takes EW inside the film's claustrophobic chase and "oh, you've got to be f---ing kidding me" moment.
Each month in the pages of EW, we’re chatting with the filmmakers, actors, and others involved in capturing an iconic shot in movie history. This edition of The Shot examines The Town's nuns and cops run-in.
Months before Ben Affleck began shooting his 2010 heist thriller The Town, he sat in Massachusetts' MCI-Norfolk prison with a convicted armed robber. At the end of the two-hour conversation, he asked the man if any moment stood out as “unusual” from his life of crime. “He thought for a minute,” says Affleck, before launching into a thick Boston accent, “and recounted: ‘There was a time where I remember we once robbed a truck, got back in the car, pulled up to the switch car, got out still wearing the masks, and [saw] a cop on lazy construction duty. We stop, look at him; he looks at us, takes a minute, and he turns the other way.’” Immediately, Affleck was obsessed with the tale, knowing he had to play out that "inherent absurdity" in his film. "It was worth every moment I spent researching to find that."
But as excited as he was to use that “gold,” he first had to put together the biggest action sequence of his young directing career with the preceding robbery and chase. “I was intimidated and insecure about it,” admits Affleck, 48, who was following up his smaller-scale 2007 directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. “I had some experience acting in action sequences — some good, some that I didn't love — and so I had a sense for the kind of thing I liked. But it definitely was the most intimidating aspect of the movie. I saw the Fenway and chase sequences as the two steps forward as a filmmaker, and I knew that people would be skeptical, like, ‘He’s an actor, can he pull this off?’ I felt like I was going to find out along with the rest of the world if I was any good at doing this kind of thing."
In order to get it right, Affleck set aside two full weeks for the “claustrophobic” pursuit through the tight one-way streets of Boston’s North End. "I was definitely reminded of the old joke of my youth, 'The Russians won’t invade Boston, there’s nowhere to pahk!'" he says with a laugh. "I was like, 'There is in fact nowhere to f---ing park in the North End.'" Affleck points to "seminal Boston movies" like The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Verdict as influences on The Town and Gone Baby Gone, but it was William Friedkin's 1971 classic The French Connection and Gene Hackman's Oscar-winning performance that best served the actor-director both in front of and behind the camera during this daunting sequence. “The reason why the chase in French Connection is so incredibly gripping is because of Hackman pounding the steering wheel — you’re right in there with him.”
When it finally came time to film that cops-and-robbers moment, Affleck was initially concerned about hiding the actors’ faces in nun masks, which were deemed “appropriate for a city so steeped in Catholicism.” Plus, they were spookily vague. “What ended up working well was, because the masks were so inexpressive and there’s a beat of silence, the audience projects their feelings about what that must be like,” explains Affleck, who happily notes that you can’t tell it’s Jem (Jeremy Renner, above, in an Oscar-nominated turn), one of The Town’s core antiheroes, locking eyes with the cop (played by James McKittrick, the uncle of rapper Slaine, who starred as one of the crew's members). “I talked to Renner about having a sense of ‘Oh, you’ve got to be f---ing kidding me.’ Even [Jem] had his limits; the most violent, explosive, hot head of the group could also reach a point where he felt exhausted by the whole thing. Like finishing a marathon and being told you’ve got to go back and run it again."
Now, as his hit film turns 10, Affleck says the heart of The Town wasn't the "candy shell of the heist and car chase," but the relationship between Doug MacRay (Affleck) and his incarcerated father (Chris Cooper). “Sidney Lumet made a lot of movies where the central theme was about how children paid for the sins of the parents,” shares Affleck. “That’s always been resonant to me.”
But that doesn't mean he still isn't moved by one of his favorite moments. “That story that gave me chills and made me laugh in that prison visitors’ room gave me the same feeling when we shot it.”