This is one of the best films of 2015.
The bottom line: Casey Affleck thinks of it as a performance and not as an act, and he thinks of "I'm Still Here" as a film, and not a hoax. In an interview where he revealed details behind the making of his controversial film with and about Joaquin Phoenix, he also said:
• David Letterman was not in on the performance, and what you saw on his show was really happening.
• Phoenix dropped out of character when he was not being filmed or in public.
• The drugs and the hookers were staged. The vomiting was real.
• He would have preferred to remain silent about whether the film was "real" or not, but his distributor urged him to break silence near its opening day.
• Friends and family knew. Ben Stiller was part of the film and his appearance on the Oscars in "Joaquin" makeup was well-meaning and supportive. Natalie Portman, Stiller's co-presenter on the Oscars, also knew.
These are many other revelations emerged as Affleck, director of the film starring his brother-in-law Phoenix, discussed behind the scenes realities in making the most-debated film of the year. Based on what he said, "I'm Still Here" must be considered a fiction feature, and Phoenix's work in it must be considered eligible for an Academy Award nomination.
I sent Affleck questions by email, and his replies appear below. Our exchange was a mutual enterprise of Interview magazine and RogerEbert.com, and is appearing on both websites.
Ebert: You've now said the whole enterprise was a hoax. So we'll proceed on that basis. Film critics as a group are skilled at judging the authenticity of films. My reading of a group of major reviews of "I'm Still Here" linked at Metacritic indicates that only six stated flatly the film was not genuine. Nine believed it, and the rest were not sure, had doubts, were cagey, or left themselves wriggle room. In terms of your intentions, this counts as a success, right?
Affleck: I wish people hadn't debated so much the films veracity or authenticity, hadn't asked only and dully, "Is this real?" But that response is better than apathy, I suppose. Picasso said, "Art is the lie that tells the truth."
My aim was not to fool. My aim was to provoke thought and stir emotion. The enterprise was a film, not a "hoax." The idea that Joaquin was really retiring for good and pursuing a rap career in earnest was an act. Nothing was a hoax. At the Toronto Film Festival someone was walking around to theaters in a beard and wig and glasses and telling journalists he was Joaquin Phoenix. That is a hoax. There was nothing else but the deception.
I was making a movie. In a movie we try to deceive. In theaters, as they say, the deceived are the wisest. I was trying to help the audience suspend their disbelief. That is why the film was released without comment from myself or anyone involved. The reason it was MADE without comment and with Joaquin in character when in public was because the media plays a role in the film and the media would not have played their role as well as they did had it been acknowledged that Joaquin was only performing. When I say the media I mean also the unpaid bloggers and vloggers and people all around the world commenting on line.
Ebert: In terms of 20-20 hindsight, many viewers are now pointing to moments when they could see it was staged. Did you deliberately place any "tells" in the film?
Affleck: No. Not deliberately. I heard of very few tells before I did the interview with the NY Times and said that it was a piece of fiction.
Ebert: I assume you and Joaquin didn't go through this long period of time for frivolous reasons. What was your larger purpose? Your philosophy, dare I say? Joaquin's?
Affleck: To tell a story. To make a movie. Isn't it the job of the director to figure out the best way to tell the story they have to tell? This was the best way I could think of to tell this story, about this character. It's a movie about a famous actor who has been acting for a long time and who wants to change paths, to change his life, to peruse a career in music. But he makes mistakes and the world is unforgiving. Things go wrong. He can't recover. He digs himself deeper and deeper.
There are ideas in the film that are interesting to me. I don't have a point to make, though. If it feels like a cautionary tale, what would be the warning? When you have a dream and others tell you, you are no good, give it up? Don't become famous? Prepare, practice and use stepping stones? Or maybe don't be incredibly mean to those around you? Some things seems too obvious, some seem lacking. I don't know the point. I only know that it is of course in some way about celebrity culture. Its about fame, in some way. I don't know what it says exactly but I know that it makes me wonder when I watch it. I'm OK with that.
All cultures are different. Some commit genocide. Some are uniquely peaceful. Some frequent bathhouses in groups. Some don't show each other the soles of their shoes or like pictures taken of them. Some have enormous hunting festivals or annual stretches when nobody speaks. Some don't use electricity. We obsess about celebrities. We create them, build myths around them, and then hunt them and destroy them. I don't know where its taking us or what it means but I know we do it. I have seen a lot of it myself.
Ebert: Knowing that Joaquin was performing suggests a deeper level of anger against the celebrity-publicity system than a simple psychological meltdown would have. This must be an actor urgently inspired to make a statement.
Affleck: I think its more a case of an enormous talent relishing the unique role and broadened parameters of the job.
Ebert: One thing that surprised me over the time this went on is how little true concern for Joaquin was expressed. He was instead made the butt of jokes. Have we gotten to the point where the press is playing Dunk the Clown with celebrities?
Affleck: It seems so. There were those willing to lampoon him publicly, who when asked to give an interview for the film said, "I don't want to give you an interview because I don't know what's going on with Joaquin and if he's having real psychological problems or problems with addiction I don't know what to say." Yet they felt comfortable mocking him on national TV. I am NOT talking about Ben Stiller and Natalie Portman who both knew that Joaquin was fine and both knew about the film.
Ebert: Many of the snarkier web sites seem to be run by men (hardly ever women) who, I think, take pleasure in the troubles of others. They seem cheered by bad movies, bad box office, arrests, domestic problems, drugs, and even illness--although there they affect a pious sympathy. Would you agree?
Affleck: I don't know. I don't know who is behind those websites. I really have no idea and until this film I never looked at those sites or read the entertainment sections of those papers much. But the "respected" and "serious" newspapers can be pretty petty and snarky too.
Ebert: When Ben Stiller appeared on the Oscars made up as Joaquin, some thought it was cruel. Gwyneth Paltrow told people at the time "Two Lovers" came out that she thought Ben had done a funny performance, and was offended. Now we know that Ben is in "I'm Still Here" pitching a screenplay Joaquin has not read. So Ben knew it was a hoax when he appeared on the Oscars? His performance in a way was helping you two?
Affleck: Yes. Ben was incredibly supportive. For the guy with the all time highest box office average, for someone sitting squarely and securely at the top of the heap, he was really gallant in the way he swooped into our little movie and treated us with respect and patience and complete faith. I don't know why. I think he is the real thing, and I mean by that that he does this because he likes it and likes experimenting and challenging himself and growing. And maybe he thought working with a couple knuckleheads was a way of helping himself grow as a philanthropist of the arts. Ben is a very nice guy.
Ebert: James Gray, the director of "Two Lovers," was enraged at Joaquin's behavior. I thought "Two Lovers" was a good film and I was in sympathy with Gray. How did you and Joaquin process that whole area?
Affleck: James just wanted people to see his movie. Magnolia released that as well as my movie and I don't think a whole lot of people would have seen it if Joaquin didn't have a beard and hadn't told people he was retiring. But maybe I'm wrong. James also was told what was going on.
Ebert: Did Joaquin go out of character when off-camera? Did he lead an undercover normal life? What was security like?
Affleck: Yes. When we were not rolling he was out of character. If he was in public he had to behave in a way that didn't contradict the characters personality.
Ebert: You did a pretty good job of keeping the lid on and the mystery alive. You insisted all through Venice that the film was real, and then revealed it was a hoax when it was just opening. Did Magnolia Pictures think that timing was a good idea?
Affleck: Yes. From the beginning they said, "we think people should see this film in the same context that we saw it". They saw it knowing nothing. In the end I think it was a mistake but I agreed at the time.
Ebert: The drugs, the prostitutes, the vomiting, all real? Some? All staged?
Affleck: All staged. Vomiting was real. And his hairline is real.
Ebert: Obviously the public performances in the movie, as in Miami, are real, in the sense that they took place. That must have taken some balls for Joaquin to go through with.
Affleck: Yes, it was brave.
Ebert: A Letterman writer has said the Letterman appearance was all planned in advance, and Dave was in on the joke. True?
No. That man seems unreliable. If Dave knew about something it was not because Joaquin or I told him anything. I think David Letterman is a genius. Night after night he is funny and smart. He seems to really enjoy his jokes. They seem connected to who he really is. I like watching him and there is no one better at turning an awkward moment into something very funny. I am a fan of David Letterman and have been for twenty years. I cant think of many performers, bands, films, political organizations, sports teams or family members I can say that about.
Ebert: Even if Letterman was "planned," it was improvisational in the moment. Improv isn't known as part of Joaquin's background. He is however very experienced at being on talk shows. Did you discuss how he would handle it? Any rehearsal? Some viewers say (now) that they can see him almost smiling at some of Dave's lines. Could you?
Affleck: He didn't break character while in the chair. He was smiling because he (his character) was trying to get along, trying to be in the moment.
Ebert: Did the subject of Andy Kaufman and his Letterman appearances ever some up, at that time or in general?
Affleck: Yes. We watched them together. We had seen them, but watched together again. But this was different. That was performance art. This was part of a movie.
Ebert: You and your small crew must have become adept at creating the illusion of the cinema verite style. And the editing must have been essential. This film in fact must have required a lot more work than an actual documentary.
Affleck: I have never made a documentary. I don't know.
Ebert: Joaquin was photographed arriving at the dock of the Hotel Excelsior in Venice clean-shaven and neatly dressed. How or why was that picture taken?
Affleck: In order to get to the festival you have to take a boat and there is only one dock. I wanted him to come to Venice to celebrate the movie. It didn't seem right that he not be there and it didn't seem right that I have to travel alone. I insisted. He wanted to. However it was decided that he wouldn't walk down a red carpet and have the audience know he was in the theater. It would have influenced the way they reacted.
Ebert: There were reports that Joaquin sneaked into the Palacio del Cinema, sat in a back row, and "laughed his ass off." This sounds apocryphal to me.
Affleck: He laughed while watching the film.
Ebert: My review of the film expressed concern that Joaquin might be self-destructing. Not many reviews expressed much concern. Even those who thought the film was or might be true didn't seem to care much about the human being. Has the celeb culture vulgarized us so much that stars are now regarded simply as objects?
Affleck: It seems so. Your review was unique. I appreciated it.
Ebert: You are Joaquin's brother-in-law. That worked to explain your presence and access even in this period of public meltdown. What did Summer think about it--before, during and after?
Affleck: She is next to me. I will ask. She says, "You know exactly how I felt." Me: "How?" Her: "I was excited." Me: "About what?" Her: "I was excited that after all the damn conversations between you two about doing something together you were finally doing it. I am annoyed that all the critics only debate if its real or not and not what the film is about." Me: "What is it about?" Her: "Ugh, stop it!"
Ebert: How did you and Summer deal with the concern of friends who weren't in on the secret?
Affleck: Me: "How did we deal with people who thought Joaquin was really behaving that way for real?" Her: "I would always say he's doing great. But, Casey, do your own stupid interview."
Ebert: As an actor and director, how do you feel about "I'm Still Here" at the end of the day?
Affleck: Right now? I feel fine. It changes. My feelings change about every movie I have ever done, every time I think about them.
Ebert: Do you think Joaquin might smoke too much?
Affleck: Is there a right amount? Its an awful addiction. Terrible.
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