“This guy risks his life uncooking the books for some of the scariest people on the planet. Drug cartels. Arms brokers. Money launderers. Assassins… Imagine the secrets this guy has.”
“It’s always compelling when people have secrets—when you think someone is one thing and then discover they’re something else entirely,” says director Gavin O’Connor.
That is certainly the case with the title character of his new film, The Accountant, from a screenplay by Bill Dubuque (The Judge).
At first glance, Christian Wolff seems to be nothing more than a storefront CPA, right down to his spreadsheets and pocket protector. However, his usual clientele are among the world’s most powerful crime lords, and his mild-mannered demeanor and somewhat innocuous appearance belie the fact that he may be more dangerous than any of them.
Ben Affleck, who stars in the role, notes, “The story speaks to the duality in all of us. It might be easy to pigeonhole a guy like Chris, but we find out he’s capable of much more than you imagine.”
The actor goes on to reveal that there is another unexpected wrinkle to Christian, who is able to crunch more than just numbers. “On the one hand, he’s this effectively trained fighter and on the other, he’s a math savant. Those facets of his personality—seemingly at odds in him—were unlike anything I’ve ever done before and made it both exciting and challenging.”
O’Connor agrees. “The center point of the film was this fascinating character that I loved and wanted to explore. How did he become this man? How did he get those skills? How did he become this lethal fighter? The story has intertwining puzzles, which gave it a high IQ factor and made it especially intriguing.”
The spark for the story initiated with producer Mark Williams, who explains, “I had heard the term ‘forensic accountant’ and thought it sounded like a detective of some sort. But then I started pushing the envelope, raising the stakes with who he’s working for and that had the potential to kick the action into high gear. Once I had the general framework in my head, I took it to Bill Dubuque, who is a writer I’ve worked with before and is flat-out great. He responded to the idea and started fleshing out the script.”
Dubuque affirms, “The concept of an accountant—a profession that we normally think of as pretty mundane—who is outside what most would consider conventional and had extraordinary abilities was something different. If you’re a mainstream company and think someone’s embezzling funds, you have a team of accountants who can determine where the money is going. But if you’re a drug cartel or a Mafia kingpin, you can’t do that. You’ve got to be able to call somebody who can come in, figure out the patterns in your books, and say, ‘This is where the leak is.’ And then get out. As I thought more about what would make this person special, I hit on the notion that he is on the autism spectrum. But he uses it to his advantage, and I just loved the idea of that.”
O’Connor emphasizes, “We learned the term ‘spectrum’ is especially fitting because there is really no single type of autism; every person is an individual and at a different place on that spectrum. Christian is fictional and not based on anyone in real life—his remarkable aptitude for figures is a gift and his physical attributes are a product of his unique upbringing.”
Dubuque surrounded Christian with other characters that are just as multifaceted, pointing out, “Almost no one is really who they seem to be.”
Producer Lynette Howell Taylor says, “Bill created a fantastically written screenplay. I had never read anything like it before and found it completely unpredictable, which is always a good sign. There were twists that took me by surprise and I had a couple of gasp moments. That’s what ultimately made me want to make the movie.”
With the script in hand, the producers chose O’Connor to helm “The Accountant” after meeting with him and finding “he had a deep understanding of these characters and a vision for how to shoot their interwoven storylines,” Williams recalls. “We knew he was the perfect director for this. He has such a fine eye for detail and kept track of all the puzzle pieces so they would all fit together in the end, which was very important for this film.”
Affleck adds, “I’d seen Gavin’s work on ‘Warrior’ and ‘Miracle,’ and in both of those movies I saw tremendous integrity in the performances. I thought, ‘This is a director who doesn’t let a false note land in his films.’ I knew ‘The Accountant’ needed that kind of unflinching eye to capture the complexity and the nuances and ground it in reality. At the end of the day, I was so glad he directed this movie because amidst the incredible action, he imbued it with authenticity, originality, humanity and heart. I loved working with him.”
Anna Kendrick, who stars alongside Affleck in the film, says she especially appreciated the director’s “reverence for the emotional content,” noting, “It’s an interesting thing because, in many ways, Gavin is such a dude. He and Ben would get so excited about all the action sequences, but then he also took such joy in the really sweet, emotional scenes.”
O’Connor says the divergent elements of the story and its characters were what attracted him to the project. “It’s refreshingly unconventional and defies definition because it’s a suspense thriller, a drama, an action film and a character study. I thought the script was one of the best that I’d read, so I really wanted to do it.”
The cleverly constructed screenplay also drew the film’s impressive acting ensemble. “It kept me guessing until the very last page,” Affleck states, “and I thought it was very smart, rich in detail and in character depth, and inventive in its evolution.”
J.K. Simmons concurs, “Bill Dubuque crafted a layered script with very deep characters, so it has a great combination of an intricate plot with a range of fascinating people.”
“Part of my job as a director,” O’Connor says, “is surrounding myself with people who are really good at what they do—people who are going to constantly lift up the material and make me better and make the movie the best it can be. All of these actors are of that caliber.”
As “The Accountant” opens, we meet Christian Wolff as a child whose parents are seeking professional help for him. Telling the couple their son is actually more gifted than handicapped, the neurologist offers to work with him. But Chris’s dad has his own ideas of how to prepare his son for a world that can be harsh for anyone deemed “different.”
“Chris’s father puts him through all kinds of rigorous training to toughen him up for a world he thinks could hurt him,” says Affleck. “Instead, in a way, he ends up damaging him even further. I thought that was an interesting theme—how he reconciles his past with the man he is now.
“What resonated with me about this character was not the ways he is different, but the ways he is similar to everyone else,” the actor continues. “He grapples with the differences between himself and what is considered ‘normal,’ and those pose real challenges for him to get by in life. But deep down he’s very much the same: he wants to be happy, he wants human contact, he wants love, he wants friendship… He has things that bother him, like we all do, but he has goals in his life that he wants to meet, and he wants to succeed. He just defines those things differently from how other people do.”
Prior to the start of filming, O’Connor and Affleck engaged in research they knew was essential “to make sure we got this character right,” the director says. “We all have our advantages and disadvantages as people, so it was important to me that we embrace Chris as an individual and never look at him as a tragic figure.”
The two consulted with several autism experts, including Dr. Neelkamal Soares, Laurie Stephens, Cheryl Klaiman, Christine Hall and Shelley Carnes. They also visited a number of homes and schools. “I was lucky,” Affleck says. “I had my director doing research with me, which gave us a shared vocabulary and made it a lot easier. There’s no task Gavin won’t undertake if he thinks it might make the movie better. We learned that there’s quite a range to what people refer to as being on the spectrum. Ultimately, I tried to strike a balance between letting the audience in on what’s going on with Christian and not doing it in too obvious a way.”
O’Connor was so impressed with Affleck, he stated, “I would make every movie with Ben if I could. He just poured himself into the role, and the more you give him to do, the more he just keeps attacking it.”
Affleck remarks, “The great thing about ‘The Accountant’ is it’s smart and it has a ton of action and fun twists. And when it all comes together, I think the audience is in for a surprise.”
O’Connor concludes, “I wanted to make a film that was intellectually engaging, while also being a rollercoaster ride that can sweep the audience up in a story that doesn’t let up until the end. And if it moves you or makes you think or want to talk about it after you leave the theatre, that’s cool, too.”