The Art Of Adaptation: Live By Night – A true passion for filmmaker Ben Affleck

“As a filmmaker, this was a chance to pay homage to the classic Warner Bros. gangster movies of the 1930s through the `70s.”

Oscar winner Ben Affleck (Argo), who directed, produced and stars in the dramatic crime thriller Live by Night, also wrote the screenplay, based on the award-winning bestseller by Dennis Lehane, marking the second collaboration for the Boston natives, following the acclaimed drama Gone Baby Gone – the film was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Davisson under the Appian Way banner; and Ben Affleck and Jennifer Todd for Pearl Street Films.

Director/Screenwriter/Actor BEN AFFLECK on location during the filming of Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' crime drama "The Town," distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo by Claire Folger

Ben Affleck (Joe Coughlin) is a two-time Academy Award winner who has been recognized for his work as a director, actor, writer, and producer. Most recently, Affleck was seen in “The Accountant,” and in early 2016 playing crime fighting icon Batman/Bruce Wayne in the global blockbuster “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”Affleck first came to prominence in 1997 with the acclaimed drama “Good Will Hunting,” which he starred in and co-wrote with Damon. The two won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, as well as a Golden Globe Award and Humanitas Prize. In addition to his successful film career, Affleck is also a passionate advocate and philanthropist. In March 2010, he founded the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), the first U.S.-based advocacy and grant-making initiative wholly focused on the mission of helping the people of eastern Congo support local community-based approaches that create a sustainable and successful society in the long-troubled region. Affleck is also a longtime political activist, as well as a strong supporter of many charitable organizations.

What you put out in the world will always come back to you, but never how you predict.  Taking fatherly advice is not in Joe Coughlin’s nature.  Instead, the WWI vet is a self-proclaimed anti-establishment outlaw, despite being the son of the Boston Police Deputy Superintendent.  Joe’s not all bad, though; in fact, he’s not really bad enough for the life he’s chosen.  Unlike the gangsters he refuses to work for, he has a sense of justice and an open heart, and both work against him, leaving him vulnerable time and again—in business and in love.

Driven by a need to right the wrongs committed against him and those close to him, Joe heads down a risky path that goes against his upbringing and his own moral code.  Leaving the cold, Boston winter behind, he and his reckless crew turn up the heat in Tampa.  And while revenge may taste sweeter than the molasses that infuses every drop of illegal rum he runs, Joe will learn that it comes at a price.


Live by Night was a true passion project for Affleck, who says, “As a filmmaker, this was a chance to pay homage to the classic Warner Bros. gangster movies of the 1930s through the `70s.  I grew up watching them and they had an epic, sprawling feel that really took you into a different world, a different era.”

“Joe fully acknowledges that he’s chosen to be an outlaw in a town run by gangsters, with the Irish and Italian mobs at war,” offers writer/director/producer Ben Affleck, who also plays Joe.  “What I find most intriguing about him though is that, while he breaks the law and makes his own rules, it’s his own morality that prevents him from considering himself one of them, a gangster.”

For the ten years following the war, Joe Coughlin managed to live like an outlaw—under his policeman father’s roof, no less—before it all caught up to him.  “The things that Joe witnessed as a soldier made him decide there wasn’t any meaning to the rules we follow in life, to playing it straight,” Affleck states.  “He even sees the organized hierarchical nature of the gangster life as an equal anathema to the hierarchy of the military.  He wants no part of that, no part of taking orders from anybody.  He’s going to make his own rules.”

And he does so with a fair amount of success, so long as he keeps it, as Affleck describes, “small-time, running around with just two other guys and doing little stick-ups, that kind of thing.”

But it isn’t Joe’s distaste for authority, or even an ill-chosen robbery, that causes him to make his gravest error.  It’s love.  And it’s that singular emotion in its many forms—from passion to compassion—that will continue to be his downfall for years to come.

Affleck adapted the screenplay from author Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name; the two first collaborated when Affleck made his acclaimed directorial debut with his screen adaptation of Lehane’s crime thriller Gone, Baby, Gone.  Lehane served as an executive producer on “Live by Night.”

“Creatively speaking, Ben and I are a unique fit—and it’s not just the Boston thing, though the Boston thing is big,” Lehane smiles.  “There’s something special about Ben’s aesthetic.  His first time in the director’s chair was with ‘Gone Baby Gone,’ and he did such a beautiful job, I love that film.  So when I heard he was going to adapt Live by Night, I was happy to be working with him again.  And like before, watching this book transmogrify in Ben’s hands, from the screenplay on, was a special thing.”

As a lifelong film buff, Affleck posits that the story has all the tropes that made him a fan of the gangster genre in particular: beautiful women, dangerous men, cops, the mob, shootouts, car chases…the whole fiery, combustible mix.  “As soon as I read Dennis’s book I knew that there was something there for anyone who just really likes to have a great time at the movies.”

Leonardo DiCaprio’s production banner, Appian Way, held the rights to the book, which Affleck read at the suggestion of DiCaprio’s producing partner, Jennifer Davisson.  “Our company is constantly looking for stories about great men—which doesn’t necessarily mean good men, just that they have greatness in them in one way or another—and what they sacrifice for that,” she explains.  “One of the things Dennis does so well is dissect the male ego in a really complex and interesting way, and that’s something I think Ben does equally well.  We had the property, but when Ben was reading the book, it was clear how much he liked it and that it was right for him.  When we read Ben’s beautiful script, the same Lehane sensibility jumped off the page.”

Producer Jennifer Todd agrees.  “Ben is attracted to Dennis’s stories, and this one in particular really excited him: the time period, the characters, going from Boston to Florida.  It all felt like nothing else we had looked at.  Add to that the central character Joe, who is not quite a bad guy and not quite a good guy but caught somewhere in between the two, so he makes his choices, but he feels the consequences.  Where does he really belong?”

Joe leaves Boston after a short prison stint for the warmer environs, and even hotter underground rum trade, of Tampa.  In addition to working in and around the greater Los Angeles area, the production shot extensively in various sections of Boston, especially Lawrence, and recreated the exotic Florida locales in various parts of Georgia, which better represented the Tampa from that era.  In collaboration with Affleck, designers Jess Gonchor and Jacqueline West and their teams recreated the time and place, with Robert Richardson capturing it all and William Goldenberg cutting.

Live by Night

Affleck notes, “Diving into this world, this era, with Bob and Bill and Jess and Jackie all encapsulating it so deftly, and all these great actors populating it and turning in tremendous performances, made this one of the most enjoyable films I’ve been involved in.  Everyone came in and did such a great job that it felt like we were there, in that life, going through that experience.”

The three women Joe crosses paths with in the film—in one way or another—are portrayed by Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana.  They are joined by Brendan Gleeson and Chris Cooper on one side of the law, and Remo Girone and Robert Glenister squarely on the other.  Joe’s most trusted friend and fellow felon is played by Chris Messina.

Sienna Miller, who portrays Emma, says she shares Affleck’s enthusiasm for the genre.  “I’m obsessed with the Prohibition era, so to be in this film is a dream realized, but more important to me was the fact that Ben had written the script and would star and direct in it.  Having seen his previous work, I would have dropped anything to be a part of this and to play such an exquisite role.


“Emma’s the quintessential gangster’s moll,” Miller continues, “serving drinks in a speakeasy where illegal poker games go on, being squired about on the arm of her married boss and sleeping with the enemy behind his back.  She has a steely center that serves her in navigating a world that is dark and murderous and misogynistic, and that leads her to embark on a romance with Joe that is beautiful and transient and ultimately tragic.  It’s very clear from the outset that she’s a strong, no-nonsense Irish lass doing what she must to survive.”

Zoe Saldana plays the part of Graciela, a Cuban living in Ybor, a multi-ethnic, multi-racial community of hardworking immigrants, known for the production of cigars.  “Joe’s been working with barbaric, violent criminals his whole life, so there’s an integrity to the people, Graciela’s people, that Joe finds appealing,” she suggests.  “And Graciela is unlike other women he’s known.  She’s educated, she’s traveled and studied music and art.  She’s very cultured and also very smart when it comes to her family’s business.”

Live by night 2

Joe loves Emma, but he learns what love actually is from Graciela.  “What Joe and Emma have is urgent, dramatic, immature in some ways,” says Jennifer Todd.  “What Joe and Graciela have feels more grown up, grounded, and based in something real.”

Perhaps what sets Graciela apart from women like Emma is what she really wants out of life.  “I don’t think Graciela woke up in Cuba and said to herself, ‘I want to date gangsters, I want to live on the dark side,’” Saldana adds.  “I think she wants a full life with a good man, a home, children.  The more time she spends with Joe, the more she realizes that she could have all that with this man.  She sees who he really is, who he could be, if he could wash away all the bad that he does at night by doing good during the day.  She sees his redemption.”

Like Miller and Saldana, Elle Fanning, too, utilized an accent for her role as Loretta Figgis, the sweet, at times naïve daughter of the Tampa police chief.  However, for the Georgia native, it was simply a matter of returning to her roots.  It was the many other facets of Loretta’s journey that would prove an exciting challenge for the young actress.

“At first, Loretta has such sparkle, this girl with a twinkle inside her who is looking for adventure in life, she’s so excited to follow her dreams.  Oddly, it’s when she loses that sparkle, loses that twinkle that she had, that she discovers her real purpose in this world,” Fanning reveals.

Loretta’s initial meeting with Joe is very brief.  The next time they come in contact, the tables have definitely turned.  Both the children of policemen, the comparison ends there; their paths have taken them in very different directions.  Still, Joe can’t help but have a measure of respect for the slip of a girl who could, with just a few words, bring his world crashing down around him.

The script called for a couple of lengthy monologues, one of which took place in front of a large crowd, Joe included.  With Affleck’s blessing, Fanning took the opportunity to speak her lines aloud for the first time when cameras were rolling.  “I just wanted to go for it, to feel that energy, and Ben was so helpful and so giving—both as a director and as an actor in the scene.”

“Elle gave Loretta such an angelic presence and, at the same time, a broken innocence,” observes Jennifer Davisson.  “It’s trickier than it sounds to do that, but it was important for the character and she got it.”

“Elle’s an extremely gifted actress,” Affleck states.  “In the book, the character starts out at 13, but in the script I wrote her to be closer to the cusp of womanhood, someone who was straddling that line of being a girl and being grown up.  I thought it would make Loretta’s storyline even more heartbreaking.”

Affleck summarizes by stating, “Just like those classic gangster movies I watched as a kid, Dennis Lehane created an engrossing world and a character we can all relate to.  We all want to be our own person, live life on our own terms, but sometimes there’s a price for that and it’s high.  I found it almost heroic for Joe to try so hard to be true to himself, despite what he knows it will cost him, and I hope moviegoers will, too.”