FilmInterview

Interview: Director Gavin O’Connor Talks About ‘The Accountant’ and Creating An Origin Story

Ari Howorth ‘’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Emertainment Monthly was fortunate enough to have the chance to meet with Gavin O’Connor, acclaimed director of films such as Miracle, Warrior, and most recently The Accountant, the subject of this particular discussion. The Accountant follows Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), an accountant with a shady history, being tracked by the Government, as he takes on a seemingly normal case, with more secrets than he anticipates.

Emertainment Monthly: What was it like to direct another director, in terms of Ben Affleck being an esteemed director?

Gavin O’Connor: He was there as an actor. It was never in any way an issue and I think if Ben made it an issue or was applying his directing brains to the movie then I guess it would have been an issue, but he was there to play this guy. And we were working really hard to create this guy together. We did a lot of research. You know, I believe you make the movie before you make the movie. That’s really my philosophy. All of the work has to happen before the first day that you shoot a frame of film. You make the movie before you make the movie. So, we just did a lot of work together as a director and as an actor to create this character with a lot of research and that’s what we did.

EM: So his input was more about his character than the picture as a whole?

GO: Yeah. When he finally saw the movie, he was so happy because as he said, “When I’m not with you, I don’t know what the hell is going on. I have no idea. There’s so many other balls in the air with this film.” And he was really like, “I’m so happy. I knew what we were doing was working, but there’s so many different tracks in the film.” And the biggest one for him which he was so happy with was him as a boy. He goes, “What you did with Seth [the kid who plays young Chris], makes my performance better because you understand who I am as a child and that informs who I am as an adult. So he was really grateful that all of that worked really well.

EM: I hadn’t even thought about the fact that he didn’t see his younger counterpart.

GO: He had no idea. The only thing he saw, was he met Seth one day when I brought them together for a long day where Ben and I had worked on the present-day character, the adult Chris, and creating all of these behaviors based on people that we met. We spent a lot of time with guys on the spectrum. So once we created this character, the nuance and the decisions of all of the basic behavior patterns and specificity and details in behavior I said to Ben, “We feel good about who Chris is.” I now got to get Seth to do the exact same thing because he can’t be doing different behavior. He has to do the exact same thing.

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Gavin O’Connor, Seth Lee and Ben Affleck. Photo Credit: Taylorblackwell.net.

EM: And he wasn’t with you guys when you were spending all of that time with research?

GO: Nope. I did have Seth in a classroom environment with kids who were 10-13 years old autistic kids. So he spent a lot of time in the classroom with these kids. This woman named Lori Stevens who runs the school called Exceptional Minds let me bring Seth in to just spend days in a classroom, so he was absorbing the spectrum. But, once we had the behavior down, I got Seth and Ben together and Ben taught him all of the behaviors and I shot it and then I was showing him. He was mimicking it and it was almost like Simon Says. It was wild. It was really wild. And that’s how they met and they did all of that together and then they went their separate ways. That’s how we handled all of that. Obviously, I was with Seth making sure we did certain things at certain times knowing what I already shot with Ben

Boston University: Did you have any considerations choosing an actor to play someone with Autism instead of choosing one who actually has the disability?

GO: I thought about that, but I thought the way to do this, since Ben doesn’t have Autism was to have someone do all of the work to create it. I thought it would be better to have an actor do it rather than someone on the spectrum, because someone who’s really on the spectrum you would have to deconstruct your own behaviors and then have to reconstruct it into what Ben was doing. I wasn’t going to cast someone and then have Ben mimic them, and I wasn’t sure how easily that person would be able to do that. I thought that could maybe be more challenging. That was my philosophy.

Northeastern University Film Enthusiasts’ Club: I noticed there was a lot of subversion of expectations. This happened with the painting at the end, his brother, and that he is a common accountant who is a cold assassin. Is that part of how you tell stories?

GO: A lot of that stuff was in the script. This is what attracted me when I read the script is that it had a lot of twists and turns and surprises. My job now is how do I bring that all to life in a nuanced way. A lot of the stuff was in the script that I just loved. The brother for example, I was never trying to make that a twist. My whole philosophy with Jon Bernthal was let’s just play it honestly and I don’t want to try a sleight of hand with this character at all. There were other things I was protecting. They had to land as a surprise, but with Bernthal I just wanted to play it honestly. What would you honestly do in this situation? What would you honestly do here? I was not trying to play a shell game. As an example, once you get to John Lithgow’s house, I had him when he looks at the screen and sees [Chris] he could have thought, “Oh my God. Is that—“ We were playing it honestly and I’ve had people say to me that they didn’t know it until the end of the movie. I’ve had a lot of people say to me they figured it out earlier. And I don’t really care. Whenever you figured it out is cool with me.

EM: It didn’t feel like a big twist as much as a plot development.

GO: Yeah. I had someone say to me, “I thought it in this scene, but then is it?” That’s a good thing because then you’re living with the anticipation of oh my god is it? I think it is. And then you get closer to yes it is, but the idea of it is already whispering in their ear.

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Gavin O’Connor and Tom Hardy. Photo Credit: HitFix.com.

EM: Kind of in that vein, I was thinking about Warrior when I saw this which also ends in a brother vs. brother showdown. You have a brother. Are these stories coming from a personal tie to you? Or is it just coincidence that these two stories that you liked both have a climactic brother fight?

O’Connor: It was kind of weird when I wrote the script. My friend Anthony Tambakis and I wrote Warrior. The thing about Warrior is that I always called it an intervention in a cage, where one brother saves the other brother’s life by beating the piss out of him, which is a weird thing to be done. Then when I read this, the action was different. We changed the script a lot. In the script that I read the puzzle of the movie, the plot twists of the movie, I never changed because it was brilliant. Bill [Dubuque] did it. What I did change with Bill was all of the flashbacks, because I said to Bill, “How does this guy have all of these skills? Where did that come from? I want to make this an origin story. I want to know how he was formed.” So we changed all of the flashbacks. Then we changed the action because I decided I wanted to have him have a certain fighting style, Pencak Silat. The action is where it has always been in the architecture of the script but we changed all of the action. Then driving towards that fight at the end with the brothers, wasn’t exactly that. I remember thinking that, “I can’t believe I’m actually having two brothers again. I hope this never happens for a third time.”

NUFEC: Was the flashback with J.K. Simmons in the original script or did you put that in yourself?

GO: That was always there. The flashbacks of Chris as a boy we changed. I just wanted to know how he got these skills. So now we see what his father did to inform his fighting style and his weapon skills.

BU: How did you balance the action scenes with the humor of the film?

GO: That was another thing that I was calling out of the script. The read was that it was a bending of genres and a mind teaser but I wanted to make the movie fun. So that was a tonal thing I was trying to do. That’s what you do as a director. You take a piece of material and you point it. You could have made it a much more dramatic serious movie. I knew there were heavy themes and a seriousness to all of the flashbacks. Those are not funny—what happened to him as a child. My ultimate marching order was, “Make it fun. Make it fun.” I cast Anna Kendrick for that reason. I knew that she was funny and I knew that if I got it right with those two I could make those scenes fun. With Ben, we did so much research that he’s so into the character that I was always encouraging him that if there are moments where you see an opportunity to find humor, go for it. A lot of the funny moments, things he says, at the beginning when he walks into his office and slams the door, those are improvisational moments. I was definitely encouraging him to try things. If it didn’t work then I was like, It doesn’t work. Who the fuck cares? No one’s ever going to see it. But if it does work, you get gold. Ben’s really funny in real life. He has really great comedic timing. If it was honest in the moment we would try things. Those are all improvs.

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Anna Kendrick, Ben Affleck and Gavin O’Connor. Photo Credit: Philly.com.

EM: This movie is about one of the accountant’s cases. It’s not his first case, you don’t know how he got into this business—

GO: You know a little bit from his stuff with [Jeffrey] Tambor.

EM: That’s true. But you don’t see his first case. There are just snippets of him working with other people. You also don’t see his last case, unless this is that case. It’s kind of open-ended in that way. What inspired the decision to focus on just another case for him?

GO: Most of the cases that he works on, he’s a black money accountant, so he’s going down to the darkest, most dangerous corners of the Earth and working with criminals and he goes and uncooks the books. In our movie, he goes into a job that he thinks is going to be easy. He’s not uncooking the books for some cartel. This guy is a businessman and he’s just auditing the books. It’s a slam-dunk job, until he discovers there is a lot of shady sleight of hand moving money around. He discovers that because what Lithgow’s character didn’t anticipate was that Lithgow has a one in a million brain, but he didn’t expect a guy with a one in a billion brain. All he was hoping for was that this guy would come in and audit the books and not see anything and he could go public. If this guy didn’t see anything he’s pretty safe. What he didn’t bank on was that this guy would have the skills. He puts a bounty on a girl’s head. This girl strikes a fire in Chris’s heart. Usually what Chris would do if he got in dangerous situations, is that he would pack up and leave. Now there is a hit on a girl who he has feelings for. Poor anybody who stands in the way of that. And we see what happens when it’s not the dangerous kind of villain. That’s what was fun about it.

BU: Did you ever feel nervous to direct big stars like Ben Affleck and J.K. Simmons?

GO: No. I just want to get good actors to work with. I had always known J.K. and been a fan but I saw him in Whiplash the night it opened. I remember leaving the theater and calling my producer and saying, “Get the script to J.K. Simmons, I want him to play Ray and get me a meeting with him this week.” I sat down with him, he loved the script, he loved my work, he said, “Let’s make a movie together.” Every other actor that I called for a role said yes. I wasn’t going through lists of actors. I got my first choice. They’re all regular doing their job and I’m doing mine. My job is to explain to them the intention of the movie and an actor’s job is to service the vision of the movie. That’s what actors do. You want to get actors who are really good at that. If you do all of the work correctly and you build the character correctly and you build the backstory, which I always do with actors, after that—I’m a fan of watching actors do really good work. If you have to tweak things, it’s cool. Let’s try it.

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Gavin O’Connor and Ben Affleck. Photo Credit: Collider.com.

EM: There is some play with Chris’s feelings for Anna Kendrick’s character in some way, but she’s not a romantic involvement. That’s not the role she fills. What informed the decision to not taking that more conventional Hollywood approach?

GO: It’s the same thing. A lot of roles define expectations. The obvious way to go is that she becomes the love interest and then they make out—they almost do but they don’t. That’s the point. I wasn’t going to go there. It was in the script that they didn’t and if anyone suggested that they should the answer was no. The obvious place was to make them get really romantically involved, but I don’t want to do that. She stirs his heart and most importantly he has connection with a woman. That activates something inside of him that feels good. The reality is that he had to leave. People say he should have stayed and they should have gotten together in the end of the movie. He can’t stay with her. This is what he does. If he stays and continues to operate in this kind of vocation, he’s putting her in danger all of the time. Every time he leaves he never gets to leave anything behind. The idea that he can give her the Polluck, which is a piece of himself that he cares about. That was the win. Alright, we got to wrap this up. I’ve got to catch a plane.

EM: Where are you off to?

GO: Philly. Take care. Thanks.

The Accountant is now in theaters. Check out Emertainment Monthly’s review of the film here.

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