- Spending nearly two years of Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix’s lives on a fake documentary about Phoenix’s pretend failed rap career, which the general public apparently didn’t give a shit about
Defender: On one commentary, director Casey Affleck. On the other, Affleck shares the mic with Phoenix; actor/producer Nicole Acacio; actor/crewmember/producer Larry McHale; co-star/cameraman Antony Langdon; actors Johnny Moreno, Eddie Rouse Jr., and Matt Maher; actor/intern Elliot Gaynon; and publicist Susan Patricola.
Tone of commentary: The Affleck commentary is sleepy and a bit dopey, full of protracted pauses both between observations and in the middle of sentences. Finally given the opportunity to lift the curtain and comment at length on exactly why he wanted Phoenix to publicly Method-act through a “lost year” of life as a booze-and-drug-addled, egomaniacal, disintegrating asshole, Affleck instead mostly devotes two hours to trivia, such as what order scenes were shot in, where they were shot, and how many takes he filmed. He makes glancing references to lengthy philosophical conversations he and Phoenix had about their intentions for the film, and how Phoenix’s character should be shaped—for instance, whether he should pretend to use drugs, since viewers “might be dismissive of his kinda whole character” as an addict, instead of accepting it “as part of his whole trip, coming undone, pulling the stitches out of his own seams.” But he never gets into the contents of those conversations, or why they made the decisions they made.
Instead, Affleck repeatedly spells out the film’s obvious story arc, even describing what’s happening onscreen. His comment that Phoenix’s talent agency supported the project, but “I don’t think they totally understood it, because it was never articulated very well” seems particularly revealing.
He does say that while Phoenix’s career change and breakdown were presented to the public and the media as reality, he never intended the project as a hoax or practical joke:
The reason that we were so tight-lipped, the reason I was so, so insistent and so diligent with the crew and everybody about keeping a lid on all this was, it sorta was gonna help make the movie in the way we wanted to make the movie, believable, to have people be treating him like he’s a normal person, to get sort of great performances and stuff. It wasn’t to fool people. That was never the intention… So it’s not a hoax. It’s something. It’s a performance, that’s for sure. It’s just like any other movie, just made in a slightly different way.
The group track isn’t the usual chattery mayhem of a large-group commentary; most of the participants don’t contribute except to address their scene when it comes up, and the conversation regularly stalls out entirely. It sounds like a room full of awkward introverts, waiting for someone else to take the lead. Affleck repeats some of the production stories from his solo commentary, while Phoenix only occasionally drops in a wry confirmation or contradiction, mostly implying that making the film was a grueling, nerve-racking experience for him.
By far the hero of the group commentary is Matt Maher, a giggly, childishly eager man who asks the other participants interesting questions and gets the commentary moving again at many of the points where everyone falls silent. He’s also the only one to comment on Phoenix’s mindset during the film, which Phoenix quickly shuts down:
Maher: I just remember being on set, and your fear and paranoia over being in the movie would actually mirror the fear and paranoia your character has actually in the movie. It was hard to figure out whether you were afraid of doing what you had to do, or you were pretending to be afraid.
Phoenix: Yeah… Matt, in the future, keep your thoughts to yourself. [Both laugh.]
Maher: “In the future.” [Laughs.]
Phoenix: Well, now, too.
Undaunted, Maher later goes on to point out that the entire point of the movie seems to be putting Phoenix in the most uncomfortable positions possible, and that as far as he knows, Langdon and Phoenix spent days on end never budging from Phoenix’s apartment, just wandering around haranguing each other in character. (Langdon says it was more like months.)
What went wrong: Affleck admits that the film was received poorly: “The reviews have read like somebody rolling their eyes and sucking their teeth. They seem pretty irritated by it all.” He bemoans the fact that the film got “about 48 hours” of attention before the public moved on, but says all the secrecy about whether Phoenix really was having a breakdown is irrelevant to the final product, which would be best watched 30 years from now, without the context of the past year of media focus on Phoenix’s life.
In terms of the actual production, most of the what-went-wrong stories are minor:
• The scene where Phoenix’s much-abused assistant Antony Langdon shits on Phoenix’s face in the middle of the night required at least 35 takes because the concealed homemade rig Langdon used to drop a mixture of hummus and coffee on Phoenix kept showing up in the shot.
• Affleck planned an different ending to Phoenix’s second meeting with Sean Combs, where a large member of Combs’ entourage would forcibly eject Phoenix from the building, but he thinks Combs didn’t exactly explain the situation to the bodyguard, who terrified both Affleck and Phoenix, and made them turn the camera off.
• The crew actually went to President Obama’s inauguration and filmed dozens of hours of footage, but none of it was interesting, so they went back to L.A. and threw together a brief sequence where Phoenix just sleeps through the whole thing.
• In the nightclub scene near the end, audience plant Eddie Rouse Jr. heckles Phoenix, who yells back “I’ve got a million dollars in my bank account and you’re washing dishes, and you come in here and heckle me?” That line was intended to turn the audience against Phoenix, who says he was prepared for them to storm the stage and beat him. Instead, they cheered him on and started chanting his name, which seems to leave both Affleck and Phoenix nonplussed and disappointed in humanity. The sequence ends with Phoenix lunging into the audience to attack Rouse; because the floor was wet, they both fell, and Rouse says audience members started trying to strangle him on Phoenix’s behalf, so he had to surrender to security guards to survive. They were understandably nervous, and kept demanding reassurances that he wouldn’t sue.
• Affleck didn’t watch the film with other people until the Venice Film Festival because he was dreading it, but now he really regrets it. He feels he should have watched it with other people while there was still time to make changes—though again, he offers no details.
Comments on the cast: Affleck generally praises the people who allowed themselves to get hauled into the film on no notice, like Mos Def, whom they ran into on a plane, and who improvised convincingly and professionally. Affleck says he personally doesn’t think he would have participated in such a project if he’d been abruptly put on the spot in the same way: “We probably looked silly to some people, but we knew what we were doing.”
Most of the planned-and-prepared participants, like Combs and Ben Stiller, are given polite praise for their skill at playing characters and taking direction. Affleck seems particularly amused by Edward James Olmos, whom he wanted in the film because he’d seen Olmos do an inspirational stay-in-school presentation in Affleck’s school 15 years previously; when he reached out to Olmos about the project, Olmos was willing, but didn’t want to know any of the details, and exhibited no curiosity at all about the film in which he would appear.
Also, “One of Joaquin’s talents is that he can make himself throw up, sometimes, without putting his finger down his throat.” He also “had great control over his weight,” so if a segment shot in continuity didn’t work, he would quickly gain or lose 10 pounds, grow out his hair and beard or cut them back a little, and shoot it again.
Inevitable dash of pretension: Affleck, at the beginning of his commentary, in a rare moment of self-reflection: “My main focus for a time was to have the performances be so believable that they created a space for the audience to comfortably surrender to the emotions of the story, to let themselves believe that what they were seeing was actually happening.”
And then at the end: “I always kinda thought of the movie as [Dante’s] Inferno. It begins with this guy who’s sort of in the middle of his life who’s lost his way. [Long pause.] From there, it just slowly goes down, down, down, down until he’s at the bottom, or very near the bottom. [Long pause.] And things get worse and worse for him. [Long pause.] Until he finally reaches the very, very bottom and breaks through the ground at the bottom and finds himself looking up, and emerges into the light, and has made it out to the other side.”
Commentary in a nutshell: During one amazing scene where Phoenix wildly capers and cackles while preparing lines of coke and threatening to shit in his assistant’s mouth, Affleck’s bland comment: “So, Anthony is sober, and Joaquin is taunting him with the drugs.”