Mr. Serious

A decade ago, Ben Affleck was a tabloid fixture. Five years ago, a fledgling filmmaker. Today, he's the force behind one of the year's best movies

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Spencer Murphy for TIME

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So Affleck, who shared a Best Screenplay Oscar with Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting (1997), went back to writing, reworking a dark script he hoped to direct, Gone Baby Gone. He asked Dick Cook, who was the head of Walt Disney Studios at the time and had been an executive overseeing Affleck's blockbusters Pearl Harbor (2001) and Armageddon, if he could make Gone Baby Gone for $18 million. "It had coke-using child molesters," Affleck says. "I thought, It's Disney. They'll never do it. He said, 'Great, I'll do it.' I said, 'I know he's never had a lead before, but I want to use my brother'" — Casey Affleck, of the Ocean's Eleven franchise. "Dick said, 'If you think he's the right guy for the job, he's the right guy for the job.' I said, 'Am I getting reverse-punked?'"

He wasn't. Cook has trusted Affleck since they made a handshake deal on some parts of his Pearl Harbor contract that he didn't want in writing because the other actors would demand equal treatment. "You could see it in his eyes, in his face, how determined he was to make a really great movie," Cook says. "You like to have a guy who has something to prove."

Affleck had more leverage than people might have guessed. That's because the film industry, like most other businesses, is a small group of people who all know one another and everyone tries to work with the likable people. Likable people's bosses let them do things they don't let other people do. When likable people stumble, others help them. Likable people call this kindness. Unlikable people call it office politics. Ben Affleck is really good at office politics.

"If you spend a long time in this industry, you see a lot of career roller-coaster rides," says George Clooney, whose company, Smokehouse Pictures, produced Argo. "But if you survive the tougher times, there's a lot of goodwill when you come out the other side."

"Silently Training as a Ninja"

Gone Baby Gone, which hit theaters in 2007, didn't immediately fix Affleck's career. It got great reviews and an Oscar nomination, for Amy Ryan as the world's worst mom, but few ticket buyers. "I tried to let it publicize itself without my involvement," Affleck says. "And I didn't want to be in the movie. Then it would be about me as an actor and 'Oh, he directed it too.' Like I wasn't as serious about it."

But for the second film he directed, The Town, he cast himself in the lead role as a conflicted bank thief and included enough gunfire to market it as an action movie. "I knew if it didn't work, that would probably be no-more-ski for me, directingwise," he said. The Town, released in 2010, earned $92 million in the U.S., enough to earn Affleck the chance to make Argo.

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