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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It usually doesn't work, trying this hard to be taken seriously. In The Town and Argo, Affleck's characters never smile. He cut each film down to almost nothing but story, throwing away bonding dialogue between Mendez and his boss (Bryan Cranston) and scenes about Mendez's troubled marriage. And as on his previous films, he applied what he learned watching other directors at work. "Every time I've been hired as an actor, it's a film school for me," says Affleck, who began his career in TV as a child actor. "Almost to the detriment of my acting. I'd lose my concentration learning about dollies or lenses and then say, 'Oh, yeah, I'm supposed to be thinking about how my [character's] mother died.'"

"I don't buy for a second he didn't know this directing career was coming all along," says filmmaker Kevin Smith, who gave Affleck, then 25, his first starring role, in the 1997 indie Chasing Amy. "The dude grew up on sets since he was 8. He's like Jason Bourne. The programming kicks in and he's punching guys in the mush because he's been silently training as a ninja all these years." On Chasing Amy, Affleck was never in his trailer; he was too busy talking to the crew. "He spent more time with my [director of photography] than I did," Smith says.

To master directing, Affleck says he adopted "the Malcolm Gladwell approach of just putting in hours" — referring to Gladwell's book Outliers, which proposes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to command a craft. "It means I don't have a life," adds Affleck, who hasn't seen much of his wife, actress Jennifer Garner, or their three children since starting work on Argo. "But I have the comfort of feeling, 'Well, I put it all out there.' I don't feel like if I just worked that [extra] Sunday, it would have made it better."

Argo is Affleck's first period piece, and a lot of that time away from his family was spent obsessing about making the film feel like the 1970s. When the end credits juxtapose photos of the actual Canadian Caper principals with stills from the movie, it's hard to tell which is which. To immerse the audience in the era, Affleck used regular film, cut the frames in half and blew those images up 200% to increase their graininess. He copied camera movements and bustling office scenes from Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men (1976) for sequences depicting CIA headquarters. For his L.A. exteriors, he lifted from John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976).

To ensure maximum historical accuracy, he consulted with the real-life Tony Mendez. And he tried to take a research trip to Iran but was told, "You can go, you won't be harmed, but people from the [Iranian] government will show up to do photo ops, and you'll become Tehran Ben," he says. "I wouldn't be able to control the perception of me somehow endorsing some part of their government." And Affleck is aware of how tricky it is to control your image.

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