Director Gavin O’Connor has done it again. After wowing audiences with his action-filled but emotive explorations of violence, masculinity and love in ‘Warrior’, ‘Miracle’, & ‘Pride and Glory’ and Warrior, he has returned to the screen this week with ‘The Accountant’. The film focuses on Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), a math savant with more affinity for numbers than people. Behind his cover as a small-town accountant, he uses his skills to crunch numbers for some of the world’s most dangerous criminal organizations.
Here Gavin O’Connor tells Movies Plus about the inspiration behind the film, the emotional heft of violence, and exploring autism on screen.
In your new film The Accountant, it’s suggested that Ben Affleck’s character Christian has a form of Asperger’s Syndrome. Part of his condition is his laser focus and mathematical ability, and another his sometimes awkward, sometimes charming struggle to relate with others. What was important to you when it came to portraying this condition?
When I read the script, I knew I wanted the portrayal to be nuanced, so we met a lot of autism specialists and educators. Learning that there are no two identical experiences of autism was really important, to avoid generalisations. And then we met a lot of guys on the spectrum. And then, just as I started this journey, I was sent a three-hour rough cut of a documentary called Asperger’s Are Us. It’s about four guys on the spectrum who are comedians, who have a comedy troupe. And I laughed so hard and I called Ben and said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to watch this with me.’ So I went over to his house, and we laughed, and that was liberating. That was my introduction to the humor that can co-exist with autism. I knew I wanted to have that element in the film, and so did Ben, but it needed to be proven, needed to be substantiated. This film did that.
Your film stars bonafide movie star Ben Affleck, everyone’s favourite quirky girl Anna Kendrick, and J.K. Simmons who has played some of the most charming and terrifying characters onscreen. What made you cast these very different actors?
Well, they were available and cheap! Honestly, they were the only actors I went to. Honestly, for every role, the first person that I approached I managed to get them in the movie! One of the great things about making movies is that you get to work with people who you’re a fan on and whose work you admire. It’s why I love doing what I do. Getting to go on this metaphorical train with these people and go on a storytelling journey is truly an honour. From JK, it was incredible to go from initially meeting to figuring out we live close to each other and then we’re together and think about the background of characters and figure out their motives and workshop ideas, and getting to do that with each of your actors is a beautiful process. Also, I feel the tone of the movie is greatly influenced by the people who you put in the movie. I wanted to cast for the tone; I knew I wanted the movie to be fun and find comedy even on the razor’s edge of the themes we were addressing. I wanted Anna’s warmth and humour to offset the cool calculated nature of Ben’s character, and I knew the chemistry would come from her pushing him off-balance when he’s so controlled, and opening doors for him, emotionally.
People on the autism spectrum are often infantalised and desexualised both in real life and onscreen, but Christian and Dana share a mutual respect and attraction. Was that important to you?
It was so important for me that their relationship be the heart and soul of the film, as they play chess moves around each other to reach a comfort and understanding. What I love about Dana is that she loves art, and I think she sees Christian as an artist. When he solves an equation, she sees Picasso. What others view as flaws or oddities, she sees as genius – but also finds human moments with him. I wanted her to see him as a fully-rounded character, so that the audience could.
There’s a theme of brotherhood and that deep connection between brothers that can be protective and violent at the same time. We also saw this theme emerge in Warrior. You have a twin brother, is that why exploring brotherhood is so important to you?
That’s true, I am drawn to those stories, and that thread definitely resonated with me when I read Bill Dubuque’s script and struck a personal chord. I probably am trying to work through some issues about my brother and my Dad that I haven’t figured out yet! But family dynamics are always interesting to explore in cinema and storytelling, and they’re usually tapping into the binding emotion of love. The giving of it, the absence of love, the desire for love. And I always find it so fascinating how in relationships, live can disappear in a blinding flash – but with family, it can also reappear that quickly. One of the thing I liked doing was making Brax, the younger brother, look up to his older brother. It plays against our preconceptions of autism as something vulnerable, because Christian is so admired by his brother. In a way it’s the most profound relationship of the film, but takes place off-screen – but has a pay-off at the end.
Violence and what violence means to your characters is always big in your films. In Warrior we saw you explore MMA, and in ‘The Accountant’ you take a martial art and bring a Jason Bourne-like quality to the action.
I’m going to take that as a compliment, because I think the Bourne movies do that action really well. When I watch most action movies, I can hold my nose a little bit but I really respect what the Bourne movies do. Having said that, we weren’t studying them or aiming to emulate them. All of the action in our movie was informed by Christian, Ben Affleck’s character. I thought when it came to inflicting violence, like everything else, he would do it as efficiently as possible. He doesn’t enjoy fighting, he just calculates exactly what has to be done. So then we found the fighting style, an Indonesian martial art called pencak silat, which is both an efficient and flashy way of ending a fight. And it opened up a subplot about Christian’s father bringing the brothers to Indonesia and making them learn how to fight, and why he thinks that is necessary for Christian – what he fears for his son, and how he tries to combat that, and if that approach is healthy. So the pencak silat looked great, and emotionally worked for the character.
The film has a theme of calculation and planning sometimes being superseded by sheer luck. In an industry where so much about profits and ox offices seems so calculated, but luck also seems to play such a big role, is that important to you?
To recognise luck in the moment is a really difficult thing. You just make choices and see. For me, when something is lucky I think I often value it less if something has even been disastrous. In my life, the things that have been the most painful have created the most growth for me as a person when I come out the other side of it. So I don’t think I even look for luck, because both the blessings and the curses can be great forces in your life, they’re just on different levels.
WATCH THE TRAILER
Words : Roe McDermott
THE ACCOUNTANT is now showing in Irish Cinemas!