(PCM) Gavin O’Connor enjoys telling personal and emotional stories with many surprises.
This is all crystal clear in “The Accountant,” his new action thriller starring Ben Affleck as a math savant with a troubling past who is clearly much more than meets the eye.
The 52-year-old O’Connor is best known for his films “Warrior,” which led to a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for Nick Nolte, as well as “Tumbleweeds,” and “Pride and Glory.” He said when he read “The Accountant,” screenplay he was instantly intrigued.
Soon after, he assembled his “dream team” led by Affleck, anOscar-winning actor and director. The cast also includes: Anna Kendrick, J.K.Simmons, John Lithgow and Jean Smart. The movie, from Warner Bros. Pictures, opens Friday, Oct. 14.
During a recent visit to Philadelphia, where he attended the University of Pennsylvania (Class of ‘86), O’Connor spoke proudly of ‘The Accountant,’ and the rigorous journey that he and Affleck embarked on to make this riveting film.
Affleck, (“Argo,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”),plays leading man Christian Wolff, a quirky math genius with more affinity for numbers than people. Behind the cover of a small-town Illinois CPA office, he works as a freelance accountant for some of the world’s most dangerous criminal organizations.
With the Treasury Department’s Crime Enforcement Division,run by Ray King (J.K. Simmons), starting to close in, Christian takes on a legitimate client: a state-of-the-art robotics company where an accounting clerk, (Anna Kendrick), has discovered a discrepancy involving millions of dollars. But as Christian un-cooks the books and gets closer to the truth, it is the body count that starts to rise.
Affleck, who has played Batman in several movies, said ‘The Accountant,” presented its own unique challenges. “My role required a lot of research,” that the actor and his director tackled together. “We saw the value was in making Chris seem like the people we had seen and met in real life,rather than an imagined version of what it might be.”
Everyone involved sees many vital life lessons in the film.“The story speaks to the duality in all of us. It might be easy to pigeonhole a guy like Chris,” Affleck said, “but we find out he’s capable of much more than you imagine.”
Q: What attracted you to this story?
Gavin O’Connor: I found the script to be a refreshingly conceived piece of material. I appreciated the puzzle aspect and I was captivated by this character of Christian Wolff. I had never seen anything like this before in cinema; but I knew that I wanted to.
Q: Tell me how you were able to get into the head of Ben’s character – was there weapons training and research on autism and the many quirks involved. Was it a boot camp?
GO: We knew you can’t just show up on day one and play someone on the autism spectrum.
Q: So what did you and Ben do to prepare?
GO: We watched documentaries, met educators and specialists and all of this led us Lori Stevens who runs a school called Exceptional Minds in L.A. She created a unique environment, and we would sit down and talk to the men there. We talked about their lives, asked them a variety of questions and immersed ourselves and plunged into their world. They were so generous. That was one track.
Q: What was the other?
GO: Well, the character of Batman wore a mask and that works with stunt doubles, I knew the visual side and discovered a particular style an Indonesian martial art called pencak silat, and Ben worked out for months with my fight guys to be able to do all the stunts. It was very impressive all around.
Q: How would you say you were personally changed by your movie“The Accountant?” Were there life lessons along the way?
GO: My wife’s best friends’ son is on the spectrum, so I knew his story and some of his struggles. But when Ben and I went on this journey together I wanted there to be a blank slate so we could make our new discoveries.
Q: And did you?
GO: Definitely. Making this movie changed my perspective for looking at anyone. I learned there is no one defining thing for one person; it varies so much which was liberating.
Q: Did you have a goal for making this movie?
GO: Yes. I feel that this is a really good time to be different in this country. I wanted to celebrate being different. I wanted to change people’s perspective on autism, and for people to be able to see that their world is great, and what they experience is so much more – and not less.I also loved having so many film genres running concurrently – and the character study was the more important part of the process for me.
Q: How did you see the character of Chris’ father in the movie?
GO: The father knew how hard it is to be different, and he was scared of that difference. As I continued to say on the set, ‘Every decision he made is generated by love,’ but we all know that parenting is not a job for a perfectionist. He was operating from a place of fear. He fears it could be an incredibly cruel world for his son and expectations for his son.Those are the only tools he has in his tool belt.
Q: What was the best part of working with Ben Affleck on this film?
GO: Once I decided to make this movie, I thought a lot about the character of Christian Wolff and what a challenging piece of material this is. I decided on Ben. I had truly never seen him in anything like this, but I knew if challenged and given the opportunity, he definitely had the acting chops. I enjoyed the shared experience of creating Christian Wolff. We went about building this piece by piece to uncover all of the nuances of this character. The act of this discovering we were doing together was really gratifying. Ben attributes his performance to the men at the Exceptional Minds School. We were excited, and so were they; that we were accurately depicting them in a movie.
Q: Tell me about working with Anna Kendrick.
GO: I was looking for humor when ever I could pull it out of a scene and she filled the shoes and set the tone. Anna and Ben had a really fun chemistry, and the movie benefited by how they played off of each other.
Q: What about the other actors in this A-list cast?
GO: I have been a big fan of John Lithgow for many years. I saw Whiplash and wanted to meet with J.K. Simmons I am a massive Jeffrey Tambor fan. I was fortunate that everyone we offered the part to said a resounding yes.
Q: Do you think this movie blurs the line between good guys and bad guys?
GO: Yes, it’s blurry. Chris’ character is a black market accountant who un-cooks the books for very dangerous clients. He doesn’t enjoy this, and in the story line there is a young woman named Dana (played by Anna Kendrick) who is amazing, and who sees an amazingness in Chris. When her life is threatened, he’s only acting out of protecting someone that he cares about.
Q: This movie does involve many genres – a thriller, suspense film and an action movie, with great shooting scenes and some tender family moments. Tell me about this.
GO: Yes, there is an emotional connection. Also, I don’t view the violence as gratuitous. It’s an action movie, and it makes you think.
Q: How so?
GO: If you think of the autism gene disappearing for any reasonwe would lose some of the most brilliant, brightest musicians and artists on the planet. Yes, as a parent it is a much tougher job, but it is also incredibly fulfilling. We learned that given the opportunity these men and women can do anything they put their minds to. One reason people are responding to the film, is that once Chris starts revealing the various parts of himself, you are already so invested in him and his character.
Q: I have to know – were the math problems scribbled all over the office walls accurate?
GO: Yes. They were all real math problems. It was pretty challenging to create all the thousands of numbers and equations. I had a professor from Georgia Institute of Technology and he was really helpful in creating all of that. They were all accurate formulas.
Q: What is the initial audience reaction?
GO: The response has been extremely positive. We screened the movie for Autism Speaks and we heard from many parents and people on the spectrum. Everyone told us they were really pleased. Those young men and women were really moved by the film and that’s the most gratifying litmus test for me.