On the release of the I’m Still Here:
DVD and Blu-ray (released Jan 10) Lauren
Williams talks to director/ actor Casey Affleck (main photo, The Killer Inside Me), the man behind the hit film.
It is very rare
when the critical response to a film’s theatrical release becomes instantly
redundant, but, then again, I’m Still Here is a very rare film. When Casey
Affleck’s directorial debut hit cinemas last autumn, the majority of critics
reviewed the movie as a bona fide documentary, a portrait of a star (two-time Oscar-nominee Joaquin
Phoenix) in an ever-deteriorating state of psychological meltdown.
A select band
of savvy journalists saw through the ruse — spotted the inconsistencies, the
multi-angled shots, the Additional Dialogue Recording — and despite Affleck’s
initial insistence that all was real, within a few days of the film’s US and UK
release, the first-time filmmaker finally conceded that the project had been
staged. I’m Still Here is not a piece of raw documentary candour; rather it’s
an inspired piece of performance art, Phoenix laying his very reputation on the
line in a bid to deliver the ultimate Method portrayal.
terrific performance, it’s the performance of his career,” notes Affleck in the
aftermath of the film’s release. “And you’re right, he did put his professional
life on the line. It’s a bit of gonzo filmmaking”, he says, referencing Hunter
S. Thompson’s reality-bending journalism.
is structured around Phoenix’s phoney bid to record a rap record, and the drama
arrives via a few key meetings with his potential producer, hip-hop heavyweight
Sean Combs, and a clutch of highly eventful, if utterly cringe-worthy, public
performances, the last of which witnesses Phoenix stage-dive into the crowd in
an attempt to batter a vociferous heckler.
finally bursts Phoenix’s bubble, declining the chance to produce his record,
the would-be rap-star’s dream is dissolved and he is left lost and lonely,
venturing out to see his father in Panama. The film’s final moments see him
diving into a forest pool (the same pool, of course, that opens the movie) and
we’re left watching an overweight, very hirsute, and overly troubled man wander
down-river into the great unknown. Will Phoenix be able to rise from the ashes
of his own crash-landing? The evidence as presented would suggest not.
however, as suggested, is not real. “I never intended to trick anybody,”
counters Affleck. “There were certain
ideas that interested me, but I didn’t want to make a didactic message movie.
There were ideas at play, about the entertainment industry and the media. You
can’t make a movie about a celebrity without it in some way being about
has seen his older brother Ben suffer merciless, and often very unjustified,
abuse at the hands of the press, wanted to make a film that commented on
modern-day celebrity: the danger it poses to those without the psychological
robustness to counter the vapidity of much of the life that ensues.
“We are obsessed with celebrity. We fixate on
celebrities. We create them and then destroy them, and for some reason I don’t
understand there is this unassuagable desire to do it over and over again.
Things happen to people I know who I am very close to and to people I don’t
know that well. We build them up and then we just beat them down.”
Of course, the
majority of ‘mockumentaries’, the most famous being This Is Spinal Tap, wear
their light-heartedness loud and proud, drawing clear parameters for their
characters as fictional creations. Affleck, however, who is married to
Phoenix’s sister, Summer, and has been his friend for almost two decades,
wanted audiences to experience his film’s narrative arc without the distraction
of “preconceived notions”. The perils facing modern celebrities, and the perils
they themselves become, dominate the filmmakers’ thinking.
“The idea of a
hoax makes me think of Candid Camera and that never entered my consciousness,”
continues Affleck. “I can understand why this movie was confusing in terms of
what’s real and what’s not, when people first watched it. But I was reluctant
to speak about certain scenes because that would influence people’s
interpretation of the film. I sincerely didn’t want to do that.”
that there are a fewsubtle cues that provide hints of his real intention.
Camera techniques, quite basic at the beginning, become more accomplished as
the film unfolds. “There were multiple takes, these are performances, and we
did our ADR” he says, although Affleck’s film never truly shows its hand.
“There is no big wink to the audience,” he smiles.
the film’s veracity first surfaced in the aftermath of an early screening for
potential buyers in Hollywood during May last year, not long after Phoenix had
been widely ridiculed at a an Oscar ceremony in which Ben Stiller kicked off
the fun by appearing on stage wearing a bushy beard and mimicking Phoenix’s disastrous
performance on The Late Show with David Letterman during his press commitments
for 2008’s Two Lovers. Since the
film’s release, of course, Phoenix famously revisited The Late Show with David
Letterman, clean-shaven and without sunglasses, to apologise for his behaviour
during his surly, hirsute performance in 2009.
“I mean, I
think that you’ve interviewed many, many people and I assumed that you would
know the difference between a character and a real person,” says Phoenix on the
show, referring to the now-infamous 2009 interview, in which he was a
gum-chomping, mumbling shadow who barely answered any of Letterman’s questions.
“I hope I didn’t offend you in any way.”
replies, “Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no. I’m telling you, it was so much fun. It was
batting practice; you know what I mean? Every one of them was a dinger.” In
fact, some have suggested that the late-night talk show host was in fact in on
the act during the original broadcast, although Letterman himself denies it.
“There was no script or anything,” he says.
This may be
further subterfuge: The Late Show has been a useful tool for the filmmakers
both during filming and upon release, and certainly other people were in on the
ruse from the start: possibly Ben Stiller (his scene in Phoenix’s garden is one
of the movie’s highlights, and may explain his Oscar stunt), and certainly
Phoenix’s personal publicist, who appears in the film, and his agent, Patrick
Whitesell, from William Morris Endeavor Entertainment.
“Look, for me, the film was
Dante’s Inferno,” concludes Affleck on the story he wanted to tell. “Here was a
guy midway through his life and he just goes down farther and farther into this
hideous place until he gets as low as he can possibly go.” And then “he breaks
through to the other side and has some sort of redemptive experience” – that,
says Affleck, is the movie,
“that was my guiding light.”
With the truth
now known, I’m Still Here will enjoy an extended life on Home Entertainment
platforms, and few who watch it will think it anything other than a bold and
daring enterprise; one in which Joaquin Phoenix really does deliver the
performance of his lifetime.