Ben Affleck & Matt Damon Tried To Convince Joaquin Phoenix & Casey Affleck To Reveal The Joke Of ‘I’m Still Here’

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by Edward Davis
November 21, 2013 3:16 PM
20 Comments
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It’s interesting to look back on “I’m Still Here,” the faux-documentary that Casey Affleck & Joaquin Phoenix co-conceived in the late aughts about the nature of fame and celebrity. Directed by Affleck, starring Phoenix, and released in 2010, the now notorious documentary was of course, a big put-on that rankled many, including David Letterman. But for almost two years, Affleck and Phoenix stuck to their guns with this cinematic prank: the actor playing the part of a disheveled and downward-spiraling actor completely out of control. The actor took the character into the public sphere and the director stuck to the story that he was simply documenting Phoenix’s new career path into rapping (which climaxed with a bizarre and infamous David Letterman appearance, and then concluded with a denouement of the actor apologizing to the talk show host some 18 months later). Considering how committed they were to the faux-doc, it was an impressive media art-prank, but many didn’t see it that way and critics unfairly savaged the movie.

During this period, there was major media speculation that the film would hurt both their careers. And while both actors did take a brief sojourn to allow for the heat to die down, it was ironically the director who seems to have been more hurt by it than Phoenix, who is once again one of the most highly in demand actors in the world today, sought by filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze. This in-depth New York Times profile on Affleck puts the risks for the actor’s career in better perspective than many could have guessed at the time. Having come off “Gone Baby Gone” and an Academy-Award nomination for “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Rob Ford,Affleck’s career was hot and the offers were pouring in. Instead, the actor chose to spend his time with his brother-in-law (Affleck is married to Joaquin’s sister, Summer Phoenix) on this experimental documentary.

It’s interesting to think that of the two men, Affleck would get hit harder in the “I’m Still Here” aftermath. During that time, he hardly worked, 2010’s “The Killer Inside Me” was already shot, and the only thing that followed in the two subsequent years were a voice-job on “Paranorman” and a supporting role in “Tower Heist.” And evidently Casey’s friend Matt Damon and older brother Ben Affleck saw it coming. Perhaps more seasoned of the culture, both actors seemingly begged the younger Affleck and his star to reveal what they were doing before it blew up in their faces.

“The release was too clever by half—you have to tell [the public] that it’s a joke because they will not forgive you if they’re not in on the joke,” Damon told the NYTimes magazine. “If they don’t know whether it’s a joke, they will not forgive you, and they will savage your movie. But he’s like, ‘I’m going to keep saying it’s not a joke, and then I’m going to tell them.’ But you don’t get two chances to put a movie out; you get one chance.”

The elder Affleck felt the same, also thinking it was such a shame for this fascinating art project to die such a horrible death.

“He…stubbornly didn’t want to give in to people who thought this was all fake,” Ben said. “If you reverse-engineer the movie, he took the two years where he would have been the hottest as an actor—Oscar for ‘Jesse James,’ his performance in ‘Gone Baby Gone’—where he got a lot of offers to do studio action movies and that sort of thing, and instead, he pursued this vision he had of this movie with his best friend. I thought it was a really smart, creative thing that nobody else had thought of. But he did it at the expense of his acting career.”

But the good news is that Casey seems to be getting back on track. He’s getting good notices for his supporting performance in “Out Of The Furnace” starring Christian Bale, he’s in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” he was terrific in “Ain't Them Bodies Saints” earlier in the year and according to the paper he’s still developing his next directorial effort about American baseball player Josh Hamilton, a top draft pick in 1999 who hits rock bottom after suffering from a drug addiction that ruins his family life and career (only to clean up years later). He’s also still set to be in Affleck and Damon’s Whitey Bulger project.

But the Times piece definitely reads as Affleck slowly crawling back for a comeback after a difficult fallow period (and much of it coming from the actor’s mouth himself). Cautionary tale for those playing with the media and playing big pranks on the movie-going public? It’s almost a shame to think, given their quotes, that Affleck and Phoenix seem grateful to have survived the experience and will likely never try such a strange and bold effort again. What does this say about our collective tolerance for games in the media? The message from industry seems to be: we’ll accept fiction of any kind, but if the lines are blurred, watch out. In case you've forgotten, the Letterman performances below along with Affleck talking about the film in 2010.

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20 Comments

  • Jamie | March 14, 2014 4:34 PMReply

    Did you know that Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix have starred in 3 movies together? Source: DejaScene

  • Johnny O | November 24, 2013 2:18 PMReply

    I thought it was brilliant because I realized it was a joke. How can you not realize it wasn't real? People are shitting in their mouth because they stayed in character too long?

  • james | November 22, 2013 12:43 PMReply

    I think it's the most underrated film of the last decade. Hysterical.

  • Johnny O | November 24, 2013 2:23 PM

    Agreed. Affleck and Phoenix should have been nominated for various awards for acting and directing. I'm kind of shocked that industry people didn't get it.

  • yod | November 21, 2013 9:40 PMReply

    This doesn't make sense. Does anyone really think the moviegoing public are going to avoid a movie with Casey Affleck in it because he directed I'm Still Here?
    1) I doubt that many people saw or knew about I'm Still Here.
    2) Of those that did most would not have been offended.
    3) Of those that were offended most probably didn't even realise Casey Affleck directed, or who he even is.
    The number of people outraged by this could not possibly number more than a hundred. And those people are probably a bit simple.
    As I said, this makes no sense. 99.99% of people would be oblivious the whole thing.

  • Brad | November 22, 2013 5:06 PM

    I think "I'm still here" is genius and I think it was good decision (talking about the project) not to reveal anything until the end, because it would've ruined the whole point. I agree that the writer of this article was talking more about the industry than the audience in general because it's true that not a lot of people knows about the existence of "I'm still here". I remember I was watching David Letterman live when that happened and I was shocked and when I found out I thought it was really smart what they did. I don't really think that their carrers were affected that much anyways, Phoenix got nominated for "The Master" and Affleck is working on several movies to come, however I think it wasn't fair that the movie was received so poorly by the audience and critics because next time someone thinks of something as original and daring they will do it twice because of it. And that only encourages filmmakers to keep doing the same thing for popcorn audiences.

  • Eric | November 22, 2013 1:40 PM

    @YOD I don't think the writer means it was just the reaction of the movigoing public but the industry as well that maybe stalled their carreers.

  • Jenny | November 21, 2013 11:26 PM

    I agree with YOD.

  • Gnarly | November 21, 2013 9:35 PMReply

    Listen to your elders, Casey.

  • Washington | November 21, 2013 6:22 PMReply

    I love how afterwards everyone acted like they knew all along that it was a joke and it was stupid when beforehand every dumbass comment I ever saw was all "WHAT DOES HE THINK HE'S DOING ANOTHER ACTOR WHO THINKS HE CAN SING etc."

  • jimmiescoffee | November 21, 2013 5:40 PMReply

    i've said it for years, but 'im still here' is genius and will be considered genius in time. the actual film is only the half of it considering its scope.

  • Jane | November 21, 2013 5:17 PMReply

    Damon is saying that the audience doesn't want to be lied to, not that the audience is stupid. Don't tell people to believe in something and then admit it was a joke as the audience will resent you.

  • BEF | November 21, 2013 4:09 PMReply

    To compare Phoenix and Affleck before and after is a little silly. Affleck was great in the completely underseen Jesse James that a good majority of America would not have the patience before. He was still gonna be known as Ben's younger brother and likely still in smaller quirkier movies ... Phoenix was the star of Walk the Line, supporting in Gladiator ... he was more of a movie star. It probably, yes, did help Phoenix more because folks talked about him and how strange he was so his comeback was likely to be larger. But Affleck went back to a few lyrical movies (his overall temperament, seemingly) and has a few big ones coming out. They're kinda back to where they were before - Phoenix to leading man roles; Affleck to supporting.... No harm, no foul.

  • Cd | November 21, 2013 3:47 PMReply

    These actors are just as douchey like the rest of us.
    Many of them have diahrhea coming out of their mouths when somebody isnt writing words for them to say. Although some are very smart, cusack has intelligent things to say on twitter.

  • caro | November 21, 2013 4:05 PM

    you're nasty with Jennifer "i like to talk about my body fonction! i'm NOT in diet!People say i'm fat" Lawrence

    the first job of an actor is to act:the rest is bulls**t

  • David | November 21, 2013 3:40 PMReply

    Affleck and Damon's comments dance around it, but middle America, the majority of the movie-going public, is just plain stupid. You have to make things plain for most people, because that is the level on which they exist.

  • Alan B | November 23, 2013 5:58 AM

    Stupid people dismiss other people as "stupid". It allows them to rationalize their own arguments (other people don't "get it") and posit themselves as "special" when they are, in fact, not.

  • Eli | November 21, 2013 3:35 PMReply

    I haven't seen the movie...though I've been tempted to watch it every time Netflix suggests it. I think the idea is clever and that they completely had the right idea not to give away that it was a hoax...why watch the movie then? I actually didn't know it was, as I haven't been following Phoenix's career lately, but I assumed it was after seeing the Letterman thing a long time ago...but the fact that I didn't know for sure was the only thing that made me want to watch the film; now I have very little desire. But I think it takes a lot of dedication on both of their behalves to stick with the joke for that long! I am impressed. Maybe after doing something like Jerry, Affleck saw the art in something off the wall. Who cares if they got heat for it in Hollywood...I'm sure neither of them need the money. If I didn't need the money I would rather do something that I was really into (into enough to carry on for a full two years) then make some shitty Hollywood action movie. If they weren't getting jobs from Hollywood because of a joke, then screw em.

    I hope that this is just a setup for a sequel mockumentary filmed by his brother about the downward spiral of Casey after the release of this movie and how it ruined his career and so he enters the world of male prostitution and then he ends up happier than prostituting himself for Hollywood.

    And who is Damon for making that comment? He's just fueling the fire and also basically saying that the public is dumb and can't take a good joke. Not to mention that not everyone was "in on the joke" when he had that ongoing fake feud with Jimmy Kimmel.

  • Sense or else | November 21, 2013 5:08 PM

    You were one of those morons commenting on youtube that Damon's rage at Kimmel was "real" weren't you?

  • caro | November 21, 2013 4:11 PM

    i saw the movie and it's as offensive as GOD BLESS AMERICA when you know it's a joke
    The problem is that any one knew it's a joke except Phoenix and Affleck and it's too late

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