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.