Live by Night: Dennis Lehane on Ben Affleck, Nativism, and Donald Trump

‘I just didn’t think we’d ever let it get so crazy that we’d elect a demagogue.’

Ben Affleck in 'Live by Night'

Photo by Claire Folger / Warner Bros.

Dennis Lehane is pretty picky when it comes to letting Hollywood turn his books into movies, but when Ben Affleck’s involved, he knows his work is in good hands.

After having collaborated with the actor and filmmaker on the critically acclaimed adaptation of his novel Gone Baby Gone, Lehane had no fear signing off on Affleck to both direct and star in the big screen portrayal of his book Live by Night, which hits theaters this weekend.

“Once I saw Gone Baby Gone… I went, ‘Oh my God.’ He was born to do this,” Lehane told Boston magazine. “By this point when he’s doing Live by Night, Argo had just won [the Oscar for] Best Picture when that was announced, so I felt I was in pretty capable hands.”

The film tells the story of Joe Coughlin, the criminal son of a Boston police captain, who ends up becoming a bootlegger in Florida. As a native Bostonian with an undying love for old school gangster flicks, Affleck felt like the perfect choice to take on this project.

Lehane praised Affleck’s approach to filmmaking and even compared his style to that of the late, great Howard Hawks.

“He’s a classical director. He’s a traditionalist. He reminds me of Howard Hawks,” Lehane said. “Who better to bring an homage to 1930s Warner Brothers and RKO gangster movies to the screen than a guy who clearly loves 1930s Warner Brothers gangster movies? I always felt in good hands with Ben.”

'Live by Night'

Photo by Claire Folger / Warner Bros.

While growing up in Boston, Lehane had always been fascinated by gangster movies and desired to create his own. The interest intensified when he worked as a writer and creative consultant on Boardwalk Empire.

Although Lehane knew that he wanted to make a novel based on this world, particularly during the era of Prohibition, the celebrated author felt like he had to take a different approach, which is why he focused on rum instead of the whiskey trade. This allowed him to tell a more diverse story, as the rum bootlegging business in Ybor City, Florida, involved people from all kinds of backgrounds.

“My book is this experimental, to me, sort of true, melting pot America,” Lehane said. “It was really this ghettoized neighborhood that was told, ‘As long as you guys keep to yourselves, you can do whatever you want. Just don’t come and bother white Tampa.’ I just thought, ‘What a rich, wonderful almost Casablanca-esque world.'”

The theme of nativism factors heavily into Live by Night, as the threat of the KKK plays a major role in the film. Dealing with racism is obviously not a new concept in America, but Lehane’s story feels especially timely due to the political climate that’s been created in the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to the White House.

“I think those are pretty timeless themes in the history of America,” Lehane said. “I just didn’t think we’d ever let it get so crazy that we’d elect a demagogue. I didn’t see that one coming.”

“There’s a lot going on that even I couldn’t have predicted,” he added. “I’ve always felt dialed in to issues of class and populism and working class outrage in America, that’s an obsession of mine. I’m not saying the events leading up to this election weren’t particularly surprising to me. The fact that we went so far as to elect this guy, yeah, that’s surprising. That’s a little stunning.”

Lehane revealed that his seven-year-old daughter, who goes to school with many brown and black children, had a pretty on-the-nose response to Trump’s election night victory.

“When she found out he won, she wouldn’t stop crying,” he said. “She said, ‘Can’t Obama just lock the door?’ Wouldn’t it be a great f—king world?”

Live by Night opens January 13.