The Accountant is a mystery/thriller that features Ben Affleck playing a much different character than audiences are used to seeing him embody: Christian “Chris” Wolff, a seemingly mild-mannered accountant who also moves in shadowy circles as a kind of lethally-skilled, morally-ambiguous action hero – who also happens to be autistic. Gifted with near-superhuman mathematics skills by his uniquely-developed mind and trained from childhood in marksmanship and lethal hand-to-hand combat to survive a harsh world that often misunderstands him, he earns a comfortable second living discreetly unpacking the complicated finances of crimebosses, cartels and other dangerous individuals.
The plot of The Accountant is set in motion when Chris takes on a seemingly “legit” client that, it turns out, may be hiding a sinister secret – drawing Wolff and an innocent colleague (Anna Kendrick) into a deadly conspiracy that will test the limits of what Wolff can both think – and fight – his way out of. Screen Rant spoke with the film’s director Gavin O’Connor – known for films like Miracle, Pride & Glory and the mixed-martial-arts drama Warrior – about all things The Accountant-related.
Screen Rant: What drew you to The Accountant?
The script. I was sent the script by Lynette Howell [Taylor] and Mark Williams, the producers, and I was just sort of floored by the originality of it and the puzzle. It was sort of a like a gene-splice of a bunch of different genres that were all elegantly layered into the script, from a puzzle movie to an action film to a character study, and just its originality captivated me.
Screen Rant: This is the first time working with Ben Affleck for you, correct?
Yeah. First time we worked together. He was the first person – I think his agent had read the script, and once he heard I was doing it he called me up and asked what I thought about Ben. And honestly, I didn’t think about Ben because I knew he was so busy and I didn’t even think he’d be available. So when I was putting together lists of actors I knew he was doing Batman at the time and he was going to go direct, and if he was going to direct that’d be at least a year of his life.
But his agent said he had a window, and he thought he would like the script, liked my work, things like that. So I said yeah, let’s see if he’s interested and we can talk. So he got in touch with me, and it turned out we saw the same movie – and I think you can go a lot of different ways, with that script.
Screen Rant: Is there any sort of trepidation involved when directing another director?
(Laughs) Oh, there’s a lot of trepidation! That was, y’know, our first conversation. Our first conversation, when we decided to do this movie together, we both were testing eachother. In regards to Ben, you know, he’s worked with a lot of people; so he wanted to make sure that the story I wanted to tell, the tone of the film, the story I wanted to tell was what he aligned with. How to ground this in reality and dramatize this character. And we did some work on the script on how we approach this character and how he had these skills… all that stuff we talked about.
And I think we realized we were aligned, creatively, and I think we have a similar aesthetic, a similar syntax in how we talk about film. And the only other thing we had to discuss was to make sure that we were cool about… you know, I said “you can’t just show up and play somebody with Asperger’s. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to get into that.” And the other thing was the action in the movie. When you’re Batman, you get to wear a mask so I’m sure there’s a body double that does a lot of that work – we don’t have a body double, so [Affleck] will have to do a lot of work and training to do all the fight scenes. He was 100% committed to that and did it all, months and months of work.
And the last question I had for Ben was “Look, I’m a big fan of your work, but I just have to ask the question so I don’t run into a problem later: We can’t have two directors on this movie.” And he made it really clear that would never be an issue, and it never was. He was… I think Ben, as a director, understands what it’s like. There’s a hundred moving parts, balls the air, I think he liked the fact that he could just go to his trailer when there was a problem and he didn’t have to deal with it. And as a director he really knows… he shows up, he’s prepared, he just lifts everything. He’s making everything fine. He’s considerate and he’s respectful and he just does the work. He’s committed.
Screen Rant: You just described the main character as having Asperger’s Syndrome. In the film, Wolff only ever describes his diagnosis as “high-functioning autism,” and not giving said condition a specific label is an important point within the film itself. But does this mean that your approach, story-wise, was that he specifically has Asperger’s?
Well, I mean… Asperger’s, the term was – I believe the doctor was named Hans Asperger who diagnosed it – it’s a level on the autism spectrum. It’s high-functioning autism. They don’t use that term anymore, medically, it’s just high-functioning autism now. But people with Aspergers, they still use the term. They want to be called – the like being called Aspergers. So I use it because I know people with Aspergers they… they call themselves “Aspies.” But [Christian Wolff] has high-functioning autism.
Screen Rant: How much research like that goes into approaching a project like this? To perhaps be more sensitive to this issue than films have been in the past?
That was my quest. I said to Ben at the beginning, you know, you can’t just show up and play someone on the spectrum. You have to do a ton of research. I read everything you can read, watched every documentary, every Youtube video, listened to every podcast, met with doctors and specialists and once Ben got onboard he and I together were meeting. [We] had many, many meetings with specialists, with guys who are high-functioning autism. We had days when we were in like a classroom setting with like thirty of them, asking them questions for hours, in conversation with them.
And what we learned – I was told this by specialists, but I learned it for myself – there’s not one person on the spectrum who’s like somebody else. They’re all unique in their own way and different in their own way, so that was liberating. So what we started doing was, after meeting all these people, we just grabbed all these behavioral details that we liked, so [Wolff] is kind of an amalgam – it’s not just based on any one person, it’s an amalgam of many people that we met.
Screen Rant: So from the beginning, the script comes in and that’s the set premise: This is a dramatic, almost “action-hero”-like character with autism. Has there been any talk of “blowback” about that, people feeling that this is not a proper portrayal or the concept being “exploitative” in some way?
Well, I mean – it hasn’t yet. I don’t know how it could be exploitative. If anyone ever said that, I don’t know how it could be. Y’know, my intention and Ben’s intention was to celebrate the character; and we did a massive amount of research to make sure that it was authentic and truthful. So I don’t know how anyone could ever think that, but you know, you can’t control what people will say or think. All I know is my intention in making the movie.
Screen Rant: Looking back through your filmography, specifically Miracle, Pride & Glory, Warrior and now The Accountant have a very strong through-line of, perhaps, “difficult” father figures both literal and figurative in a lot of your films. Is there something that attracts you to that type of story in particular?
Well… I think I’d have to say yes, because it’s there in the work. When I read The Accountant, obviously those themes were in there including brothers… one of the things we worked on, with Ben, was make sure it all fit together, that those flashbacks informed all the skills he had in the present-day narrative. So we had [screenwriter] Bill Dubuque rewrite that part of it, which probably went further into the father/son storyline. So I guess the only way I can answer that is to say that “yes,” and that I don’t know why. I guess I’m still trying to figure out why, what’s going on with myself and my relationship with my father that I need to explore.
Screen Rant: We’ve seen lots of movies that have, as an element, the question of what it’s like to raise a child who’s different in this way. This is certainly not the typical version of that.
I hope not. I think the other thing that was very important to me was to understand that the father… everything the father did was generated by how much he loved his son. Back then, parents didn’t really understand much about the spectrum, it was all new; and how one person was treating it might not work for everybody else – they’re all so different. The dad, maybe not being… the diagnosis of how to treat [Christian’s autism] was foreign to him and one that he did not think was appropriate: “The world can be a very cruel place for my child, and I’m going to prepare him for it.” Because he loved the shit out of that kid, and those are the tools that [the father] had in his tool belt. But it was always generated by love.
Screen Rant: As part of those childhood flashback sequences, we learn that The Accountant has had training in a specific fighting style from a Master played by Ron Yuan. What style is it that we see him instructing Christian in?
That is a style called Pencak Silat, which is an Indonesian martial art. That’s an example of, when I was working with my fight guys – the same guys I used on Warrior – we were trying to figure out what style [Wolff] would use for fighting, and when we came across Pencak Silat… we went to Indonesia, to do a scene of him getting trained in that style. And I chose that style because it’s flashy, in a cinematic way, but also incredibly efficient; and I just kept coming from a place of… in his present day fighting still, [Wolff] would be very mathematical about it: “How do I eliminate this person as quickly as possible?”
Screen Rant: Pencak Silat is also the style mainly used in The Raid movies, isn’t it?
It is, actually. I didn’t know that at the time, though I had seen The Raid. And I think if you look at ours, it’s… I liked The Raid, but those fights are more… it’s Pencak-Silat, but I guess it’s more of a Hong Kong style, very elevated, non grounded in reality use of the style. I don’t think anyone can look at The Raid and think there’s a realism to that, it’s slightly almost cartoony.
Screen Rant: Given the timeframe wherein you were shooting the movie, with J.K. Simmons also being in the cast, were you aware at that point that you were directing both Batman and Commissioner Gordon in the film?
(Laughs) No! No, he hadn’t been cast as Commissioner Gordon yet. What happened with J.K. was the Friday night that Whiplash came out I’d seen the movie with my family and literally walked out of the theater and called Lynette Howell [Taylor] and said “You’ve got to get me a meeting with J.K. Simmons.” I’d always been a fan, but I was floored by his work in that film. He and I met maybe a week later, and we got to do the movie together.
Screen Rant: And with Jon Bernthal, also, you got to shoot a fight scene effectively between Batman and The Punisher! [Note: Bernthal portrays an assassin targeting persons associated with the mystery that Wolff is attempting to solve.]
(Laughs) Yeah. I didn’t think about it like that at the time, but I guess I did. Bernthal has been a buddy of mine, and from the beginning I didn’t read anyone else for that part. I offered that part to Jon right off – I wanted him to play that role.
Screen Rant: When did Anna Kendrick come onboard the production?
Early on. It was really important for that role… there were names that were brought up, but my litmus test was do believe that actress would fall in love with Chris – would Chris strike a fire in that girl’s heart in any way. And we couldn’t always tell if they’d have feelings for him, but with Anna… I just knew she would also bring a sense of humor and a lightness that I really wanted for the movie to be fun.
Screen Rant: You also have the legendary John Lithgow in the film – what’s it like, directing an actor of that caliber?
He was the easiest to direct, really. He’s unbelievable! One of the brightest people I’ve ever met, and one of the kindest actors. He was amazing, you know… on his days he wouldn’t even be in his trailer – he’d be ready on set, reading a book, sitting in his chair: “Just let me know when you need me!” And he’d just read books, come and do brilliant work, and go back to his books. That was John. I just liked being in Lithgow’s airspace, it’s really kind oxygen, being around that guy.
Screen Rant: One final question, about one of your earlier films: Having made Warrior, one of the biggest Mixed Martial-Arts films of its time, how do you feel about how the appreciation of that film has grown in that [the MMA] community?
I’m grateful! I was trying to get that right. When I made that movie, it was still… MMA and UFC and that type of fighting, it just wasn’t as popular as it is today. And that movie, more than any movie I’ve ever made, I have a weird… there’s an amazing following of rabid fans, more than anything I’ve ever done. And I’d say that’s probably my most personal movie. So I’m really grateful and, y’know, maybe we’ll do another one!
Screen Rant: Well, that would be terrific to see!
Well, we’ve had some talks about that. Me and the actors.
The Accountant is now playing in U.S. theaters.