James Griffin is a columnist for Canvas magazine.

James Griffin: Ergo, we're sensitive

James Griffin uncovers Ben Affleck's hatred of New Zealand. Photo / Supplied
James Griffin uncovers Ben Affleck's hatred of New Zealand. Photo / Supplied

One of the things about living in New Zealand - and I can't decide if this is a good or a bad thing - is that we are incredibly sensitive to the way we are portrayed in the wider world. If some demi-celebrity happens to tweet about what an awesome and beautiful country we are, it gives us a sense of self-worth far in excess of the celebrity of the celebrity. Conversely, if some famous person defames us we feel, as a nation, really miffed.

Thus when Hollywood actor/director/bigshot Ben Affleck, in his otherwise fine film Argo, had the temerity to suggest New Zealand didn't pull its weight in the Iran hostage hiding/rescuing department, we all got irked on behalf of us. But what many of us didn't realise, as we had our national hissy-fit, was this is not the first time Affleck has had a go at New Zealand. Quite frankly, he hates our guts.

My Hollywood insiders tell me that Mr Affleck's sociopathic hatred of all things Kiwi stems from unresolved guilt issues over the fact that his breakthrough film, Good Will Hunting, for which he won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, was actually cribbed from a news article in the Taupo Times.

This story was about the unfortunately named Bill Munting, a physics genius working as the caretaker at Taupo-nui-a-tia College and solving complex equations about string theory on the blackboards at night. About the only difference between Bill's story and the film Good Will Hunting is that in the film Will meets Robin Williams, who helps him towards a better life; while Bill was fired for defacing school property.

In 1998 Ben (and his burgeoning hatred of us) made his big move into the action genre, playing the character of A.J. Frost in Armageddon, the hugely plausible story of a misfit bunch of oil-drillers who save the world by blowing up an asteroid the size of Texas. A little-known fact about this film is that it originally also starred New Zealand's very own Cliff Curtis as Tama Te Kooti, a Tuhoe explosives expert from Murupara working for Nasa, who sat in the seat next to A.J. on the shuttle-flight from Earth to the asteroid.

Quite how Ben failed to notice that the character in the seat next to him was a New Zealander has been put down to Cliff's skill at playing ethnic characters, meaning Ben thought he was Mexican. But when Ben did find out that there was a New Zealander in the film the apocryphal story goes that he took his Oscar round to Michael Bay's house and by the time he left, an hour later, Bay had agreed to cut Cliff out of the film. If you watch Armageddon carefully you can occasionally see Cliff's elbow, foot or buttock on the edge of frame. Intriguingly, after Bay removed Cliff's character from the film it ended up being an hour longer and with heaps more explosions, thus establishing Bay's signature style.

Affleck's virulent anti-New Zealand campaign then rolled over into his very next film, Shakespeare in Love, which was stolen almost word-for-word from a New Zealand play by Wellington playwright Dave Armstrong, Roger Hall in Love. For his 2001 film Pearl Harbor Affleck strongly lobbied the producers to change history so that it was New Zealand, not Japan, who bombed Hawaii that dark day. And for his 2003 venture into the super-hero genre, Daredevil, Affleck insisted that co-star Colin Farrell play the lunatic villain, Bullseye, with a New Zealand accent; but this was thwarted when Farrell's Irish accent meant that it came out sounding South African.

In Affleck's first outing as writer/director, Gone Baby Gone, he took Dennis Lehane's novel about two Boston detectives investigating a kidnapping and changed it to a horror film about two Boston detectives investigating a gang of Satan-worshipping Kiwis harvesting souls to be sent to New Zealand, implanted in sheep and then shipped back to the US as lamb. Rumour is, that it took Lehane holding Affleck at gunpoint in his trailer for him to change the story back the way it was meant to be.

In The Town, the film Affleck directed and starred in about four lifelong friends who are also bank-robbers, the other cast members would often stand around for hours while Ben would film himself ad-libbing long monologues about how their lives would be so much better if only New Zealand was wiped off the face of the planet. These were only cut from the film when the studio refused to release it with them in it, on the grounds they made the gunfights too far apart.

So were we overreacting to the whole Argo thing? Maybe - or maybe not. Only Affleck knows the truth.

- NZ Herald

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James Griffin is a columnist for Canvas magazine.

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