Gavin O'Connor, C'86, has a thing for sports. Not only was he on Penn's football team back in his salad days, but he's since gone on to direct films like Miracle, about the US hockey team's eponymous "Miracle on Ice" in the 1980 Winter Olympics, and Warrior, in which Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton portray brother MMA fighters. The greatest departure from O'Connor's groove may be The Accountant, in which he directs Ben Affleck playing an autistic hitman who spends his days as a CPA. 

Returning to his more familiar genre, his latest film The Way Back follows a high school basketball champ, also played by Affleck, in his later years. Estranged from his wife and descending into alcoholism, he's spontaneously offered a coaching position at his old high school, which he begrudgingly accepts. Now in charge of setting an example for a small team of ill–equipped boys, he finds himself under more pressure than he's ever been, struggling to be a role model while sorting out his fractured private life. 

34th Street had the opportunity to speak with O'Connor earlier last month in the seats of the Palestra, him just coming off a TV interview, the both of us suffering from scratchy throats. We began by discussing his and Affleck's relationship as director and actor.

Director/producer GAVIN O’CONNOR on the set of “THE WAY BACK,” photo provided by Warner Bros.

34th Street: After The Accountant, did you and Ben Affleck know that you wanted to work together on another project, or how did he get involved?

Gavin O’Connor: We have a really good working relationship. As Ben always says, we have the same taste, we have a similar aesthetic. It was one of those things, if the right project came along that spoke to me in a personal way, and also spoke to him as an actor, we would go on that journey together. 

Brad Inglesby, the writer, got the script to me and I read it and I had a very visceral response to it. And then about six months went by, and Ben called me, and he said, “I just read the script and I really want to play this role. Would you be open to directing it?” It's very rare for two people to independently read something and both have the same response. So, when that happened, we wanted to talk together again. 

We met, and it was a several–pronged conversation, because, obviously the character is dealing with his disease and Ben was struggling with the same disease. This was gonna become art–imitating–life, life–imitating–art. All these blurred lines, it was very delicate, so I needed to really just trust that Ben was gonna be willing to go there. Once he was willing to assure me that he was gonna be brave enough to do that, then we decided to go on the journey together.

AL MADRIGAL as Dan and BEN AFFLECK as Jack in “THE WAY BACK,” photo provided by Warner Bros.

Street: As you're alluding to, Ben Affleck has a history of alcoholism, recovery, and then relapse. I was wondering if you were at all concerned, going into this, of triggering a relapse?

GO: So what happened was, just as we started prepping the movie, Ben fell off the wagon. So he ended up going to rehab, and I didn't know if the movie was over. The studio certainly thought the movie was over. His ex–wife Jennifer Garner called me up, and told me that when he went to rehab, he took a basketball with him. She said, “Gavin, he's asking you, please don't pull the plug on the movie, he really wants to do this.” 

So, he had about a week of detoxing, because he really went off the deep end, and after a week, I was able to go see him. We spent half a day together and figured out a way to do this that will work for him, because most importantly he needed to recover and needed to get his sobriety on track. That overtook everything. And then he got out the day before we started shooting. So we had a very raw, vulnerable guy showing up for our first day of shooting.

It's almost a counter–intuitive thing with acting, because he's doing scenes that were obviously painful. Really intense and dark and bleak and suffering. And capturing that, to watch him do that was hard at times, but it also was euphoric, because that's your job as an actor, is to access these emotions and to go to places that are honest and deep and truthful. So, it always felt really good, even though it was painful, because he was doing his job really well.

BEN AFFLECK and director/producer GAVIN O’CONNOR on the set of “THE WAY BACK,” photo provided by Warner Bros.

Street: You mentioned that he brought a basketball to rehab with him. He had never played basketball before, as I understand, and you played football in college. Why was basketball the sport of choice for this movie?

GO: I call basketball “life in short pants,” because I think what happens on a basketball court, whether it's a game or practice, dealing with your coach, the camaraderie of players, the discipline, the commitment, the attention to detail, there's so many things that happen in basketball that you can apply to life. I grew up playing basketball too, so I know the game really well. 

The hard part with Ben was, once I knew he was gonna confront the demons, I knew off the court we were gonna be good. But on the court, every day was spent coaching kids, going to high schools, high school basketball programs, and he was a guest coach during practices, working with players, so he had to get to learn the game. I’d be feeding him videos and videos of all these different coaches to get him up to speed. So we did the work.

(L-R) TYLER O’MALLEY as Daly, BEN IRVING as Bobby Freeze, HERBERT MORALES as Dearborn, ROMAN MATHIS as Carter, CHARLES LOTT JR. as Chubbs Hendricks, MATEO ORTIZ as Amato, BEN AFFLECK as Jack Cunningham and AL MADRIGAL as Dan “THE WAY BACK,” photo provided by Warner Bros.

Street: Can you describe a little bit what it was like, him being a guest coach? First of all, what was the reaction in the court where they have their regular coach, and then Ben Affleck comes out?

GO: In the beginning, I set him up with coaches and we spent a lot of time in locker rooms, in the coaches’ offices. When it got to a certain point, I intentionally didn't go, because I know he wasn't ready for me to see him, and I didn't want him to be self–conscious. Because he knew I'd be watching him, so I just wanted him to just do it without me looking at him. 

On the court with some of these kids, I'm sure they were like (emotes surprise). The same thing happened with the kids in the movie. In the beginning they were so like, “Oh my God!” After a couple of days, he was just Ben. It wasn't Ben the movie star anymore, it was just this guy who's playing this part.

Director/producer GAVIN O’CONNOR and BEN AFFLECK on the set of “THE WAY BACK,” photo provided by Warner Bros.

Street: One of the more pronounced decisions on this movie, in terms of direction, was choosing to omit a lot of the games and instead just cut right to the final score. I wondered what was going through your mind, stylistically, when you decided you wanted to do that.

GO: I never cared about the basketball. It's not a basketball movie, it’s a character study. It was more about how Jack [Ben Affleck's character] is influencing these kids. How, in a way, he becomes a parent to these kids. Because that's what coaching in high school is, you’re parenting. I was interested in watching him come out of the ashes of disease and redeem himself.

Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for content and clarity.