He's done the heist movie, the family crime drama, and the period spy film. Now director Ben Affleck takes on the gangster genre with Live By Night, opening wide on Jan. 13. He also wrote the screenplay and plays the lead role of Joe Coughlin, the son of an upstanding Boston police officer who gets swept up in the glamour and hedonism of the Prohibition era. Joe's respectable family can't stop him once he decides to climb the ladder to become a true underground player in his hometown before moving to Ybor City in Tampa to become a rum runner. Plenty of real-life gangsters and bootleggers gained enough notoriety in the '20s to be remembered today, but is Joe from Live By Night based on a real person?
Joe Couglin may have been inspired by a certain type of historical figure, but the character is not based on one real person. Affleck's screenplay adapts the 2012 novel of the same name by Denis Lehane. Lehane has seen his work come to the screen in film adaptations of his books Shutter Island and Mystic River. His work is also the source material for Affleck's first feature as a director: Gone Baby Gone. Live By Night is actually the second book in a series centered around Coughlin family, but it's the first where Joe takes center stage. Lehane continues Joe's story in the 2015 novel The World Gone By, and told The Ledger that's where he'd be leaving it.
Lehane also told The Ledger he trusts his friend and fellow Bostonian to do right by his material. Though he did not work with Affleck to adapt the book, he's in full support of the movie. "He's a great director, it's a great script. It has my blessing," Lehane said.
Though Affleck had brought Lehane's characters to life before, this particular novel landed on his desk courtesy of another Oscar winner. Leonardo DiCaprio sent him a copy of Live By Night, which Affleck told Boston.com he felt he could make into "a classic Warners picture," no doubt a reference to films like The Public Enemy and White Heat. Live By Night has been in the works for a few years. Back in 2012, Indiewire reported that DiCaprio was in talks to lead the film before the book had even been published. Affleck took over soon after, but the project was delayed by his participation in two obscure indie films you've probably never heard of: Gone Girl and Batman V. Superman.
The delay may have actually made this period gangster drama more immediately pertinent than it would have been two or three years ago. In the same interview, Affleck told Boston.com that the applicability of the story surprised him. "In fact, I had no idea a story about immigrants and the Ku Klux Klan and morality would feel so current today," he said.
Joe Coughlin is a creation of Denis Lehane, but the world he occupies in Live By Night is sadly a familiar one.