Interview: Affleck talks 'Live by Night,' building Ybor City in Georgia

In Live by Night, based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, Ben Affleck plays a crook rising to power as an Ybor City rum runner. He also directs.
In Live by Night, based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, Ben Affleck plays a crook rising to power as an Ybor City rum runner. He also directs.
Published Jan. 4, 2017

Ybor City looks gorgeous in Ben Affleck's gangland melodrama Live by Night: a seductive 1920s rum and cigar town, the way it looks in museum photos.

Except it isn't Ybor City, or anywhere in Florida, as locals looking past Live by Night's attractive cast may notice in the background. The $65 million production opens Jan. 13 in theaters.

Affleck filmed the Florida settings of Live by Night along Georgia's Atlantic coast, building an Ybor City replica in Brunswick, about 30 miles across the state line.

Live by Night got a better deal there, since Florida's film production incentives program ran out of money and hasn't been renewed. Affleck called Georgia's program "pretty generous."

Otherwise, the Oscar winner would have preferred to film his adaptation of Dennis Lehane's 2012 novel where the former St. Petersburg resident imagined it.

"I would've loved to," Affleck said by telephone from New York. "When in doubt you always want to use the real place.

"But then there's the issue of cost. You've got to juggle what's worth more to you: Do you want another 10 cars and 200 extras or do you want one less shooting day? There's that kind of math that goes into it.

"We were as close as the Georgia tax rebate away."

Live by Night stars Affleck as Joe Coughlin, a small-time Boston crook rising to power as an Ybor City rum runner, planning to build a casino on Longboat Key. It's a fairly conventional tommy-gun opera except for the setting, an infusion of tropical frontier culture into the Irish-Italian mob dynamic.

"You see a lot of New York and Boston gangster movies," Affleck said, "but seeing those kinds of movies (set) in Florida while Florida was still being developed is different.

"Florida now, every inch is covered with cement. Back then there was wild jungle out in the suburbs. That contrast I hadn't seen before was really exciting to bring to the screen: gangsters in undeveloped Florida."

Jess Gonchor's production design replicates Ybor City as paradise under construction, its Spanish, Italian and Cuban roots highlighted in cigar factories, vibrant nightclubs and juke shacks. Lehane's book is rich with details of early Tampa culture that Affleck wanted in Live by Night, wherever filmed.

"Ybor is like another character in the film," Affleck said. "I wanted exteriors representing Ybor so you get a sense, a feel for the place.

"Obviously we went to — I think we were even spotted in the papers in — Tampa (three) years ago, to do some research and look into the real Ybor City, what Tampa looks like. It's a crucial part of Dennis' story."

Live by Night is Affleck's second adaptation of a Lehane novel, after 2007's Gone Baby Gone inspired his auspicious directing debut.

"Obviously I'm not the first person to discover Dennis Lehane; he's had great directors adapt his work," Affleck said.

"His dialogue is really sharp and crackles, the characters are punchy and sexy. Everything just sort of jumps right onto the screen. You don't have to do a lot of work to adapt that stuff because it's just written in a cinematic way in the novel."

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Even Lehane suggesting Tampa to Affleck as a filming location didn't change the bottom line. Filming in Georgia began in November 2015.

"Across the border there are some smaller towns that were not very developed, built up," Affleck said. "We managed to use one of those to build our main street of Ybor on, put up fake signage, get a bunch of cars and extras.

"It's not shot in Tampa but it's not far."

Yet oh, so near.

Contact Steve Persall at or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.