Based on real events, the dramatic thriller “Argo” (released in 2012) chronicles the life-or-death covert operation to rescue six Americans, which unfolded behind the scenes of the Iran hostage crisis, focusing on the little-known role that the CIA and Hollywood played —information that was not declassified until many years after the event. Ben Affleck directs and stars in the film, which is produced by Grant Heslov, Affleck, and George Clooney. On November 4, 1979, as the Iranian revolution reaches its boiling point, militants storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage.
But, in the midst of the chaos, six Americans manage to slip away and find refuge in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. Knowing it is only a matter of time before the six are found out and likely killed, the Canadian and American governments ask the CIA to intervene. The CIA turns to their top “exfiltration” specialist, Tony Mendez, to come up with a plan to get the six Americans safely out of the country. A plan so incredible, it could only happen in the movies.
“Argo” also stars Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”), and John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé, Kyle Chandler and Chris Messina. The movie’s screenplay by Chris Terrio is based on a selection from “The Master of Disguise” by Antonio J. Mendez and the Wired magazine article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman. In 2013, “Argo” won three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. Affleck, Heslov and Terrio gathered for a press conference in the Los Angeles area while promoting “Argo” before the movie’s release in cinemas. Here is what they said.
How did “Argo” start?
Terrio: I’m a magazine writer, and I do narrative features. A friend of mine, a guy named David Clements told me that he heard about this story, that there was this unusual chapter from American history, in this CIA episode. The story wasn’t really known very well. It was known that Ken Taylor and the Canadian embassy staff had smuggled Americans out of Iran, but it wasn’t realized until ’97, I think, during the CIA’s 50th Jubilee celebration, when they de-classified all this information.
And so I decided to put the whole story together. And it was published in Wired magazine. I was sitting in my coffee shop, and I had the proof. And I remember thinking, “This would make a really awesome movie.” And we sent it over to Grant [Heslov], and they agreed.
Heslov: We read the article. George [Clooney] and were shooting a film in North Carolina, and we also thought it would make a great film. So we brought it to the studio and we set it up, and then we had the task of trying to find a writer. [He says jokingly] We decided we wanted to spend as little money on a writer.
Chris [Terrio] was somebody that Nina Wolarsky, who was also a producer on the film, had read the work of before and was a huge fan of his. I read something that he had written, and he came in and pitched a take, which was essentially the film, as you have seem it, with very little changes. I don’t know how often you get to read screenplays, but generally, suck. This was the best first draft of a screenplay that I had ever read and been involved with. Then it was five years of trying to figure out when we could make it. That’s when Ben [Affleck] came along.
Affleck: When I got the script, I couldn’t believe how good it was. I think they said, “This is our best script,” and I thought that was some executive hyping me on it, but it really was pretty incredible. I was amazed. I talked to Grant and George and said, “Look, I really want to do this. This is amazing.” And they said, “Okay, great! Let’s do it!” So, we took it to Warner Bros.
And then, I went back and talked to Chris [Terrio] and said, “How did you do this?” I looked at some documentaries and read some books and thought, “God, this is really unwieldy. It felt like it should have been a 10-hour mini-series. How did you get that down into a three-act structure?”
Terrio: Obviously, Josh [Bearman] was charging at the head of the army by going out and uncovering this story and putting it together. And then when I got it, I think the only coherent thought in my head was, “What if this hadn’t been classified until 1997? What if this could have been made in 1980, by a guy like Sidney Lumet? What if it could be a verbal movie?”
There’s a lot of words in it. It’s about artifice. It’s about pulling off an escapade without any military action, and without anything except storytelling and bullshitting. So that became a big thread of the story about these parallel worlds of Hollywood and the CIA, and all these people trying to create a coherent story to get those people out. That was the spine of it. I knew that it was going to be about people trying to do their jobs and trying to get these people out by storytelling, really. Tone is something that we talked about a lot.
It was about, how do you tell a story that is geo-political, where the stakes are very high and you have lives hanging in the balance, but at the same time, be able to go to the press conference at the Beverly Hilton and keep the irony and acerbic nature of some of the dialogue without compromising either tone. That was a mix. That’s something that was not only at the script stage, but throughout the process.
That’s where Ben’s sense of humor, sense of timing and sense of filmmaking really was the guide, which is to say, “How much can we get away with here? How do we get it right? And how do we make it all look like the same movie? How do you manage to cut to a press conference with a guy in a robot suit to the basement of the Mushroom Inn, which is the place in Tehran where the hostages were held?” I don’t know how Ben pulled that off, but he did.
What are the most important things that you’ve learned about filmmaking?
Affleck: It’s been reinforced to me, and it’s a little cliché, but I’ve learned that you can’t make a movie that even works, much less is good, without really good writing and really good acting. That lesson has led me to not be distracted so much by the other stuff going on in filmmaking, and to focus on the essence of a story and the words and the events and the way that those are interpreted by the actors. That philosophy has taken me to a place that I really like.
How much input did George Clooney have, in regard to making the film?
Heslov: We worked on this for five or six years, before we even got to the point of talking to Ben about it. We don’t develop a lot of stuff. We don’t have 30 or 40 projects at our fingertips. We find something that we like and we say, “We’re going to make this.” That’s pretty much the way that we’ve always done it. If you go back and read the Wired article, the tone of this film is that article. It really was on that page. That’s appealing to us, when we can find a piece that has humor, has something to say, has relevance and speaks to events that are happening, literally. We were very involved in that. He’s as involved as any producer will be, particularly when it comes to the cut. He’s really great with the cut.
Affleck: For me, the nice thing about working with Smokehouse, and Grant and George, is that it makes a big difference to have producers who are filmmakers and who have actually done what you’re doing. With these guys, they’ve done it really well and for a long time, and they have experience on the back-end with marketing, distribution, development and post-production, as well as being really supportive during production. So, you feel like you have a different kind of partner, who’s got an intuitive sympathy for what you’re going through. Both of these guys have done it and done it well, so it was great for me.
Heslov: The actual shooting of the film is more difficult for George. I don’t think he wants to be a distraction on a set, and he tends to feel like he’s a distraction because people behave weird and do crazy shit when he’s there. So, the shooting is a little bit trickier.
Ben, what’s like for you to be the actor, director and producer, on set?
Affleck: No matter what you’re doing, if you’re trying to make a movie, you need to be working with people that are really good and who make you better. I have a lot of titles in front of my name, but the movie works as well, if not better, than anything I’ve been involved in because of the amazing cast that I put together and who were willing to do it, and Chris Terrio’s script and the partnership with the producers.
I was in an incredibly enviable position, in that sense. I didn’t have to go, “Well, I’ve got to push the rock up the hill, in all these areas.” I had a lot of partners doing it, which made all those different things better. Moreover, I don’t see them as necessarily distinct. It’s all part of filmmaking. It’s hard for me to distinguish and put each job in its silo.
There is no single face that you put on the antagonist of “Argo.” How was it to approach that aspect of the story?
Terrio: I think that’s a really astute observation. Ben and I talked about how pretty much everybody in the film is in a system. Everyone is doing their job within a system. Even the revolutionaries are in a system. So the question becomes, “How do you do the right thing within this system?”
Even for Tony, there’s this huge vampire-squid-octopus of the CIA, within which it’s easier not to do the right thing. It’s easier to say, “F*ck it, let the state department take the blame.” Tony has to be the guy to say, “No, I am the face of this mission.
I am responsible for what will happen.” In the same way, on the Iranian side, you have all these people that are caught up in the currents of history. And then, as the film goes on, the question is about how you dramatize that antagonism and those threats to really make it feel like there’s a villain and the villain is widespread, and it’s urgent to save the six from the distributed villain of whatever you want to call it.
What was the most challenging scene to shoot?
Affleck: When you hire great actors, you’re lucky, so you just try to create an atmosphere where they can succeed and relax and take risks. You’re happy that you get to watch them at the monitor and that your name is on the director’s chair. That was more fun than challenging, really.
The most challenging thing was the big scene with all of the extras. Grant and I and our line producer had a long lead-up, trying to get thousands of people in Turkey to show up and there was a lot of anxiety about whether they would. And there were some issues because it was harder to get younger people.
It was a student revolution, so you didn’t want it to look like a riot at the senior center. We tried to make it as real as possible, and it required a lot of people and a lot of wrangling. When you have 2,000 people, if they’re cold, they just go home.
Heslov: Some of them had to leave from one or two in the morning from their homes, and they were bussed in from all over the place. And it got very cold and started to rain, so we did lose some of them.
Terrio: Which, as it turned out, was exactly the weather on the day of the actual embassy take-over. In some weird way, despite creating all kinds of logistical problems, as the writer, I was thinking, “This is great!”
Affleck: And the writer was inside the little café with a heater.
Ben, what was it about Tony Mendez that got under your skin and made you want to play him?
Affleck: I wanted to play him because the script was really interesting. It struck me, right away, that you had this thriller and then, in equal measure, this comic Hollywood satire and this really intricate real-life CIA spy story based on truth. That seemed like a fantastically interesting and unusual movie to be a part of, and I really wanted to direct it. And then, the actor side of my brain that’s still in that phase of auditioning and trying to make connections and get work asked the director of that movie for a job, and the director was in a tough spot and had to say yes.
Did you get to spend any time with Tony Mendez at all?
Affleck: I was on top of a run of people who had spent time with Tony. By the time I got there, Josh and the Smokehouse guys had talked to him. Chris had been to his house in Maryland. By the time I finally got to sit down with him, he was steeped in this movie. It was Tony’s story and Tony’s point of view. He wanted to meet me at this famous old CIA bar in Georgetown that he told me was where Aldrich Ames passed names of the American agents in Russia to his Russian handlers.
When he told me that, it sunk in, all of a sudden, that this was real. This was a real story about a real guy who worked in a real world where real lives were at stake. It wasn’t just sliding down the roof and kicking in the window and shooting three guys, which is the kind of thing that we, in Hollywood, tend to think of as the CIA. It was a real thing, and it’s out there.
These folks are making sacrifices for us, every day. It was really inspiring to meet Tony, and he participated and helped us. He has a cameo in the movie, and he was at the premiere in Toronto.
How much influence did he actually have on the story you were telling?
Terrio: When Tony first read the script, I was terrified about some of the things we had to dramatize, that aren’t directly from his memoirs or from the reporting about him. I thought he would be really put off by it. But speaking to the connection between espionage and Hollywood, Tony lived his whole life in a world of artifice and he understands that, in order to dramatize certain things, certain things needed to change. There would be technical things where he would call me and say, “I don’t think I would do X, Y and Z,” often involving covert communications.
There was a long, tedious string of things that he had to do, before he could call Langley, for example. In a film, you have to shorthand that. You can’t wait three days, so that the message can be passed on from source to source to source. There were shortcuts like that, that we had to take for dramatic purposes, but I think that he’s pretty happy with the way that we chose to depict him.
With the recent protests that have happened in the Middle East, was there any concern about what you depict in this film and the similarities?
Affleck: It was always important to us that the movie not be politicized. We went to great pains to try to make it very factual and fact-based, knowing that it was going to be coming out before an election in the United States when a lot of things get politicized. We obviously couldn’t forecast how terrible things would become now, but even when we made the movie, we saw some resonance to countries that were in tumult.
Naturally, we just wanted to be judicious and careful about presenting the facts, and also stand firmly behind that and say, “This is an examination of this part of the world.” Just because a part of the world is undergoing strife and tumult, it doesn’t mean you stop examining it, looking at it or talking about it. I think that would be a bad thing.
Ben, what reaction did you get from your family at home for your character’s ‘70s look?
Affleck: My family unanimously hated the look, for different reasons. There was a united front. My kids kept saying, “Can you shave the prickles?” And I said, “I’ve got to wear this for work.” Finally, my daughter was like, “What kind of work would want you to look like that?!”
How do you feel about all of the Oscar buzz for “Argo”?
Affleck: Right now, we’re just trying to get the movie out. There isn’t anybody out there who has paid a dime to buy a ticket yet to see this movie. When you work for as long as we all have, on something like this, the focus is just on the audience coming to see it. Otherwise, you’re just a tree in the woods. You’ve spent all that time for a plastic disc. The goal is to have it be as large a collective experience as possible.
For more info: “Argo” website