It's one of those stories that's almost too bizarre to be true, but Argo is based on real events that took place during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis as revealed in ex-CIA Agent Tony Mendez' book The Master of Disguise and a 2007 Wired magazine article about the rescue operation. Argo recounts the incredible true story of the rescue of six American Embassy workers who were kept hidden and safe from harm at the Canadian Ambassador's house. Of course certain liberties were taken to make the story flow on film, but the main elements were kept in place by screenwriter Chris Terrio (Heights).
At a press conference in support of the Warner Bros Pictures drama, actor/director Ben Affleck confirmed some things needed to be compressed to fit into the film, but he gave full credit to screenwriter Terrio for how the real events were depicted in the film. Says Affleck, "Chris did by far the lion’s share of this and he did such an expert job. When you look at the chapter in Tony’s book and the article, you go, 'How would you make a three act movie out of this?' It’s a testament to his exquisite talent."
Ben Affleck Argo Press Conference:
How do you create a thriller when we know the ending to the true story?
"I think that sounds harder for the director than it is. You really just rely on a good screenplay that’s rooted in reality, and you rely on good actors where their performances are so credible that you’re invested in them and you’re invested in what the stakes are for them moment to moment and the things that they want. So the part of the brain in the audience isn’t thinking, 'Well, they probably wouldn’t have made a movie about six people who got gunned down on the runway.' You’re invested in these human beings."
How much responsibility did you feel to the real events and to keeping the adaptation true to history?
"As you say, there is a clear divide between documentaries where you expect a stricter adherence to facts and truth and history, and to our movie where we say, 'Based on a true story.' But because we say 'based on' - I learned this from the lawyers - rather than 'This is a true story,' it’s understood that we’re allowed to take some dramatic license so that, for example, at the beginning the houseguests went from place A to place B to place C and it would’ve been a lot of shoe leather. So we kind of compressed it to where they went straight to the Canadian Ambassador’s. In terms of making a movie and being truthful about it, I think there is a spirit of truth and there’s literally what happens.
We got really lucky because most of what happens in this movie is extremely compelling and the characters were very interesting. So it made it fun and a pleasure, and I actually could rely on that. I’d have questions and say, 'I don't know, should it look this way? Should it look that way?' And we would go, 'Well, how did it really look? Let’s look at the actual material.' So it was actually kind of a crutch for me."
Can you talk about your cast?
"[I won] the lottery. [...] John Ford said directing was 90% casting and that’s in evidence here. For example, what John [Goodman] and Alan [Arkin] were able to do in terms of taking the Hollywood satire element of the movie and keeping it realistic while making it funny was incredibly challenging, but necessary in order to stitch the movie together so that it didn’t just feel like a series of shorts, one about the CIA, one that was a comedy about Hollywood and one that was, I don't know what, a Costa-Gavras movie or something. In that sense, you totally rely on actors. And I got a great script that I thought actors would respond to because it was smart."
Will this story be news to Iran?
"Iran has always been angry at Canada about it. It’s just the U.S. that dodged the bullet."
How will the Iranian government react to the film?
"Oh, I’m not sure. There’s a friend of mine named Rafi Pitts who’s an amazing Iranian director who played the guy who gives me my visa and scratches out 'kingdom' and says 'Republic of Iran.' He was a consultant as well. I’d say, 'Is this real, is that real?' He’d say, 'Oh, they’ll watch the movie. As soon as they get it, they’ll all watch the movie, they’ll see who’s there.' We couldn’t get any Iranian nationals who are in Turkey to be in our movie, because we needed Farsi speakers, because they were afraid of the repercussions of what would happen to their families back home. It’s a Stalinist state-controlled oppressive government. So there are a lot of restrictions on what you’re allowed to do in there and they really want to control these images. Ultimately I’m told that they’ll watch the movie to see, I don't know who’s in it or whatever. I’m more worried about other audiences."
How much more challenging was having double duties as actor and director?
"It kind of sounds like ass-kissing, but the truth is that it’s a lot easier to be directing when you just don’t have to deal with the actors at all. Everybody showed up. They were really good. They knew what they were doing. They oftentimes came up with ideas that were much more interesting than mine. So the only time I ever talked to somebody was if there was some problem and that mostly was we had a lot of Persian actors who were new, who’d never done it before, that kind of thing. But these guys all just came in and made it great and made the job feel really, really easy. I kept thinking, 'In a way I’m going to get credit for this, for these guys’ work.' The truth is they really carried the ship."
Did you feel safe shooting outisde the US?
"We were in LA for a lot of it. A lot in Burbank, you feel very removed. Also, it turns out there’s like 1 million Iranians in L.A. and they’re all on our side. They call it Tehrangeles and that’s where we got all our extras from, and so it was actually this incredibly warm environment of support of people who really liked it. I felt quite safe in Turkey. I actually loved being in Turkey and shooting there."
Do you think the Hollywood aspect of the film will be more favorable to Oscar voters?
"Oh, I have no idea. Right now I’m just worried about getting the movie out, having people, humans come see it and pay for the tickets. But I think the nice thing to me, the really sort of grace note of the Hollywood stuff is what John [Goodman] did where he has this very realistic and kind of identifiable way of rolling his eyes at Hollywood. It’s like, 'Yeah, we know everybody thinks it’s great but I’m doing this sh*tty monster movie.' 'You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director.' He does it in such a well-finessed way that you like him, you believe that he works in Hollywood, you believe that he likes Hollywood and what he’s doing, but that he also has kind of a healthy cynicism for it. The Hollywood satire aspect of it, of which there have been plenty of movies, that’s the component that I like the best and I definitely attribute that to John."
Did you debate the pros and cons of adding airport suspense to the ending?
"It was in the script when I got it. Not only was that sequence in the script, but it was something very rare which was the intercuts, at which line, at which moments, it was written like a director and it was really good. I knew that if I just plainly shot it exactly as written it would work, because it was making me feel tense just reading it. Chris was kind of masterful at constructing that.
I think it’s okay to have that. They actually did go to the airport. The flight was delayed. There was a lot of anxiety, but it was all internal anxiety. So as a filmmaker, as a writer, how do you make that legitimate anxiety kind of external? I thought that was a really smart way to do it on Chris’ part. I think the kinds of things that are really important to be true are, for example, the relationship between the U.S. and Canada, right? It’s a really meaningful time in the history of these two countries where the United States stood up collectively as a nation and said, 'We thank you, we appreciate you, we respect you and we’re in your debt.' which is to me profoundly moving. I think Canada heard that and saying, 'You harbored our people so that they could live in Tehran. Others weren’t up to it for various reasons. We owe you that.' The U.S. and Canada have a complicated relationship that goes back and is a result of many different factors, but this was one moment that was a clear crystallization of the best that it could be. That is accurate. That is real. That is a perfect representation of what it was."
What will the real Ken Taylor [former Canadian Ambassador to Iran] think about Argo?
"I hope he’ll be pleased. One of the really important themes for me, and one of the things that I loved about the screening here was to me the movie really does say, it does resurrect this idea of thank you, Canada. Of valuing Canada, respecting Canada, reaching an arm of friendship across the border. Naturally, we’re quite close. But it’s one thing to be close, it’s another thing to say we thank you for this in particular. Yes, Tony’s involvement was not revealed before, but what is unchanged is that six Americans’ lives were in danger and they needed refuge, and there were folks who didn’t want to stick their necks out and the Canadians did. They said, 'We’ll risk ourselves, our diplomatic standing, our lives to harbor these six Americans that we owe nothing to just because it’s the moral right thing to do.' They did it, as a result of that, their lives were saved. That is absolutely unchanged. The fact that Tony was involved does justice and honor to the truth of Tony and the US’ involvement, but none of that would’ve happened without our friends to the north, so thank you very much."
You and Jennifer Garner both did a movie about the Middle East. What is your interest in this subject?
"Yeah, that was my major in college, Middle Eastern Studies, so I’ve always been interested in it. I’ve always followed it so when this came along, in my passion to be part of doing it, I was like, 'I have a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies!' I made up all kinds of bullsh*t, but this was really in my zone of interest very much. I actually wrote a couple of papers on the Iranian Revolution, although I’m sure they were terrible.
Yeah, I don't know why it is. When you’re drawn to a field of study, you’re drawn to it. I don't know that I can say I was technically a major because I didn’t actually graduate, but how often do you get to make a movie on this subject matter, particularly in a world when some of the war films that had been made had been maybe a little too depressing for audiences over the last 10 years? So the truth is that Warner Brothers took a chance on me to make a movie that was very unconventional, that had a lot of elements that could trip you up, that would be a challenge to sell and I think they’re confident in their ability to do that. They showed this faith in me and I’m really, really grateful because I got to make a movie that I’m really proud of and that has themes in it that I’m really interested in. I’ve worked on movies where I didn’t feel that way and I know the difference."
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Argo hits theaters on October 12, 2012.