"Argo" director Ben Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio combined humor with heart-thumping adventure for their tale of six Americans’ escape from Iran
"Argo" has been one of the presumptive leaders in the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay races since its unveiling at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals in September.
The tale of six Americans who hid in the Canadian ambassador’s house during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980, it turns a little-known — and for decades, classified — rescue operation by the CIA and the Canadians into a crackling action movie that picked up rave reviews and has steadily climbed to $107 million at the domestic box office.
Affleck made his mark with "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," but "Argo" is a step up for the actor-writer-director who was last nominated for an Oscar for his script to "Good Will Hunting" 15 years ago. (He and his writing partner Matt Damon won.) And it has also put New York-based writer Chris Terrio on the Hollywood map; even though Terrio’s previous screenwriting credits are slim, Affleck now insists that his own future success will be tied to how closely he sticks with Terrio.
The two men sat down with TheWrap to talk their way through "Argo," dissecting key scenes from both the writer’s and director’s points of view. (In the unlikely event that you haven’t seen "Argo," be warned: There are spoilers ahead.)
The movie starts with comic-style storyboards mixed with still photos and newsreel footage to provide a history lesson on America’s involvement in Iranian politics from the 1950s until the late ‘70s.
Terrio: My original intention was that you would be thrown straight into the demonstration against the U.S. embassy. We talked about Paul Greengrass’ "Bloody Sunday" — at first you don’t know what is going on, and you have to catch up. But I had been steeped in Iran for such a long time that I was taking the context for granted.
Ben came in with a director’s point of view — he had a strong feeling that you have to make people understand what has brought these crowds to the embassy. I thought, He’ll do it and realize it doesn’t work. And then I saw the first cut, and I thought, Damn, he’s right.
Affleck: Part of it was political context, but the directorial part of it was completely different. We had multiple tones in the movie, including this quasi-comic aspect, and the idea was to try to fuse those tones. It was done so deftly on the page that I didn’t even notice — but when I went to direct it I was worried. I wanted to foreshadow to the audience that, yes, there’s going to be drama and tension and life-and-death stakes, but also there’s this other aspect to it.
There’s also the storytelling theme — this slightly mythical, slightly campy feeling that can be woven in. That’s why I put in the storyboards and the fade-up fade-out incorporating real photographs and real video with drawings. It all just emerged out of insecurity, really.
2. THE SPECIALIST
Affleck’s character, CIA “exfil” specialist Tony Mendez, has spent his career getting people out of tough situations behind enemy lines. He’s called on to advise the State Department, which has hatched a plan to rescue six Americans now trapped in the Canadian ambassador’s house.
Brought to a meeting by his boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), Mendez listens to a plan involving smuggling bicycles to the Americans and then pointing them in the direction of the Turkish border 300 miles away. “Or you could just send in training wheels,” Mendez says, “and meet them at the border with Gatorade.”
Terrio: That was a tough scene. You need to establish that Tony is not part of the CIA establishment, that he looks at things differently. But you don’t want to have the cliché of a rogue detective who doesn’t think like the rest of the department.
The point is that the audience is thinking at that point, Wait a minute, bicycles? We needed to establish that Tony and Jack are in on the joke of how absurd that is. When Tony makes his Gatorade joke, it’s the first flash that he speaks the language that Alan Arkin will speak later and that the guys in the CIA speak, too. It’s a tightrope walk, performance-wise and directorially.
3. HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD
Mendez comes up with a plan: create a fake movie production and smuggle the Americans out of Iran by having them pose as Canadian moviemakers scouting locations for a cheesy sci-fi epic. He enlists the aid of makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Arkin) to convince Hollywood that the movie, Argo, is for real.
“You want to go around Hollywood acting like you’re an important person in the movie business, but you don’t want to actually do anything?” asks Chambers in the first of many scenes studded with inside jokes. “You’ll fit right in.”
Terrio: A lot of the tone in the Hollywood scenes was a gift from the grave from the real-life Chambers. He was this cynical, acerbic, hilarious guy who used to hold court in the Valley with giant margaritas. So once you have this guy who in real life is working for the CIA and doing these classified projects during the Cold War, but is also making fun of the bad science-fiction movies that he’s working on, then you start imagining how the geopolitical world can co-exist with Hollywood absurdism.
Affleck: That sense of humor is a gallows humor that’s in the movie business, particularly the below-the-line part. It’s a sense that half the people you’re working for are idiots and all of them are prima donnas. John Goodman really tuned into that. So when he says, “You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day,” even people in other trades respond.
4. THE READING
In one of the film’s virtuoso sequences, Chambers and Siegel stage a media event to get the Hollywood trades to write about their nonexistent movie. The comic sequence of a full reading of the script — with elaborately costumed sci-fi heroes intoning lines like, “The old ways are lost, but there is still hope” — is intercut with scenes of the hostages being subjected to a mock execution in the basement of the embassy and with footage of then-President Jimmy Carter insisting, “We will not yield to international terror or blackmail” and the Iranian spokeswoman “Tehran Mary” talking of trying and sentencing the hostages.
Terrio: That was one of the first things that I wrote. I had it in my head that if that sequence could work, then the movie would work. The idea was to combine those grave, almost J.R.R. Tolkien-ish intonations about the fantasy world with the geopolitical stuff from Iran and from the CIA.
The first time Ben showed me a rough cut of that sequence, I was really emotional. I’m not normally emotional, especially not in public on sets, but I really thought that somehow he’d made it all part of the same movie.
Affleck: It was very tricky. When I read it I was entranced by it, and then I was filled with dread, because it very clearly said to me: This is what you need to execute to make the whole world of this movie work. If you can weave it together, you’ll have a movie. And if you fail at this, the movie will be broken.
My editor, Bill Goldenberg, and I went and just hammered on it. When we moved a piece of footage three or four feet down the line, all of a sudden it was next to something different and it said something completely different. You’ve got the absurdity of the blue Wookie and the guy with his skintight suit saying, “Fire the thrusters!” and then the propaganda, and seeing how the hostages were brutalized…
We did a million iterations, and I remember sitting there with Billy at one point as we were playing around with it, and he said, “This is one of my favorite things that I’ve ever cut.”
After being briefed by Mendez on their new identities, the Americans arrive at the Tehran airport and navigate three levels of security, facing increasing scrutiny and suspicion with each new step.
Back in Washington, O’Donnell is frantically trying to get approval for the project after it had been killed the day before—and in Hollywood, Chambers and Siegel don’t know that everything is back on and have stepped away from the phone where they’re supposed to wait in case the Iranians call to verify the ”filmmakers’” identities.
A number of cliffhangers and last-minute escapes ensue, ending with police cars and trucks pursing the jet down the runway — a scene that didn’t actually happen.
Terrio: It was a deliberate choice to plunge head-on into the tension and even the genre elements. There’s no information on the Iranian side of what they knew and when. We know that by the next morning the Iranian foreign minister was saying, “Canada will pay for this outrage!”
But we don’t know — were they 30 seconds behind, were they hours behind? So in the absence of this information, it’s almost your responsibility as a dramatist to go to the highest, most tense version.
The other thing is that we live comfortably in the future, and we know that those Americans were not executed in Iran in 1980. So how do you take what your mind knows and have your adrenaline play against that? How do you make an audience member think, I know they get out, I’m sure they get out, but fuck, that truck’s getting really close.
So you go counter-factual. I think Ben took all the mastery of suspense that he showed in "The Town" and applied it to the scene, so you get a moment that is utterly fluent in the language of suspense, in service of creating empathy for these real people and their real predicament.
We definitely thought, How much do we squeeze out of the genre elements? And the decision was, We’re gonna squeeze every drop out of it.
Affleck: Typically, as a director, you have this prime directive, where all choices have to be made in light of what’s going to make the movie better. But when you’re doing a true story you have to serve two masters, because you’re trying to make the best movie you can but also one that hews faithfully to real events.
I felt really comfortable that we never did anything that corrupted or betrayed the basic truth. The end of the movie is the only sort of invented, fictionalized piece. And that is about having a third act that works, having that catharsis, and having a release that is appropriate to the stakes of the movie.
After the escape, there are still lots of loose ends to tie up: Chambers and Siegel in Hollywood, the housekeeper in Tehran who helped the Americans escape, Mendez’s standing at the CIA (which can’t take any credit for the secret operation) and Tony’s relationship with his son, who unknowingly gave him the idea for the movie-production cover story to begin with.
Terrio: There were a lot of subplots in motion, and some of them needed to be resolved. And we have been waiting for Tony’s homecoming, in a sense, for the whole film. He is Odysseus, blown this way and that, and in the end he has to come home. Tony finally getting home to his son is the emotional core of the movie.
Affleck: In my social life, I’m known to overstay my welcome. So it stands to reason that I should do it in movies. I loved all the endings in The Lord of the Rings. I know some people like to have just one or two beats, but if I like the movie, I want to keep on learning, keep on watching.
Luckily I had more sober people around me who restrained me from going on, because there was a point where there were like four more cards at the end of the movie and it was getting a little ridiculous. At the end of the day, I pushed it as far as I could.