What We Learned From Ben Affleck About Argo

Finally released in UK cinemas today is the Argo, a based-on-truth thriller about a CIA hostage rescue operation masquerading as the making of a sci-fi movie.

It’s the third film from Ben Affleck and no, really, there can’t be much doubt now that the chap actually knows how to make a film. I might have some issues with a pseudo-suspense scene towards the end of the picture, but there’s plenty of  good stuff in the movie, and so much of it is put together so well, that Argo certainly gets an enthusiastic recommendation from me.

When Affleck, Bryan Cranston and John Goodman were over in the UK during the London Film Festival, our man Patrick Dane went off to see them. Word from Cranston and Goodman is coming up shortly, but now, here’s some of what Aflleck had to say about the film, the real events that inspired it, and more.

I always wanted to be a director. I directed some very bad student films. Probably the smartest thing I have ever done is use my acting career as a free film school, because they can’t kick you off the set for asking questions if you are actually in the movie. So that is what I did. I consider myself a filmmaker and an actor and a writer and a producer. I don’t make stark delineations between those. I think they are all part of the same suit of making a movie.

You are writing when you improvise as an actor and many actors, well, they direct after a fashion. You are in the scene so you have input. I see myself as all of those things at once and I don’t want to have to lose any of it. 

The case was declassified in 1997. The CIA had this “50 year jubilee” thing, though I don’t know what they called it, but they named the 50 most important CIA agents. Tony Mendez was one of these guys.

The CIA declassified a lot of material but they don’t issue press releases when they declassify stuff. Ultimately, though, a guy from Wired magazine named Josh Bearman did some research and found out about the story and dug up the declassified material. He then wrote this magazine article which was much sought after by Hollywood because of the one liner description “The CIA create the cover of a Hollywood movie to rescue American hostages.”

So then George Clooney bought it and hired Chris Terrio ,who is an excellent writer, to write it. That took a couple of years.  But then I was just lucky to end up with it. I was lucky enough to be sent the script, and I was stunned by how good it was. It was a drama, it was a thriller, it was a comedy and it was a true story. So I called George right away and I said “Look, I got to do this, I really want to do it. And here is how I would want to do it.” We talked for a couple hours and I think he said yes just to get me off the phone. 

When you are an actor, you grow up with this idea or this feeling of constantly auditioning, trying to get the good part, trying to get the break. So I got the film as a director but the actor part of me saw this great part and wanted to do it. You know, since I was sleeping with the director…

I didn’t wait very long once I got the script to try and make the movie.  I have two responsibilities as a filmmaker. One is to make the best movie I can possibly make and the other is to make it was truthful as I possibly can. In trying to synthesise those two things as well as I can, I’ve not made  a documentary, it is a drama. But absolutely, the spine of the story presented here is true. 6 Americans fled from the embassy while it was being taken over, the Canadians kept them safe while John Chambers and Tony Mendez came up with this idea to make a film cover to get them out.

The cars escaping at the end… That didn’t happen. It is meant to express the characters’ internal fear.

Ultimately, I am very confident with the extent to which this story is truthful. We stay truthful to the story. We were lucky and had Tony Mendez working with us all the time, We had five of the 6 “house guests” working with us the whole time. So, we had the input of the six of the real people to make sure we stayed grounded to the emotional fabric as well. 

I added on the scene at the beginning with the history lesson and the takeover of the embassy, and I rearranged some stuff and some transitions and added scenes at the end but I mean, at it’s root, this is the story that took place and that hasn’t been changed from the script. The changes that were made were made by me and Chris together. He is extremely gifted, so on Hollywood scale, the script was not changed that much. I did deemphasise the comedy a little bit and bolstered up the thriller aspect, especially in the third act because I didn’t want the film to wink at the audience. I thought that would undo our empathy with these people who are in a life or death circumstance. 

You do need to have antagonists and protagonists in drama but I wanted to contextualise the events in the movie so we weren’t starting out with bearded lunatics. I added the scenes at the start because we need the audience to to understood the history, to understand the long road that lead to that moment in time. This is not to excuse what happened or even make any judgement frankly, but just let the viewer have more information. Then watching it is a) a more interesting experience; and b) It shows that I am not trying to lead the audience to any particular judgement. I am simply trying to tell the story and allow people to draw their own conclusions. I think that is better filmmaking and I think it is more ethically responsible.

This was a good excuse to use 70s movies, so if I copied that style. The subconscious mind of the viewer might be more convinced they are watching something that is taking place in the 70s because the optics are such that the film looks like it was made at that time. Unconsciously I aped some of All the President’s Men and Killing of a Chinese Bookie as well as movies like the Battle of Algiers, which isn’t a 70s movie.

One of the things we did to recreate the 70s look was to mimic basic film stocks by using the digital intermediate, and by using cameras and film stock to create certain looks. This both distinguished certain scenes from one another as well as to made them all look more convincingly ‘authentic.’ We used 5263 which is this punchy, contrasty stock for the Iranian stuff, and we only used half of the frame so when we literally blow it up, you see added grain.

This is not a political film but one can’t help but be sympathetic to foreign servant officers who are serving in dangerous places. In some ways, one of the things now that I am most proud of in this movie is that is pays homage to those folks. It is a very thorny time politically and there is a part of these images that suggest, in a very sad way, history is in fact repeating itself, without having come that far. But I think it is a little early to make too many determinations.

I wanted to actually go to Iran and film but it proved to be too politically difficult. We talked to the State Department and they said, “Well, you would be fine but it would turn into a political environment where you might be seen as endorsing the regime. So I tried to meet some people, Iranian filmmakers that I know, to get them to film some stuff for me – some planes, some buildings, some mountains, that kind of thing. But even those folks were ultimately too scared to do this. It spoke to me about how oppressive the regime is over there. It’s really, really sad, and particularly because there are so many great Iranian filmmakers. Look no further than A Separation from last year. It is a wonderful culture and wonderful place, and I would have liked to have gone, and one day, I do hope to go, in the future. 

Argo is smart, sometimes funny and pretty engaging. Even when the big suspense scene at the end sticks out like as ore thumb, there’s still interesting stuff going on. It’s never a bust. You’ll be able to see it pretty much anywhere across the UK from today, and it’s still on release across the US.

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