OSCARS: Ben Affleck And Team On The Making Of 'Argo'

Christy Grosz is Editor of AwardsLine.

With more than 120 speaking parts and a key scene that required 2,500 Persian extras, Argo couldn’t have struck the right note of realness without showing faces that lived through the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and that meant heading somewhere in the Middle East to shoot. Several locations were on the short list including Jordan and, in Southeastern Europe, Bulgaria), but ultimately Turkey won out for having the right Persian look. (Director and star Ben Affleck jokes that Turkey having a posh Four Seasons Hotel is what really clinched the deal.)

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“In truth, it really was very similar architecture, and it was next to Iran, so I felt like we’d be able to get a lot of Farsi-speaking extras,” Affleck says. “As it turned out, that was a false assumption; most Iranians were afraid to be in the movie because of reprisal against their family, which kind of brought home the seriousness of the real story.”

In fact, because the production had so much trouble finding extras in Turkey, some of the scenes had to be moved to Los Angeles, which has its own eager population of Farsi speakers. The pivotal airport scene moved to the City of Angels, and Affleck says he was overwhelmed by the passion of the Persian extras, many of whom had lived through the revolution and talked about family members still living in Iran.

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“For them, it was like someone was telling their story. The whole movie absorbed an extra level of seriousness just being around the Persian population of Los Angeles. People in the crew were really, really moved,” Affleck says.

The production team’s commitment to veracity — with the requisite dose of dramatic license—in telling Argo’s story of how the CIA and Hollywood teamed up for the top-secret rescue of six American diplomats trapped amid the 1979 Iranian Revolution paid off with a warm reception that has continued since the film’s Toronto International Film Festival debut in September. Oscar pundits immediately bestowed best picture potential on the film, and audiences have shown their support, with Argo grossing more than $92 million at the domestic box office as of Monday. And during awards season, it doesn’t hurt that the film has an accolade-heavy cast that includes Affleck, who plays CIA agent and plot mastermind Tony Mendez; Bryan Cranston, who plays the Washington, D.C.-based agent running logistics, Jack O’Donnell; Alan Arkin, who plays veteran (and fictional) producer Lester Siegel, charged with finding the right script to fool the Iranians into accepting Argo as a real film; and John Goodman, who plays Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers.

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The film’s production path started about five years ago, when Smokehouse Pictures’ Grant Heslov and George Clooney optioned Joshuah Bearman’s April 2007 Wired article, “The Great Escape,” a tightly written, little-known story about how the CIA worked with Hollywood insiders to devise a fake production company, set up a fake film, and turn six trapped diplomats into a fake film crew as a way to smuggle them out of Iran. After the project was set up with the studio, then-Smokehouse development exec Nina Wolarsky suggested screenwriter Chris Terrio, who pitched Smokehouse and got to work.

Although the mission to Iran wasn’t declassified until the mid-1980s, Terrio says he had no shortage of material to consult when researching the political climate and top-secret event. In fact, the Wired article was the start of a months-long process of devouring everything he could find about the details of the mission.

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“The article was really the beginning of a long trail,” says Terrio, whose script also incorporated details from The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA, a book from plot mastermind Tony Mendez. “Then, of course, eventually you just have to sit down and write. You circle and circle, and convince yourself you can’t possibly write until you read one more book. Finally, you think, OK, I’m going to get fired if I don’t” start writing.

Terrio condensed his extensive research into a script that Heslov has called the best first draft he’s ever seen. Nevertheless, Argo would have to wait.

“We knew we had a script that we loved,” Heslov explains, “but we didn’t really have time to make it at that point because either we were making a film or George was acting in a film or I was producing a film. It was one of those (situations) where you know you’re going to make it” eventually.

The script sat at Warner Bros. for a while before it landed in the hands of Affleck, who was looking for a followup to 2010’s The Town.

“Ben read it, and he actually called George and me,” says Heslov, who was working with Clooney on Ides of March at the time. “Basically, he pitched us on why he should direct the film. We were both huge fans of his previous films, and the way that he saw the film was right in line with the way George and I saw it.”

When it came to casting, Affleck didn’t have much trouble figuring out who would play the lead of CIA agent Mendez in the film.

“That part of me that will always be looking for the good role said, ‘I’d be good for this.’ The director part of me thought it would be too much trouble not to give the actor the part,” Affleck says. He was so eager to take on the film that Heslov says Affleck started prepping before the Smokehouse team finished Ides.

“Ben was like a pony at the gate, ready to go,” Heslov recalls. “The day that we wrapped The Ides of March, George and I jumped right in to producing Argo.”

Three separate locations — Turkey, L.A., and Washington, D.C. — helped bring the story to life, but along the way, the fact that the film was dealing with traumatic historical events was never lost on cast and crew, and the filmmakers carefully balance humor and drama. Though that balance was always a part of the script, according to Terrio, Affleck says seeing it through was thanks to the actors, notably the charming and all-too-accurate Hollywood-types Goodman and Arkin play in the film.

“All the performances were I felt very real, very honest—even the ones that had the most potential to be over the top felt very real,” Affleck says. “Reality being funny doesn’t feel different from reality being tense and dramatic. What would have picked away at the fabric of the reality that we were trying to construct would have been if the comedy had been arch.”

For Cranston, the real story behind what motivated Mendez and his fellow agents, as well as how the Hollywood component fit in, was the appeal from the moment he first read the script.

“These are guys that feel that they’re doing the right thing, with the knowledge that they (might) never have public praise for their work,” Cranston says. “There was no way of knowing that this file would have been declassified. And the Hollywood component — there was no financial gain to be had. No recognition. So why would they do it? Because they’re patriots.”

  1. I like Ben Affleck, he seems like a nice enough guy, and am happy for his success as a director but his acting in the lead role in “Argo” was very lacking. He really lacks true depth when it comes to his close-ups, and when in general, he really needs to “be there”. Every time he cut to himself…I saw very little going on. From the scenes I could tell what was needed by him to convey, but he rarely is able to portray those emotions with any authority. To quote Dorothy Parker about “Pittsburgh” – I think it was Pittsburgh – with Ben’s acting…”There’s no there…there.”

    Good director, serviceable actor at best.

    1. Affleck was great in the role. He plays a guy who’s responsible for saving people who’re scared and inexperienced with deception.

      Guys and gals with those skill-sets aren’t, I’d imagine, usually “life of the party” types.

      They’ve got to be focused and calm to keep others sane.

      Without any spoilers there are a few very specific times where I thought his close-ups did a GREAT job of not “over-dramatizing” the moments the way many other actors might have.

      I thought he was great in the role.

      (And no, I’m not Ben, Ben’s Mom, Ben’s Agent, Ben’s Producing Partner or Ben’s anything. – But feel free to make a played out joke here.)

  2. Good – but not great – movie. If this is Oscar material, then we must be scraping the bottom of the barrel this year. And yes, Ben Afflack is a poor actor.

    1. “Miffy”….if you don’t find this Oscar-worthy, I’m curious to know what IS actually on your list right now? I’ve found very few films this year that I’ve loved or that I’d see a second time but Argo was one of them.
      I will say that I also enjoyed the performances by John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Ben’s performance was low key because if you’re working for the CIA and going in to a country where all the people want to do is kill you, then you have balls of steel and a face that gives nothing away. Would I like to see more emotion from the Tony Mendez character? Absolutely. But those three letter guys who do these kinds of jobs most of us could never do just don’t give it. And thank God for that.

  3. “There’s no ‘there’ there”: Gertrude Stein on Oakland.

    Affleck has said in interviews that when he met Tony Mendez the man was inscrutable, guarded, played things close to the chest. So the blankness of his performance is intentional…

    1. Totally agree. These ‘three letter guys’ don’t give anything away because they’re going into hostile countries and saving lives. Inscrutable’s a great word and totally appropriate.
      Really enjoyed the movie, and would have liked to have seen more emotion because that’s the Hollywood way – overplay it whenever you can – but in this instance, totally appropriate to give nothing away and a reflection on the actual man – who let’s face it, must have balls of steel to do the extraordinary job he did.

  4. Argo was simply one of the most unique stories of the year. It’s the kind of story that becomes ever more amazing when you know that it’s true. I loved it. And I think it will be one of the Best Picture nominees, along with Ben’s terrific directing, Terrio’s screenplay and Alan Arkin. And if anyone disagrees, Argo ***k yourself!

  5. “The production team’s commitment to veracity — with the requisite dose of dramatic license”, i.e., the last hour of the movie is total fiction. (Seriously!) Great movie, though!

  6. Boasts the kind of craftsmanship it ought to for an industry production like this. The true-story premise is brilliant. The film is not. Scoff if you will, but here was another excellent role that would’ve benefitted enormously from a brilliant, multidimensional actors such as BENICIO DEL TORO–heroic/ historical characters like this are virtually non-existent for people of color. Did Mr. Affleck need to grab the role? Would it really have proved that disadvantageous to the production had it been a Latino actor in the capable, initiative-taking Latino character’s role?

  7. I think this Argo was soo awesome. I loved it so much. It’s probably my favorite of the best picture choices. Totally my opinion but I bet it was more exciting and interesting than Lincoln or Zero Dark Thirty. Also I think the people who are criticizing Ben Affleck’s acting don’t know what theyre talking about. It was a completely subtle and downplayed. They should have just watched the movie instead of judged his every move. No one said he was going for the Oscar.

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