The Painstaking Work of Making 'Argo' Authentic
Ex-Ambassador Again Slams 'Argo' for Canada Snub
This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In June 2009, Chris Terrio entered Manhattan's Paley Center for Media on a quest for information. He had been hired by producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov to write a screenplay based on the real-life story of a fake movie staged by the CIA, which was used as a backdrop to rescue Americans who had fled the U.S. embassy in Tehran during the 444-day Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979.
Buried among the center's 150,000 TV and radio programs was footage of a Vietnam veteran, interviewed in a U.S. bar, talking about how he gladly would bear arms once more in an Iranian conflict, if it came to that. Terrio not only incorporated the man's words in his script for Argo -- his first feature screenplay -- but the filmmakers also bought the clip to use in the movie, requiring the production team to track down the veteran, Jack Stroup, and get his approval 30 years after the fact.
"It made me understand that we were in a very explosive situation," says Terrio, who also found a Mike Wallace interview with Ayatollah Khomeini, part of which made it into the movie. "It reminds you that as a writer of history, you need to put yourself in the head space of not knowing where events are going."
His efforts were part of a massive endeavor to give Argo an exceptional level of authenticity -- all the more striking for its modest $44.5 million budget, which bought the filmmakers a 65-day shoot (mostly in and around Los Angeles) and a month in Turkey, which substituted for Iran. This authenticity has helped make Argo a front-runner for best picture at the Feb. 24 Oscars.
But awards were the last thing on director Ben Affleck's mind when he received a copy of the script in early 2011. Affleck was in Atlanta with his wife, Jennifer Garner (there shooting The Odd Life of Timothy Green), and had just officiated at a funeral for their three kids' pet gerbil when he was FedExed the screenplay.
"Usually I read scripts in 20-page installments," he says. "But this one I was completely tuned in to."
After calling Clooney in Detroit (where he was shooting The Ides of March), Affleck made it clear he wanted to shift what initially had been a semicomedic tone and treat the project with the seriousness its subject warranted.
"They viewed it as a bit more comic than I did," he says. "I wanted to skew only maybe a quarter comic and not laugh-out-loud. The barometer was: 'Was it real? Could it have been real? Is it as close to real as we know?' We adhered to that pretty slavishly in terms of hair, makeup, set decorations -- everything."
While much has been written about Affleck's personal journey in bringing the film to life -- the near-riots during the Turkey shoot when extras got carried away, the conversion of a Hancock Park mansion into the house of megaproducer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), the use of an airport in Ontario, Calif., to stand in for Tehran's -- the search for authenticity seeped into nearly every aspect of the physical production.
Terrio, costume designer Jacqueline West (The Social Network) and production designer Sharon Seymour (Affleck's The Town) and their teams spent days watching newsreels, buying old Newsweek and Time magazines, screening home movies from Iranian expatriates and speaking with the six living government workers who were the subject of the rescue attempt, along with the CIA operative who organized it, Tony Mendez.