Academy Award winner Ben Affleck directs and stars in the dramatic thriller “Argo,” which opens in theaters on October 12th. Based on real events, the dramatic thriller chronicles the life-or-death covert operation to rescue six Americans that unfolded behind the scenes of the Iran hostage crisis and focuses on the little-known role that the CIA and Hollywood played. “Argo” is produced by Oscar nominee Grant Heslov, Affleck, and Oscar winner George Clooney and also stars Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman.
At the press day for “Argo,” Affleck talked about how he became involved in the project, what drew him to the character of real-life CIA agent Tony Mendez, why he found the film’s opening sequence the most challenging part to shoot, and how he handled the demands of producing and directing a film he also stars in. He also discussed why he felt it was important not to politicize the movie in the process of examining the events that transpired.
Question: How did this all start?
Ben Affleck: When I got the script, I couldn’t believe how good it was. They’ll say “This is our best script” and usually you think that’s just some executive hyping you on it, but it really was pretty incredible. I was amazed. I talked to Grant (Heslov) and George (Clooney) and said “Look, I really want to do this. This is amazing.” And they said “Okay, great, let’s do it,” and we took it to Warners. Then, I went back and talked to Chris (screenwriter Chris Terrio) and said “How did you do this? What was the genesis? How did you take this?” Because I looked at some documentaries and I read some books and I thought this is really unwieldy. It felt like it should have been a 10-hour mini-series or something. “How did you get that down into a three-act structure?”
Q: Did Grant Heslov ask you to direct this?
Affleck: Yes. Grant and George had the material and they, in essence, hired me. They said “Do you want to do it? Would you like to do the movie?” As I said, I got the script and it was like I couldn’t believe it. And I said “Here guys. Here’s the vision that I have for it.” And they were excited and we all started working together. It was our collaboration that I think pushed Warner Bros. over the hump in terms of getting excited about making the movie.
Q: What are the most important things that you’ve learned about filmmaking from each of your three films and especially this one?
Affleck: Well, it’s kind of been reinforced to me. It’s a little cliché so it’s probably not a great answer, but I’ve learned that you can’t make a movie that even works much less is good without really good writing and really good acting. And so, that lesson has led me to not worry about not getting… to not be distracted so much by the other stuff going on in filmmaking and to focus on the essence of a story and the words and the events and the way that those are interpreted by the actors, and that philosophy has taken me to a place that I really like.
Q: What was it about the character that got under your skin and compelled you to want to play him?
Affleck: One of the things I thought was I wanted to play him because the script was really interesting. What struck me almost right away was you have this thriller, and then in equal measure this kind of comic Hollywood satire and this really intricate, real life CIA spy story, and it’s all based on truth. So that seemed like a fantastically interesting and unusual movie to be part of and I really wanted to direct it. And then, the actor side of my brain that’s still in that phase of auditioning and trying to make connections and get work asked the director of that movie for a job. The director was in a tough spot and had to say yes.
The thing I also wanted to say about the part was that Tony is a very withdrawn guy. He’s not the conventional protagonist hero beating his chest out the front. He’s an inscrutable, opaque guy who has these instincts from his days of being a spy to fade into the background. I thought it was interesting to subvert the traditional Hollywood protagonist and have a guy in that position who instinctively doesn’t want to be noticed and have that guy have to make people do things they’re scared of doing and try to save folks’ lives.
Q: Did you have the opportunity to spend any time with the real Tony Mendez to discuss the project and what surprised you?
Affleck: I was on top of a lot of run of people who had spent time with Tony. By the time I got there, Josh (writer Joshuah Bearman), the Smokehouse guys and Grant and Chris had been to his house in Maryland. By the time I got to finally sit down with him, he was steeped in this movie. It was like it was Tony’s story, Tony’s point of view. He wanted to meet me at this old, famous CIA bar in Georgetown and he was telling me that it was where Aldrich Ames passed names of the American agents in Russia to his Russian handlers. And, when he told me that, it sort of sunk in all of a sudden that this was real. This was a real story about a real guy who worked in a real world where real lives were at stake. It wasn’t just sliding down the roof and kicking in the window and shooting three guys and the kind of thing that we in Hollywood tend to think of as the CIA. It was a real thing and it’s out there with these folks making these sacrifices for us every day. So, it was really inspiring to meet Tony, and then he participated and helped us and he has a cameo in the movie. He was at the premiere in Toronto. It’s pretty cool.
Q: How did the Jimmy Carter sequence at the end come about?
Affleck: The Jimmy Carter thing at the end came about because I wanted to hear Carter’s voice say to the audience “This took place” and kind of cement that in the audience’s mind. You hear the person who was the President of the United States who ordered this mission we talk about saying “Yes, it was a film crew. Yes, Tony Mendez. Yes, this is legitimate.” I thought that would work to lock in the narrative. I didn’t want it to be, as Chris said when we talked about it, like a referendum on the Carter presidency — that wasn’t the point — or to politicize the movie. It was a delicate balance and that’s why we used just the voice because it seems like it could be him talking at a press conference or an interview maybe 10 years ago or 20 years ago or what have you. Chay Carter, who’s also a producer on the movie, went and interviewed President Carter and got this stuff out of him that was really directly about our movie and our story and it was kind of amazing.
Q: How much involvement did Smokehouse Pictures, Grant Heslov and George Clooney have in the making of the film and the direction you went in?
Affleck: The nice thing about it for me and working with Smokehouse and Grant and George is that it makes a big difference to have producers who are filmmakers, producers who have actually done what you’re doing, and with these guys, have done it really well and for a long time. I mean, they have experience both on the back end with marketing and distribution and that kind of thing, the development, and post production, as well as being really supportive during production. So you feel like you have a different kind of partner, somebody who’s got an intuitive sympathy for what you’re going through. Both these guys have done it and done it well so it was great for me.
Q: You’re the main actor, the director and the producer. What are the positive versus the negative aspects of doing everything?
Affleck: Well, I think no matter what you’re doing, if you’re trying to make a movie, you need to be working with people who are really good and make you better. So I have a lot of titles in front of my stuff, but the movie works, I think, as well if not better than anything that I’ve been involved in because of the amazing cast that I put together or that were willing to do it, I should say, as well as with Chris and the script and the partnership with these producers. I was in an incredibly enviable position in that sense, so I didn’t have to go well, I’ve got to push the rock up the hill in all these areas. I had a lot of partners doing it and so it made all those different things better. And moreover, I don’t see them as necessarily distinct. It’s all sort of part of filmmaking, so it’s hard for me to distinguish and put each job in its silo.
Q: What reaction did you get at home for your great 70s look?
Affleck: My family unanimously hated the look, for different reasons, I think. There was, as I say, unanimity, a united front, and I kept trying to tell my littler kids…they’d say “Why can’t you shave your…?” They’d call them the “prickles.” “Why can’t you shave your prickles?” I’d say “I’ve got to wear this for work.” And finally my daughter said “What kind of work would want you to look like that?” (laughs) Good question.
Q: I didn’t object to the beard at all. I thought you looked handsome.
Affleck: That because you didn’t have to kiss me, ma’am.
Q: Every scene looked like it was difficult. What was the most challenging scene to photograph in this picture?
Affleck: When you hire great actors, you’re lucky and you try to create an atmosphere where they can succeed and relax and take risks, and you’ll be happy you’re getting to watch them at the monitor and your name is on the director’s chair. So that stuff was more fun. The most challenging thing was the big extras scene. Grant and I and our line producer and everybody … it was a long lead up to trying to get thousands of people in Turkey to show up and a lot of anxiety about if they would. And then, there were some issues because it was harder to get younger people and it was a student revolution and you didn’t want it to look like a riot at the senior center. We tried to make it as real as possible. It required a lot of people and a lot of wrangling and we were worried. When you have 2,000 people and they’re cold, they just go home.
Q: I found the film very gripping but I was a little puzzled by how the events were put into context. How did you decide to characterize what went on in that way?
Affleck: That’s a really good question. I’m glad you brought it up. One of the things I like about this movie is that I hope it would engender these sorts of discussions which I think this area has become so critical to where we are in world affairs. I think it’s important to talk about it. We tried to put stuff in the prologue about women’s rights. We showed female scientists working in a lab, and then also sort of the flip side of what the Shah did, which was the nightclubs and the removing of traditional clothing and you have the Queen who had a beauty contest. In shorthand, in fact, we were trying to demonstrate that he accelerated extremely quickly progress for women in that sense and that among other things was emblematic of the kinds of things that enflamed tension between him and his regime and a largely traditional Shiite population in Iran. His father, of course, had forcibly removed the veil from women in that country and had done it at the end of a gun barrel. And I think this theme of the unintended consequences of great powers getting into business with regimes in other countries is highly relevant obviously. You have Egypt, Tunisia and Syria now and so on. While I didn’t want to be didactic and I didn’t want to indicate to the audience that this is how they should feel, nor I think did Chris or George or Grant or anyone, we did want to factually tell this story and talk about how we believe that our support of the Shah was right in part because of his progressive stand on a lot of these issues. And we looked the other way in terms of some of the political repression and the absence of democracy and some of the literal atrocities that took place. That narrative very closely mirrors the narrative around other countries primarily in the Middle East. So, it wasn’t really about placing a value judgment on what happened to women after the Islamic Revolution. One of the things that we were all kind of operating under was the assumption that people know. It’s the same regime as Khamenei now. It was Khomeini then. It’s Khamenei now and we all know that it’s become quite repressive so I hope that that assumption was present that things didn’t go well for many people in that country, chief among them women, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Q: If you didn’t really know a lot about what’s going on in Iran, you might watch this film and not realize just how bad those revolutionaries became, but you’re assuming the viewer does?
Affleck: I’m assuming the viewer knows what contemporary Iran looks like, for sure. I wanted to add to the viewer’s historical context by having that piece of that quasi-history lesson/storyboard presentation in the beginning. And also, the representatives of the Islamic Revolution in that movie, the Revolutionary Guards, I think, are depicted pretty unfavorably. In fact, my concern wasn’t I’m not showing enough brutality around the Islamic Revolution. It was not allowing the movie to lapse into one dimensionality. I thought that was a danger, too. The beginning of the revolution involved communists and secularists and merchants and people who were just looking to get out from under the yoke of the Shah’s oppression.
Q: There were even Westernized people who were against the Shah?
Affleck: Yes, sure, of course, a huge number. And then, as Chris points out and there’s some irony in this, by taking the hostages, Khomeini essentially was able to marginalize the moderates by positioning it in his own country against his political rivals and say “Either you’re with us or you’re with the Americans.” He systematically eliminated people. It was hard for the United States and the Carter administration to understand why this guy doesn’t want to deal with us. What they didn’t realize at the time was that it wasn’t necessarily all about us or even about the Shah. It was about how he was slowly gaining power in Iran. And I think there’s something interesting in that. And then, once that was all done, 444 days later when he had a pretty secure hold on that, he let everybody go.
Q: Given the current wave of anti-Americanism that’s going on in that region, are you concerned that a film like this may reinforce the extremists’ viewpoint that there is a connection between Hollywood and what our government is doing?
Affleck: Listen, if they’re going to kill me over a movie, this is way down the list.
Q: Did you see something in the performances of John Goodman, Kerry Bishe and Michael Parks in Kevin Smith’s “Red State” that made you want to cast them in “Argo”?
Affleck: I love Kevin. I’ve seen all of his movies. I had heard of John Goodman prior to “Red State” and was a fan. I did see Michael Parks and Kerry Bishe in the movie and was really, really impressed by them and I liked the movie, “Red State,” a lot.
Q: The opening sequence, the embassy protest, is very eerie. When the recent Middle East events happened, was there any concern?
Affleck: I think it was always important to us that the movie not be politicized. We went to great pains to try to make it very factual and fact based, both on knowing that it was coming up before an election in the United States when a lot of things get politicized and also at a time… We couldn’t obviously forecast how terrible things would become now. But even when we made the movie, we saw some resonance as I said to the Arab Spring, to the countries that were in tumult. So, naturally, we just wanted to be judicious and careful about presenting the facts and also stand firmly behind that and say this is an examination of this part of the world and just because a part of the world is undergoing strife and tumult doesn’t mean you stop examining it or stop looking at it or talking about it. I think that would be a bad thing.
Q: Considering espionage in film and the fact that this month marks 50 years of James Bond on film, what would you say is your favorite James Bond and why?
Affleck: Oh my goodness. I love the poster for “Thunderball.” They made some great posters in the early to mid-sixties during the Sean Connery-era Bond. I think they’re doing a great job with it now. I’m looking forward to “Skyfall.” Obviously, Connery is great and I really like the way they’re progressing with the movies now.
Q: How do you feel about all the Oscar buzz this film is generating already?
Affleck: As far as right now, we’re just trying to get the movie out and there isn’t anybody out there who’s paid a dime to buy a ticket yet to see this movie. When you work for as long as we all have on something like this, I think the focus is just on the audience coming to see it, because otherwise you’re a tree in the woods. Otherwise, you spent all that time for a plastic disk and the goal was to have it be as large a collective experience as possible.
Q: Any last words?
Affleck: I’m just very grateful that you guys came out and I appreciate your helping us get the word out on this movie. We’re all really proud of it and we hope that folks come and see it.