Q&A: Ben Affleck on going back to 1980, Jimmy Carter and the real people behind 'Argo'
BEVERLY HILLS - Ben Affleck is battling bronchitis. In fact, when he appears to introduce his acclaimed new film "Argo" at its official LA premiere a few days later, his cough and haggard voice will be even more pronounced. This day though, it's slight enough to just seem like a simple cold. Considering the love his new thriller has received since its sneak premiere at the Telluride Film Festival a month before, the momentary illness may be the toughest fight Affleck has to face at the box office or during "Argo's" expected awards season run.
Looking trim and fit despite his illness, Affleck was relaxed as we mostly discussed the historical aspects of the picture. However, our approximately 15 minute conversation (which you can see embedded in the video above) also touched on what excites the Oscar winner most about filmmaking. Is it shooting? The pre-production process? The editing room? Many directors want to duck the question for some reason (I've never understood why, there is no wrong answer), but Affleck gets right into it. After we discuss a few other subjects first…
Q: What struck me was how much research you must have had to do to write the script and just to also sort of like make the film on its own. Can you talk about like the process, how long it took you? I know you spoke to President Carter and other people.
A: This was based on an article that a guy named Josh Bearman wrote for Wired Magazine that he kind of – from details he called from the declassified material that from then 1997. In other words, Clinton said, okay, this stuff can be the classified then and then he discovered it and then Smokehouse bought that article and hired Chris Terrio. And they set about the work of writing the scripts and I came on it and worked with Chris. In the course of that, and very briefly really, I mean, it was kind of a production rewrite. But in the course of which research was incorporated the whole time. I mean, facts and details. That was the like gold in this thing was that it was real and you could find all these great photographs and film clips from 1979 that just made it feel much more authentic.
Q: Well that was one of my great things I loved about the movie, too, was in particular I believe that there's a TV news report in Houston maybe where you talk about someone who was Iranian or Arab who sort got beat up because of who they were. We're actually the same age and I remember growing up at the time but I'd forgotten about all that. I'd forgotten like sort of what the mood of the country was and it seemed like that seemed one of your goals was to sort of paint the picture not just of what was going on in Tehran but sort of like the feeling back home.
A: Yeah. I mean, it was one thing – exactly as you say. You know, I want to present sort of the reality of all sides so that you can get a full sense of the story without sort of the filmmaker making any judgment, you know. One of the things that was happening and we've seen it happen here subsequent to that I think as well is that when something happened in Foreign Affairs, particularly like in an Muslim country, periodically you'll have these anti-Muslim flare-ups back here in the United States. And in the case of this 1979, you had a lot of that because this frustration was ongoing and continuous and because of the demonstrations that were being made there people were doing similar demonstrations here. In fact, there was one demonstration where a Persian guy is beaten up and kicked around while he's on the ground. That is from – that was happening on Little Santa Monica, not a quarter of a mile from where we are.
Q: I guess what was so striking about that is had you remembered this yourself or was this one of the things while doing the research or just reading in to it you were – did it sort of come back to you? Like did the mood of the country at that time – I mean, you were eight or seven – but do you remember it like growing up?
A: I don't really remember it. I mean, I sort of remember yellow ribbons. I remember I was in Boston and Kennedy's primary challenge against Carter was a big deal there certainly. And I remember that kids in school that kind of thing, 'Vote for Kennedy.' But really in terms of the subject matter at the core of the story, it's kind of the equivalent of me doing a Revolutionary War movie. I mean, I really had to get all my material from research.
Q: So, meeting the actual six house guests. What did you – was there anything you learned from them? Any details that sort of came out that you were even surprised about that helped in the production?
A: The six house guests were – and I met four of them or something, as a couple of them are overseas. But what I got from them really was a sort of overall sense of the experience that I wanted to recreate. You know, we had to collapse some stuff timeline wise so that the expedition wouldn't – they go here, and then they go there. That kind of thing and just got started at the point where they were all in this one place. And I wanted to get across what they told me about how they felt. And so I wanted to cast actors that were sort of similar to them and both in look and in kind of character and also be willing to kind of undergo some experimental stuff that I wanted to do to get them into that headspace. So I made them all live in the set for a week, decorated, dressed with all this '70s stuff, give up all their smartphones, and just live together so that they could start to feel some of that sense of claustrophobia being hemmed in that the house guests described to me when I was doing the research.
Q: And did they seem stressed out? Did it seem like it was working as a social experiment?
A: They did. Yeah, there was a fine line between social experiment and reality show. But it felt pretty good. I mean, I don't really know what happened in there. One of the actors asked me if he could take his yoga mat. He was like that yoga in the '70s is kind of 'Your character didn't have yoga in the '70s.' Yeah, it was interesting. They definitely committed to it; they definitely got really invested in it and I couldn't put my finger on exactly what changed when they came out of it but there was definitely a sense of that they were familiar with one another and that they'd been through something. And throughout the whole shoot they kind of stayed as a unit, was going out to dinner and picking one hotel to stay in or whatever. So I think it had an effect.
Q: What about Tony Mendez himself? He seems as though, from everything that I've read, to be a pretty humble guy who just feels like he was sort of doing his job. Does he realize they'll be more tension coming his way sort of like because of this movie? Is it something he's proud about or it was just part of the job? How does he sort of frame what happened in his life do you think?
A: Tony is an extremely interesting guy. You know, he still has that sort of – I don't know. That spy thing going on, y'know? He's very quiet. He's inscrutable. He's opaque guy. He kind of wants to fade in to the background. It's hard to draw, hard to get specific details. He's reluctant to kind of give you the facts, you know. I mean, obviously we have his book and we had his consultation, but he has his sort of wonderful quality of – I can't even think of the word - being secretive somehow. And, so, I wanted to use that playing the part, 'cause I thought this is a really interesting thing. He kind of subvert the traditional way of having a protagonist in a movie; he's not beating his chest and taking the sword and knock people down, not trying to be Mr. Funny, not trying – you know. But rather a guy that naturally wants to fade in to the background, but is forced to have to lead people, forced to have to push people to do things that they're terrified of doing. So, I thought that would be something different and kind of an interesting way to surprise the audience. Tony is a guy – I mean, this is really the story is seen through the lens of his eyes. Obviously, a lot of people from the Canadians to the house guests to a ton of Persians all had a part in this and all have a story, but this is seen through what Tony did. You know, he was very helpful, very cooperative, very supportive, and he was instrumental in telling the story and he's a guy who is a wonderful guy. I'm glad to see him honored and I'm glad to see that we've managed to make a movie that sort of says, "Hey, he's emblematic of a whole group of people that do this work, and they don't ask for it." They're not getting rich, they're not getting acknowledgement. They're just serving their country in complete anonymity. That's pretty cool to see.
Q: And has he seen the movie yet and with an audience? Do you know if he's seen it yet?
A: Tony was at the first time we screened it in Toronto in front of 1,200 people.
A: I was like – and true to character, I was like – you know, it was a positive screening and everyone was very excited.
Q: Did they clap when the plane takes off?
A: Yeah. As the plane took off, we got applause. I said, "Tony, aren't you happy? This is like your life and everything put on screen." He was like, "Yeah. It's great."
Q: Well, one of the things that I was personally touched by in the film is that you have a big shout out to President Carter in the picture especially at the end and I think that what's really interesting is there are a lot of people who are even our parents age or who are older than us who still have in their mind that it was President Reagan [who] somehow who magically got the hostages home like right before he like was inducted as President and people forget that actually was President Carter and his Administration who – wasn't great, but they did everything they could and they were the ones who brought them home at the end. I was wondering was there any thought in your mind about putting in that audio of President Carter at the end to sort of just as a remembrance that people should realize that actually he did something pretty amazing that he never got credit for for so many years down the road? What was your thoughts behind that?
A: To me, that thing really – the primary purpose of hearing President Carter talking is that you have the person who was the President of the United States during the time of this operation and he is validating the story of the movie. He's saying, yes, this happened. They pretended to be a movie crew; it had to be kept secret. So hopefully the audience leaves going – or at the end, goes, okay, this really secures it for me. Wow. This must be true because I'm hearing – I mean, I'm hearing it from the President of the United States. I didn't necessarily want it to be a referendum on the Carter presidency just because I don't want to politicize the movie. I think, you know, kind of what he says speaks for itself and it's true that his presidency got completely derailed by the hostage crisis and that, also, he ultimately he resolved the hostage crisis. Part of those rumors about Reagan are rooted – part of the thing about Reagan about he got the credit, it's also associated with these rumors that he offered some thing to Iran, if they would wait. 'Cause the fact that they were released on his inauguration day was seemed highly coincidental. From what I understand, the information that I could gather, is that Khomeini just developed this intense resentment of Carter because of what he said and because of being locked in this kind of battle with him. And so it was a bit of like –
Q: An F.U. basically.
A: Yeah, to Carter and wait until he's not president and then we'll let them go.
Q: So, as a filmmaker, what do you sort of not love to do?
A: I mean, I do like all of it but I would definitely say that, for me, I feel that you make the movie in post. That you make it in the editing room and there's something very comforting about the fact that you don't have this anxiety that you do on the set when you got to get it all by 12 hours and the city is going to shut you down. They're going to turn off the lights and the actor's going to go home. Whatever it is. That you're able to just calmly sort of make sober choices about which things you want to use and experiment with things and if you want to just come back tomorrow it'll be there tomorrow. Something about the nice cool dark of the room that I find very comforting. And I also think is where you really construct the movie. To me, production is like a harvesting time and you're just trying to gobble up as much of the right stuff as you can.
Q: The last sequence of the film where they leave the house, they go to the airport, you play with a lot of beats with the audience. Like it could have easily gone too far. Like too many beats of like they're going to get caught, they're going to get caught, they're going to get caught. How long did it take you and your editor sort of in the editing room to sort of get that sequence to work? I mean, it's fine line and you guys walk it so wonderfully and I'm just curious.
A: Well, we kept working on it for obviously quite some time but the first time I saw it and thought maybe it worked all right or was on its way was probably about nine weeks after we started cutting it. I mean, it was a lot of really intricate cutting stuff in this movie. William Goldenberg is an amazing editor. He did "Gone Baby Gone" with me. He's just a really sharp guy and I really was glad to have his gift because of the way that we were cutting back between all of these things, and not just the montages we have, not just the found footage, not just the obvious stuff, but the stuff where we're having to make choices about where and when to cut between material and two different tones so that the transition is more graceful.
Q: Well, that sequence in particular is fantastic. So congratulate him. Congratulations to you as well. Can't wait for people to see it.
"Argo" opens nationwide on Friday.