Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio on 'Argo,' the Middle East and the root of all drama
NEW YORK -- When he made his way into the director's chair for a new phase in his career, Ben Affleck always assumed that if he came across an existing script, he would likely just take over and re-write it. And of course, he has the credentials: an Oscar for co-writing "Good Will Hunting" with Matt Damon goes a long way toward legitimizing his talent as a writer. But when "Argo" was fired across his bow by Smoke House honchos Grant Heslov and George Clooney, that wasn't the case.
"I said, 'Look, I think the script is kind of close to perfect and I’m just going to do it,'" he recalls alongside screenwriter Chris Terrio after a well-timed, Academy member-attended luncheon at the Four Seasons Restaurant. "I will never have a script that's this close to just, 'I’ll shoot it today.' I remember telling my agent that; I was like, 'We could shoot this tomorrow. It's basically finished.' And I doubt that will happen again. It’s just so rare."
Terrio had picked up the assignment through Smoke House after an article in Wired Magazine sparked interest. What was intriguing to him was that it was an opportunity to put "almost this shameful taboo" of Iran back on the table as a topic of conversation. It had a bearing on the zeitgeist, but there had been a kind of curtain that descended on Iran after the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, he says, not just because of the extremist government but even in the national conversation about it. He felt this material brought those elements back out.
"The national conversation about Iran is always about nukes, about a crazy speech that Ahmadinejad makes at the U.N.," Terrio says. "There isn’t a more considered discussion of the fact that we're still in the same place that we were, diplomatically speaking, in 1980."
But no one quite knew what the movie would be. Was it a comedy? It certainly had those elements. Was it something narratively or tonally complex, like "Syriana?" It wasn't clear what approach to take. Terrio had an idea of the three worlds depicted in the story -- that of the CIA in Washington, the lunacy of Hollywood and, of course, the exotic world of Iran -- and so that's the thematic structure he pitched.
"The other interesting thing about this story is that it's a significant moment in news as well as a moment in history," he said just an hour earlier to attendees of the luncheon in a Q&A that included Affleck, production designer Sharon Seymour, actor Victor Garber (who stars as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor in the film) and real-life hero Tony Mendez (who Affleck plays in the film). "That is to say, satellite technology was new and suddenly these images are being beamed all over the world instantly. So it was important for us that things like the televisions that are constantly on in the film, it was more than just ways of sneaking in exposition. It was important that in the DNA of this story should be ways in which the story is told, and the representation of this story, because the students in Iran know that they're telling the story. They know that these images that they're putting in front of the cameras are being beamed all over the world. That began to resonate with the Hollywood stuff, which is not only understanding historical context but understanding the way that it's represented. And in fact, the way they're representing history creates history."
It was a wide-ranging sort of story that demanded some tinkering in order to bring it in as a movie. The places where Terrio composited or changed anything were purely for those purposes, he says, for narrative compression and allowing the story to deliver in two hours. The stew itself was broad and all-encompassing, so the "sins of omission" were felt more than anything.
"Because pretty much any topic that we were interested in is in someway encompassed in this story," he says. "It touches upon all these worlds in quite a natural way. I mean, we weren't extending octopus tentacles to get ourselves into a discussion about Carter in the primary in the White House. That was a real thing that was going on at the time with Hamilton Jordan. We weren’t extending tentacles to be able to stage the juxtaposition of press conferences in Hollywood and in Iran. All these images that are in the film are really things that were in the DNA of the story."
So there were a lot of ideas bubbling in the pot and Terrio stirred them all together and came up with "Argo." And in Affleck, Smoke House had found a director uniquely suited to the material.