Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio on 'Argo,' the Middle East and the root of all drama
Years ago, when he was living on Hill Street in Eagle Rock, just northeast of downtown Los Angeles, seeking out parts, toiling away on scripts (one of which, the aforementioned "Good Will Hunting," would ignite his and Damon's careers), Affleck attended Occidental College for a time. While there, he majored in Middle Eastern Studies, not all that popular at a time when others were taking Soviet studies and the like, aiming for political science jobs. His mother always wanted him to go to college, which was part of the drive, but he also felt that an educated actor or an educated director was bound to be better at his job.
"I was interested in it because I thought it was sort of unknowable, this mysterious place that is somehow at the root of so much conflict," Affleck says. "And it was something that I didn’t understand. I had this immature notion that there was, you know, what is it, 'flying carpets and snake charmers' [a line from the film]. But once I got into it, I got really interested in it for whatever reason. And I felt like I had been sort of built by chance as being totally right for this movie because I am really interested in all these separate things.
"I'm also interested in the complexity of the idea that everybody has their reason, their side of the story. Palestine and Israel, that's a place where you have two people with really diametrically opposed points of view. And yet both firmly believe they’re not just right but righteous. And that dynamic, I think, is at the root of drama. That’s why you never make a bad guy mustache-twisting. The bad guy thinks he’s in effect the good guy. Or at least he thinks he has good reasons for doing what he is doing. So I think that my attraction to drama, dramatic literature and doing theater and film can be related to what’s at the heart of studying Middle Eastern studies, at least for me."
So with the right credentials and a "perfect" screenplay in place, it was off to make "Argo." The mission was declassified by the government in 1997 and really made its way out via the Wired article 10 years later, so Mendez was available to consult, as well as five of the six "houseguests" who were rescued. And the CIA gave some nominal help, but how much? After all, as someone at the luncheon noted, there is a card at the end of the film that seemingly absolves the organization of cooperation.
"It says 'The CIA doesn't endorse this movie,' essentially," Affleck told the crowd. "Even though they granted us some degree of access, it's their way of saying, 'Don't think that this represents our view in any way.' They both accepted us and repudiated us, which I feel is very like the CIA."
But while everything was clicking and looked great on paper, there were a few wrinkles Affleck needed to iron out. One of the key elements of the story is its shift in tone, from the sincere danger of the crisis in Iran to the seemingly satirical (if only it weren't true) take on 1970s Hollywood. A colorful assortment permeated the latter, including a composite producer (played by Alan Arkin), who would help launch the faux-film "Argo" as cover for the operation, and Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who was a civilian CIA consultant.
"I thought they worked fluidly in the script, but of course, on paper, it's kind of easier to mask some of the incongruities that may exist tonally or visually or what have you," Affleck said during the luncheon. "So I was quite concerned. I constructed a lot of these transitions so as to hopefully kind of knit it together. And then what happened was when John and Alan showed up, the scenes didn't feel funny in that comic way, 'Ha, ha,' or they didn't feel funny in the way that you sort of say, 'All right, we're not going to take reality seriously.' They felt like two people saying things that they would genuinely say."
In both cases, he says choosing the actors for those roles was kind of a no-brainer. For starters, Arkin's dry sense of humor and no-nonsense attitude seemed tailor-made for the producer, leading the actor to even joke with Affleck about the obvious nature of the casting decision. "He really has that aura of a guy who’s just done enough and accomplished enough," Affleck says. "He knows himself well enough and is old enough where he just doesn’t care about impressing anybody or changing his behavior at all to meet other people’s expectations. And I think he enjoys that. He was kind of the ultimate choice."