Gofobo Interview: The Cast of Argo
Were it a work of fiction, Argo would not have been made into a movie. Having 6 Americans simply waltz through the Tehran airport, posing as Canadian filmmakers, at the height of the Iran hostage crisis? The script would have been tossed aside as obscenely far-fetched. But this was a true story, revealed to the public only in 1997. Gofobo had the pleasure of sitting down with cast and writers of Argo. Here’s what we learned.
CT: Chris Terrio
GH: Grant Heslov
BA: Ben Affleck
BC: Bryan Cranston
AA: Alan Arkin
JG: John Goodman
JB: Joshuah Bearman
Q: How did this all start?
JB: Um, I’m a magazine writer and I write features, and friend of mine (a guy named David Klawans) told me he had heard about this story. That there was this unusual sort of chapter of American History, the CIA episode, and so the story wasn’t known really well. It was known that Tim Taylor and the Canadian embassy staff had help smuggle some Americans out of Iran, but it wasn’t realized until ’97 I think during the CIA’s 50th jubilee celebration and they declassified all of this information. And so I just decided to put the whole story together and it was published in “Wired” magazine. And I remember I was sitting in my coffee shop and I had the proof, and I was thinking, ‘you know this would make a really awesome movie.’ And then we sent it over to Grant, and they agreed.
GH: Yeah, so I read the article and George and I were shooting a film in North Carolina, and we both read the article and we also thought it would make a great film. So we brought it to the studio and we set it up, and then we had the task of trying to find a writer. And so we decided we wanted to spend as little money as possible on a writer (laughter). No, so Chris was somebody who Nina Wolarsky (who’s also a producer on the film) had read some work of his and was a huge fan of his, and I had read something that he had written and so he came in and pitched an idea, he pitched a take which was essentially the film as you’ve seen it with very little changes I gotta say. And he turned in a draft which, I don’t know how many of you actually get to read screenplays, but generally they suck, and this was the best first draft of a screenplay that I had ever read or that I had ever been involved with to any degree. And then it was five years of trying to figure out when we could make it, and that’s sort of when Ben came along. …And then along came Ben!
BA: Yeah, when I got the script I couldn’t believe how good it was. They always say, ‘oh yeah this is our best script’ and usually you think that’s some executive kind of hyping you on it. But it really was pretty incredible. I was amazed. I talked to Grant and George and said, ‘look, I really want to do this, this is amazing.’ And they said, ‘OK great, let’s do it’ and we took it to Warner’s. And then I kind of went back and talked to Chris and said, ‘how did you do this?’ Cause I looked at some documentaries and I had read some books and I thought, God, this is really unwieldy, you know it felt like it should have been a ten-hour miniseries or something and ‘how did you get that down into a three-act structure?’
CT: Obviously, Josh was charging in front of an army going out and putting this story together and when I got it, the only coherent thought in my head, if it is coherent, was ‘what if it hadn’t been classified until 1997?’ what if this could have been made in 1980, and could have been made by a guy like Syndey Lamet? What if it could it could be quite a verbal movie?’ You know, there are a lot of words in it. I mean it’s about artifice. It’s about pulling off an escapade with any kind of military action and without anything except storytelling. So that became a big thread of the story, this parallel worlds of Hollywood and CIA and all these people trying to create a coherent story that could get these people out. So that was the spine of it. I knew it was about trying to do their jobs and trying to get these people out by storytelling really.
JB: And trying to find the balance of the humor.
CT: Yeah, tone is something we talked about a lot. How do you tell a story that is geopolitical where the stakes are very high where you obviously have lives hanging in the balance but at the same time, to be able to go to the press conference at the Beverly Hilton and keep the irony and the sort of the acerbic nature of some of the dialogue without compromising either tone. And that was a mix, not only at the script stage, but throughout the entire process, that’s where Ben’s sense of humor and sense of timing and sense of filmmaking I think really was the guide, which is to say how much can we get away with here, trial and error there, and how do we get it right? And how do we make it all look like the same movie? How do you manage to cut from a press conference with a guy in a robot suit to the basement of The Mushroom Inn, which is the place in Torron which is where the hostages were being held and still feel like you are watching a coherent narrative and I don’t know how Ben pulled that off, but he did.
Q: What are some of the most important things that you’ve (Ben) learned about filmmaking from each of your past three films and especially this one?
BA: Well, it’s kind of been reinforced to me and it’s a little cliché so it’s probably not a great answer. But I’ve learned that you can make a movie that works without really great writing and really great acting, and so that lesson has lead me to not worry about or be distracted by the other stuff that’s going on and focus on the essence of the story and the words and the events and the way that those are interpreted by the actors and that philosophy has lead me to a place that I really like.
Q: I think it’s a very funny comment John Goodman makes about directors that any ‘monkey’ can do it in Hollywood and I wondered, (for the actors that all had scenes with Ben) how it was to be directed by him?
BA: How do I compare to a chimp, in other words?
JG: He was much better than a rhesus monkey.
AA: Have you been directed by a rhesus monkey?
JG: On many occasions.
BC: and then Ben takes off his little hat and we put coins in it, it’s cute. (laughter) No, I think it’s true that a large part of directing and conceptual approach to acting and directing is prior to any of the film being run. So there are a lot of conversations being had, it’s so much easier; in fact the easiest work that an actor has ever done is on extremely well written material. The hardest work that we have ever had to do is on poorly written material, so when we find something that’s this good, it’s a scramble to be a part of it, and as Alan was saying before, how much improve has been done really you don’t want to mess this up, you see the guide posts, they are very clear. You see where you can expand your character and fill it in, and then you just go. On the set there are a couple discussions, but quite frankly there wasn’t really any extensive directing being done for most of the actors, I don’t think and it’s appreciated. He sets a tone on the set that’s relaxed and comfortable it allows actors and crew to do their best work, take chances, and try things without feeling like they are going to be ridiculed.
AA: I was ridiculed: I want that on the record! I’ve been waiting for it to happen at any moment, I’m girting myself. Bryan spoke for me and everybody, the only thing I was going to say all afternoon was take it away from me. No, he’s a meticulous director; he’s as meticulous as any director that I’ve ever worked with. Now hold your hears. He’s darling, (ahh). No, it was clear to me from seeing his first two films, which I had seen, that I was working with not a tyro. The first film looked like he had done fifteen movies already, so I didn’t have any sense of somebody who didn’t know what they were doing, he was very comfortable.
Q: What was it that got under your skin and that compelled you to want to play him?
BA: Well I wanted to play him because everyone said it already up here, but the script was really interesting. And what struck me right away was you have this thriller, and then in equal measure this Hollywood, comic satire and then this really intricate, real life CIA spy story and it was based on truth. So that right away seemed like a fantastically interesting and unusal movie to be a part of and I really wanted to direct it, and then the sort of actor side of my brain that’s still in the phase of auditioning and making connections to get work, asked the director of that movie for a job, and the director was in a tough spot and had to say yes.
Q: How did the thing at the end come about?
BA: The Jimmy Carter thing at the end came about because I wanted to hear Carter’s voice say to the audience really at the end, ‘this took place’ and kind of cement that in the audiences’ mind. You hear the person who’s president of the United States, who ordered this mission that we kind of talk about say, ‘yes, this is a film crew, yes Tony Mendez, yes this is legitimate.’ I thought that would kind of work to lock in the narrative, I didn’t want it to be (as Chris said when we talked about it) a referendum on the Carter presidency. That wasn’t the point, or to politicize the movie and it was a delicate balance. That’s why we used just the voice, because it could be him talking at a press conference or an interview twenty years ago, and Shay Carter who is a producer on the film, 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. And the thing I wanted to play about the part is that Tony is a very withdrawn guy, he’s not the conventional protagonist hero guy, beating his chest out the run, and he’s an inscrutable, opaque guy who has these instinct of these days of being a spy to fade into the background and I thought that it was interesting to subvert the traditional Hollywood protagonist and have this guy in this position who instinctively doesn’t want to be noticed and have that guy make people do things they don’t want to be doing and to save peoples’ lives.
Q: This movie reminded me of something I had forgotten, thirty plus years ago I was in a study group with a kid from Iran in college, and I wanted to ask you (John in particular) what memories did this movie bring to you?
JG: I remember very well, it was kind of an oppressive feeling and scary. You never knew what was going to happen next. It was America held hostage every night at 11:30. And yeah, it was a very apprehensive time.
Q: How much input did George Clooney have in the making of the film or the direction you guys went in?
CT: He had no input.
GH: George had a lot, I mean we worked on this for five or six years before we even got to the point of talking to Ben about it, and we don’t do a lot of development stuff you know, we don’t have 30 or 40 projects at our fingertips. We find stuff that we like and we say, ok we are going to make this and that’s pretty much the way we’ve always done it. And if you go back and read the “Wired” article, the tone of this film is that article. It’s really on that page, so that’s appealing to us. Where we can find a piece that had humor, something to say, that has relevance that speaks to events that are happening literally. So we were very involved in that and he’s as involved as any producer will be, particularly when it comes to the cut, he’s really great with the cut so he was really involved in that sense.
BA: Yeah, the nice thing about working with Smokehouse and Grant and George is to have producers who are filmmakers. People who have done what you are doing and what these guys have done it really well and for a long time and they have experience both on the back end marketing, distribution, development, post-production as well as being really supportive during production so you kind of feel like you have a different kind of partner, somebody who has an intuitive sympathy for what you are going through and both of these guys, like I said, have done it and done it well so it was great for me.
GH: I have say we are going through this now because we are doing another film in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which you should all come and visit it is fantastic. I think the actual shooting of the film is the more difficult for George because I don’t think he wants to feel like a distraction on set and I think he tends to feel like a he is a distraction because people behave weird so the shooting itself it a bit trickier.
Q: I want to ask you about you’re the lead actor, director, and producer. What are the positive and negative points of doing everything?
BA: I think no matter what you’re doing if you’re trying to make a movie you need to be working with people that are really good and try to make you do better. And I think a lot of titles in front of my stuff, but the movie works I think as well if not better than anything I have been involved in because of the amazing cast we could put together (or who were willing to do it I should say) and with the partnership with these amazing producers and Chris Terrio’s script so I was in an incredible enviable position I think. It wasn’t like I went to work every day thinking, oh man I got to push the rock up the hill in all these areas. I had a lot of partners doing it so it kind of made all those different things better. And moreover I don’t see those things as necessarily distinct; it’s all as a part of filmmaking. It’s hard for me to distinguish and put each job in its silo.
Q: One of the most fascinating things about the film is that there is no real consistent face to the antagonist, you get the sense of the danger, but there’s no single face you put on the enemy or that side of the story. How’d you approach that side of the story?
CT: I think that’s a very astute observation. Ben and I talked about how everyone in the film is in a system. Everyone is doing their job within the system, even the revolutionaries are kind of in a system. So the question becomes how do you do the right thing within this system? Even for Tony. There’s this huge vampire-squid-octopus of the CIA in which it’s easy not to do the right thing, and say whatever let the State department take the blame, but Tony has to be the guy to say, no I am the face of this mission I am responsible for what will happen. And in the same way you have on the Iranian side you have all of these people who are caught up in the currents of history, I mean it starts in the prologue when you realize that Kermit Roosevelt and all these things that happened way back in American history, and now all this glacial detritus has been pushed to the gates of the embassy, and so lodged in there are all these antagonists and then as the film goes on, the question is how do you dramatize that antagonism and those threats and really make it feel urgent and like there’s a villain that’s widespread and it is urgent to save the six from the distributive villain of what everyone was called.
Q: How do you feel about all of the Oscar buzz and what was the reaction at home about your 70’s look?
BA: Well, I’ll start with the second question. My family unanimously hated the look for different reasons I think, but there was unanimity, a united front. But my I kept trying to tell my littler kids why I can’t shave (they call them prickles) and I said I have to look like this for work. And it finally got down to, ‘what kind of work would want you to look like that?’ Good question. And for now, we are just working hard to get this movie out and right now people haven’t paid a dime to buy a ticket yet to see this movie yet. You know when you’re working as long as we all have, the focus is all on the audience, or else you’re just a tree in the woods and you’ve spent all this time on a plastic disc and the goal was to have it be as large a collective experience as possible.
Q: First of all, I didn’t object to the beard at all.
BA: Well, because you didn’t have to kiss me ma’am.
Q: Haha I wanted to ask you what was the most difficult scene to photograph in this picture. They all looked pretty difficult, but there must have been one that was really hard.
BA: Yeah, you can see the strain. As Alan or Bryan, or one of these guys, was saying when you hire great actors you are lucky and you try and just create an atmosphere where they can succeed and relax and take risks and you know, you’d be happy that you got to watch them on the monitor and have your name on the director’s chair. And that stuff was more fun and challenging really. But the most challenging thing was the big extras scene. Grant and I, and our line producer, and everybody had a long lead up trying to get thousands of people in Turkey to show up and a lot of anxiety if they would. And we had some issues because it was harder to get younger people, it was a student revolution and we didn’t want to make it look like a riot at the senior center! So we tried to make it as real as possible and it required a lot of people and a lot wrangling, you have 2,000 people and they’re called and then they go home, you couldn’t quite…
CT: Some of them were leaving at 1 or 2 in the morning from their homes, we were busing them in from all over and it got very cold and it started raining. We did lose some of them.
GH: And it turns out the weather was exactly the same as it was the day of the actual event and in some weird way despite all these logistical problems, the writer in the back of his mind, he’s thinking, ‘this is great’
BA: sitting, in a heated café!
GH: Haha this is perfect!
Q: My question is for Ben, did Grant and George ask you to be the director or was it the other way around?
BA: Yeah, in essence Grant and George had the material and they hired me. They said would you like to do it? And I got the script and I couldn’t believe it. I got the script and I told them my vision, and they were excited and we started all working together, and I think it was our collaboration that got Warner over the main hump and then we made the movie.
Q: I am sorry my main question is, you play a real guy. Did you have any time with him, did you have any questions what surprised you?
BA: Josh, did you talk to Tony? I was on top of a lot of people who had spoken to Tony, Grant, Josh, Smokehouse guys, and Chris had been to his house in Maryland, and by the time that I finally got to sit down with him he was steeped in this movie I mean it was Tony’s story, his 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 Aims passed names of Americans agents in Russia to his handlers, and when he told me that it sort of sunk in that this was real. It was a real story, a real guy who worked in a real world where lives were at stake. It wasn’t some guy sliding down roves like we in Hollywood tend to think of as the CIA, it was a real thing and these folks are making sacrifices every day, so it was really inspiring to meet Tony. He participated and helped us, and he has a cameo in the movie and he was at the premiere in Toronto.
Q: If it weren’t real I don’t think we would believe the story? You think?
BA: Well it wouldn’t seem very interesting. “And then Hollywood came in and saved the day! And then the NHL helped them get out!
Q: I was puzzled how the events were put into context. Why the decision was made to characterize the Shah did? No mention of any good things in the revolution. How did you decide to characterize it that way?
BA: That’s a really good question and I am glad you brought it up. One of the things that I like about this movie is that it provokes these kinds of questions. I think this area has become so critical of the world and world affairs and 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 the lab and also the flip side of what the Shah did in the nightclubs and the removing of traditional clothing, it was actually the queen who had a beauty contest, and so in shorthand we were trying to demonstrate that he accelerated extremely quickly progress for women in that sense and that among others things was emblematic of the kinds of things that inflamed tension between him and his regime and a largely traditional Shia population in Iran. His father, of course, had forcibly removed the veil from people in that country and he had done it at the end of a gun barrel, you know and I think this unintended theme of great powers getting into business with regimes in other countries is highly relevant. I mean you have Syria, you have Egypt, Tunisia, so on, while I didn’t want it to be didactic (nor would Chris, or anyone) we did want to factually tell this story and how we believed that our support of the Shah was right. In part because of his progressive stand on these issues, and we looked the other way on some of these other issues, the oppression, the absence of democracy the literal atrocities that took place. And that narrative mirrors other narratives that took place in the middle east so it wasn’t really about placing a value judgment on what happened to Islamic women after the revolution, what we were kind of operating under was that people kind of know, it was the same regime and we all know that it has become quite repressive. And I hope that assumption was present, and that things didn’t go well for a lot of people in that country, chief among them: women.
Q: People might not know that…
BA: Well I am assuming people know what contemporary Iran looks like, that’s for sure. I wanted to add the viewers’ historical context by having that quasi-history lesson/story board presentation in the beginning and also the representatives of the Islamic revolution in that movie, the revolutionary guards are I think depicted pretty unfavorably, my concern was not that I wasn’t depicting enough brutality around the Islamic revolution it was not allowing the movie to lapse into one dimensionality I think that was a danger too.
CT: Maybe one thing I hope at least in a subtle way is present in the film is that the revolution was hijacked by its most extreme elements, right? Because when Tehran Mary is sitting there at the press conference, some of what she is saying is not crazy. She’s saying the United States does support brutal regimes, etcetera etcetera. In a way it sounds like something you hear at any Berkley gathering, and in fact a lot of student leaders were trained in the United States. There was a whole range of people in the revolution and a lot of those voices as soon as power was consolidated were silenced. Some joined the government like Tehran Mary did, or they were killed, silenced, or exiled. So as with any revolution it’s a big, messy stew of intentions and of characters.
BA: Yeah, at the beginning of the revolution it involved communists and secularists and merchants and you know people who were just looking to get out of the yolk of the Shah’s oppression. And then, as Chris points out, and there’s some irony in this by taking the hostages ______ essentially was able to marginalize the moderates by positioning it in his own country against his political rivals and say, ‘look either you’re with us, or you’re with the Americans’ and he systematically eliminated people. And it was hard for the Carter administration to understand, OK why doesn’t he want to deal with us? And what they didn’t realize at the time, it wasn’t really about us, it was about the Shah and how he was slowing trying to gain power in Iran and I think there’s something really interesting in that. And once the 44 days were done and he had a pretty secure hold on that he let everybody go.
Q: How does Hollywood work in the Middle East, and do you think there is a connection between any anti-American stuff and the movie industry?
BA: Listen, if they are going to kill me over a movie, this is way down the list. (laughter)
Q: More on the input of Tony Mendez? How hard was it to recreate the time?
CT: Well, when Tony first read the script I was terrified that some of the things that we had to dramatize that aren’t directly from his memoirs or from recording of him that he would be really put off by it. But Tony and again, this speaks to the connection between espionage and Hollywood, Tony lived his whole life in artifice he understands that in order to dramatize things there would need to be certain changes. There were certain technical things where he would say, oh I don’t think I would do X,Y,Z involving covert communications, there might have been a long, tedious string of things he needed to do before he could call Langley for example, in a film you have to shorthand that. You can’t wait three days so that the message can be passed from source to source so there were shortcuts like that we had to take for dramatic purposes, but overall I think he’s pretty happy with the way that we chose to depict him.
Q: Were Alan and John’s characters like they are in real life? Cause they could be their own show.
BA: We found them on Broadway doing soft-shoe.
JG: He’s being very kind about Broadway; we were working a dinner theatre in Ohio.
AA: That’s what I was trying to say!
JG: Hells’a poppin!
Q: Would you care to give your side of the story about ‘Red State’/ Kevin? Did you see something in those performances?
BA: Well, I love Kevin, I’ve seen all of his movies, I had heard of John Goodman prior to ‘Red State’ I did see Michael and Carrie and I was impressed by them, and I liked the movie a lot.
Q: The beginning scene is very eerie. Was there any concern that you would have to maybe reshoot?
GH: It was definitely too late. I don’t think we brushed it aside. I think that it was something we talked about. I don’t know.
BA: Yeah, it was very important that the movie not be politicized. We went through great pains to make the movie very fact based. And knowing that it was going to come out during an election time in the United States where a lot of things get politicized. But there was no way to forecast how terrible things would get today, but even when we made the movie we saw some resonance as I said to the Arab spring, to countries that were in turmoil. So, naturally we wanted to be careful and judicious about facts and stand firmly behind that and that this is an examination on this part of the world and just because that part of the world is going through strife, doesn’t mean you stop examining it, I think that would be a bad thing.
Q: Bryan, was it good to play a normal guy?
BC: I was just delighted to play this composite character of Jack O’Donnel, and one thing I noticed as I was listening to you question about the lack of an antagonist and perhaps it was an ideology that was the antagonist, and I think it proves how credible how Josh and Chris were able to pull off the story and have it still on that level propel the plot forward. As far as the characters were concerned, I was amazed at the chance for all these characters to be heroic in their own right, Jack O’Donnel has his time, these two characters did it for their time, they didn’t do it for any personal or public recognition, any financial gain. It was out of thinking about what was the greatest good. What can we do? And that’s what this message sends. The idea and the concept can happen through cooperation. Good things, not just human things. You can save other people’s lives regardless of nationalities. And what two countries can accomplish, and if that’s a subliminal message through our congress here in the United States I think that would be a good thing to lessen the division of that, and it was a wonderful experience.
Q: Who’s your favorite James Bond and why?
BA: Oh my goodness, I love the poster for ‘Thunderball’. They made some great posters for the Sean Connery era bond in the mid 60’s. I think they are doing a great job with it now, I am looking forward to ‘Skyfall’ and I really like the way that they’re progressing with the movies now, and obviously Connery is great.
Q: I really like the tone change when you poke fun at Hollywood, was there anything to that?
AA: I was playing a character and I’ve met people like him, and I was just trying to play him as honestly as I saw him. I think why he stands out in the scenes as comedy is because he’s in such contrast to everyone else in the script. In the case of these people their careers were at stake, and then others had their lives at stake. We weren’t under that kind of pressure. We weren’t under that kind of pressure. I don’t think the dialogue was that different from conversations that go on in LA all the time it wasn’t that different!
Q: Is Argofuckyourself real?
JG: The first time I saw the script I thought that!
GH: It’s real, Tony Mendez and John Chambers had that joke amongst them two and they were really tense during the mission and would look at themselves and say, “argofuckyourself” it was a historical gift from the now deceased John Chambers.