'Argo' Screenwriter Explains the CIA Secrets and Surprises Behind the Film
The young writer tells THR why he was like a Harry Potter dementor, how the film is different from Bond flicks and how he worked with director Ben Affleck.
Chris Terrio gets just one credit for writing Argo, but in a way, he ended up penning three screenplays in one.
The New York-based writer's second feature -- directed by Ben Affleck -- is at once a rescue thriller, political drama and Hollywood satire. Set during the Iranian hostage crisis, it features the remarkably true story of a CIA agent named Tony Mendez who works to rescue six Americans who had escaped the embassy, using the ruse that they were all part of a Canadian film crew. The tale was declassified in 1997, and both Mendez, in his memoir, and Wired writer Joshuah Bearman, in a 2007 article, recounted the incredible details.
Terrio spoke with The Hollywood Reporter at an event for the film in Manhattan last week; he must be celebrating today because it grossed an impressive $20.1 million to come in second behind Taken 2 at the domestic box office.
The Hollywood Reporter: Did you see the Wired story yourself and come up with the idea to write a movie, or did someone else ask you to do it?
Chris Terrio: George Clooney and Grant Heslov's company Smokehouse had it. I happen to know their [now former] director of development Nina Wollarsky from New York. She moved out there to L.A. to work with them. But we’d always said we’re going to make something together. And then when this came up, she called and we went out to the Mercer Hotel and ate $25 egg whites -- on Smokehouse’s tab -- and we just talked about it. I didn’t have any concept for it other than I said to her: "What if the movie hadn’t been declassified until 1997? What if they had been able to make it in 1980? What would it have looked like and sounded like? What if some great director like Sidney Lumet had made it?" So that was the only working hypothesis. We wanted to kind of make it like some … the last '70s movie that was ever made.
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THR: The movie has a lot of moving parts. What sources did you lean on the most when you wrote it?
Terrio: Definitely Josh Bearman in his story immediately captured the ironies and the paradoxes of these Hollywood and CIA worlds colliding. But I also leaned on Tony Mendez and on just all the small details of life in the CIA -- all the shit that you don’t see in a Bond movie, which is to say the fact that you have to come home at the end of the day to your wife and kids after being a spy.
THR: How thick was the file of the CIA documents?
Terrio: Well, on the record I can’t say that I saw any of the file, but they’re pretty … a lot of effort and a lot of approvals at many different levels go into any CIA operation. Obviously, where this one … the whole Carter presidency, obviously many lives were at stake. There were a lot of documents.
THR: This happened 30-plus years ago, and we're still dealing with Iran. Do you keep that in mind, as you were writing this, to try and think of a parable for today, or did you keep it restricted to the past?
Terrio: I wouldn’t say that I thought about the present. Obviously we all know that the [Iranian] regime that is in its birth stages at the time of this film goes on to be a very repressive regime. But in some way it should feel like a movie that’s universally about what happens when a revolution is hijacked by extremists and what are the best uses of American power in the world. Also finally just about how do you do the decent thing when you’re in a big octopus of an organization that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to do the right thing.
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THR: Obviously we're rooting for the Americans to get out in the film, but in the beginning, you do make mention of the fact that the whole revolution started because of an U.S.-backed coup.
Terrio: We felt like our responsibility [as storytellers] at the beginning was to explain why all these people are at the gates of the embassy. Because the image of the streets of the Middle East, of agitated people burning flags, it’s one that we’re kind of known to. So we thought instead of saying these people are crazy and they hate our freedom, we could say there are really specific reasons why they have grievances. And I think that propagates throughout the story. Once you understand the context it becomes a lot easier to understand in a movie.
THR: How do you think the legacy of the Iranian hostage crisis affects how we see the Middle East and terror and how we deal with it today?
Terrio: Well, in a way it was … it’s famously called America’s first encounter with political Islam. I think at the time we were in such a Cold War mentality that we couldn’t imagine that there were other people who weren’t, didn’t think American ideals were the greatest thing. So I think we have to look to the gates of the embassy as the beginning of our troubled relationship with the Middle East, then hopefully eventually have dialogue. The film is not a political statement, but I think if it’s anything it’s a statement to say that big political events land on individual lives and on individual faces. That’s a great contribution of Ben's to the film. You can never forget for a second that all these things are landing on human faces.
THR: Do you anticipate that there will be a dialogue about that from the movie, or will people miss that?
Terrio: I don’t know. I hope there is. You never know how people are going to respond to anything in the world, but I think there’s utility in reliving certain moments is the beginning of dialogue. Because up to now Iran and this whole crisis has been some sort of boogeyman or taboo subject that we don’t really talk about very often. Almost like a shameful moment in a past. Shameful things should be talked about or they remain shameful.
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THR: How did the script develop over time? Did it continue to evolve while filming?
Terrio: Yeah, definitely. Sometimes on set you find that something isn’t working or a joke isn’t landing. And obviously, having Ben in the lead, there were times when he would just have an inspiration on set and do something. And I’d be like, "F---, that’s better than what I would have written." Even with scenes like the house guest, you put Clea Duvall and Chris Denim together -- who are these amazing, naturalistic actors -- and you don’t know what they’re going to do. When they have a good idea, Ben is attuned enough to let them pursue it. Some sets you go on to and you feel like you’re with your authoritarian dad who’s going to yell at you if you do or say the wrong thing. But Ben is the opposite. He creates this sandbox where everyone can play and do their best work. And that’s not a kiss-ass thing. When I hear these quotes, I always think they’re kiss-ass quotes to people who are famous, but in this case it’s actually true.
THR: So you continued to work with him after it went to production?
Terrio: Yeah. Well, I sort of was sometimes sitting around. I called myself the Harry Potter dementor sucking all the joy out of the set. But at the end of the day, it’s Ben’s set, and he’s the best. And I told him recently, "Every battle I’m glad I lost because it turned out you were right about it."
THR: You mentioned the James Bond movie. What surprised you about the way the CIA works that you didn’t expect?
Terrio: I think how lonely it is. You do get a sense of that, especially in the newer Bond, with his existential loneliness. But the loneliness of not being able to tell your wife where you were, the loneliness of missing your kids birthday or whatever. Just the sense that you go off and your body may never be claimed and no one might ever know what happened to you, and yet you go anyway. You know there’s a shot that we really wanted to keep in the film of the stars on the wall of the CIA. A lot of those people were never heard from again, were never recovered. Their names still aren’t known. Even though I share distrust of authoritarian organizations, but when you actually look at the lunchpail nuts and bolts of the organization, it’s a lot of guys -- well, at the time guys, but now men and women -- who go to work and just try to do the right thing.
THR: Do you think the other shows and films about the CIA ring true?
Terrio: Because I’ve been working on this and another film I’m dying to see Homeland because I hear that it’s brilliant and deals with some of the same issues. The Bourne movies are great in their own ways; it introduces a whole other sort of allegory about the Bush years. The secrecy and the threats of a big global organization. So there are different ways in which, I think, most CIA movies get something right. … There isn’t one that I think they got it right and the others got it wrong. I think everybody gets something right.
THR: CIA is more of a clusterf--- than some people might imagine.
Terrio: It is, and I think a lot of my thinking about it came from thinking about David Simon in The Wire. The Baltimore police is a big clusterf--- and bureaucracy, and everybody’s covering their ass and everybody’s doing their least they can do to keep their job. And as I talked to Tony Mendez and others, I began to see that in the CIA. And I think it’s true of any big organization. … Bureaucracies and organizations make it hard to do the right thing sometimes. So ultimately I hope that this movie is kind of about somebody trying to do the right thing amidst a lot of reasons not to.