THR Cover: Confessions of Ben Affleck
"Argo's" Oscar-baiting director, newly 40, talks about his career turnaround, how anxiety drives him, what Matt Damon's wife might think when he comes over, and what he emailed J. Lo.
The work itself will have its greatest test with Argo. Affleck was fresh off 2010's The Town and in talks to helm another movie at Sony when Warners showed him Chris Terrio's script about real-life CIA operative Tony Mendez and his little-known plan to free six men and women who had fled the U.S. embassy in Tehran when it was seized in 1979. The escapees took refuge with two Canadian diplomats, and Mendez set about creating a phony Hollywood film, Argo (that title derives from a CIA in-joke -- "Ah, go f-- yourself" -- though it is not presented that way in the movie), as a front to squirrel them out of the country.
The moment he read it, Affleck called Heslov and George Clooney, who had been developing the project through their Smoke House production company, "and I just launched into what my take was and didn't stop talking for 45 minutes."
Heslov and Clooney were sold.
"This film tonally is a very tricky piece, and he had very intelligent things to say about that," recalls Heslov, describing the movie's tightrope balance of comedy and suspense. "His idea was to push the thriller aspect a little more than we'd originally talked about. And he was right."
Initially, Affleck had envisioned reworking the script himself, but the draft was so impressive and his relationship with Terrio so good that he allowed Terrio to make the changes. Together, they added a new opening that succinctly explains the Iranian revolution and how it led to the capture of more than 50 Americans, who would remain captive for 444 days within the embassy.
They also worked on redefining Affleck's character, based on Mendez. "He was a little bit more broken in the draft that we got," notes Affleck. "He was older, an alcoholic. And I changed that and made his personal stuff revolve more around his family and losing his marriage." Ultimately, he says, that was "the wrong choice because I ended up cutting most of it out. I cut out six or seven minutes from the final film, which is a lot."
Other characters were merged, and some situations simplified, which later would lead to complaints from former Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor that his country hadn't been given its due. Affleck addressed those concerns with a card at the end of the film that explains how the CIA plot complemented Canadian efforts, which he expands on in a long interview planned for the DVD.
In preparation for the movie, he flew to Maryland and met with Mendez, who took him to a bar that turned out to be a CIA hangout -- the very hangout where agent-turned-spy Aldrich Ames had met some of his Soviet contacts. He was surprised how taciturn Mendez was. "He was extremely withdrawn and very unassuming," says Affleck, adding that he only came to understand this when he saw the 2001 Errol Morris documentary about the operative, The Little Gray Man, showing how blandness was crucial to his work, allowing him to blend into alien environments.
With Mendez on board (joined by John Goodman as real-life Hollywood makeup man John Chambers, Bryan Cranston as a CIA staffer and Arkin as a fictionalized producer), the CIA opened its doors beyond anything Affleck had experienced when he'd worked with the agency on 2002's Tom Clancy thriller The Sum of All Fears.
Invited to visit, he was astonished that "every hallway had a pretty elaborate lock on it, and every door had a lock, and there were no windows to see in any of the rooms, so everything was secure. Some of the offices had two computers at every desk, one with huge stickers that said: 'This is connected to the Internet. No classified information.' I wanted to use that, except there were no computers in 1979."
He also was surprised how low-key the place seemed, even when he stepped into its holy of holies, the futuristic Operations Center, where supersecret material and personnel were whisked away before he arrived. His impression of inactivity changed two weeks later, "when they killed Osama bin Laden."
Thanks to the CIA's reverence for Mendez, Affleck received permission to shoot several sequences at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Va. -- though "that meant having the trucks show up at 2 in the morning, so they could all be searched down to the screw. I've shot in a prison, and the search they put you through was nothing like this."
Most of the film, remarkably, was filmed in and around Los Angeles, with a Hancock Park mansion standing in for the Canadian ambassador's residence, where the escapees hid out. (In reality, they were kept in two separate places in Tehran.) Zsa Zsa Gabor's home was used for the Hollywood producer's (she was upstairs during shooting, but too sick to come down), and the Ontario International Airport, 35 miles east of L.A., substituted for Tehran's.
A 65-day shoot began in California then relocated to Istanbul, Turkey, for a month. Affleck had hoped to use real-life Iranian immigrants in Turkey for all the crowd sequences but well into filming found that "we couldn't get one person of Iranian descent who speaks Farsi to be in the movie because they're all so terrified of what that would mean for their family back home. We were completely f--ed."
(Some of those scenes later were re-staged in Los Angeles, where there are about a half-million Farsi speakers, says Affleck. They and the CGI shots that transformed signs in English gave the film a rare authenticity and allowed it to be made for a modest $44.5 million.)
Shooting in Istanbul had its challenges, especially when Affleck came down with the flu while still acting and directing. "He was really, really sick, with a fever, the whole thing, and he didn't take a day off," says Heslov. "At the worst point, he left a bit early, and he had to be feeling really terrible to do that."
His enthusiasm was matched by the extras, who often numbered around 2,500 and occasionally got out of hand, especially once when Affleck was in his car. "People were yelling and chanting and throwing stuff and having fun -- and it all sort of bled over," he explains. "I was a little scared, although I tried to summon up that director's arrogance. All the great directors, I think, are arrogant; so I thought, 'This is the time when I get out the bullhorn and say, 'Back off!' "
He didn't, alas. "I must not be doing something right," he jokes.