The Painstaking Work of Making 'Argo' Authentic
For Ben Affleck and his best picture-nominated team, re-creating the escape of six Americans trapped during the Iran hostage crisis was all about the details.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In June 2009, Chris Terrio entered Manhattan's Paley Center for Media on a quest for information. He had been hired by producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov to write a screenplay based on the real-life story of a fake movie staged by the CIA, which was used as a backdrop to rescue Americans who had fled the U.S. embassy in Tehran during the 444-day Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979.
Buried among the center's 150,000 TV and radio programs was footage of a Vietnam veteran, interviewed in a U.S. bar, talking about how he gladly would bear arms once more in an Iranian conflict, if it came to that. Terrio not only incorporated the man's words in his script for Argo -- his first feature screenplay -- but the filmmakers also bought the clip to use in the movie, requiring the production team to track down the veteran, Jack Stroup, and get his approval 30 years after the fact.
"It made me understand that we were in a very explosive situation," says Terrio, who also found a Mike Wallace interview with Ayatollah Khomeini, part of which made it into the movie. "It reminds you that as a writer of history, you need to put yourself in the head space of not knowing where events are going."
His efforts were part of a massive endeavor to give Argo an exceptional level of authenticity -- all the more striking for its modest $44.5 million budget, which bought the filmmakers a 65-day shoot (mostly in and around Los Angeles) and a month in Turkey, which substituted for Iran. This authenticity has helped make Argo a front-runner for best picture at the Feb. 24 Oscars.
But awards were the last thing on director Ben Affleck's mind when he received a copy of the script in early 2011. Affleck was in Atlanta with his wife, Jennifer Garner (there shooting The Odd Life of Timothy Green), and had just officiated at a funeral for their three kids' pet gerbil when he was FedExed the screenplay.
"Usually I read scripts in 20-page installments," he says. "But this one I was completely tuned in to."
After calling Clooney in Detroit (where he was shooting The Ides of March), Affleck made it clear he wanted to shift what initially had been a semicomedic tone and treat the project with the seriousness its subject warranted.
"They viewed it as a bit more comic than I did," he says. "I wanted to skew only maybe a quarter comic and not laugh-out-loud. The barometer was: 'Was it real? Could it have been real? Is it as close to real as we know?' We adhered to that pretty slavishly in terms of hair, makeup, set decorations -- everything."
While much has been written about Affleck's personal journey in bringing the film to life -- the near-riots during the Turkey shoot when extras got carried away, the conversion of a Hancock Park mansion into the house of megaproducer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), the use of an airport in Ontario, Calif., to stand in for Tehran's -- the search for authenticity seeped into nearly every aspect of the physical production.
Terrio, costume designer Jacqueline West (The Social Network) and production designer Sharon Seymour (Affleck's The Town) and their teams spent days watching newsreels, buying old Newsweek and Time magazines, screening home movies from Iranian expatriates and speaking with the six living government workers who were the subject of the rescue attempt, along with the CIA operative who organized it, Tony Mendez.
Seymour found on the Internet period office equipment that would have cost a fortune to reproduce, including a '70s telephone switchboard bought from a man in Seattle and a Teletype and shredder in working order -- well, mostly: A technician had to be hired to repair the machines when they broke during filming, as they frequently did.
It also was on the Internet that sound designers Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl found a kit to build the type of siren used on police cars in late-1970s Iran.
"Sirens were completely different back then," says Aadahl. "The motors of the cars were completely different, too.
"I wanted to do something where sound is a real player," he adds, noting he opted to work on Argo over a superhero feature. "I'd done a lot of work on the popcorn, bubble-gum stuff, which is fun on its own level, but just reading the script for Argo, right away I saw this project working on so many levels."
One of them included re-creating the sound of protestors outside the embassy. To do so, Aadahl's team recruited about 100 Farsi-speaking Angelenos, some of whom had lived through the protests, and brought them to the Warner Bros. lot. There, the sound crew spent several hours recording chants and shouting from up close, from behind glass doors and from blocks away.
By the end of the session, many of the Iranians were in tears and hugging one another. "All these years later, they got to relive it and expunge it from their systems," says Van der Ryn. "It made their performance supercharged."
Capturing the distinct period feel involved experimentation with lenses and stocks before Affleck and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto settled on the high-contrast, saturated Kodak 5263 film for the Iran sequences. They shot them in "2 perf," a system that originated during the 1960s and meant the film frame would be enlarged to make the footage look grainier. Other stocks were used for the Washington, D.C., and Hollywood sequences.
What Argo lacked was a significant construction budget -- it only had $1.5 million -- which meant little could be built from scratch and much, such as the interiors of the embassy and airport, had to be decorated and altered digitally. Signs in English were obliterated and replaced with ones in Farsi, all digitally, during post-production.
But the production was lucky to have key costumer Alison Gail Bixby, whose extended family worked for Standard Oil in Tehran during the '70s and created a picture-sharing website for one another. It allowed, for example, the clothes of the Canadian ambassador's housekeeper to be replicated from her family's housekeeper's outfit.
"It gave us a bird's-eye view on specific people," says West. "We knew we were being real."
West even managed to score the costumer equivalent of the brass ring: When she wrote to ask Mendez about his wardrobe, he told her he had kept the outfits he wore during his 1980 mission. "It was a seminal moment in his life," explains West, adding that she did not dare incorporate the outfits themselves but had them re-created perfectly, stitch by stitch. "Just as we used different film stocks, I had to do the same with clothing."
For added precision, she got a hold of the American escapees' passport photos and had their glasses reproduced by Allyn Scura Designs, a vintage eyewear designer based in Sebastopol, Calif.
One of the toughest parts of the below-the-line filmmaking seemed, on the surface at least, among the simplest: obtaining rights to shoot period Star Wars, Star Trek and Planet of the Apes toys, shown in the final scene of Argo when the camera pans across the bedroom of Mendez's son.
While getting permission was not cheap, Affleck says they were crucial: "Those little characters felt like a fitting grace note to the movie. Even mythic storytelling can be childlike and start to shape our views of the world."