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ARGO

About The Production
O'DONNELL

The six went out a back exit...

The Canadians took them in. They've been there ever since.

In 1980, Studio Six Productions trumpeted a new film project that had the elements of a hit sci-fi movie: spaceships, aliens, action and adventure, all happening on an arid, distant planet. Billed as a "cosmic conflagration," the epic feature was never greenlit by any studio chief.

It could only be given a green light by the country's Commander in Chief.

More than 30 years later, Ben Affleck directed, produced and stars in "Argo," a film based on the true story of the covert mission to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran, following the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that shocked the world.

The group had narrowly avoided being taken hostage by Iranian revolutionaries and were given sanctuary at the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, who risked everything to help the Americans, even when others turned them away. But the "houseguests" - as they came to be known-were in constant jeopardy of being found out and captured...or worse. With time running out, the CIA's top exfiltration expert, Antonio "Tony" Mendez, devised a brilliant but outrageous escape plan.

Affleck explains, "Tony was friends with a famous makeup artist named John Chambers and knew it was a viable prospect for movie people to be traveling around, checking out different locations. He came up with an idea no one else would ever have thought of."

The plan was for the six to pose as a Canadian filmmaking team on a location scout and then simply fly out...although it was anything but simple. Tony Mendez emphasizes, "This was a game with no rules, so it was extremely risky. The most dangerous thing about it was the capriciousness of the people we were trying to get around. We had no way of predicting what would happen if we got caught-to us or to those already held hostage."

Joshuah Bearman, who, in 2007, chronicled the escape in a Wired Magazine article, relates, "The embassy seizure was a seismic event on the world stage. No one knew quite how to respond to the hostage situation in the embassy compound. The problem of the hidden houseguests was even trickier because diplomacy wasn't an option. And with each day, the likelihood that they would be discovered grew. Eventually, Tony Mendez, who had 'exfiltrated' sensitive people from Iran and elsewhere before, stepped in with this plan."

There was also a very real threat to those harboring the Americans. Ambassador Ken Taylor confirms, "During those three months, the staff at the Canadian Embassy was dealing with the dangerous reality of the situation. We had all been offended by the violent breach of diplomatic protocol, but apart from that, these were our friends. The U.S. and Canada have always had a special relationship that transcends any boundaries. I have been given a lot of the credit, but an equal amount belongs to my wife, Pat, and my embassy staff, as well as my colleagues in Canada."

Holding an emergency session, the Canadian Parliament made a rare exception to their own laws to provide the six Americans with fake Canadian passports, under the "film crew's" individual aliases. They arrived by diplomatic pouch to Ambassador Taylor, who rendezvoused with Mendez to deliver them. Applying his expert counterfeiting skills, Mendez imprinted them with the correct Iranian visas and entered dates to indicate that the six had arrived in the country only the day before.

"To me," says Affleck, "one of the most important themes of the movie is remembering when the United States stood up as a nation to say 'Thank you, Canada.' None of this would have happened without them, so America will always have a debt of gratitude to our friends to the north."

In today's instant information age, it seems inconceivable that the entire operation remained top secret until it was declassified by President Clinton in 1997. Surprisingly, even after Tony Mendez recounted the events in his 2000 book, Master of Disguise, and, later, Bearman detailed them in Wired, most people remain largely unaware of a story that even Affleck admits "sounds utterly absurd. I understand that, because it seems completely unbelievable, but the fact that it happened is what makes it even more fascinating."

"This operation was a little-known success story in an otherwise difficult chapter in history," says Bearman. "People knew at the time that six Americans escaped with the help of the Canadians a few months into the crisis, but until the operation was declassified years later, no one realized that the CIA had actually led the Americans to safety with such a daring mission and wild cover story."

Bearman's piece first came to the attention of producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney. Heslov offers, "I remember the hostage crisis well, but I was unaware of this story, so I found it astonishing and also very cool. I knew immediately there was a film there and that it was one I wanted to make, and George felt the same way."

Screenwriter Chris Terrio was entrusted with turning this rescue operation into a script and went right to the source. He reveals, "When I read the article, I was riveted, and I was especially curious about Tony Mendez, about what kind of guy could think outside the box enough to come up with this plan and then undertake it. If I had pitched this as an original concept, brows would furrow and people would say, 'No audience will ever believe that.' But Tony managed to convince the United States government to attempt something that was even crazier than what most Hollywood studios would dream up."

Mendez counters, "I don't think it's so unusual to associate Hollywood and the CIA, because an instrument of espionage is naturally stagecraft."

"That makes sense," Heslov nods. "In both worlds, you're forging fictional situations and playing dress-up to create convincing scenarios, so there is an overlap."

Terrio arranged to meet with Mendez, who retired from the CIA in 1990. The screenwriter observes, "The structure of the film is a rescue, with people's lives hanging in the balance. The stakes couldn't be higher. But in my communication with Tony, I wanted to know about his day-to-day life, because if you understand the nuts and bolts of what the life of a CIA officer was like at this time, there's a more complex drama there, which takes you beyond the action and suspense. Whenever I started to get lost in the scale of the story-how these men and women were swept up by historical events-I would remember that, underneath, it's just a human story about people trying to do the best they can against overwhelming odds."

"You know you've hired the right writer when he connects so strongly to the material," Heslov says. "Inherently, it's a terrific tale and that's half the battle, but Chris wrote an amazing script. It was all there on the page from the very first draft."

Affleck agrees. "It was one of the best scripts I've ever read. I'm always on the lookout for a great story, and I know when I find one. That was certainly the case with 'Argo.' It was a true page-turner, so I was happy to get a crack at directing it."

Heslov and Clooney learned about Affleck's interest shortly after seeing his 2010 drama "The Town." Says Heslov, "Ben has a wonderful sense of story and knows how to use the camera to tell it. He also has a strong point of view, which, as a filmmaker, is probably the most important thing. He understands how to build to a climax and brought even more of a thriller aspect to 'Argo' than we envisioned."

One of the filmmakers' biggest challenges was the film's juxtaposition of life-or-death drama and dry comedy. Heslov explains, "It starts out very serious, and then the tone changes, particularly when you get to Hollywood. We wanted 'Argo' to have some levity, but it had to be integrated in a cohesive way. In the end, I feel we got the right balance, and that's a testament to Ben as a director."

"The humor was an important part of the script," Affleck adds, "but it was the hardest line to walk. My main concern was making sure the laughs did not jeopardize the sense of urgency or realism. Luckily, we had Alan Arkin and John Goodman handling most of the comedy. They played every line with such integrity that the humor feels innate and never strains belief."

Believability became the watchword of the entire production. However, Affleck underscores, "It is not intended to be a documentary. As is always the case with a movie like this, elements had to be compressed and some dramatic license was taken because it is, after all, a drama. But we were very fortunate in that we could stay faithful to the spirit of what happened, because the truth of what happened was incredibly compelling."

Terrio cites the film's closing minutes as an instance when the filmmakers used fictionalized events to depict genuine emotions. "When I talked to Tony and read the houseguests' accounts of the actual escape, I got a sense of how overwhelming and euphoric that moment was. To cinematically replicate what they were feeling required more than just words. The action had to be wound up tight so that their relief is tangible, and is also shared by the audience."

Affleck collaborated with his cast and creative teams to achieve a high level of verisimilitude, in both time and place. He and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto adopted distinct filming styles that would convey the era of the late 1970s and `80, and establish a visual divide between the milieus of Washington, DC; Hollywood, CA; and Iran. Production designer Sharon Seymour and costume designer Jacqueline West examined photographs and film archives to re-create the look of the period as it pertained to the film's decidedly different settings.

Affleck says, "In researching those three worlds, I started to plan how we were going to weave them together to tell this extraordinary story. That's when the real work began."

And, according to those who were actually there, the work paid off. Ken Taylor says, "The movie does a brilliant job of catching the mood and the tension in Tehran and the dedication of those in diplomatic life, often in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I also think the movie couldn't be better in terms of timing. It takes place some 30-odd years ago, but it could well take place today."

"I was pleased about the prospect of this experience being made into a movie, and now that it's happened, it's exciting," Mendez states. "There was a point when it was important to keep the secret of what happened for the greater good, but it's now a piece of history. Ben and everyone else involved in the film did a remarkable job. Watching 'Argo' brought me right back to that moment in time. Simply put, they got it right."

TURNER

You don't have a better bad idea than this?

O'DONNELL

This is the best bad idea we have, sir. By far.

The only character to inhabit all three worlds in "Argo" is Tony Mendez, the CIA's best exfiltration officer-a specialist in getting people out of hostile spots. Terrio says, "Tony has to go into what is really the 'belly of the beast'-the scariest place in the world if you're an American-and get six people out. And the clock is ticking. He is also coming up against forces-whether bureaucratic or geopolitical-that are making the task even harder than it already is. At a certain point, you can't imagine it will end well because there are too many things saying it won't. The pressure on him couldn't be higher, but the essence of Tony is that he's just a guy doing his job."

Affleck, who stars as Mendez, notes, "Tony steps up and does what he's asked to do, completely in secret. No fanfare, no high-fives...just do the job and, if you succeed, go home and keep your mouth shut. He puts his life on the line to try and save these people and that's heroic stuff. It's impressive and also quite humbling."

Heslov remarks that Affleck possesses many of the qualities they saw in the role. "Ben has a sort of quiet intensity about him that fit how we envisioned Tony. He is also a very smart guy, and you need this character to feel smart; it's important that he appear in control of the situation and is capable of calling an audible if need be. And Ben is naturally funny, which was great in delivering that brand of dry humor, particularly when Tony heads to Hollywood."

Before he can exercise his Hollywood option, Mendez needs approval from the powers that be, including his direct superior, the assistant deputy director of the CIA, Jack O'Donnell, played by Bryan Cranston. "Tony Mendez answers to Jack O'Donnell, so Jack feels responsible for him and for the mission," Cranston offers. "In my research about the CIA, one of the things that stood out to me was the credo that they don't leave anyone behind. You go to any lengths possible to get them out of harm's way, and that applied to the six trapped Americans who were there because they were working for the government. That really helped inform my character."

"Jack O'Donnell was a hard role to cast," says Affleck. "At first glance, you might think there'd be a whole range of people who would be right for it, but you don't want to let the character become generic. You need an actor with the gravitas that Bryan was able to bring to it."

Cranston says that, once he read the script, he had no hesitation in taking the part. "There are things that you respond to immediately, viscerally, and 'Argo' was definitely one of those. It was tense and dramatic and engrossing, and every time I read it, I got charged up again. Opportunities to be a part of something like this don't come along often, so I'm very glad I am."

Mendez might never have come up with the fake movie plan if he did not have a real movie contact in renowned makeup artist John Chambers, who had been awarded an Honorary Oscar for his masks for the original "Planet of the Apes." Clandestinely, however, Chambers has been also applying his skills to the more serious pursuits of the government's Intelligence operations.

John Goodman, who portrays the makeup pioneer, remarks, "He loves his craft and is also keen on using it to help the CIA; he enjoys serving his country in that way. So when Tony comes to him and says he needs help putting a movie together, Chambers is intrigued. I was very attracted to the whole double life aspect of the character, but, first and foremost, it's just a plain great, gripping story.

"I also wanted to work with Ben Affleck because he's a terrific actor and already has a great track record as a director," Goodman continues. "It was interesting to watch him go back and forth between the two. He knew exactly what he wanted, but he was flexible and a very generous collaborator, too. He came up with ideas for my character I didn't think of. It was wonderful working with him."

The feeling is mutual. Affleck attests, "John is such a good actor. Just look at the breadth and scope of the roles he's done; he can be purely comedic or someone you take very seriously, and he also has a tremendous gift for subtlety and nuance. I respect him so much."

Although the movie is only a charade, it has to be a believable one, so Mendez and Chambers need a bona fide producer. Affleck explains, "When you look at it from the point of view of building a cover, well the cover had better be strong, so they had to have a presence. We wanted someone who would be emblematic of Old Hollywood, somebody who knows everybody, the kind of guy you would go to if you needed to make your fake movie look legit."

Enter Lester Siegel, who, Chris Terrio reveals, "is actually a composite of people, ranging from actual producers I've met to some legendary moguls who came to Hollywood and used their street smarts to make it big. I loved the idea that what is likely to be Lester's last hurrah is going to be a movie that doesn't really exist but could save six lives."

To play this industry icon, the filmmakers cast an industry icon: Alan Arkin. Affleck affirms, "Alan has been revered in our business for decades. He is, himself, a legendary figure, so bringing that stature to his character was a no-brainer."

"Lester is a tough, smart film producer who knows the business inside and out," Arkin describes. "He's skeptical at first about the possibility of this plan working at all, but as he gets more involved, the challenge of it energizes him...the fact that it did seem impossible. To me, one of the most potent aspects of the film is that they were confronted with an untenable situation and found a creative solution that did not involve any violence whatsoever."

Despite Lester's edict that if he's going to produce a fake movie "it's going to be a fake hit," Arkin admits, "They're making the cheesiest conceivable film; it's just dreadful. The only reason they chose it was because it can be used as a blind to get into Iran, not because it has any merit whatsoever as a film," he laughs. "There is a quote from Mark Twain that I love that goes, 'The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to be credible.' So they go to great pains to make it look like a genuine production. They have trade ads, casting calls, a script reading for the press, costumes... It's imperative, because any mistake could have resulted in them being found out."

Heslov states, "What impressed me most about Alan is that he can be outrageously funny one minute, and then he has a scene with Ben where their characters are talking about their kids and he's just so real. That's why he's been one of our greatest actors for all these years."

JOE STAFFORD

You really believe your little story is gonna make a difference when there's a gun to our heads?

TONY MENDEZ

I think my little story is the only thing between you and a gun to your heads.

The film company fronting Mendez's cinematic ruse is dubbed Studio Six Productions, a subtle wink to the mission behind the movie: the rescue of the six Americans who have now spent more than two months in hiding in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, played by Victor Garber.

Garber expounds, "Ken Taylor and his wife, Pat, take in the Americans, which is a very courageous thing to do. It puts them at great peril, not just diplomatically but personally, because if their houseguests were caught, it would be extremely bad for them as well. I was so impressed by what this man did and felt a great responsibility in playing him, because what he did was heroic and remains so."

Terrio relates, "This operation was publicly known as the 'Canadian Caper,' which is fitting because when other countries refused to help the six escapees, Canada, without hesitation, took them in and kept them protected. As is seen, the Taylors clearly knew their lives would be at stake, but they bravely harbored the Americans anyway and were instrumental in giving cover to the rescue mission."

"Victor was perfect for the role of Ken Taylor, beginning with the fact that he happens to be Canadian," Affleck states. "He also perfectly embodies the quiet heroism of this man who stepped up and did what was right because it was the moral thing to do. But mostly, Victor is a spectacular guy and wonderfully talented, and I was just thrilled to have him on the set."

In casting the six Americans, Affleck reveals, "I had photos of the real people up in my office because I was trying to stay in the zone of how they actually looked. But more importantly, I wanted good actors who were willing to take risks, willing to improvise, and were able to deliver the kind of realism I was looking for."

Making up the ensemble of houseguests were: Tate Donovan as the de facto leader of the group, Bob Anders; Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford, the only one of the six who is fluent in Farsi; Kerry Bishe as Joe's wife, Kathy; Christopher Denham and Clea DuVall as the other married couple, Mark and Cora Lijek; and Rory Cochrane as Lee Schatz.

While the houseguests are enjoying the relative physical comforts offered by the ambassador's hospitality, they are shut in and cut off and living in a constant state of fear that overshadows their day-to-day existence.

Kerry Bishe comments, "There's a contradictory feeling to what their life is like. They have dinner parties and drink and play games, and yet it's terrifying. I also imagine there's a sense of guilt; the fact that their other colleagues are truly in captivity must weigh on them."

"When we pick up with them," Clea DuVall says, "it's about ten weeks into their being behind closed doors. They are starting to feel a little edgy and claustrophobic and there's always the underlying threat of being found. It's at the point where everybody knows it is time for them to get out."

Affleck wanted the six actors to not just play their parts but to experience, on a deeper level, what the circumstances would be like for their characters. So, prior to the start of principal photography, he sequestered them for a week in the home that would later double as the ambassador's residence. The house was dressed in the style of the period as were the actors, who wore their costumes during that week. To immerse them fully in the time, the director cut them off from the rest of the world, not allowing any computers, cell phones, or anything that started with an "i."

The director details, "We took away everything contemporary and gave them music, games, books, magazines and newspapers from that period. They didn't have the internet and couldn't watch outside TV. Without those things to fall back, they had to actually talk to each other. I wanted them to get comfortable with one another in a way that felt natural. It's much harder to 'act' familiarity. It's more of a chemical thing; your body relaxes and you adopt a certain posture and talk to people differently. That's the kind of connection I wanted to see, and it definitely paid off in cementing the vibe of the group mentality."

The actors playing the houseguests agree, noting that Affleck's method achieved everything he'd hoped to gain and more.

"I'm really glad we did that," says Rory Cochrane. "It was amazing how quickly we formed a rapport. It definitely aided my preparation."

Scoot McNairy attests, "We became a very tight-knit unit. Everybody got along and all the egos went out the door. Just the fact that we got to know each other so well allowed for us to improvise and play off one another better."

"It created a unique camaraderie among the group," Christopher Denham notes. "We had to let our guards down and, as a result, we became fast friends. And I believe those intangibles will show up onscreen."

Tate Donovan concedes that he was reluctant, at first, to be confined for an entire week, especially without the tether to any modern-day devices. "I was pretty bummed," he nods. "So I went into it like, 'All right, I'll play along.' But I have to say, I became a total convert. We had a lot of fun...we chatted and played games and developed into a team. And when it came time to shoot, we already had a shorthand. Ben fostered a safe place for us to work out things about our characters, and that was such a benefit."

The cast of "Argo" also includes a number of actors playing the people, Stateside, who were invested in efforts to rescue the six Americans, including: Kyle Chandler as White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan; Chris Messina as Mario Malinov; Zeljko Ivanek as Robert Pender; Titus Welliver as Jon Bates; Keith Szarabajka as Adam Engell; and Bob Gunton as Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. In addition, Page Leong plays Dr. Pat Taylor, the wife of Ambassador Taylor, and Richard Kind appears as Max Klein, a screenwriter who mistakenly tries to play hardball with Lester Siegel.

"We had so many noteworthy actors who wanted to be a part of this, and I think that reflects on the quality of the script, as well as the remarkable story," Affleck says.

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