About The Production
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
You don't have a better bad
idea than this?
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
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
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
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
"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."
You really believe your little story is gonna make a difference when there's a
gun to our heads?
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
"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
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,"
Next Production Note Section
Home | Theaters | Video | TV
Your Comments and Suggestions are Always Welcome.
© 2013 6®, All Rights Reserved.