About The Production (Continued)
So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot without actually doing
anything? ... You'll fit right in.
The story of "Argo" opens with the explosive events in Iran, which trigger
strong reactions in Washington, DC, ultimately leading to rescue plans unfolding
in Hollywood. In navigating between those disparate settings, Affleck
collaborated with his creative teams to depict the culture clashes, as well as
the times. "My main goal was that it all had to feel organic and not
self-conscious," says Affleck. "Everything from the sets to the clothes to the
hairstyles had to blend into the background, and also be unimpeachable in terms
Affleck and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto endeavored to evoke what the latter
calls "a visual tapestry that gives a specific quality and frame of reference to
each section of the film. We wanted to help the audience instantly identify
where we are as soon as the images change on the screen."
This was especially important, as there were segments shot in Los Angeles that
would need to blend seamlessly with other perspectives of the same scene,
accomplished later on location-whether in Washington, DC, or in Turkey, which
stood in for Iran. Prieto continues, "We needed to unify the look of each
section, even if shots were done in different parts of the world."
One example Prieto points to is the harrowing embassy takeover, which sets
"Argo" in motion. "The embassy compound and interiors were filmed at the
Veteran's Administration north of Los Angeles, while everything outside the
embassy wall was shot weeks later in Istanbul. We connected the Iran-set
sequences with a distinctly granular texture to enhance the feeling of
For scenes within the ambassador's home, Affleck mainly utilized handheld
cameras but qualifies, "I didn't want it to be obvious; I told them not to add
any shake, no pop zooms. Instead, I had the actors do the scene as written a few
times and then I would have them start improvising, so what resulted was the
cameramen were the ones improvising. They'd be expecting one person to talk and
then somebody else would speak, so it's that feeling of shifting your attention
as you normally would in a conversation."
By contrast, Affleck says, "For the DC scenes, there was nothing handheld; it
was all on the dolly so the movements were much smoother and more grounded. Then
for Hollywood, I put in a lot of zooms-zooms from helicopters, zooms from
cars-which was a technique you saw a lot in the `70s. And the color was much
more saturated. So, photographically, every setting has a very specific look."
Production designer Sharon Seymour and costume designer Jacqueline West
collaborated with Affleck to establish the period and backdrops in a more
tactile way. With the help of researcher Max Daly, they began by poring over
scores of photographs and stacks of print media, and watching hours of
television news footage and movies.
Seymour observes, "So much has changed that we take for granted now. Technology
was totally different; there weren't computers on every desk. For all the office
scenes, we had to track down old typewriters, telexes, and other equipment we
don't see, or hear, anymore."
The Los Angeles Times building in Downtown L.A. was repurposed for various
interiors, including the `70s-era offices and conference rooms of the CIA. In
dressing the sets, Seymour's team paid careful attention to even the smallest
details, from the ubiquitous ashtrays, which would be unseemly today, to the
world maps, which have drastically changed over the last three decades.
In designing costumes for those working at the CIA or in other areas of
government, West offers that, despite the serious nature of their jobs, "the
`70s were a wonderfully freeing time, when even somewhat conservative people
could express themselves in their clothes. There were colorful wide ties and
plaids with prints... All of the fashion rules were broken. Working on movies is
wonderful in that way-you get to live, for a while, in another time and place. I
For the character of Tony Mendez, the costume designer had the added bonus of
being able to consult Affleck's real-life counterpart. West confirms, "I emailed
Tony and asked him for a description of what he wore, and it was lovely of him
to share that with me. When he went on missions, he turned into what he calls
'the little gray man,' so he would kind of disappear into the crowd. But at the
CIA, I figured he wasn't so much of a suit guy, more of an independent thinker.
I found out he did sometimes wear suits, but he preferred herringbone Harris
Tweed jackets, so that's something I put Ben in."
West reasoned that the six houseguests would have limited wardrobe changes, as
they arrived at the Taylors' home with just the clothes on their backs. "We
assumed that they would exchange a piece here, or there or that Pat Taylor might
have brought them some things, but overall, their look stays pretty much the
The Canadian ambassador's home was located in the Los Angeles suburb of Hancock
Park. The flow between the rooms of the house, as well as the existing decor,
lent themselves perfectly to the production. Seymour comments, "Avocado was the
color for kitchens at the time, and the kitchen in that house had never been
redone. In fact, it was more lime than avocado, with green and white tiles and
fern-colored wallpaper. When I walked in, I thought, 'Oh my, this is even
better, or should I say worse, than I could have designed it,'" she laughs.
Studio Six Productions set up its offices on the Warner Bros. lot, where the
logo on the emblematic water tower was changed back to The Burbank Studios, as
it was known then. Down the street from the studio, Mendez and Chambers began
developing their fake movie at the historic SmokeHouse Restaurant, from which
Clooney and Heslov took their production company name.
Going over the hill from the San Fernando Valley, scenes were also filmed at the
luxurious Beverly Hilton Hotel. A posh Bel Air house once owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor
became the home of Lester Siegel.
Befitting his status, Lester drives a 1975 gold Rolls Royce, while John Chambers
sports a '77 Cadillac Eldorado. Picture car coordinator Ted Moser was charged
with finding and, in some cases, refurbishing those and other now-vintage
vehicles, including the gleaming Airstream trailer, which serves as Chambers'
headquarters. He remarks, "We polished it up to the nines and then crafted the
inside to be this cool makeup trailer. We also restored his Eldorado to look
like new, but the background vehicles couldn't look like they came out of car
That especially applied to the assortment of cars Moser gathered for the Iran
sequences, including Granadas, Fiats, Peugots, Mavericks, and a VW Bus, as well
as a 1962 Unimog troop transport and the classic Matador cop cars that are seen
in a nail-biting chase sequence at the Tehran Airport.
Ontario International Airport, about 150 miles east of Los Angeles, stood in for
the crowded Tehran Airport. Seymour's team dressed the terminal with Farsi
signage, as well as giant posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Affleck recalls,
"We were fortunate to have many Persian extras, some of whom had been in Iran
during the Revolution. I was very gratified when they would come up to us and
say, 'This brings me back 30 years...' and tell us their stories. They were also
very committed to helping us make it right; in fact, some of them really got
into it, pointing out the tiniest discrepancies. It did allow me to needle
Sharon, like, 'Sharon, that man told me the lion is wrong on this poster. I
can't believe you let this happen,'" he grins.
The filmmakers knew it was unfeasible to shoot on location in Iran, so they
chose Istanbul, in neighboring Turkey, to stand in for Tehran. The only city in
the world to span two continents-bridging Europe and Asia-Istanbul also serves
as Tony Mendez's transit point, where he obtains his visa from the Iranian
"Istanbul is a phenomenal city to be in and work in," Affleck states. "We were
all struck by the friendliness of everyone we met. We were also enormously
grateful for the outstanding local crew and the cooperation of the public."
Notably, two of Istanbul's most magnificent landmarks were used to film scenes
set in the ancient city: the Blue Mosque, which is viewed only from the outside;
and the interior of the Hagia Sofia, where Tony Mendez has a clandestine meeting
with a British Intelligence counterpart. Says Affleck, "The Hagia Sofia is an
incredible place because it
was a church, then a mosque and it's now a museum, so it truly represents an
intersection of cultures."
One large space in which they were shooting is lit by dozens of circular
chandeliers, the light bulbs for which had, in recent years, been converted to
compact fluorescents. Unfortunately, they cast too harsh a light-not to mention
they did not exist in 1980. Members of the crew worked overnight to switch out
the more than 4,000 bulbs, resulting in the softer light the filmmakers needed.
Perhaps the most challenging sequence was the escalating demonstration that
boils over into the breach of the U.S. Embassy's Roosevelt Gate. The scene was
accomplished on a soccer pitch in the residential district of Barkikoy. The
field could accommodate the more than 1,300 people, all shouting anti-American
chants in Farsi, which swell to a deafening crescendo.
Dressing the extras was an especially daunting task because Jacqueline West not
only had to accurately reflect the time but also the mores of that society. She
says, "We made hundreds of chadors, the long, black cloak the women wore, and
also made all the clothes for the Mullahs. Military jackets, in the style of
Castro or Che Guevara, were the badge of the revolutionaries, so we provided
dozens of those. But it was a cast of thousands, so we had to be very
resourceful in either creating or finding everything we needed."
To bring the audience directly into the erupting chaos, Affleck infiltrated the
mob with cameramen dressed as extras, armed with 16mm cameras to shoot random
footage. In addition, the director, along with several others, waded into the
throng to film the mounting riot in Super 8. "The negative for Super 8 is tiny,
so when it's blown up in a movie theatre, it looks incredibly grainy," Affleck
explains. "Pulled together, it all looked and felt so much like the actual
imagery, but other than the little bit of stock footage that you see on the TVs,
it's all new."
Chris Terrio comments, "It's chilling because it looks so much like the archival
material. There was a sea of humanity outside the embassy gates, and that's what
they re-created. The extras really got swept up in it, because you can't help
but feel the energy when you're in a crowd of people with that kind of fervor."
That also held true for the smaller yet equally vehement demonstration that
Mendez and the six houseguests-now posing as a Canadian film crew-must drive
through on the way to their supposed location scout in the Grand Bazaar.
"When they started rocking the van, we were genuinely frightened," Clea DuVall
affirms. "It did feel like it could tip over, and there were all these people
screaming at us. I can tell you, it definitely didn't require much acting to
Christopher Denham adds, "It's one thing to read in the script that protesters
are banging on the bus, but to actually be surrounded by hundreds of people
acting like they want to kill you is quite another thing. It really does a job
That included Affleck. Scoot McNairy reveals, "One guy grabbed a rock and began
hitting the windshield. I remember looking over at Ben and even he looked scared
for a minute there. It was intense."
For filming in the Grand Bazaar, the timing could not have been more perfect, as
the normally teeming shops were closed for a major holiday. "The bazaar in
Istanbul was fantastic," Seymour enthuses. "It very much had the flavor of the
one in Tehran, because they're both among the oldest in the world. Not
surprisingly, a lot of the stuff in the shops has a timeless feel, so we didn't
have to change a lot. The main challenge was the huge amount of Turkish signage
that had to be converted to Farsi."
"The Istanbul bazaar was labyrinthine; it was all at odd angles so you could
easily get turned around in an alleyway and be totally lost," Affleck recalls.
"But it was very cool and we were fortunate that everything was shut down so we
had the freedom to film there."
Grant Heslov says, "I've heard Istanbul referred to as the 'crossroads of the
world,' but until you're there, you don't realize how beautiful it is. The
history of the city is profound and it's everywhere you turn. We had a very
ambitious schedule in Turkey, and it all went off without a hitch, thanks in no
small part to the local people. It was definitely the right place to shoot."
From Turkey, the production traveled to Washington, DC. The filmmakers and
members of the cast were honored to be given even limited access to the actual
CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, where they learned the CIA is very
much...well...the CIA. Heslov relates, "When we entered the building, everybody was
told to leave their phones in a basket, and, to be honest, I didn't do that.
It's not that I wanted to make calls; I just didn't want to give up my phone.
And minutes later, a CIA officer walked in and said, 'Okay, who's got the
iPhone?' I admitted it was me, but then I had to ask how he knew. He took me to
the back where he showed me this whole computer set-up where they can monitor
where a cell phone is, what the number is...they can tell everything. It was
Bryan Cranston comments, "Just walking down the halls at Langley was
inspirational. Those were the most important scenes to me because I knew what a
privilege it was for me, as a civilian, to be there."
Affleck says, "There was an interesting duality to the building because you'd be
walking down this rather plain looking hallway, but then you'd see a door marked
Counter Terrorism Unit. That was impressive. It was moving for me just to walk
over the seal and to see the stars on the wall commemorating those who have
given their lives in service to the Central Intelligence Agency. That's why I
designed a specific shot where Tony goes by and we hold on the stars. We wanted
people to see that."
The filmmakers had to digitally remove some of the stars because the number was
fewer at the time of the events in the film. It is noteworthy that some stars
still don't have the names of the fallen officers because their missions are
still deemed classified.
Following the wrap of principal photography, Affleck teamed with editor William
Goldenberg to bring the interwoven pieces from the different location shoots
The director also knew that music would serve as the connective tissue between
the story's three separate worlds. Affleck utilized source music from the era to
put the audience into the time frame, especially in the Hollywood sequence.
"Associations with music are something we all carry in the back of our minds.
You hear a song, and it sets the scene, in and of itself," he says.
Affleck adds that within the score, composed by Alexandre Desplat, "We needed to
find a theme that we would use throughout-obviously different instrumentation
and tempo, but still the same piece of music. Alexandre was amazing at crafting
an atypical score, incorporating uncommon instruments, many Middle Eastern in
origin. It doesn't feel too literal or cliche, but he created a sound that
instantly puts you in that place."
Nevertheless, Chris Terrio emphasizes, "You don't need to know anything about
the Middle East or the politics of the time to get caught up in the story. At
the heart of this movie is a daring rescue of six people from a very dangerous
place, and the fact that it's based on truth makes it all the more compelling."
Affleck concludes, "It's thrilling and suspenseful and scary, but it's also
funny and, I hope, entertaining. On a deeper level, it's about the power of
storytelling because for so long this story could not be told. But this is a
moment when we can all be proud of what these people did."
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