Ben Affleck Talks Directing and the Making of “Argo”
I interviewed Ben Affleck on behalf of the Warner Bros. film “Argo,” on September 11, 2012 in Chicago at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. Affleck looked stylish in his gray, cable-knit cardigan sweater, black shirt, dress tweed slacks (with flecks of black and white) and his very hip, black ankle boots with side gold zippers. From the get-go he was unassuming, funny and charming. He sat next to me on the couch as the other two journalists, Steve Prokopy from Ain’t It Cool News and Brian Tallerico from Hollywood Chicago, sat in chairs facing us. As round tables go, this one worked beautifully as we were granted 30 minutes. The audio will air on Hollywood 360 Radio Network in its entirety in two parts.
Affleck’s been involved with numerous films while expanding his repertoire to include directing and producing. In “Argo” he directs and acts as the main character, CIA agent Tony Mendez. During the Iranian hostage crisis in ’79, Mendez was responsible for rescuing 6 Americans who escaped out the back door during the take-over and were secretly ‘house guests’ of the Canadian ambassador for months. Mendez helped devise a plan of rescue by fabricating an outlandish scenario in which the ‘house guests’ would pose as Hollywood filmmakers scouting a location for the sci-fi film, “Argo.”
The film is an exhilarating thriller based on a true story, one that keeps you on the edge of your seat while reliving the Iranian conflict. Comic relief is added whenever the landscape shifts to Hollywood. John Goodman and Alan Arkin play ‘Tinsel town’ execs and their lines are absolutely hysterical, which is not an easy feat to incorporate in such a serious historical event.
Affleck has created a miraculous film and it’s no wonder as he majored in Middle Eastern cultures in college while attending Harvard. He has a built in connection and intrinsic motivation for bringing such a story to the big screen and we can be thankful for that. As the secret story unfolds, we are shown the urgency of the situation, the red tape of our bureaucracy and the courage of our CIA agents. Add in the feel-good effects of incorporating Hollywood into the equation and it leads to major success.
When asked about the Toronto screening of “Argo” Affleck replied: “We really had a great screening. And you know there’s a little bit of hometown love in there, so we definitely got some appreciation. And there’s definitely Canadian jokes too, not at the expense of Canada, but jokes that Canadians would get that kind of fall flat in the U.S. and it got big laughs at the premiere. [Laughs] So it was a nice boost, and we’re excited to come out here. We did Boston and now here and then I’ll go to St. Sebastian [Film Festival], then I’ll come back and do San Francisco and then New York and L.A., and finally the movie will come out at some point.” [Laughs]
The film and the relationship to the original script were inquired about, as the many threads could be difficult to bring to synthesis. Affleck answered, “Yeah, it was in the script to a certain extent. It’s one of the things I worked on when I came on board with Chris [Terrio, screenwriter], practically, how we were going to do it and how much of it we were going to do and dialing up and down the comedy. He actually trusted the comedy more than I did and he proved right, that the movie could take more jokes and still be okay to rebound back into reality back in Iran. It was a fun one to work on, because there were all these facets and so many knobs to turn. It’s not like one storyline where you can go, ‘Okay, I know what this is and we’re going to run the ball right up the middle.’ It had a lot going on.”
I inquired about his Middle Eastern cultures studies in college and wondered if that was what drew him to the script? Affleck replied, “That was a big part of it, yeah. Middle Eastern studies was something I was really interested in, but I did drop out, technically. [Laughs] But I studied it before I dropped out and I really liked it. It’s a part of the world that I find mysterious and unknowable, and I could tell then that it was important to us and since then it’s been more important to us now, obviously. So the mysteries of that and trying to unveil some of those for an audience was a really interesting prospect.”
And, did he ever write any papers on the Iranian revolution? Affleck said, “Yeah, I did two papers on the revolution. I was really more focused on the Arab world. Of course Iranians are Persian, but the revolution itself was seen as a seminal event, but like a one off event when I wrote those papers. It was like ‘And here is this unusual thing that happened.’ Now revolution and the unintended consequences of revolution is in the newspaper every day and has been for years with Egypt, Tunisia, Syria now. It’s an incredibly relevant idea.”
Affleck spoke about casting lesser-known people playing the house guests as they carry a certain anonymity to them. “The idea was to get people that you didn’t know, or if you did know them, cover them up in the veil of their disguise as this person. I think the theory behind it for me was, ‘the audience needs to identify with these people. The movie won’t work if you’re not with them, thinking that could be you.’ And the more famous somebody is, the more you know that bad things don’t happen to them,” Affleck stated.
Continuing on the casting, Affleck was praised on his choice of character actors. He was asked to speak about why he chose those personalities such as Phillip Baker Hall, Richard Kind and Michael Parks.
Affleck replied, “Yeah, those are the highest compliments you can get. It was a great cast, and we had a great casting director, and I also just have a history of a life spent. As actors, you watch other actors and their performances and you pay attention to it and you go, ‘Oh, that’s a great little moment.’ You appreciate actors more I think, because you’re doing the same job. Also, with someone like Michael Parks, I knew who he was, but then I saw him in “Red State,” Kevin Smith’s movie, and I was like, ‘This guy is amazing.’ I saw Kerry Bishé in that movie as well and cast her, and John Goodman was in it. [Laughs] So basically I’ve cast everyone from Kevin’s movie, so it’s really Kevin’s taste.”
And then going to Arkin. “I don’t know what we would have done if we didn’t get Arkin. He is so perfect for that Hollywood producer sort of cranky guy, enough bluster to be full of shit, but enough also to be like, ‘Okay, we are going to do this thing. I know it sounds crazy.’ And Goodman, I just couldn’t help but think of all of those Coen brothers movies he was in where he was funny, but so real, whether it’s “Lebowski” or “Barton Fink” or “Raising Arizona.” He just has this ability to be outrageous and truthful, which is extremely rare. Bryan Cranston obviously is no secret.”
Being old enough to have experienced the crisis, I talked about the yellow ribbons on my trees that actually grew into the trees after 444 days…and the fact that American’s felt that they were held hostage. Affleck achieved the same feeling in the film. I wondered what resources he used. He replied, “The nice thing is, that era is the very first beginning of the period when we started keeping all of these archives and records. So I could get the stuff off the TV stations, I could get every broadcast in the news, and they weren’t 24 hours either, it was two or three hours of news every day. “Nightline” started then with “America Held Hostage” it was called, and they started keeping track of it, and the show was so popular, they just stayed with it. And there was pretty decent photography that we could use that showed us down to the shirt, the glasses, the shoes, even the mustache, in reproducing factual events. So that was the real asset.
“In fact, I was so enamored with all of the research, that I put a lot of the historic footage in the movie and then even at the end I used those images from history. It just struck me that it was amazing that it was recent enough that we could copy it so closely, and it also reinforced the fact that it’s true. You hear the president of the United States at the time at the end of the movie talking about the mission, that’s true.”
In directing oneself I would imagine it to be very challenging. I asked if Affleck had anyone when he was looking at the takes that he could say to, “I’m not sure about this,” or did he just go for it? He replied,”There are a few people I will sometimes check with. Actually Chris, the writer, was really good with that. He’s so critical that I would say, “Was that terrible?” “Yeah, it’s kind of terrible.” so I knew once he said that he thought it was alright it was like, “This is brilliant.” [Laughs] “If Chris thinks it’s mediocre, it’s great.” Mostly what I did was shoot a lot of coverage of myself and do a lot of takes and direct myself later in the editing room when I could have some distance and perspective on it.
Did Affleck feel in this film that he’d actually made three different styles of film? The Hollywood ’70s stuff had to be so much fun to do, just to recreate that period, but that’s a different movie than what’s going on in Iran.
Affleck, replied “That’s the thing I was really scared of, having these three tones and putting them together. If it’s too goofy and laughy, it’s going to upend the stuff that’s supposed to be intense, because nothing is going to seem real. You’re not going to care anymore. You’re going to have the comedic approach to reality rather than the dramatic approach to reality. Also, I didn’t want it to be bumpy, so I used some real footage. I used some montages. Ultimately, the actors bailed me out because, like I said, John and Alan were so real, so even when they are saying the most absurd ridiculous laugh lines, it didn’t seem at all out of place with the rest of reality in the film.”
I really enjoyed the comical parts as they eased the tension and asked Affleck to speak to that. He said, “If you try to have an audience be tense the whole movie, they’re going to reject it. They’re going to push away from it, because the mind doesn’t want to have to carry that weight, so you have to have a give and take I think, and you give a few laughs. This was a perfect structure as written where you have these laughs, you let it out, and then ease back into the tension, and when it got to be too much, you ease out of it again. An audience knows when you’re manipulating them, so if it gets to be too tense, they will just go, ‘This is bullshit, you’re pushing this too far.’ Also, life is full of humor. Humor is my favorite thing in the world. We use humor to soothe our own anxieties, and there’s gallows humor. There’s humor in all kinds of places. You’ve got to have humor in your movie no matter, even if it’s that, or if it’s like a movie about two guys in prison.”
Concerning the messages in the film, I would assume that Affleck would want people to take away the obvious ‘Thank You’ to Canada, our neighbor that really did step up during this time. He replied, “Absolutely. There was this moment of eruption of gratitude towards Canada when this happened, because they were sheltered by the Canadians. I would like to revisit that a little bit. I think it was a great cross-national moment. Obviously we’re also now including Tony in the story, but I want to be sure to note that that doesn’t diminish the fact that the Canadians actually did hide American citizens and actually did protect them and put their necks on the line. So yeah, “Thank you, Canada” is still a strong part of this.
In discussing ’70s inspirations and being an actor’s director, Affleck was asked if he’d consider making a superhero movie or a sci-fi movie? He answered enthusiastically, “I would love to. A guy who was interviewing me downstairs was like, ‘Would you ever make a superhero movie?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He’s like, ‘Really?’ [Laughs] ‘Do you not think I’m qualified for it or…?’”
The journalist continued, stating that Ben’s name got tossed around recently with connection to…Affleck finished his sentence, “to “Justice League” or “Superman?” The question was asked, “Was that even real?” Affleck stated, “No. Now because there are so many bloggers, and especially those comic book movies, which are so subject to rumor, and the people who are super fans are on there all of the time. It can be in the Talkback section of something, and somebody else hears about it, and then it takes off and gets its own life. The movie business is such that people get loosely attached to stuff, and so people are used to something being attached to them then falling off that it’s never that embarrassing when something that you write turns out to not be true. You just go, ‘Well he decided not to.’
“I wasn’t approached about “Justice League,” although I do think the “Superman” teaser looked badass. I think it’s really the right tone. I think it looked great. I would love to do a movie like that of some kind. I’d love to play with all of the toys that you get when you get to spend that kind of money to build images of that scale. One of my favorite filmmakers is Ridley Scott—“Alien,” “Blade Runner”—that kind of thing where you’re taking a look and you’re building a world and you’re also combining it with a very grounded story. That’s very appealing to me, so I don’t know. If you have any 3D epics, let me know.”
Truth be told, Affleck and I have a long history (in my mind) as when I was teaching elementary gifted students in 1986, a series of videotapes entitled “The Voyage of the Mimi” were used to teach children about whales and the Mayan civilization. Affleck starred in the series and appeared as an 11 yr. old and a 15 yr. old in all of the videos, which were equal to, two 3-week daily lessons. As a result, I’ve followed his film career from the beginning so to speak and most notably when he and Matt Damon were shopping their script “Good Will Hunting” in Hollywood; which by the way took them five years to sell. The rest is history as that film garnered Affleck and Damon an Academy Award for their screenplay. By looking at the quality of “Argo,” Affleck may just find himself on that stage again.
Sarah Knight Adamson, Oct 12, 2012