Affleck's 'Argo' Poised For Glory
Actor Talks Directing 'Argo'
Published: Sunday, September 16, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
In Boston, there is always time to talk about the Red Sox. All other conversation can be benched for a few minutes to shout about the ragtag bunch, even if that conversation was just moments ago centered on Ben Affleck’s latest directorial venture, Argo.
“Sometimes what happens is like the movies,” Affleck said about his hometown team during a roundtable interview last Monday. “You’re in a movie, you do your best, something f—ing blows up, and that may not be your fault, but you’ve got to eat it a little there. That’s part of this game, of this life, where you’re depending on fans to buy tickets. They want good movies, they want winning baseball teams. Everybody can’t win.”
Audiences at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival are already calling Argo a winner—a Best Picture winner, that is.
The film tells the declassified story of how the CIA and Hollywood’s almost-elite collaborated to exfiltrate six Americans from Iran during the height of the 1979 revolution. The “Houseguests” hid in the Canadian ambassador’s house until CIA specialist Tony Mendez got them out by pretending they were a Canadian film crew researching locations for a science fiction movie.
“This would be the worst movie ever made if it wasn’t true,” Affleck said. “It would just seem completely absurd.”
Despite its absurdity, Affleck noted that current events in the Middle East have made the movie even more relevant.
Argo stars John Goodman (John Chambers), Bryan Cranston (Jack O’Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), and Affleck (Tony Mendez), who also produced and directed the film.
While Affleck’s acting career has taken him from Pearl Harbor to Elizabethan England, his director’s chair hadn’t moved far from Comm. Ave. until now. Affleck directed Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2012), both set in the Boston area.
“I felt like I had something to prove because everyone just thought of me as ‘the Boston guy,’” Affleck said. “I thought, if it’s not good, then I really am going to only be able to do sequels to The Friends of Eddie Coyle … It was scary, it was hard, and I was nervous, just because I saw my future career kind of dictated by it.”
What weighed most heavily on Affleck, however, was the movie’s inherent reality.
“It’s their true lives, so if you change any little thing in it, now you’re like, s—, I’m lying,” Affleck said. “I kept Tony really close, the Houseguests really close, everything adhered to reality really closely. If it didn’t, it was sort of the spirit of the story … it was externalizing their internal pressure. Just shooting somebody for a while and saying, ‘Imagine they’re panicking!’ at a certain point doesn’t come across as much.”
Affleck was careful to give enough backstory at the beginning of the film, using storyboards to recount the events leading up to the hostage crisis.
“I had to go to the beginning and say, ‘I’m not trying to brainwash anybody, I’m not trying to do a political thing, I’m not trying to editorialize,’” he said.
Using storyboards also introduces the movie’s often-hilarious Hollywood scenes, which Affleck hopes will prevent audiences from rejecting the combination of witty and tense later in the story.
In the midst of these concerns, he found some security in three of his lead actors.
“I locked in Arkin, Goodman, and Cranston as my first choices,” he said. “I sort of thought, if I anchor it around these guys, I’ll feel safe.”
Affleck casted most of the Houseguests based on their performances in other films: Rory Cochran (Lee Schatz) from Dazed and Confused, Kerry Bishe (Kathy Stafford) from Red State, and Clea DuVall (Cora Lijek) from Carnevale. Director Andrew Dominic recommended Scoot McNairy (Joe Stafford). George Clooney and Grant Heslove, who share producer credits with Affleck, suggested Tate Donovan (Bob Anders).
“I got lucky with a lot of this. John Ford said directing is 90 percent casting. In this movie, that number is maybe even a little higher.”
Casting most of the other 112 speaking parts, Affleck said, was a different challenge.
“A lot of them were speaking Farsi, which was hard to audition because you’re like, he could be saying anything … A guy would show up and all of a sudden do the ’30s movie villain thing, and it’s like, you know what Ahmed, we’re going to go another way. Let’s put you outside, and maybe you’d be better with no talking. So I swapped out people as I was literally working.”
The stresses of getting the facts straight, leaving the comfort of Boston, and dealing with a very political theme could have understandably deterred Affleck from attempting the project.
“But it’s the fact that it was true and that Hollywood had worked with the CIA and had these opportunities to cast all these characters, and that I could do these different tones, and that it took place in the ’70s, which is my favorite era for film … I think it’s a fascinating story,” Affleck said.
His next project, a movie about Boston’s notorious gangster Whitey Bulger, will bring Affleck home.
“I’m really glad I made this movie, because I can go make a Boston movie now and not feel totally pigeonholed,” he said.
But pigeonholed is the last word that comes to mind. Affleck may have established himself as an actor and director in Boston, but Argo proves that he can do either of those well, no matter how far he ventures from Fenway.