Roger Durling with Ben Affleck
Durling: Quite a week you have had. Golden Globe nominations, SAG nominations, L.A Film Critics’ awards…how’s your week been?
Affleck: It’s nice. It’s now the award season. When did it become an award season? I mean summer, winter, spring, and award season. I try not to get caught up in external shines of approval. I have my own criteria for what I think is important in my work, but still it’s really nice when it goes your way.
Durling: You mentioned in the New York Times interview that you thought that this film was very risky. Are all the nominations for your film a validation for the success in the risky nature of this project?
Affleck: My feelings are the sort of broad range of films that have come out this year during the awards seasons are amazing like Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, which are being awarded but also audiences are going to them. I think the fact that audiences are going to see these films is not only a validation to the film but also to the film industry because it means the next time someone wants to make a risky adult drama in the middle east that is a period story, where 40 year old Ben Affleck is the youngest star in the movie filmmakers can be more optimistic about getting a positive result.
Durling: This event happened 35 years ago, the one that you portray in Argo. What did you like about the story that made you think that audiences could relate to it?
Affleck: I thought for a movie that was made about an event 35 years ago it was extraordinarily relevant to where we find ourselves today, particularly geopolitically and in the nature of the story, which is about the inception of the conflict between Islamic Republic of Iran and the U.S. As well as our most promising foreign sea issue on the horizon, is what is our relationship going to be with Iran? Are we going to engage militarily, diplomatically, or support an Israeli strike. So for this I felt a huge amount of responsibility to construct a movie that is profoundly accurate because it is going to be out there in the etheras. Additionally I thought that it was relevant to the air of spring. Here we have this dictator in the Shaw that the U.S had supported and we had kind of turned a blind eye to his criminality and cronyism and act of democracy because of the way his regime looked and thought there was a friendship there. We also did that with Mum-baric and in both cases there were revolutions and the outcomes of the revolutions were not necessarily great for us in terms of our stated goals. So there were some of the larger macro-issues this movie dealt with particularly in themes with politics and engaging ourselves with other countries and how we are going to get along with the Islamic world. Then underneath that there were some very intimate themes that I thought people could relate to, particularly storytelling. We are sitting in a movie theater, obviously storytelling is a huge deal to us in our lives. This movie is about how storytelling was powerful in the political theater, you view the Iranians with their propaganda and saw that using the storytelling to create this lie so that they could get into the country to save lives by the cover of a science-fiction B movie. Storytelling is kind of the way that Tony relates to his son, with the Planet of the Apes and so on, we kind of communicate with our loved ones. That theme was very powerful to me on a personal level.
Durling: You get involved in the script later on in the process after being developed by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, is that correct?
Affleck: Yeah they hired Nina Wolarsky at Smokehouse who found the “Escape from Tehran” Article, and then hired Chris Terrio to write a story from the magazine article about what happened. Chris wrote it under the guidance of Clooney and Heslov and when they finished they sent it to me and asked if I would be interested in doing this. I got about halfway in and I thought, “I want to run over to their offices right now,” because I knew that this was the movie for me without a doubt.
Durling: When I introduced the film I pointed out a lot of the directorial things that you do that I admire so much where you have 3 different environments. The middle east, Hollywood, and Washington. And in Hollywood you use zooms, in Washington things are smoother and the middle east is all more handheld and erratic. When was the decision made and how did it develop over the course of the project?
Affleck: That is exactly what we tried to do. We tried to do it right from the beginning, it was something that I pitched to Grant and George, that there were three worlds and each were going to be distinct visually, film-matically and in the way the camera moved. So we used different film stocks, I won’t bore you with all the different lenses, cameras and look up tables which were created in the digital intermediate. We tried to make the Hollywood stuff look like the Cast of Eddie’s movie and Washington look like All the President’s Men and for the Iran stuff we had all kinds of influences from Missing to Battle for Algiers. Basically what we did there was use handheld and cut film stock in half and essentially use two perfs so it was much grainer much punchier and sort of rich. We also used some super 8 and 16. Because I wanted to have Iran feel alien and I didn’t want the audience to feel as if they have seen this before or it was familiar. If it was familiar, I thought that it would make it less unnerving or less unpredictable. For the Hollywood stuff, we used those zooms mostly just to feel like you were in that time and in the 1970s people would incorporate zooms into their shots often times. It looks a little jarring to us now because people don’t do it anymore, so I wanted to sort of feather that in. The beginning stuff was all anamorphic and on dollies and moving around like President’s Me, as you said it is a bit more stable in Washington and like Kramer versus Kramer. Like the way the composition moves because the dolly sort of adjusts and feels like the actors are moving naturally and the camera is just moving to re-compose and find them but it is all a part of the big wide patient frame.
Durling: The balance of comedy and the drama/suspense is very tricky. Were you ever concerned with the right mixture between the two?
Affleck: I was, I was very concerned initially. It could have been a half and half movie. The film is really about these people’s lives, their rescue, and Tony’s efforts, and beneath that sat this question of Iran and our relationship to it which I alluded to earlier. I thought it was interesting that it had this comic aspect to it and I wanted to preserve it because I thought it was really special, particularly because you don’t see it much in combination with the other elements. I was really nervous by having laughs in the movie that I would kind of undermine the reality of the story I was trying to tell. All of sudden you go, oh yeah they will probably get away because it’s a comedy, all comedies end well. And we’d shown that people don’t really care and are goofing around and the solution to that; I mean I tried a lot of different things including these transitions in montages that integrated the elements and tried to weave them together. Like in the read through the waiter brings in the glass of wine and you see Terri and Iran on the TV and then we cut to Washington D.C where O’Donnell is watching her on TV and we cut into Iran itself and we see her press conference. I tried to wrap it all together but I found that if the comedy was not played just for laughs but very honestly and really then it fit very nicely with the rest of the stuff. Reality is reality and I think it is your instinct to only get bumped when something isn’t real. John and Allen were so good that they made all that comedy quite real.
Durling: The cast in the Ambassador’s residence, you isolated them prior to shooting for about a week?
Affleck: I told them that I wanted them to live on the set and luckily the set was at a house in Hancock Park. It would have been more awkward if it had been Warner Bros. The house we were dressing for the Canadian Ambassador’s residence in Tehran in Hancock was owned by a Persian, so I thought that there was some symmetry there. It’s hard to fake a certain kind of intimacy as an actor, a husband and wife, a best friend who you have known for your whole life, brother, or that kind of thing. The mind does a sort of force field thing around people that it doesn’t know. You are not comfortable just putting your arm around someone or leaning on them or talking to them a certain way without acclimating to them somehow. There are certain things that you do when you have been around a person a lot that are very hard to fake. So I wanted to give the actors a chance who didn’t know each other at all, a time to connect. There is nothing worse in those group scenes than actors who don’t know each other and are trying to overlap and some trying to feel the moment and it’s just terrible. I wanted it to feel organic and I also wanted them to be able to improvise, as if it were the 1970s. I had done so much research and looked in so many references that I wanted to have them be able to talk about Kissinger or Carter or Laos or all the things that were relevant at that time were in the currency of the discussion around the dinner tables. Basically what I did was I told the art department to decorate the whole house and put all their clothes in there and put in record players and radical relics and artifacts like the oldest VCR in the world. It weighed 100 lbs and had to be wheeled in. When it was dressed and fully as authentic as we could get it, I brought them in and they lived there for a week. I didn’t want to make it a reality show or anything like that, I just wanted them to be there to be around one another and give them a sense of being bunkered in and when people had to make deliveries they would have to hide. I took away all their cell phones and they were all pretty cooperative. Tate wanted to bring in his Yoga mat in and really fought with me about it, because he goes, “there was yoga in the 70s.” I said, “Your character was not doing yoga in the 70s.” Other than that it worked out really well.
Durling: The riot sequences, barging into the embassy. It looks like found footage and I know that it is not found footage. How intricate and difficult was it to shoot those scenes?
Affleck: Well we did a couple of things. One, there is a ton of history around that day now. Everybody who was there has written a book and though some things are disputed, most agree on the chain of events. Even Mark Bodan wrote a book about it recently called Guest of the Itolia and it is quite good. Most of the hostages have written books and we kind of knew exactly what people said and when. Where they went, when the students came in and how they did it. So I kind of backfilled from there and compressed, seeing how it was over 7 hours and had only 5 to 8 minutes on screen to show it. I wanted, though, the audience to see those moments so I coordinated it and rehearsed it with everyone and storyboarded each tiny incident that was true to the historical record as well as dialogue (most we didn’t subtitle), based on what I wanted there to be in the movie. The part that was hardest to do was just getting the energy of a crowd. You watch the protest videos from around then and there is an energy and a mania and almost madness going on. That guy stabs the effigy of the Shaw which was taken from a real thing; people just burning things and going nuts chanting. The most celebrated day there is the martyring of the grandson of the profit, that’s the one where they are out in the street where people have chains and stuff, cutting themselves and bleeding in this show of sympathy for Hussein. There was a culture behind that scene that was already present and so it was really hard to get the Turkish extras to kind of get that. So one thing I did was get flat screens and DVDs of that footage in the holding areas and dressing rooms so they could watch that energy and that vibe. We also struggled because we were filming in the middle of the day in Turkey, which has a growing economy so we had a very cheap line producer. So the people who are professionals are working in the middle of the day and young people are at school. And this was a student revolution so it was tough so the only folks that we could get and we needed 2,000 people were people over 65. So it was kind of the senior’s revolution. That is like 70 year old Turks with the big mustaches going bananas, it was incredible. I shot that with the super 8 and we even messed with the super 8 film to crunch and grain and add more meat to it. We also shot 35 and 16mm. The irony is that the vast majority of the stuff in the film is shot with those little cameras that I and another Iranian fellow named Rafi Pitts were running around through the crowd. And that was better and more appropriate than these expensive cameras with 4 people working them. I was more going for something like Paul Grass did called Bloody Sunday about Ireland and the killings in Belfast and a riot.
Durling: Speaking of storyboards, the opening sequence you give us the whole background of the situation prior to the riot. When did you get the idea to do that?
Affleck: That was not part of the movie initially, after I finished I thought, I really want the audience to have the context politically and period-wise to watch the film. To have as much info as they could so that it would be a more rich experience if you kind of understood our role in overthrowing the Shaw and understood why riots were happening at the embassy. You understood the history a little bit and I thought that would touch on the themes that would start at the beginning of the movies and go underneath and pop up again at the end. They could be augmented by what they saw here in the movie. The second issue was I was concerned in the bump of tones. This radical shift of people breaking into the embassy worrying if they are going to be killed to people working at the highest level of state and national government to the Hollywood filming scene with a creature and two sexy nurses. They were all different things, so I wanted to see in the audiences’ mind that it’s going to foreshadow life and death here but down the road we are also going to see something else. So painting in the pictures and using that sort of mystery and also enforced the storytelling theme and at the end ultimately these storyboards are what saved everyone’s life.
Durling: You act, direct and produce the film. How difficult was it to wear all these different hats?
Affleck: People always ask me about the different hats, I mean I have a size 8 head so I can never find a hat that even fits me. So that is what I think of but I know exactly what you mean. It was a lot of confusion. In truth I just compartmentalized the different tasks. There is the director’s space, the acting time in my brain which is a smaller amount, and I am able to do both in fact, and I am accustomed to being in front of a camera while it’s rolling and working that way. It’s just based on how much time you have that it cuts into my directing concentration time. Some directors I am sure could think about the movie half the day and the rest doing a crossword puzzle; that is not me. I need to have the sort of constant attention. And I have learned through my career that there is no substitution for hard work. My success bares a direct relationship to how hard I have worked on things every time. So I am obsessed and frantic about everything all the time I need to make sure that I am doing something to make the movie better or I am doing it right between now and lunch. There are two assets to being an actor/director. One: you and the actor are always on the same page, which sounds obvious but when you spend a half an hour talking to the actor about something at the end you go, god I wish I was doing that job. The relationship you have with the movie while your acting is that you can kind of direct the movie from the inside sometimes. Because you’re in the scene you can kind of make it a reality for the other actors is a much easier way then it is from the outside just talking to them in between takes. I really just wanted to play the part, as an actor I have the instinct of always trying to chase the good roles. Get the auditions, get a hold of the scripts or get the good part or are jealous if other people got them. You just develop that mindset of trying to claw and scratch your way up there. I was sleeping with the director so I was in good shape.
Durling: You also with your performance do something very humble and let everyone else shine. Can you comment on that?
Affleck: Yeah that is exactly right. I mean on the one hand it’s probably because you’re the director so you’re interested in getting the actors performances where just being the actor you’re concerned with just your performance solely. As a director you have casted all these people and they all represent something wonderful and exciting to see and you want them to succeed. In this particular case, because Tony Mendez himself somebody had access to and I discovered that he is extremely inscrutable and quiet and wants to fade into the background and I thought that makes sense, that is what a real spy would be like. He wouldn’t be doing kung fu or making a big show of himself. I thought what an interesting way to play a protagonist, to birth those conventions. A guy who is supposed to be leading these people out to save their lives in a foreign country and expose himself that way when his instincts are to stay in the shadows which I thought was interesting. I also think it is something different that you haven’t come across before. You usually see the protagonist on his horse with a knife or sword diving into battle and when you see a guy doing the opposite of that is interesting.
Durling: You mentioned Tony Mendez and the hostages earlier, what was their reaction to seeing the film?
Affleck: They were quite shaken and the Canadian ambassador’s wife turns to him and asks we did get out of Tehran right? People who live these things really humble us because they have actually gone through these experiences and risked something and shown real courage so I was really nervous to show them the movie. Tony loved it and didn’t have any notes and I had consulted them so thoroughly that I made sure that I got everything right and that they were included throughout the process. They felt included which I think is very important when you are telling a story about other people’s lives. In the end it was very rewarding and in the end it is a tribute to all the U.S military services, whom are fighting in other countries in harm’s way. You only have to look so far as Bengasi to see what people are really risking. It’s not that they are out there doing spy versus spy but that they are away from home for so long and not being able to tell your wife that you went or not being able to see your kid is another sacrifice they are making for their country. I like that those things were viewed in the movie.