IAR INTERVIEW: Ben Affleck Talks 'Argo'

Thursday, 11 October 2012 09:52 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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IAR INTERVIEW: Ben Affleck Talks 'Argo'

Argo, arriving in theaters nationwide this Friday, October 12th, is the sort of genre-hopping film that could only be based on a thoroughly unbelievable true story.  In 1979, in the midst of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, six Americans found refuge secretly found refuge in the Canadian embassy in Tehran.  THe impossible task of covertly rescuing them fell to the CIA, specifically Tony Mendez, an exfiltration expert whose audacious, elaborate plan involved creating "Argo," an fictitious Hollywood sci-fi movie that would allow his team to enter and exit Tehran on a "location scout."

Written by Chris Terrio based on an article by Joshua Bearman, Argo is produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov.  It boasts a formidable ensemble cast of veteran actors such as Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Rory Cochrane, Kyle Chandler, Taylor Schilling, Victor Garber, Clea DuVall, Titus Welliver, Zeljko Ivanek, and Tate Donovan.

Starring as Mendez, though, is Ben Affleck.  More importantly, Argo is Affleck's third feature as a director.  The actor and Oscar-winning screenwriter has become one of the most respected directors today in only three films, having earned accolades on his first two directorial endeavors, Gone Baby Gone and The Town.  With Argo, Affleck movies away from the familiar Boston setting of those beloved films, but is once again enjoying phenomenal reviews and audience enthusiasm.

At the press conference for Argo, the ever-ingratiating director, producer, and star fielded questions from an assembly of entertainment journalists from all over the world.  The topics of discussion covered working with producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, playing a real-life CIA agent, multi-tasking on the set, shooting a sequence with thousands of extras in Turkey, and sidestepping the awards season hype that has accompanied Argo.

Here's what Ben Affleck had to say:

How did you come to be a part of bringing this story to the big screen?

Affleck: When I got the script, I couldn’t believe how good it was. They said, 'This is our best script,' and I thought that was some executive hyping me on it, but it really was pretty incredible. I was amazed. I talked to Grant [Heslov] and George [Clooney] and said, 'Look, I really want to do this. This is amazing!' And they said, 'Okay, great! Let’s do it!' So, we took it to Warner Bros. and then, I went back and talked to Chris [Terrio] and said, 'How did you do this?' I looked at some documentaries and read some books and thought, 'God, this is really unwieldy. It felt like it should have been a 10-hour mini-series. How did you get that down into a three-act structure?'

What are the most important things that you’ve learned about filmmaking now?

Affleck: It’s been reinforced to me, and it’s a little cliche, but I’ve learned that you can’t make a movie that even works, much less that’s good, without really good writing and really good acting. That lesson has led me to not be distracted, so much, by the other stuff going on in filmmaking and to focus on the essence of a story, and the words and the events and the way that those are interpreted by the actors. That philosophy has taken me to a place that I really like.

What was it about Tony Mendez that got under your skin and made you want to play him?

Affleck: I wanted to play him because the script was really interesting. It struck me, right away, that you had this thriller and then, in equal measure, this comic Hollywood satire and this really intricate real-life CIA spy story based on truth. That seemed like a fantastically interesting and unusual movie to be a part of, and I really wanted to direct it. And then, the actor side of my brain that’s still in that phase of auditioning and trying to make connections and get work asked the director of that movie for a job, and the director was in a tough spot and had to say yes.

How much input did George Clooney have, in regard to making the film?

Affleck: For me, the nice thing about working with Smokehouse, and Grant and George, is that it makes a big difference to have producers who are filmmakers and who have actually done what you’re doing. With these guys, they’ve done it really well and for a long time, and they have experience on the back-end with marketing, distribution, development and post-production, as well as being really supportive during production. So, you feel like you have a different kind of partner, who’s got an intuitive sympathy for what you’re going through. Both of these guys have done it and done it well, so it was great for me.

What's it like for you to be the actor, director and producer, on set?

Affleck: No matter what you’re doing, if you’re trying to make a movie, you need to be working with people that are really good and who make you better. I have a lot of titles in front of my name, but the movie works as well, if not better, than anything I’ve been involved in because of the amazing cast that I put together and who were willing to do it, and Chris Terrio’s script and the partnership with the producers. I was in an incredibly enviable position, in that sense. I didn’t have to go, 'Well, I’ve gotta push the rock up the hill in all these areas.' I had a lot of partners doing it, which made all those different things better. Moreover, I don’t see them as necessarily distinct. It’s all part of filmmaking. It’s hard for me to distinguish and put each job in its silo.

What was the most challenging scene to shoot?

Affleck: When you hire great actors, you’re lucky, so you just try to create an atmosphere where they can succeed and relax and take risks. You’re happy that you get to watch them at the monitor and that your name is on the director’s chair. That was more fun than challenging, really. The most challenging thing was the big scene with all of the extras. Grant and I, and our line producer, had a long lead-up, trying to get thousands of people in Turkey to show up and there was a lot of anxiety about whether they would. And there were some issues because it was harder to get younger people. It was a student revolution, so you didn’t want it to look like a riot at the senior center. We tried to make it as real as possible, and it required a lot of people and a lot of wrangling. When you have 2,000 people, if they’re cold, they just go home.

Did you get to spend any time with Tony Mendez at all?

Affleck: I was on top of a run of people who had spent time with Tony. By the time I got there, Josh [Bearman] and the Smokehouse guys had talked to him. Chris had been to his house in Maryland. By the time I finally got to sit down with him, he was steeped in this movie. It was Tony’s story and Tony’s point of view. He wanted to meet me at this famous old CIA bar in Georgetown that he told me was where Aldrich Ames passed names of the American agents in Russia to his Russian handlers. When he told me that, it sunk in, all of a sudden, that this was real. This was a real story about a real guy who worked in a real world where real lives were at stake. It wasn’t just sliding down the roof and kicking in the window and shooting three guys, which is the kind of thing that we, in Hollywood, tend to think of as the CIA. It was a real thing, and it’s out there. These folks are making sacrifices for us, every day. It was really inspiring to meet Tony, and he participated and helped us. He has a cameo in the movie, and he was at the premiere in Toronto.

With the recent protests that have happened in the Middle East, was there any concern about what you depict in this film and the similarities between the two?

Affleck: It was always important to us that the movie not be politicized. We went to great pains to try to make it very factual and fact-based, knowing that it was going to be coming out before an election in the United States when a lot of things get politicized. We obviously couldn’t forecast how terrible things would become now, but even when we made the movie, we saw some resonance to countries that were in tumult. Naturally, we just wanted to be judicious and careful about presenting the facts, and also stand firmly behind that and say, 'This is an examination of this part of the world.' Just because a part of the world is undergoing strife and tumult, it doesn’t mean you stop examining it, looking at it or talking about it. I think that would be a bad thing.

What reaction did you get from your family at home, for your character’s Seventies look?

Affleck: My family unanimously hated the look, for different reasons. There was a united front. My kids kept saying, 'Can you shave the prickles?,' and I said, 'I’ve gotta wear this for work.' Finally, my daughter was like, 'What kind of work would want you to look like that?!'

Finally, how do you feel about all of the Oscar buzz for this film?

Affleck: Right now, we’re just trying to get the movie out. There isn’t anybody out there who has paid a dime to buy a ticket yet to see this movie. When you work for as long as we all have on something like this, the focus is just on the audience coming to see it. Otherwise, you’re just a tree in the woods. You’ve spent all that time for a plastic disc. The goal is to have it be as large a collective experience as possible.

Argo hits theaters nationwide tomorrow, October 12th.

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