Ben Affleck is in town promoting his new thriller, Argo, about a CIA operative's attempts to rescue a group of US diplomats from Iran during the infamous 1979 hostage crisis.
Along with Bryan Cranston and John Goodman, Aflleck fielded questions about the making of the Oscar-tipped movie...
Q. Smokehouse Pictures (George Clooney’s film production company) had this for several years and were developing it before they sent it to you. What was it about the project that kind of grabbed you?
Ben Affleck: It was declassified in 1997. The CIA had a 50 year jubilee thing, I don’t know what they call it but they announced the 50 most important CIA agents of which Tony Mendez was one and they declassified a lot of material but they don’t issue press releases when they declassify stuff.
Ultimately a guy from Wired magazine named Josh Bearman was doing research, heard about the story, found this material and he wrote this magazine article which was then sought after by Hollywood folks just because of the kind of one liners ‘CIA creates cover of a Hollywood movie to rescue American hostages’, so then George bought it and they hired this guy Chris Terrio who is an excellent writer to write it.
That took a couple of years and then I was just lucky enough to end up with it. They sent me the script and I was stunned by how good it was. It was a drama, a thriller, a comedy and it was a true story and so I called George right away and said look I’ve got to do this, I really want to do it, here’s how I’d do it and we talked about it for a couple of hours and I think he said yes just to get me off the phone.
Q. And at which point did you decide that you wanted to star as Tony?
Affleck: Well, you know, it’s interesting when you’re an actor you kind of grow up with this idea, this feeling, at least I did, of constantly auditioning, looking for the good part, trying to get the break so I kind of got the script as a director but the actor half of me saw this great part and I wanted to do it and since I was sleeping with the director, I got it.
Q. How did you approach the roles and what kind of research did you do?
Bryan Cranston: Well my character is an amalgum of several different types of people who are CIA officers.
I did go to Langley Virginia the CIA Headquarters and was fortunate enough to be able to talk with several of the officers who were, at first, rather reticent to be able to open up to somebody who is a stranger to them but I realised this is who they are, they’re not very loquacious in their everyday lives but then I tried to crack that open by saying ‘ I’m going to play this character and I’d really love to pay homage to the service and to create a character that feels honest and real and it started to open up.
I think they were surprised that I was more interested in finding out what they were like as human beings, how this strange job dictated their lives how it effected their personal lives and their marriages, as fathers and mothers and that sort of thing and what I came away with was that it wasn’t dissimilar from many other large corporations in that they would talk about certain orders that they had to take over the years and the bad coffee in the break room and things like that.
Going in I re-read the Wired magazine article and started loading up on the sensibilities of these characters and then I know what my slice of the pie would be and you present that and how you would portray that and the relationship pronounced between Tony and Jack and it seemed to make sense and gel and I was fortunate that Ben offered me the role.
John Goodman: I did an extensive amount of make-up stock and killed a man. I didn’t have a lot to go on. I just had some articles, some pictures and the fact that he was left handed I didn’t have to apply any make up in the film just look like I could and happily later one of the characters that Alan Arkin’s character was based upon asked me where I came up with John Chambers limp, well I’m happily arthiritic, it was just a coincidence.
Q. What do you remember of that time when you were younger? How much of an impact did the news have on you?
Affleck: I remember very little of it. I remember the Star Wars action figures that I played with, I was exactly the age of the little boy in the movie so most of what I remember is my Star Wars sheets.
Goodman: I remember shortly before this there was a gas crisis in America. People were lined up at the pumps and figuratively being held hostage by another countries whims and OPEC the oil cartel and then this came about and it was a feeling of frustration and hopelessness.
Cranston: It was a dark period in our lives. I was in my mid-twenties and just becoming more aware politically and how it affected me as a person.
I do remember that there was this occasion because I just started getting into listening to more news and Nightline the show in America was created during the Iran hostage situation and I was becoming a news junkie in that sense.
The rescue of the six Americans was probably on the front page for a couple of days and then it took a backseat as it rightfully should because there was still 50 Americans being held and then you kind of forgot about it and it wasn’t until the Wired magazine article came out and not everybody read that. The story is a fantastic one and almost to a point where if it was written by a screenwriter in a fictional sense I think it would be seen as unbelievable, not plausible.
Q. It’s based on a real story. How much of it is based and how much of it is reality?
Affleck: It’s tricky as I have two responsibilities as a film-maker. One is to make the best possible movie I can make and the other is to make it as truthful as I possibly can so to try and synthesise those two things as well as I can. It’s not a documentary, it’s a drama but absolutely the spine of the story of what’s presented here is true.
Six Americans fled from the Embassy while it was being taken over and the Canadians kept them safe while John Chambers and Tony Mendez came up with this idea to use a film cover to get them out. Tony Mendez came in and did so. Ultimately I feel very very confident about the extent to which this story is truthful and we stayed truthful to the story and we were lucky as we had Tony Mendez working with us the whole time so we had the input and we had people to make sure we stayed grounded to the emotional fabric aswell.
Q. You broke through as a writer and actor. Was directing always on the cards and do you now see yourself primarily as a director?
I always wanted to be a director. I directed some very bad student films in my youth and probably the smartest thing I’ve ever done is to use my acting career as a pre-film school. They can’t kick you off the set for asking questions if you’re actually in the movie and so that’s what I did.
I consider myself a filmmaker and an actor and a writer and a producer. I feel like they’re all part of the same soup of making a movie. I see myself as doing all of that at once and I don’t want to have to lose any of it.
Q. Is there any difference between being directed by an actor/director to a film director? Are you given more room to play?
Cranston: Yes, there’s a bit of a shorthand being done. I think what Ben did is a great way to go about it. A lot of the directing that I think he undertook was in the preparation and the conversations that go on with the characters and the actors before you even start to roll any film.
By the time you get on the set it’s pretty much... you let the actors go. Let them create, give us the environment, he created a very comfortable environment to let you take risks and fell relaxed enough and confident enough to try things and if was going in a different direction he would kind of just nudge it in another area and so it was pretty easy.
There wasn’t a lot of re-direction going on, it was a fairly easy set to work on.
Goodman: Ben was confident enough in himself, in the people and the crew which made a very comfortable set.
Cranson: When you’re on a set the director of the film sets the tone. It could be a good tone or it could be a bad tone if the director is nervous or unsure of themselves or a yeller there’s tension built into the actors and the crew and it’s a very difficult environment to be able to work in but that’s not what he did.
Q. Did you ever go to Iran yourself or did you talk to other Iranians about your movie?
Affleck: I wanted to go to Iran and it proved to be too politically difficult. We talked to the state department and they said 'well you’ll be fine but it may turn into a political environment where you could be seen as endorsing the regime'. You know it was just too unpredictable and I thought it could get in the way of the film.
I tried to get some people who were Iranian filmmakers that I know to film some stuff for me. Some plates, some buildings and mountains that kind of thing. Even those folks were too scared to do it which kind of spoke to me about how repressive their regime is there and it was really really sad and particularly because there are so many great Iranian filmmakers. It’s a wonderful culture and a wonderful place and I would have liked to have gone and one day I hope to go in the future.
Argo is out now.