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Sat October 6, 2012
Movie Interviews

Ben Affleck Brings A Crisis To The Big Screen

Originally published on Wed February 20, 2013 10:43 am

Ben Affleck's new film, Argo, jolts us back to 1979.

Iran is in revolution and protesters storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The American hostage crisis begins as all the U.S. diplomats inside the embassy are captured and blindfolded — except for six, who escape to the Canadian ambassador's residence and hide there.

But how long can they be safe?

The film is based on the CIA's true story of an agent named Tony Mendez, who concocts a cover story to get them out. His story is that the six were Canadians on a movie crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called Argo, which they wanted to shoot in Iran.

Affleck directs the film and plays Mendez, the real-life CIA agent who has to drill the six Americans on how to sound both like believable Canadians and true film people. The film also stars John Goodman as a makeup artist who goes back and forth between film sets and spy work, and Alan Arkin as a Hollywood producer who makes himself useful.

Affleck spoke with Scott Simon about the film.


Interview Highlights

On what drew him to the story, which was declassified 15 years ago

"It's sort of too incredible to be believed, you know. You have this thriller, you have a comedy, you have a story about how the CIA used a cover of, you know, basically being a movie crew to get these hostages out of Iran. It would be a terrible movie if it weren't true."

On balancing comedy with the drama in a film based on true events

"When I approached the movie I thought, 'I won't do anything, comically, that upends the sort of seriousness of the rest of the movie, that chews away at the fabric of that reality.' Because if you kind of feel like, oh, we're winking at the audience and we're kind of mugging, you won't be concerned about these people's safety when we cut back to Tehran. I was ready to do all kind of directorial surgery — as it turned out, I really just needed John Goodman and Alan Arkin because they were so good at playing real, even when it was comic."

On the Hollywood characters in the film

"There's all these people in the movie business that no one has any idea about, that no one ever pays attention to, who are very much the lunch-pail guys, who are rolling their eyes at their bosses. And I thought that was a nice parallel to draw with Tony and the CIA as we were presenting it, which wasn't the supersexy Bourne Identity thing, it was just like, dirty ashtrays and papers all over the place. And that fits my sensibility and the things I'm interested in."

On what it takes to be a good director

"I wish I knew. I think for me it takes just hard work. I wouldn't have been able to be a director at a really young, at a younger point in my life because I didn't know how to work this hard. And it eats up the rest of your life, but I truly feel that that's what's necessary, for me anyway, and I marvel at guys who can do it more deftly and who can work eight hours a day. And also it just, it comes down, I guess, to taste. I learned to be really, really, really critical and that's served me well.

"Frankly, I had something to prove when I got older. Down the road in my life. So I had something fueling that desire to work twice as hard, and I also had a little bit more maturity and perspective on it."

On what it was like to film the storming of a U.S. Embassy on location in Turkey

"We had this huge digital embassy, and we shot the stuff inside the embassy at the North Hills, Calif., abandoned VA facility. But one of the things about the extras I found was — this was a student revolution so we kept saying, 'We gotta have students. We need students. We need students.' Well, of course students are in school all day. The only people who really aren't are retirees who are available. So we had a bit of a senior citizen embassy takeover.

"At first I was agonizing. I was like, 'Are you kidding me? These guys are all mandatory retirement.' And then they were great. They came out, like I don't know if they remembered the period or if they, whatever it was, or if they were just inspired. But it was awesome. So if you know that it's a student thing and you look closely, you'll know that folks are a bit old. But it was really cool and fun that they threw themselves into it."

On the kinds of films he's been offered since his directorial debut

"My movies still exist within a sort of a limited range. ... I kind of exist in a certain — a certain zone. And that's fine. I don't have any great ambitions to do $300 million movies.

"What I've found — because I got a kind of second go on a career in Hollywood by directing — I got to apply some of the lessons I learned from this business that I learned from my acting career. And one of which, perhaps the most important, was that you have to sort of forget about all the other criteria when it comes to the movies you're gonna do, except whether or not you think it can be a good movie."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ben Affleck's new film, "Argo," jolts us back to 1979. Iran's in revolution. Protesters storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The American hostage crisis begins as all the U.S. diplomats inside the embassy are captured and blindfolded, except for six, who escaped to the Canadian ambassador's residence and hide there. But how long can they be safe? The film's based on the CIA's true story of an agent named Tony Mendez, who concocts a cover story to get them out - that the six were Canadians on a movie crew, scouting locations for a science fiction film called "Argo" they wanted to shoot in Iran. Ben Affleck directs the film and plays Tony Mendez, the real life CIA agent, who has to drill the six Americans on how to sound both like believable Canadians, and genuine film people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ARGO")

BEN AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Who were the last three prime ministers of Canada?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Trudeau, Pearson and Diefenbaker.

AFFLECK: Good. What's your job on the movie?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Producer.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Associate producer. What was the last movie you produced?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) "High and Dry."

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Who paid for that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) CFDC.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What's your middle name? What's your middle name? What's your middle name?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Leon.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Shoot him. He's an American spy. Look, they're going to try to break you, OK, by trying to get you agitated. You have to know your resume back to front.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) You really believe your little story's going to make a difference when there's a gun to our heads?

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) I think my story's the only thing between you and a gun to your head.

SIMON: The film also stars John Goodman as a makeup artist who goes back and forth between film sets and spy work, and Alan Arkin as a Hollywood producer who makes himself useful. Ben Affleck joins us from Hollywood. Thanks so much for being with us.

AFFLECK: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. Thank you very, very much.

SIMON: What drew you to this story that was declassified about 15 years ago?

AFFLECK: As you pointed out, it's sort of too incredible to be believed. You know, you have this thriller, you have a comedy, you have a story about how the CIA used the cover of, you know, basically being a movie crew to get these hostages out of Iran. It would be a terrible movie if it weren't true.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ARGO")

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Fade in on a starship landing. An exotic middle eastern vibe. Women gather offering ecstatic libations to the sky gods. Argo, science fantasy adventure.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Then turnaround.

JOHN GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) Do we get the option?

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Why do we need the options?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as John Chambers) You're worried the ayatollah? Try the WGA.

SIMON: How do you start to balance between hilarious and nerve-wracking in a story like this?

AFFLECK: When I approached the movie, I thought, you know, I won't do anything comically that upends the sort of seriousness of the rest of the movie, that chews away at the fabric of that reality. Because if you kind of feel like, oh, we're winking at the audience and we're kind of mugging, you won't be concerned about these people's safety when we cut back to Tehran. I was ready to do all kind of directorial surgery. As it turned out, we really just needed John Goodman and Alan Arkin, because they were so good at playing real, even when it was comic.

SIMON: We want to play another clip. There's a scene where you, as the CIA agent, and John Goodman, as the makeup man, are talking about how to use biographical details to create this film crew.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ARGO")

GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) Well this one's got an MA in English. She should be your screenwriter. Sometimes they go along on scouts 'cause they want the free meals. Here's your director.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) You can teach somebody to be a director in a day?

GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.

SIMON: So, this raises the question: can you teach a director to be a rhesus monkey?

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: Much more difficult than getting the monkey to be a director. You know what I love about that is, obviously, there's a sort of meta-play, but that it says something about the fact that there's all these people in the movie business that don't have any idea about, that nobody ever pays attention to who are very much the lunch pail guys, who are rolling their eyes at their bosses. And I thought that was a nice parallel to draw with Tony and the CIA as we were presenting it, which wasn't the super-sexy "Bourne Identity" thing. It was just like dirty ashtrays and papers all over the place. And that fits my sensibility in the things that I'm interested in, you know, anyway.

SIMON: The "Bourne Identity" - are you paying disrespect to a Matt Damon movie, Mr. Affleck?

AFFLECK: Oh, it's great respect. The "Bourne Identity," the first three movies - I haven't seen the fourth one - but the first three redefined the genre completely. But they are as cool and sexy as a movie could possibly be. Whereas I wanted this movie to be very - this is my pitch - a very pedestrian film. I mean, it's like...

SIMON: Oh, that'll put them in the seats, wouldn't it?

AFFLECK: If you like the "Bourne Identity," come see "Argo." If you say that now, I can put that on a newspaper ad.

SIMON: Yeah. Rather more seriously - rhesus monkey or otherwise - what does it take to be a good director?

AFFLECK: I wish I knew. I think, for me, it takes just hard work. I wouldn't have been able to be a director or really at a younger point in my life because I didn't know how to work this hard. And it eats up the rest of your life, but I truly feel that that's what necessary, for me anyway. And I marvel at guys who can do it more deftly and who can work eight hours a day. And also it just, it comes down, I guess, to taste. I learn to be really, really, really critical, and that has served me well.

SIMON: When you say you couldn't have done this when you were younger - you didn't know as much or...

AFFLECK: I didn't have the same - I didn't work as hard - I didn't have the same focus or drive. You know, frankly, I had something to prove when I got older down the road in my life. And so I had something fueling that desire to work twice as hard and I also had a little bit more maturity and perspective on it.

SIMON: You filmed in Turkey, right?

AFFLECK: Yes.

SIMON: Anything we should know about what it's like to film the storming of the U.S. embassy in Turkey? I mean...

AFFLECK: For one thing, since that was CGI, we had this huge digital embassy and then when shot the stuff inside the embassy at the North Hills, California abandoned VA facility. But one of the things about the extras I found was this was a student revolution. So, I kept saying we got to have students. We need students. We need students. Well, of course, students are in school all day. The only people who really aren't are retirees who are available. So, we had a bit of senior citizen embassy takeover...

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: ...which was - at first, I was agonizing. I was like are you kidding me? These guys are all mandatory retirement. And then they were great. They came out like - I don't know if they remembered the period or whatever it was or if they were just inspired, but it was awesome. So, if you know that it's a student thing and you look closely, you'll see that folks are a bit old. But it was really cool and fun that they threw themselves into it.

SIMON: The pre-reviews of this have been sensational, coming - places like Toronto Film Festival, that sort of thing, which means you have made three really good films back to back to back. Are you flooded with scripts now?

AFFLECK: I have opportunities, you know, definitely that didn't use to have. But, you know, you got to remember, my movies still exist within a sort of a limited range. And most movies that get made in Hollywood are very tent pole $300 million, whatever. So, that's not something that I've done. So, I kind of exist in a certain zone. And that's fine. I don't have any great ambitions to do $300 million movies. I just was going to point out that no one's asking me to.

SIMON: Well, but, I mean, at some point that might change, right?

AFFLECK: You know, one never knows. I mean, what I've found because I got a sort of second go at a career in Hollywood by directing, I got to apply some of the lessons about this business that I learned from my acting career, and one of which - perhaps the most important - was that you have to sort of forget about all the other criteria when it comes to the movies you're going to do, except whether or not you think it can be a good movie. And that sounds obvious maybe, but there's a lot of, you know, where am I going to be? How much money is it? Who am I working with? It's just about can I make this movie work and does it stimulate something in me that I think will bring out the best version of the kind of artist I can be?

SIMON: Ben Affleck. New film is "Argo." Joining us from Hollywood. Thanks so much.

AFFLECK: Thank you, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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