Ben Affleck has managed to transform his career from an A-list actor with roles in films like Good Will Hunting, Armageddon, The Sum Of All Fears, and He’s Just Not That Into You into a director of his own critically-acclaimed films like Gone Baby Gone and The Town.
Now the 40 year-old directs as well as stars in the political thriller Argo. He plays Tony Mendez, a CIA specialist who devises making a fake movie in order to save Americans kidnapped in Iran during the hostage crisis in 1979. Affleck recalls his reaction to getting the script.
“When I got the script, I couldn’t believe how good it was,” Ben says, “They say, ‘Oh, yes, this is our best script,’ and you usually think, oh, a certain executive kind of hyping you on it. It really was pretty incredible. I was amazed. I talked to [producers] Grant Heslov and George Clooney and said, ‘Look, I really want to do this.’ This is amazing.”
“And they said, ‘Great, well, let’s do it,’ and we took it to Warners,” he adds “And I kind of went back and went to [screenwriter] Chris Terreo, ‘How did you do this? How did you take this? What is the genesis?’ Because I looked at some documentaries, read some books, and I felt, God, this is really should have been a ten hour miniseries and how did you get it down to a three act structure.”
Ben talks about the biggest thing he has learned becoming a director.
“It’s kind of been reinforced to me and it’s a little bit cliche, so it’s probably not a great answer,” he says, “But you can’t make a great movie that even works, much less that is good, without really good writing and really good acting.”
“And so, that lesson has led me to not worrying about not being distracted so much by the other stuff in filmmaking and to focus on the essence of a story and the words and the events and the way those are interpreted by the actors,” Affleck continues, “And that philosophy has taken me to a place that I really like.”
Affleck talks about what got under his skin about playing Tony Mendez.
“I wanted to play him because I thought the script was really interesting,” he says, “And what struck me right away was that you have this thriller and then, in equal measure, this kind of comic Hollywood satire, and this intricate, real-life CIA spy story and it’s all based on truth. So that seemed like a fantastically interesting and unusual movie to be part of and I really wanted to direct it, and 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 sort of in a tough spot and had to say yes.”
“The thing that I wanted to play about the part is that Tony is a very withdrawn guy,” Ben continues, “He’s not the conventional protagonist hero beating his chest out the run, he’s this inscrutable, opaque guy who has this instinct about this from his days of being a spy to fade in the background. I thought it was interesting to subvert the traditional Hollywood protagonist and have a guy in that position who instinctively doesn’t want to be noticed and have that guy have people make things they’re scared of doing and try to save folks’ lives.”
The Iran hostage crisis has been said to be one of the many moments that cost then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter a second term. Ben talks about why he incorporated him into the film.
“The Jimmy Carter thing at the end came about because I wanted to hear Carter’s voice say to the audience really, this took place and cement that in the audience’s mind,” Affleck says, “Here’s the person who was the President of the United States who ordered this mission we kind of talk about saying, ‘Yes, it was a film crew. Yes, Tony Mendez. Yes, this was legitimate.’ I thought that would work to lock in the narrative.”
“I didn’t want it to be a referendum on the Carter presidency, that wasn’t the point or to politicize the movie, so it was a delicate balance and it was why we used just the voice, so it could be like it could be him talking at a press conference maybe ten or twenty years ago,” he continues, “Chay Carter, who is a producer of the movie, she went and interviewed President Carter and got this stuff out of him that was really directly about our movie and our story and it was amazing.”
Affleck talks about working with producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov on Argo.
“The nice thing working with Smokehouse and Grant and George is it makes a big difference to have producers who are filmmakers, producers who have done what you’re doing,” Ben says, “And for these guys, done it really well and for a long time and experienced on the backend of marketing and distribution and that kind of thing, development, post-production, as well as being really supportive during production.”
“So you feel like you have a different kind of partner, someone who has intuitive sympathy for what you’re going through,” he continues, “Both of these guys, I have to say, done it and done it well, so that was great for me. Grant and George had the material and they, in essence, hired me. They said, ‘Do you want to do it? Would you like to do the movie?’ and I got the script and I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Here, guys, this is the vision I have for it.’ And they were excited and we all started working together and it was our collaboration that pushed Warners over the hump, in terms of getting excited about making the movie.”
Affleck also talks about the positive and negative points of producing, directing, and starring in a movie.
“Well, I think no matter what you’re doing, if you’re trying to make a movie, you need to be working with people who are really good, make you better,” he says, “So a lot of titles in front of my stuff, but the movie works, I think as well if not better than anything I have been involved in, because of the amazing cast that we put together and that we were willing to do it, Chris Terreo’s script, and the partnership of these producers, so I was in an incredibly enviable position in that sense, so I didn’t have to go, well, I sort of have to push the rock up the hill in all these areas.”
“I had a lot of partners doing it, and so, it kind of made all those different things better,” Ben adds, “And moreover, I don’t see those things as necessarily distinct, it’s also part of filmmaking, so it’s hard for me to distinguish and put each thing and each job in its silo.”
Ben talked about what people thought of the 1970’s hairstyle he had to sport as Tony Mendez.
“My family unanimously hated the look, for different reasons, I think,” Affleck claims, “Like I said, there was unanimity, a united front, and I kept trying to tell my littler kids, they said, why can’t you shave your ‘prickles’, as they call it. And I said, ‘I got to wear this for work.’ And my dad goes, ‘What kind of work would want you to look like that?’ ‘Good question.'”
Argo is already getting buzz for potential Oscar nominations, but Affleck says that is not important to him, at least right now.
“Right now, we’re just trying to get the movie out,” Ben states, “And I don’t know anybody who’s out there who’s paid a dime to buy a ticket yet to see this movie. You work for as long as we all have on something like this, I think the focus is just on the audience coming to see it, otherwise, you are a tree in the woods. Otherwise, you spent all that time for a plastic disc and the goal was to have it be as large and collective an experience as possible. We’re all really proud of this movie and we hope people see it.”
Ben talks about the most difficult scene of the film that he had to direct.
“I tried to just let…” he says, “When you hire great actors, you’re lucky and you just try to create an atmosphere where they can succeed and relax and take risks and you’ll be happy that you get to watch them at the monitor and your name is on the director’s chair. So that stuff was more fun and then challenging really.”
“The most challenging thing was the big extras scene,” Affleck continues, “Grant and I and our line producer, it was a long lead-up to get thousands of people in Turkey and a lot of anxiety about if they would and then some issues because it was harder to get younger people and there was a student revolution and you didn’t want to look like a riot at the students’ center.”
“So we tried to make it as real as possible and it took a lot of people and a lot of wrangling and worrying about, because you can have have 2,000 people,” he adds, “Some of them, if they are cold, they can just go home.”
Affleck talks about what it was like to meet the real Tony Mendez.
“I had a lot of run of people who had spent time with Tony, by the time I had got there,” Ben remembers, “[The original magazine article writer] Josh Bearman and the Smokehouse guys and Grant and Chris had been to his house in Maryland, so that by the time, I finally got to sit down with him, he was steeped in this movie. It was his story. It was from Tony’s point-of-view. And he wanted to meet me at this famous CIA bar in Georgetown and he was telling me it was where Aldridge Ames passed the names of the American agents in Russia to his Russian handlers.”
“And when he told me that, it sort of sunk all of a sudden that this was real, this is a real story about a real guy who worked in a real world where real lives were at stake,” he adds, “It wasn’t just sliding down the roof and kicking down the window and shooting three guys and the kind of thing that Hollywood tends to think of as the CIA, it was a real thing and it’s out there with these folks making these sacrifices for us everyday. So it was really inspiring to meet Tony and he participated and helped us and he has a cameo in the movie and he was in the premiere in Toronto. It was pretty cool.”
It was brought up to Ben that if the story wasn’t based on real life, viewers would probably find Argo very believable.
“It wouldn’t seem very interesting,” Affleck notes, “It would seem just like, and then Hollywood came in, and then the NHL helped them get out.”
The movie takes place during a time of great political turmoil in Iran, where Islamic revolutionaries overthrew a highly unpopular Shah put in and backed by the U.S. Affleck was asked whether he had overlooked the progressive aspects of an otherwise dictatorial leader like the Shah in the film.
“That’s a really good question and I’m really glad you brought it up,” he says, “One of the things that I like about this movie is I hope that it would engender these sorts of discussions, which I think this area has become so critical to in the world of world affairs. I think it’s very important to talk about it. We tried to put stuff in the prologue about women’s rights. We showed female scientists working in a lab and also, the flip side of what the Shah did, which was the nightclubs and the removal of traditional clothing, so it was actually, the Queen had a beauty contest. And so, in shorthand, in fact, we were trying to demonstrate that he sort of accelerated extremely quickly progress for women in that sense. And that, among other things, that was emblematic of the kinds of the things that inflamed tensions between him and his regime and a largely traditional Shiite population in Iran. His father had forcibly removed the veil from women in that country and had done it at the end of a gun barrel. And I think that this theme of the unintended consequences of great powers getting into business with regimes in other countries is highly relevant obviously, you have Egypt, you have Syria now, Tunisia, so on. While I didn’t want to be didactic and I didn’t want to indicate to the audience, this is how they should feel, nor do I think Chris or George or Grant or anyone, we did want to factually tell this story and talk about how we believe that our support of the Shah was right, in part, because of his progressive stand on a lot of these issues, and we look the other way in terms of some of the political repression, the absence of democracy, some of the literal atrocities that took place. And that narrative closely the mirrors the narrative of other countries, primarily in the Middle East, so it wasn’t really about placing a value judgment on what happened to women after the Islamic Revolution. I think one of the things that we were all kind of operating under was that people know that it was the same regime, Khomeini, and we all know that it’s become quite repressive. But that assumption was present, that things didn’t go well for many people in that country, chief among them women, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran.”
“I’m assuming the viewer knows what contemporary Iran looks like, for sure,” Ben continues, “I wanted to add to the viewers historical context by adding that piece of that quasi-history lesson/storyboard presentation in the beginning. Also, the representatives of the Islamic Revolution in that movie, the Revolutionary Guards, I think, are depicted pretty unfavorably. In fact, my concern wasn’t really like, gee, I’m not really showing enough brutality around the Islamic Revolution. It was not allowing the lapse into one-dimensionality. I thought that was a danger, too. The beginning of the revolution involved communists and secularists and merchants and people who were just looking to get out of the yolk of the Shah’s oppression. By taking the hostages, Khomeini was able to marginalize the moderates, by positioning it in his own country against his political rivals, to say, ‘Look, either you’re with us or you’re with the Americans.’ And he systematically eliminated people and it was hard for the United States to understand the Carter administration, why does this guy not want to deal with us? And what they didn’t realize at the time is it wasn’t necessarily all about us or even about the Shah, it was about how he was slowly gaining power in Iran, and I think there’s something interesting to that. And once that was all done, the 444 days later when he had a pretty secure hold on that, he let everybody go.”
In the past month, the Middle East has undergone much political turmoil after a video purported to be a short film was posted on YouTube and inflamed tension with extremist Muslims, resulting in the murder of the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. It was asked whether Ben had any similar concerns of his film adding credence to the notion that the U.S. government and Hollywood are linked.
“Listen, if they’re going to kill me over a movie, this is way down the list,” Affleck replies, “I think it was always important to us to not be politicized. We went to great pains to try to make it very factual, fact-based, and both on the sort of the election of the United States where a lot of things get politicized, and we obviously couldn’t forecast how terrible things had become now.”
“But even when we made the movie, we saw some resonances to the Arab Spring, to countries that are in tumult,” he continues, “So naturally, we wanted to be judicious and careful about presenting the facts and standing firmly behind that and saying this is an examination of this part of the world, and just because a part of the world is undergoing strife and tumult doesn’t mean you stop examining it or you stop looking at it or talking about it. That would be a bad thing.”