Honor Roll is a daily series running throughout December that features new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-person stories of some of the year’s most notable cinematic voices. Today, we’re running a new interview with “Argo” director-star Ben Affleck, whose was recently nominated for a Golden Globe on top of a slew of other accolades.
Like the story Ben Affleck’s third feature “Argo” tells, the Oscar-winner’s trajectory from panned actor to revered filmmaker seems almost too crazy to believe. Since silencing his naysayers with his blistering debut “Gone Baby Gone,” Affleck has gone on to prove his first Oscar-nominated success was no mere fluke, following it up with 2010’s ambitious crime thriller “The Town,” and now “Argo,” arguably his most acclaimed film to date and no doubt his most ambitious.
Based on the true story of a 1979 joint CIA-Canadian secret operation to extract six fugitive American diplomatic personnel out of revolutionary Iran, “Argo” stars a solemn Affleck as CIA ‘exfiltration’ specialist Tony Mendez, who devises a plan so zany it inspired journalist Joshuah Bearman to document it in depth for a 2007 article in Wired, leading to Chris Terrio’s thrilling script for the film.
Affleck called into Indiewire from his home in Los Angeles (he put on a DVD for one of his daughter’s during out chat) to discuss his reasons for making “Argo,” his passion for films from the ’70s, and how deep down he’s just as insecure as the rest of us despite his staggering success.
Congratulations on the Critics Choice noms on top of a slew of other accolades.
Thank you very much.
Given that its mid-December, have all the nominations and awards started to blend into one another at this point?
You know, it’s sort of an odd thing. I try to maintain the criterion as independent. In other words, my own sense of what I feel good about and what I feel I could have done better — I try not to make it about awards. By the same token, it definitely feels nice that people have liked the movie. So no, they haven’t all run together.
Now, you’ve seen all three of your features open in the Fall, in the heat of awards season. How does this season so far compare to the last two that you experienced?
From the perspective of somebody who loves movies and somebody who follows very closely what movies are going to come out, it seems like most of the dramas and most of the challenging movies come out in the Fall. I always feel like it’s impossible to rush to see all the movies that are coming out in the Fall! If they came out throughout the year it’d be great — you could take your time. I guess it is what it is.
This year, it feels like there’s just a huge number of really great, really exciting films. It’s really nice to see studios making more sort of adult oriented dramas or comedies, because for a long time people kind of lamented that they weren’t making those movies anymore. Now we’re seeing all these studios doing it, so it’s exciting.
Does it feel especially gratifying to see this film in particular be so well received and find an audience?
One of the things that I really love about this movie, is that it’s dealing with issues that are really current, even through it’s set in 1979. Chief among those is our relationship with Iran. This is a movie about the inception of our conflict with Iran. The questions it conjures up are not even about the present so much as they’re about the future — what will we do, how will we engage with this country?
It’s also about, interestingly, the way that we align ourselves with foreign leaders who need our interests in terms of being pro-Western and maybe adopting a few policies that align with ours, but that if you turn a blind eye — them being undemocratic, or them being oppressive — you see a real correlation. And you also see a correlation between the fact that once this pro U.S. dictator was overthrown, there were a lot of unintended consequences. These are very sticky, thorny things.
I guess closest to my heart, it’s a story about storytelling, about the power of storytelling. About the way it works in political theater, about the way it works in communicating to people that are close to us — like with Tony and his son, or with the Iranians doing their propaganda, or the storytelling involved with coming up with this outrageous cover that the CIA is in fact a movie company on a location scout. That has a sort of central theme, and all the really cool tendrils that are offshoots of it were really fun to do. It was multifaceted and the movie is really close to my heart, even though ironically out of the three movies I directed, this is the one I didn’t write.
The story that you document was only declassified in 1997. Had you heard the whole story before Terrio’s script first came your way?
No. I was barely even aware of the larger hostage crisis as a little kid. I was exactly the age of my son — the actor who played my son in 1979. I really wasn’t aware of anything outside of my own little world of the three blocks around my house until ’82. I remembered the assassination attempt on Reagan. I learned about the hostage crisis when I studied the Middle East in college. But I never heard about the six who were freed.
What made you feel you were the right guy for the job?
I’m not somebody who’s brimming over with confidence about everything. I actually have a tremendous amount of worry and insecurity. I’ve come to believe that that actually helps me and drives me to work harder — double check and do more prep. So now I’m afraid that I will be overconfident at some point which makes me twice as nervous. But during the course of making the movie, I’m thinking why am I here? Why am I the right guy for this? I did feel good about the fact that I did study the Middle East in college and I understood it. I had spent a lot of time in Hollywood and had a real affinity for it, for that side of the story. I’d even gone to the CIA — I met with a bunch of people there. I’m also a huge fan and aficionado of 1970s movies. So that was the pitch to Warner Bros. about why I should get the job (laughs). You really did manage to capture the tone of the films from that period, from the look down to the pacing.
Thank you very much. We kind of emulated “All the President’s Men” with the CIA stuff, and Cassavetes — in “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” he had a great seedy LA feel. We had a lot of different references for the Iran stuff — “Battle of Algiers,” from that to “Missing.” “The Verdict” had a wonderful sort of moral ambiguity that I wanted to bring. But I think the ’70s were the high point of American realism in cinema and it’s been something that I’ve been really drawn to: this quest to make it real rather than entertaining.
One of the ways you did that was by having the six actors who play the fugitive American diplomatic personnel, live together in period garb before production officially got underway…
That is one of the things…I think people often sort of roll their eyes at actors who become directors, imagining that they’re dilettantes or unserious. I think it’s a great advantage, because all the actors I know have a lot of affinity for other actors. They have empathy for them and spend a lot of time scrutinizing performances and moments in performances — to see how and why they work. And as an actor you intuitively know sort of how you would like to be treated, that you’d like to have set that’s relaxed and comfortable.
It’s sort of my fantasy to do an exciting preparation for a movie as an actor. Once I got the chance to direct, I wanted to create that for the actors that were in the movie. So I created this opportunity for them to live together on the set, with the period details — magazines, newspapers, books, record players etc. — so they could get totally immersed in it. I wanted them to improvise, and I wanted them to be able to improvise in the 1970’s, which they wouldn’t be able to do without a really strong foundation of knowledge about the period and about a sense of the period.
It took them a little bit of cajoling to get them to give up their iPhones and to wear their wardrobe and sort of give up a week of life. But actually, after some initial questioning, they got really excited. Tate Donovan was really skeptical — he wanted to take a yoga mat in. So we had some back and forth about whether or not a yoga mat was appropriate for the period. He was like, “Yoga was a huge movement in the ’70s!” I was like, “I don’t think your character was involved in the yoga movement.”
So anyway, once he got into it he was thrilled. He was actually great and kind of the leader of the whole thing. I think it worked. I didn’t ask them too many questions, I didn’t do anything specific. Ultimately it created a kind of bond with them where they sort of went around as a unit, which I think would have happened. They had a sense of what it was like to be tied up together.
Also it’s really hard to fake intimacy, knowing someone really well. The hardest thing to do is to get past that invisible forcefield that we have around us that we use to make sure people stay out of our personal space. You have to sort of force yourself to break those barriers. That’s why I wanted them to be together so much.
Is that why you cast Matt Damon in your upcoming film?
Well, I’d be lying if I said I cast him, because we sort of came up with the idea to do the movie together. It’s like I cast him, he picked me as the director — you know, we basically agreed on the role. But I do think there’s something to be said for knowing someone really well, if for nothing else then you can just cut to the chase and not beat around the bush.