If Ben Affleck‘s Oscar contending “Argo” has proven anything, it’s that truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and his based-on-a-true story tale has an even more interesting footnote to go along with the story.
As you know, the plot of the film recounts the (recently declassified, thanks to Bill Clinton) CIA mission to exfiltrate American hostages in Iran. A number of options were tabled, but the “best worst idea” came down to sending Tony Mendez (Affleck) into Iran on the premise that he was going to be shooting a movie, and then leaving with his “film crew” (ie. the hostages). Simple, right? Well, knowing that Iranian authorities would be checking that story down to the very last detail, the CIA set up a fake film company that to mount the movie that was never going to be made. Taking out ads in the trades, bringing on producers who had some name recognition and even hosting a table read, the agency sold it as the real thing. Indeed, it was almost too real.
Recounting his mission on the CIA website (via Reddit), Mendez provides every detail you might want to know (including a scan of the original poster for the movie — see below), but he also notes that among the scripts that crossed the desk of the studio — that as far as everyone was concerned was real — was a submission by a guy named Steven Spielberg. Could it have been “E.T.,” which he would eventually make in 1981 (and release in 1982)? At the time, he was coming off “1941,” and while he would be filming “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” during when most of the events of the film took place, remember that Melissa Mathison banged out the first draft in eight weeks while he was on set and that Columbia Pictures had passed on it. Could Spielberg have been looking toward Studio Six to launch it instead??
Maybe whenever that next “Lincoln” webchat thingy happens someone can ask him (or he can give us a holla), but until then, here’s an edited excerpt from Mendez’s account of the mission and the “Argo” poster.
Our production company, “Studio Six Productions,” was created in four days, including a weekend, in mid-January. Our offices had previously been occupied by Michael Douglas, who had just completed producing “The China Syndrome.”
[Makeup artist] Jerome [Calloway] and his associate were masters at working the Hollywood system. They had begun applying “grease” and calling in favors even before I arrived. Simple things such as the installation of telephones were supposed to take weeks, but we had everything we needed down to the paper clips by the fourth day.
We arranged for full-page ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, the two trade papers most important to any business publicity campaign. We tried to keep Jerome’s well-known name hidden, but the “trades” had their reporters hot on our trail, and the word was out that something big was brewing in the industry.
When the press discovered that Jerome was connected with this independent production company, interest mounted and more press play followed. Our efforts to keep Jerome’s involvement secret actually added credibility to our putative film-making company. Hollywood, moreover, was an ideal place to create and dismantle a major cover entity overnight. The Mafia and many shady foreign investors were notorious for backing productions in Hollywood, where fortunes are frequently made and lost. It is also an ideal place to launder money.
Once Studio Six Productions was set up, we tackled the problem of identifying an appropriate script. Jerome and I sat around his kitchen table discussing what the theme should be. Because “Star Wars” had made it big only recently, many science-fiction, fantasy, and superhero films were being produced. We decided we needed a script with “sci-fi,” Middle Eastern, and mythological elements. Something about the glory of Islam would be nice, too. Jerome recalled a recent script that might serve our purpose, and he hauled it out of a pile of manuscripts submitted for his consideration.
This script fit our purpose beautifully, particularly because no uninitiated person could decipher its complicated story line. The script was based on an award-winning sci-fi novel. The producers had also envisioned building a huge set that would later become a major theme park. They had hired a famous comic-strip artist to prepare concepts for the sets. This gave us some good “eyewash” to add to a production portfolio.
We decided to repackage our borrowed script by decorating it with the appropriate logo and title markings. The only copy of the script we needed would be carried by me as a prop to be shown to the Iranians in my role as production manager–and only in the event we were questioned at the airport in Tehran.
An ironic coda: by the time Studio Six folded several weeks after the rescue, we had received 26 scripts, including some potential moneymakers. One was from Steven Spielberg.