By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
8:00 AM CST, January 24, 2013
Producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov had no idea who was going to direct "Argo." "Maybe I was going to, maybe Grant would, maybe somebody else," Clooney said. "We didn't know." But when Ben Affleck called Clooney and Heslov's Detroit hotel in early 2011 while they were filming "Ides of March," the producers had made their decision when they hung up the phone an hour later.
It helped Affleck's case that Clooney and Heslov, who had been developing Chris Terrio's "Argo" screenplay for several months, admired the director's first two features, 2007's "Gone Baby Gone" and 2010's "The Town." Yet more persuasive was Affleck's take on the story: Rather than make a lighthearted caper comedy, as Clooney and Heslov were contemplating, Affleck wanted to shoot "Argo," the story of the rescue of six U.S. State Department officials during the Iran hostage crisis, like a 1970s thriller.
"I looked at Chris' script and thought, 'I know how to make this movie,'" Affleck said last week, shortly after "Argo" was nominated for the best picture Academy Award while Affleck was passed over for director. "And I thought I would not find another movie that I was so well suited to direct for another 10 years."
Specifically, Affleck, who is also a producer on the film, wanted to expand Terrio's opening, which covered 1979's takeover of the American embassy in Tehran in fewer than two pages, and make it the dramatic linchpin of the rest of the movie. In Affleck's pitch to Clooney and Heslov, "Argo's" comic elements — in which CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) joins forces with film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to hatch a fake movie to use as cover for the rescue — needed to be dialed down so that the entire film was less schizophrenic.
"Because of the competing tones, you need to root the audience in jeopardy," Affleck said.
Even if they didn't initially seem like the correct choices — "Particularly in the opening, he had many ideas we didn't necessarily agree with," Clooney said — the producers quickly realized the Oscar-winning "Good Will Hunting" screenwriter was right.
"If you start the film as a comedy, it's very hard to flip it into a drama," Clooney said. "If the audience is laughing first, it's very hard to make them scared."
But it was more than comedy versus drama. "This movie was a real challenge because there were these different tones," said Affleck — a onetime Middle Eastern studies major at Occidental College — of the three intersecting stories involving the desperate Americans in Tehran, the Hollywood jesting and the CIA tension. "It had a much bigger scope. It had this resonance to geopolitics today, our relationship to Iran, as well as having this theme of storytelling that was kind of universal and important to me."
From the very first screening of "Argo," at the Telluride Film Festival last September, audiences have embraced Affleck's choices. At the official "Argo" screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Oscar voters cheered when the plane carrying Mendez and the six rescued Americans lifted off the runway in Iran.
But when Oscar nominations were announced on Jan. 10, Affleck's name was noticeably absent from the directing category, even though "Argo" received nominations for picture, supporting actor for Arkin, adapted screenplay for Terrio, editing, score, sound mixing and sound editing. On the heels of the slight, Affleck won the directing honor and the dramatic picture trophy at the Golden Globes.
While clearly disappointed by the Oscar rebuff — when everybody tells you something great is certain to happen, and it doesn't, how else to feel? — Affleck has decided to celebrate "Argo's" other nominations, particularly its inclusion in the most elite category, rather than dwell on his snub.
"If you had asked me a year ago, 'You have this movie, and here's the outcome: It's nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture. Would you take it?' Of course I'd take it," Affleck said. Besides that, he said, he wasn't in a place to complain.
"But we are," Heslov said. "We think it blows. It's really weird."
Said Clooney: "It stings. It catches in your throat. When we saw it happen, we all felt very badly for Ben — we thought it was unfair. Would we have traded a lot of things for him to be nominated? Yeah. He shot it with a really strong point of view. It's a beautifully directed film."