Director, actors compliment each other on attention to detail in making 'Argo'


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TORONTO -- Or, as the characters say in "Argo," Torono.

CIA officer Tony Mendez advises six Americans, hiding in the home of the Canadian ambassador in Tehran in 1979 and '80, to drop the second "t" if they want to sound like real Canucks.

That tidbit came straight from the real Mr. Mendez, who spent time with screenwriter Chris Terrio. He mined their drinks, dinners and conversations for "revealing details," the little things that may have gone unmentioned when the story was told and retold.

"There's a moment that Ben [Affleck] put in the film so beautifully when Tony takes off his wedding ring and leaves it on the dresser," Mr. Terrio said during a Toronto International Film Festival press conference.

"That's a real detail. Before Tony would go to the airport, he had a ritual. He would take off his wedding ring and assume a new identity and get on a plane and not know whether he was coming back or whether his wife would even know what happened to him."

He obviously came back although his mission remained top secret until it was declassified by President Bill Clinton in 1997. Now it's the subject of a dramatic thriller directed by and starring Ben Affleck as Mr. Mendez, who masterminded a covert rescue involving Hollywood, high-stakes espionage and Canada.

Many of the cast members sat beside or behind a fast-talking, affable Mr. Affleck, who said if he got lucky with the performers of his first two movies, this was like winning the lottery with Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber and others.

"What you see up here is an array of talented people that really make the movie," Mr. Affleck said, starting with Mr. Goodman as an Oscar-winning makeup artist and Mr. Arkin as a veteran movie producer pretending to make a sci-fi adventure as cover for the Iranian caper.

"For example, what John and Alan were able to do in terms of taking the Hollywood satire element of the movie and keeping it realistic while making it funny was incredibly challenging but necessary in order to stitch the movie together so that it just didn't feel like a series of shorts -- one about the CIA, one that was a comedy about Hollywood, one that was a Costa-Gavras movie or something."

Mr. Arkin later returned the compliment after the director again credited the cast with making his job easier.

"If I may, he's being modest. He's as meticulous a director as I have ever worked with. He knew exactly what he wanted, he knew exactly moment to moment, scene by scene, what the tone had to be, and once in a while we got lucky and fell into it, but he directed. He directed," the Oscar winner for "Little Miss Sunshine" said.

As for the inspiration for his character, Mr. Arkin said, "Every producer I've ever worked with is in that character and a couple I invented."

Mr. Cranston, a three-time Emmy winner for "Breaking Bad" and recent star of "Total Recall," "Rock of Ages" and the animated "Madagascar 3" (he was the voice of the testy tiger Vitaly), credits his peripatetic schedule to the fact he doesn't golf. He plays Mr. Mendez's supervisor at the CIA.

"When actors read something that's this intense and descriptive and visceral, we gravitate to it. So in my meeting with Ben, I wanted to talk about this character who's really an amalgam of officers at the CIA, and I thought I knew this guy. We talked about possibly he's the Jack Warden to Paul Newman in 'The Verdict' kind of thing, that sort of paternal figure and yet he has a job to do."

His job is in a movie Mr. Affleck describes as "based on a true story ... I learned this from the lawyers, rather than this is true story. It's understood we're allowed to take some dramatic license so that, for example at the beginning, the houseguests went from place to place to place and it would have been a lot of shoe leather so we kind of compressed it where they went straight to the Canadian ambassador's."

Nail-biting scenes late in the movie were devised to reflect the internal anxiety the Americans were feeling. The movie "winds up everything tight so that it can be released at the end," and allow moviegoers to breathe a sigh of relief, Mr. Terrio said.

Although Istanbul in neighboring Turkey was a stand-in for Tehran, the LA/Ontario International Airport in California cheats for the Tehran airport.

Anywhere from 150 to 200 Iranians living in LA worked as extras, and Tate Donovan, who plays the de facto leader of the houseguests, says, "We heard a thousand stories of how they got out of Iran, what it was like to live under Khomeini and they were so happy and they were such great improv-ers and they were so into being in the film," he added.

That was a good thing, given the hours in the heat, while toting luggage for the cameras. By the second day, arguments erupted about what the Tehran airport looked like 30 years ago, with Mr. Affleck (switching to accented English) mimicking the comments: "No, no, it would not be like this, bro. Yes, it would be like this, I was there!"

"You had like 50 guys arguing about what the Tehran airport looked like," he said, while he was trying to get through the scenes and postpone the verisimilitude debates for later.

The half-dozen Americans also included Joe and Kathy Stafford, played by Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishe.

"What I really love about the houseguests and find really inspiring about their story is that they were ordinary people," Ms. Bishe said. "Kathy Stafford, basically, she worked in an office, and they were thrust into this extraordinary circumstance where a lot of uncommon bravery was required."

Mr. Affleck wanted the actors playing the captive Americans -- who also included Christopher Denham, Clea DuVall and Rory Cochrane -- to stay for a week in the house doubling as the ambassador's residence, minus computers, cell phones and anything else that started with an "i."

After about four hours, the actors had all gone to their rooms and put on their costumes, complete with oversize eyewear fashionable at the time. For his part, Mr. Affleck grew a beard and what he called "this kind of Davy Jones-Barry Gibb thing that I had on my head."

After some Canadians complained that the movie didn't give their country and former ambassador Ken Taylor enough credit, Mr. Affleck called him and later rewrote one of the postscripts to better reflect the roles of Canada and the CIA, the Toronto Star reported.

It also said that, at Mr. Affleck's invitation, Mr. Taylor and his wife had a private screening of "Argo" in LA and recorded a commentary for the eventual DVD. The movie opens in theaters today.

In Toronto during the festival, Mr. Arkin called the sense of brotherhood between the two countries a beautiful thing.

"And another thing nobody's talked about but, to me, is the most potent aspect of the whole film is you're presented with an almost untenable situation with an extraordinarily creative solution that could have blown up half the world that was done without any violence whatsoever. Not a gun. ...

"Subliminally, it's a major theme that people will feel emotionally whether it's talked about or not."

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.


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