Chris Terrio talks about the deconstruction of history and reconstruction of narrative in his latest project, the Ben Affleck-helmed Iranian hostage crisis drama Argo.
Written by Denis Faye
(October 5, 2012)
On November 4, 1979, militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Iran, taking 52 Americans hostage. Six Americans managed to escape, seeking hidden refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.
Iranian authorities soon started to suspect something was amiss. As the noose tightened, CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez snuck into the country and rescued the “house guests,” by masquerading them as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction film, complete with fake passports courtesy of the Canadian government and a real, live, phony production office set up in Hollywood.
Of course, given the situation with the remaining hostages, the U.S. wasn’t in the position to tout this victory. The story was tucked into the CIA vaults until declassification in 1997. In 2007, it became the focus of a Wired magazine piece by Joshuah Bearman. The article caught the eye of the development team at Smokehouse Entertainment, who turned to screenwriter Chris Terrio to accomplish a task almost as challenging as Tony Mendez’s original stunt: write a credible script about the escape.
“Even at the genesis of the project I was cynical,” admits Terrio. “This story could so easily turn into a self-congratulatory kind of nudge/wink exercise. I wasn't sure that I knew how to do it, and I was a little bit afraid of the tonal dissonance of the material.”
Luckily, Terrio talked down his inner cynic. His blueprint for the Ben Affleck-helmed Argo might not be exactly historically accurate, but it does a remarkable job of capturing this moment in history’s emotional truths – and it’s thrilling as hell.
Terrio chatted recently with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the deconstruction of history and reconstruction of narrative that goes into a project this complex. The key is a willingness to completely disregard the truth, combined with a commitment to tell the truest story possible. Confused? Let’s let Terrio explain…
Photo: © 2012 Warner Bros.
Ben Affleck in Argo.
When you're basing something on a true story, how does reality come into play? Like how do you tell a three-act thriller and still honor the truthfulness of it?
Well, in a sense, because in its DNA, it's an escape and rescue story, so you have three acts that are built in, which of course is a gift when we're trying to write something. You have the setup, which is, “Here's the predicament.” You have the second act, which is, “Here are complicating factors involved in the rescue.” Then, finally, you have the rescue or the escape. So, in that sense, I knew that built in was a happy ending and built in there was a lot of tension.
But then there’s the problem of a lack of a central villain.
Yeah. A lot of the forces that are coming to bear on our hero and on everyone are invisible. There's not one antagonist in the film, it's a widely distributed sense of threat that's out there. It's sort of a big geopolitical problem that they're up against, in a sense.
Since you can't throw invisible stones at characters, you have to begin to create stones that have weight and that have sharp edges and that feel credible. So that's in a way how the story developed, just to get a sense of the various ticking clocks and the various sorts of obstacles hanging above the heads of the characters.
And then the next problem is how do you reconcile the three tonal worlds of the film – the world of Washington and its bureaucracy; the world of Tehran and the immediate sort of clear and present danger of the guards that are combing the city with automatic weapons; and then the world of Hollywood where the challenge really is to create a convincing fiction, or film? The problem becomes how do you write a script in which those three things are the same movie, and in which the tone feels like it carries over from one scene to another?
Some of it is just trial and error. You don't want the characters in Hollywood – Lester Siegel and John Chambers – to turn into kind of a Vaudevillian sideshow. You want to feel that they're human beings who are deeply invested in the lives of other human beings who are the six houseguests.
You want to feel that in the world of the CIA, it's a deadly serious world of an espionage thriller, but also Bryan Cranston and his character has an acerbic sense of humor, so you could imagine him meeting up with Lester and with Chambers and sort of having the same conversation.
And then further, with the houseguests in Tehran, you have these six people who are in this is Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit kind of situation where they're stuck in the house, but you also want to feel that the way that they talk and the way that they relate to each other can cut from Hollywood or from Washington to them and still feel like you're watching characters in the same movie. I'm not sure that I did solve all these problems, but you write the script and hope for the best.
I noticed you weaved a lot of themes of spousal relationships into this movie. Was that an attempt to unify all these worlds?
In a sense. That's an astute sort of comment. There's a scene on the stairs of Lester Siegel talking to Tony Mendez, and what he's saying is, "My life of artifice and bullshit destroyed my relationship because I didn't know when I could be truthful and when I couldn't. I lost a sense of what is bullshit and what isn't." Of course, that was a way in which I try to tie in the resonance between a Hollywood producer and a CIA officer, which is to say that Tony lives in a world of artifice and bullshit in its own way, you know? He takes on other identities, he can't tell his wife what he's doing, he lives a world of lies and has to effortlessly lie. And so that has affected Tony's marital relationship just as it affected Lester's. In a way, Lester is the voice of experience and the cautionary tale that's telling Tony not to let the bullshit business overtake your personal life. And so in a way that's kind of an underground river that runs through the film. How much of this artifice can you take on and still remember who you are underneath?
Then you have Joe Stafford [one of the house guests] who's the neophyte liar.
Right, and in a sense Joe Stafford learns to lie, but to give it the best possible spin, he learns how to tell a story. And that was kind of important because Joe Stafford historically was the person who was resistant to the whole operation. He really didn't think it would work – but on the other hand, he was a very useful person in the mission because he was the only person who spoke Farsi. Joe Stafford's story arc, you're right, echoes not only Lester's but it echoes Tony's.
Then you can add a fourth layer of lies: the United States government covering up their own good deed.
Right. Ken Taylor [the Canadian Ambassador] stands up, and they say, "Thank you, Canada." The intention there was not to say, "Oh, isn't it ironic that these Canadians got credit for something that Tony Mendez did?" but rather that even after the rescue the artifice was still going on, and that we still weren't getting the full story. This ambassador with his sort of practiced poker face had to stand up and sort of absorb all of the reaction. The good reaction, yes, but also the bad reaction, which is that you have the Iranian Foreign Minister threatening Canadians in Iran or anywhere in the world due to what was done. So, as I got further into the story all these layers of artifice started to sort of inform each other and got more and more interesting.
Getting back to your ability to tell the truth versus tell a "lie," Joe Stafford's arc was great and incredibly satisfying, but at the same time I'm guessing it didn't quite play out so satisfyingly in real life.
No. I don't want to speak for the houseguests, and I certainly don't want to say anything that sounds negative about Joe, but I think probably right up until the end Joe had reservations about the whole scheme, and maybe still does to this day. But I knew that in terms of the arc of the story that we needed to show that Joe finally gets that the only thing standing between him and a gun to his head is this story, is buying into this narrative.
For future generations this movie will be what people are going to consider the truth, much more than the Wired story it was based on. How do you feel about that?
I don't think when I was writing it I had any sense of that. I understand better now that as filmmakers, Saving Private Ryan [Written by Robert Rodat] becomes what happened on D-Day and etc.
I did think really carefully about what I put into the script and what I didn't put into the script. There are things that are fictionalized but I tried to tell it in such a way that nobody is a one-dimensional villain. Everybody is borne along by tides of history and circumstance, everybody is trying to do their job correctly and everybody is facing impossible obstacles. So from that point of view I knew from the beginning that I didn't want it to be some propaganda piece about anything, about the CIA, about the U.S. and Iran, about the embassy takeover. I'd hoped you could get a sense of people within a big, messy, ugly system, which could be the U.S. government or the revolution or the CIA trying to make the right choices and do the right things individually... My intentions were to tell a story about a very complicated world and people trying to do the right thing in the midst of that complication.”
So you're saying that even though you're not terribly concerned about the individual facts, the overall lessons that history teaches us hopefully are still intact.
That's right. The overall sense [is] that there were six people stuck in this place and their lives were at stake and through no shots fired and no military intervention, but purely through artifice and storytelling and bullshit, this CIA officer was able to get them out safely. That is the big story that's here. If that comes through, then I think I’m allowed to use dramatic license for the more particular details.
I spent many years looking closely at Shakespeare's history plays. And when you look at – I don't mean for this to sound pretentious – you're constantly making dramatic choices that maybe don't have anything to do with reality. Take Richard III. Did he really have a hunchback? Probably not, but is he a much better character because he does? Yes, of course. You're constantly trying to give a sense of the story while also entertaining the audience.
Did you read the original script, Argo?
I did not, no. It actually was called Lord of Light. It was not called Argo. I didn't want to read it because I wanted, in my head, to have a blank slate of what it could be. Ultimately, the story of Argo, as you discover very late in the film, is the story of this man trying to protect his son, you know, which had some thematic resonance with Tony and the whole subplot of his family. So I wanted to keep that as a blank slate so that I could invent this film in my head and use it as I wanted to.
So what little we know about the script Argo is actually your invention.
And the fact that the poor schlep screenwriter of Argo is pretty much the only asshole in this entire movie – that was you too?
Well, yeah, I mean, fiction mirrors truth, right?