It’s a real surprise how apolitical Argo is. There are parallels one could make from today’s headlines, but as director Ben Affleck sees it, the movie comes down to one key theme: the power of storytelling. Whether it’s from his own industry or the United States intelligence service, stories can make for a powerful weapon. In Argo‘s case, it’s to entertain. In the events the film chronicles, it was to save lives.
To make sure Argo the movie did its intended job, Affleck copied some of the all time great filmmakers of the 1970s and went through history’s finest classics to make the era come alive. The inspiration he got didn’t only come from Martin Scorsese or Sidney Lumet, but also from unexpected places, such as John Carpenter’s The Thing and Matt Reeves’s Let Me In. In many ways, Argo is a love letter to 70s filmmaking, and Ben Affleck clearly wore that love on his sleeve during a recent roundtable interview, along with his co-stars John Goodman and Bryan Cranston.
Here’s what Argo‘s Ben Affleck had to say about respecting history, why he prefers using effects as the film’s score, and how a camera can be more powerful than a rifle:
You basically combined two different movies with two completely different tones in this film, with representatives from both [tones] here. How did you talk to them about what you were looking for and how did you put them together so skilfully?
Affleck: Well, I wish I could say it was my skill. I didn’t really talk to them much about anything. They’re really smart actors, looked at the material on the page, and did me the favor of playing it honestly. Realistically, it kind of blended. If it hadn’t, I suppose we would’ve had conversations of how we were going to get the jigsaw puzzles to fit. All the parties — Bryan, John, and Alan [Arkin] — were pretty adept. They knew how to play it real, and that kind of saved my bacon.
It really seemed as if you shot Argo as if it was made in the 70s, starting with the old Warner Bros. logo. Was that your intention?
Affleck: Yeah, I thought it’d be, sort of, a trick of the brain. If you’re looking at a movie that looks like it was made in the 1970s, it’s more easy for the brain to subconsciously accept the events they’re watching are taking place during that period. Now, you can’t do that if you’re doing a movie about the revolutionary war. We had an interesting advantage: the era I was trying to replicate was a really great era for filmmaking. I got to copy these really great filmmakers: Sidney Lumet, Scorsese, and so on.
When you’re making a film that’s basically a living history film, is there an extra level of responsibility, both as actors and as a director? Does that complicate things or make it more interesting?
Goodman: First and foremost, I had a responsibility to the character I was playing, because he actuall existed. He was a well-respected makeup artist and CIA operative. I felt the responsibility to not step on my foot.
Affleck: For me, yeah, it is about the whole story. You have to maintain the integrity and the honesty of the spine of the story. That’s one profound responsibility, because when Rocky Sickman sees that takeover, I want him to say, “Yeah, that’s basically it.” Now, the real takeover was four hours long, but we have it as five minutes. That’s the kind of compromise you have to make. The essential spirit of it has to be preserved. Someone did find a picture of [Ruholla] Khomeini with darts on it and said, “Who did this?” I also have the responsibility to make a good movie and to tell a good story, because that’s what I do. Those two things are constantly in tension with each other. I want to make it true, but I got to make it good.
Cranston: My character was a composit character, and I think it was carefully crafted that way. I think in the time you keep cutting back to the CIA, it was important not to have the audience confused for a second. If there was numerous people at the CIA giving him guidance, then they’d say, “Which one’s which?” If that happens, then we’re in trouble, because they’re not listening. We didn’t want to slow it down, so my character became a composit character. It’s interesting, some people will say, “Actors are liars. They get up and pretend.” The truth is, we desperately seek the truth and the honesty of the character. We don’t feel completely comfortable until we find out how to play someone with that integrity. I think these two [Goodman and Affleck] had slightly more sense of responsibility, because they’re portraying real people.
Mr. Affleck, before making Argo you said you watched some of the greatest movies of all time. What were some films you didn’t expect to take inspiration from which, in the end, you did?
Affleck: There was a lot of them that I had seen, but I watched them again. I liked The Thing, for my hair. I liked John Cassavete‘s Killing of a Chinese Bookie, for the seedy LA. I loved the look, the feel, the way they used zooms, and it felt raw but choreographed, which I didn’t see coming. There’s a movie called Let Me In, which I watched. A guy named Matt Reeves did it, and it’s a remake. I thought it was really well directed. I watched it with my DP, and we were looking at the stuff they did with focus and keeping things in the foreground and softer in the background. That was something I didn’t expect to influence me, but did.
Watching this movie reminded me of my generation, and it felt like an homage with all the clothes and Walter Cronkite. Was that something that attracted you to the movie?
Affleck: I’m the age of the kid in the movie, so I definitely identified with the child and with the father. When I went into that room and saw all the action figures, Star Wars and stuff, it really hit me: this is my childhood. I got really fastidious about sheets and everything. Everyone was, like, “What’s going on here?”
There’s something remarkably innocent about that era. We think of the 70s as being slightly debauched, with key parties and all these sort of images we get from other movies, but they had none of that technology. You know, people on television had these crummy sets, but now we got a theme song and a graphic for every story. There were these gigantic cars that probably got six miles to the gallon. There was something kind of sweet about it. Sweet about the answering machine. You just leave the house, and that’s it. No one can find you until you come home. Put a quarter – or a dime – in the phone slot. I found something sweet about it. I discovered more about it.
Cranston: I long for those days…
Can you talk about the choice when to use music and when not to use music? Like, in the embassy takeover, you just used the audio. And how did you use the score to separate the tonal structure?
Affleck: Most of the time I don’t like music in movies. It usually feels artificial and false. Like, all the sudden the orchestra drops, and it takes me out [of the movie]. All of my movies I’ve tried to start late with music, with letting it build and creep in around the edges, so you don’t realize there’s all this music in it. I used source for some of the LA stuff. Like, I used “Dance the Night Away,” which would root you in the period. In Iran, I did not want the audience in a period so much. For America, yeah, I wanted it to feel like a different time. In Iran, you were in a different place, but it’s almost irrelevant it’s the 1970s. We used the “Call to Prayer,” and as our President said, it’s one of the most beautiful sounds you’ll hear in the morning. That contrast worked for me.
I do like to use effects as score, with the chanting or the banging against the gates. It’s finding ways to punctuate it to let it go away and bring it up, like you’re score it, but with realistic sounds. Using the banging on the roof is really fun and interesting, and I prefer to do it dry there. I would argue with the editors wanting to do it dry all the way through, but I got talked into it.
The movie reminded me of when, after 9/11, a bunch of screenwriters were brought in to come up with scenarios. Can you talk about the symbiotic relationship between Hollywood and the government, in the way they feed upon each other?
Affleck: Yeah, they brought a bunch of screenwriters in and I said, “Wait, we’ve heard all these ideas before!” [Laughs] That is a good parallel, and there is a symbiotic relationship. People make movies about military. When you go on a tour with the military all these guys are movie buffs. Movies are a big part of our culture. The military, the movies, and our intelligence services are inventing things. For movies, it’s for art and entertainment. For intelligence services, it’s for God knows what. That’s one of the themes of this story: the power of storytelling, whether it’s political theater, relating to our children, or trying to get people out of danger. Telling stories is incredibly powerful. There’s a shot I really like where there’s this firing squad, then you go to this read through, and then there’s a firearm, a rifle, and a camera. Hopefully this is subtle, but that suggests the camera is more powerful than the gun. I think that’s been really warn out with the Youtube era.
The movie feels like a very efficient man on a mission story. From a storytelling standpoint, did you just want Tony as a simple guy trying to do his job, not someone out to prove anything?
Affleck: I think Tony was a guy who, yeah, if he got his orders, he’d do his mission and follow through. He was rather uncomplicated. He had a certain amount of fear, but he was going to do it. As a result, the story is a little wonky in the film, because it’s really about the six people. If you want to talk about where your empathy is or what line you’re pulling through the story, it’s the six people, not the guy on a horse who’s going to kill saxons or whatever. You start to get developed more emotionally with these other characters, like Bryan and John. I thought that was interesting, and it worked for Tony’s more slightly passive personality. His focus was he’s going to save these people’s lives, so the group became the center of the wheel.
Argo is now in theaters.