This article appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of AwardsLine.
After directing two successful features, Gone Baby Gone in 2007 and The Town in 2010, Ben Affleck has come into his own, perhaps finding greater creative success behind the camera than he ever has as an actor performing in front of it. In fact, the Oscar-winning screenwriter stands a good chance of earning another nom, this time for helming Argo, an almost unbelievable real-life story about how the CIA teamed up with Hollywood to rescue six diplomats stranded in Iran after the Shah’s fall. Affleck also stars in the film, and he’s clearly still passionate about acting. “The director part of me thought it would be too much trouble not to give the actor the part. I’d never hear the end of it,” he says about taking on the role of agent Tony Mendez. He recently spoke with AwardsLine about directing himself and the challenges of shooting the film’s pivotal embassy-takeover scenes.
AWARDSLINE: At the film’s DGA screening, you talked about how it was important for you to foster a bond among the six actors playing the houseguests in Argo. Can you talk a bit more about what that rehearsal process was like?
BEN AFFLECK: I wanted them to get to know one another better and just be more familiar and at ease around one another, and that could only be accomplished really with time exposure. I wanted them to know what it was like on a subconscious level to feel trapped and holed up in a place. So this idea that I came up with was to put them up someplace for a week inside the set. We dressed it and had everything that they would have when we shot: There were newspapers from the period, magazines from the period, and I put in movies from that period that I wanted them to watch, records and a record player—all kinds of things. I didn’t give them much instruction and said, “This is where you have to be,” because that was the circumstance under which the people were (living). They didn’t have any goals other than to sort of stay there and stay hidden. I didn’t know (what) would develop in the rehearsal process, but whatever happened, it was genuine, it was good. Ultimately, I don’t know what happened. It was part social experiment, part reality show with no cameras. (Then) we came, and we set them free. (Laughs.) I knew it was good because they didn’t seem to want to talk about what happened.
AWARDSLINE: Did they leave at night?
AFFLECK: No, they lived there! They slept there. It takes time to develop a sense of humor, shared world views. I just felt like putting them in the bag and shaking (it) up—you don’t know what the pattern of flour and chicken is going to be, but you know you’re going to get some good fried chicken.
AWARDSLINE: The script was completed before you signed on, but you ended up extending the opening sequence before production started. Were there other tweaks that you and screenwriter Chris Terrio worked on?
AFFLECK: There were all kinds of adjustments and back and forth, just work that goes on between a director and a writer. (As) a director who is a writer, I have respect for writers, so I’m less likely to step on an idea or a line. We were both really comfortable telling each other that things didn’t work if we didn’t think they worked.
AWARDSLINE: And Terrio was on set for a lot of the shoot, too, right?
AFFLECK: Yes. Initially I thought, I’m going to get this script and run with it, and do my thing, like I did with the other two movies I made. Then I talked to Chris, and he was so smart and insightful and had done all this research, and so I was like, “This guy would be a huge asset and a great writer, so let’s keep him on.” On my other two movies, stuff had to be rewritten, and I would go off into a corner and puzzle over it. It would take me forever, and I would stay up all weekend. It was so nice to be able to say, “Exactly what the agenda is of the State Department in this scene? Could you rewrite that scene?” and have him come back later with the answer. I felt like I was looking at the back of a test.
AWARDSLINE: How does it work when you’re directing yourself?
AFFLECK: Everyone has a different approach, but I like to shoot a lot of film anyway. I like to shoot until we have a relaxed environment on the set, and I try to schedule that. And I do the same thing for myself (as an actor) that I do for others. I get to the point where I feel relaxed, and then I just shoot a ton of material and make a lot of different choices. (I) try new things and give myself permission to fail and experiment because only that way can you get really successful. I don’t go back and look at the monitor between every take; I wait until I feel like we finally got it right: “Let me stop and look at that last one on the monitor.”
AWARDSLINE: In terms of the location shoots, were there other Middle Eastern locations that you considered?
AFFLECK: We scouted all over the place. There’s the competing concerns of creativity and budget, and that was a pretty close race with this movie. We scouted Jordan, we scouted a couple of countries in North Africa—this was before the Arab Spring. Jordan we would have been OK, but the truth is, it looked very Arab. Persia is very different from the Arab Middle East in terms of architecture and language. Even though we think of them as one big Middle Eastern area, in truth, Persia’s quite distinct. So we looked at Bulgaria, which also happens to be profoundly inexpensive, and then we looked at Turkey. That was the last place we went, and it was also the nicest place.
AWARDSLINE: What was the most difficult scene to pull off in terms of scheduling and budget constraints?
AFFLECK: The (embassy) takeover stuff in the beginning, where we had 2,500 extras, that was really hard to do in Istanbul. We could only afford so much, so it was hard to pay people enough so that they would come out there and work all day. Turkey’s growth rate was 8% last year—it’s not a developing country. You have to pay people real money. And we had to pick people up in buses at one in the morning, get there, get everyone in wardrobe, get them out in the street, give them signs, and teach them how to chant their slogans. In the extras’ holding area, I put our research on a loop, which is images of the actual revolution, so people could get a sense of the anger and the power of the whole thing. They were psyched; the extras got into it. So that was really fun. (But) it was cold, it was raining, (and) it was very hard to keep people around. Of course, it turned out somehow we didn’t have enough food, or we didn’t have as much food as we thought—there were all sorts of problems like that. Meanwhile, I’m worrying about the big shots with the cranes, and as we lose people, I keep making the big shots tighter and tighter. The other issue was that the people who were available to be around all day are the elderly; the younger people are working. So basically, we had a lot of folks who were over 65 in a student revolution. So they made up for it with passion. They were chanting, going nuts. It was ultimately exhilarating, fun, and thrilling and felt like we had a real partnership. I’ve been an extra in, I don’t know, 20 movies, so I feel like I know how it is. I’m trying to make people feel welcome and feel valued.