Argo Production Design Required Authenticity Without Stereotypes

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of AwardsLine.

Remember the 1971 movie Shaft? Ben Affleck doesn’t want you to—at least, not while you are watching his 2012 movie Argo, set in the turbulent 1979-80 era of the Iranian revolution and the Iran hostage crisis.

In creating the look of Argo—the stranger-than-fiction true story of a covert mission to help six Americans flee Iran by posing as a Canadian movie crew— director/star Affleck was adamant that the design team create an authentic ’70s look without falling into disco-era extremes of fashion and style.

“Costume designer Jacqueline West shared with me the goal of not having the ’70s thing upstage the movie,” Affleck explains. “I didn’t want to have justfur coats and bell bottoms—Shaft—to communicate the period. It’s a period that could very easily be exploited for comedy, so have you to be really ginger about what you do. There’s a laugh waiting behind every haircut.”

The basement of the historic Los Angeles Times building in downtown L.A. became the CIA bullpen in Argo.
The basement of the historic Los Angeles Times building in downtown L.A. became the CIA bullpen in Argo.

The design team, which included production designer Sharon Seymour, costume designer West, set decorator Jan Pascale, makeup department head Kate Biscoe, and a host of others, was not only faced with re-creating various United States locations but also locations in Tehran, which, for the most part, were shot in Istanbul, Turkey. “Sharon, Kate, and I were all very intent on making it look like it was shot then, not like it was shot now as a period piece,” West says. Because the hostage crisis was so well documented, there was plenty of resource material to draw from, she adds.

In one sense, the nature of the story made it easier to stay away from more comic aspects of ’70s fashion, such as extra-wide lapels and ties, wacky prints, neon colors, and platform shoes. Costume designer West points out that the main characters are Washington, D.C., government workers, more conservative and less interested in cutting-edge fashion than, say, denizens of Los Angeles or New York.

And as in any fashion era, West says, what you see on the street is not always up to date. “We didn’t want it spot-on to be a certain year, there’s a 10-year range,” West explains. “Especially back then; clothes weren’t as disposable in the 1970s.” And individual style often reflects character, not just period: The wardrobe for John Goodman’s character, Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers, is deliberately frozen in the 1960s.

West and her team did strive to reflect the less flashy aspects of period dress, including the color palette (in 1979, brown, burgundy, rust, and navy were the new black), as well as types of fabric, including lots of corduroy. Plus, she added, polyester was a bigger part of the picture then than now. And don’t forget plenty of hair, including mustaches and sideburns, for men: West jokes that there was no “manscaping” back then.

Although glasses are usually considered props and handled by the prop department, Affleck was such a stickler for detail he asked the costume department to oversee their acquisition. West commissioned frame designer Allyn Scura of Sebastopol, with whom she had worked on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, to create exact replicas of the oversized spectacles worn by some of the real six houseguests.

At Los Angeles costume shops, West and her team were able to find many authentic period clothing items. For clothing that had to be made, they shopped for vintage fabrics because newer fabrics photograph differently. That was especially important because the movie uses real news footage from the period, so the audience’s eye is constantly comparing new filmmaking with period reality.

A particularly painstaking example of fabric obsession: Creating the many chadors worn by the women of Iran. “The women of Iran had been wearing Western clothes, because the shah had been encouraging it, but they all had to go back under the black chador, which became known as the ‘flag of the revolution,’” West says. “But they were running out of black fabric in Tehran, so women were dyeing tablecloths, bedspreads, and over-dyeing printed fabrics with black. (In Istanbul), we found a man who had access to some vintage black fabric that had been exported from Iran to Turkey. He was able to give it to us.”

The fact that Istanbul stood in for Tehran also proved a lucky break for the production designers. For example: A Los Angeles home in Hancock Park stood in for the Canadian ambassador’s home, but some of its features, including fixtures, were too updated for 1979. But fixtures from the right period were still being used in Turkey, Seymour says. “We shipped light switches and outlets from Istanbul to L.A.”

A number of Southern California locations were used: The embassy compound and interiors were shot at the Veteran’s Administration, and downtown’s Los Angeles Times offices stood in for CIA interiors. Ontario International Airport was transformed into Tehran Airport. The Warner Bros. lot in Burbank became the home of Studio Six Productions, the entity behind the phony movie—but the logo on the water tower was changed back to Burbank Studios, as it was then.

The locations weren’t so hard to find, but to furnish them, the production designers tapped a resource they would not have had in 1979: eBay. Because this is Hollywood, it wasn’t too hard to find vintage movie-set equipment, but try finding enough matched typewriters for a CIA office, a real Star Wars figure for a little boy’s bedroom, or 30-year-old TV sets that could be rewired and used to play vintage news footage. “It’s quite a long time ago, but not long enough ago that everything’s antique—it’s thrift-shop stuff almost,” West says. Affleck says a major debate ensued over whether his character would have a telephone answering machine in his apartment.

But why such attention to authenticity for an era many audience members have either forgotten or never knew? “I think all those details add up,” West says. “I think everything we do is part of the subtext of what the story is.”u

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s