'Argo' Screenwriter Chris Terrio (Photo: Paul A. Hebert/Getty Images)Chris Terrio, 36, will discuss just about anything relating to his Oscar-nominated adapted screenplay "Argo" - but don't hold his S's against him. He's just had dental surgery, and been to London and back for the BAFTAs. He politely apologizes in advance for "whistling in your ears" -- and he whistles when he does so.
No apology is necessary since there's not a single "s" in Ben Affleck or the movie's title -- and the writer's startlingly articulate for someone jet-lagged and on painkillers. Although he directed the indie drama "Heights," Terrio's sudden renown riding shotgun with Affleck is about as believable as Hollywood collaborating with CIA Agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) to rescue six cornered Americans in Tehran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-80. Oh, wait, that's the story of "Argo!"
Thelma Adams: Were there details from the true story you wanted to include but had to shave?
Chris Terrio: There were. For example, there were more details about the role of the Canadian government. They held a special session of parliament in Ottawa to approve the false passports, but we ran out of time. There was also a subplot about how the Canadian press, the "New York Times" and the "New York Post" got hold of the story but did a good thing by withholding the info about the six.
TA: And the Hollywood side of the tale?
CT: In real life, John Chambers, the character played by John Goodman, and the "Argo" production office that included Alan Arkin's character heard movie pitches from writers. I wrote a scene with young writers pitching to Arkin and Goodman who were trying to keep up the façade. That was where we had to have talks about the tone, because it was like "The Player" and they'd be fun to shoot and maybe funny. But the humor had to be rooted in the characters and the story. There was a line when Arkin says, "I'll tell you one thing: you ain't getting Kate Hepburn to play no mute." But you couldn't have a scene of movie pitches just to have a few acerbic producer lines.
TA: Were you sad that the pretend movie in "Argo" was never realized on screen?
CT: I had to make up what the film-within-the-film "Argo" was because we didn't own the rights to that script, which was originally called "Lord of Light." We wanted a slightly cheesy "Star Wars" rip-off but not in the land of total absurdity. It had that visually freakish scene with the blue Wookie, but the words had to almost sound like J. R. R. Tolkien. It had to have a mythic tone, so that the Hollywood media spectacle, and the words of the sci-fi script, had to carry over to a hairpin turn to something really grave. Yes, they were reciting a bad script, but bad in a very particular way to have it cut together to make sense. The action cuts from the production media event to an array of cameras in Tehran with Tehran Mary, the propagandist of the hostage crisis, saying the CIA are the biggest villains in the world. It was a recreation of an actual press conference in Tehran. Then you cut to the hostages in the basement of the embassy. So, you go from the "Argo" reading to the media spectacle of the Tehran press conference, then inside the Canadian Ambassador's house, and back to the CIA. Ben and I knew that that sequence was make or break. The tone was everything: from the blue Wookie to the Iranian propagandist to the CIA to the streets of Tehran.
TA: How did you feel when you initially saw the rough cut?
CT: The first day I saw a cut was quite emotional. Before then I was asking who knows if this movie will work, who knows if anybody will see it. After that, Ben and I knew we'd hit upon the tone we were hoping for.
TA: In "Argo," the audience is constantly shifting between the dramatic action and what the media portrays with news cameras, watching events and watching events unfold on TV.
CT: The element of the film I'm not sure I've discussed a lot is how world history plays out in the media. In Tehran, the 444 days of the Iran Hostage Crisis was the first world event in which you could literally have live events beamed into your living room. Now, every world event plays out on its own, and as a media event. The person that controls the narrative controls politics and history: The Iranian revolutionaries were very conscious of this fact. The Ayatollah sat down with Mike Wallace on "Sixty Minutes." It's important and carries on to what's happening now in the Middle East.
TA: A colleague saw "Argo" at the Toronto International Film Festival on the same September day that the news broke about the Islamist militant attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi. She said she watched two hours of CNN before she screened the film, and felt guilty about laughing:
CT: Of all the unhappy accidents to hear about at Toronto was that Benghazi was happening. It was startling - the American embassy diplomatic compound attacked by militants. It stirred up these incoherent feelings in my head, and how the relationship starts at this moment [in "Argo"] at the gates of the Iranian Embassy in 1979. For Iranians, that story started in the 1950's. The embassy is act two for many Iranians. For many Americans it is act one.
TA: Since "Argo" premiered in September, you must have felt the awards groundswell. You'd gotten the tone right. You had a smart film and an entertaining one - and then came "Zero Dark Thirty" in November. Here was another ripped from the headlines movie about the Middle East, but it was much darker in tone. What was your immediate reaction?
CT: I'd heard that Kathryn Bigelow was making a Bin Laden film before Bin Laden was captured. In awards season you almost get into this mindset where it seems like we're all competition and we're worried elbowing each other out of the way. Honestly, most of us are interested in seeing good movies. My first thought was that if Kathryn takes on the Bin Laden episode, I'm excited to see it, as opposed to oh, no, they're similar CIA operations and there's going to be room for one and not the other. When people see good movies they come back to see good movies and we all help each other. There is good adult storytelling in movie theaters, although we did blame Bryan Cranston [who plays a CIA Agent] on the set that he's one of the people responsible for the death of cinema because you could stay home and watch good stories on cable on "Breaking Bad."
Watch the behind-the-scenes featurette "'Argo' Declassified":