Written By January 2013 : Page 26
WrITTEN BY Lisa Rosen POrTrAITS BY iLona LieBeRMan Chris Terrio’s cAreer is exfiltrAted by Argo. A rgo, the real movie, tells the incredible tale of how “Argo,” a fake movie, helped save the lives of six Americans hiding in Iran after the fall of the U.S. Embassy in 1979. Chris Terrio, the screenwriter who tackled the truly phony story, of-ten found the whole experience unbelievable. “We were at the Beverly Hilton Hotel having the Argo press junket about a movie that has an ‘Argo’ press junket in the Beverly Hilton Hotel,” he says. “It got extremely meta.” But then again, surreal moments have marked Terrio’s career from its inception. The New York native attended the graduate pro-duction program at USC, then headed back to the east coast the night his student film was complet-ed. “I had my car packed up in the parking lot of FotoKem, and I left straight from there.” He looks only slightly more comfortable back in Los Ange-les now, ensconced in a shady corner of a poolside café at the Four Seasons, his laptop and a can of Diet Coke at the ready. But he insists he holds no hatred toward L.A. “It’s more that there’s something about being Back East that’s just in my DNA. Maybe as New Yorkers we fetishize misery and the slightly less pleasant day-to-day of living in a big city.” After graduation, Terrio wasn’t home long before landing his first job out of school, at Ismail/Mer-chant, one of the few film companies in New York at that time. He was hired to make an EPK of their film Le Divorce . “I had no idea what I was doing, but I did know how to work a video camera and hook up a microphone, so I got to watch that movie shoot in Paris for two months.” 26 • You Can’t Make This stuff Up WG a W W R itten By J ANU AR Y 20 13
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
Chris Terrio’s career is exfiltrated by Argo.
Argo, the real movie, tells the incredible tale of how “Argo,” a fake movie, helped save the lives of six Americans hiding in Iran after the fall of the U.S. Embassy in 1979. Chris Terrio, the screenwriter who tackled the truly phony story, often found the whole experience unbelievable. “We were at the Beverly Hilton Hotel having the Argo press junket about a movie that has an ‘Argo’ press junket in the Beverly Hilton Hotel,” he says. “It got extremely meta.”
But then again, surreal moments have marked Terrio’s career from its inception.
The New York native attended the graduate production program at USC, then headed back to the east coast the night his student film was completed.“I had my car packed up in the parking lot of FotoKem, and I left straight from there.” He looks only slightly more comfortable back in Los Angeles now, ensconced in a shady corner of a poolside café at the Four Seasons, his laptop and a can of Diet Coke at the ready. But he insists he holds no hatred toward L.A. “It’s more that there’s something about being Back East that’s just in my DNA. Maybe as New Yorkers we fetishize misery and the slightly less pleasant day-to-day of living in a big city.”
After graduation, Terrio wasn’t home long before landing his first job out of school, at Ismail/Merchant, one of the few film companies in New York at that time. He was hired to make an EPK of their film Le Divorce. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I did know how to work a video camera and hook up a microphone, so I got to watch that movie shoot in Paris for two months.”
He must have done something right because Ismail/Merchant next asked Terrio if he wanted to direct a love-triangle movie called Heights, with a million-dollar budget. He hesitated.“There’s almost a Sundance myth that your first film has to be your letter to the world.” Terrio cites Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher and Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry as examples.“Heights wasn’t something I originated. Nonetheless it was a world I had seen and knew about, which was 20-somethings in New York who were trying to be in the arts.” And so the 26-year-old Terrio directed his first feature, Sony Classics picked it up, and Heights did indeed go to Sun dance. “When that happened, I thought, Okay, I’m ready to be a famous director, but of course nothing ever works that way.”
The directing offers he subsequently received were all Heights-like, and he wasn’t interested in retreading that ground. Instead, he went broke. “My thought was, I’m just going to start writing and figure out what movie I would want to make if I could make any movie in the world.”
He took random jobs temping, working as a messenger, delivering gift baskets: “You name it, I was doing it.” When Heights was released, he was invited on The Charlie Rose Show. “I was working as a receptionist at an editing company,” he recalls. “I was happy to have the job, but I would lead people to think that I was directing or editing commercials when I was taking sushi orders.”
His first script, about teens and the drug trade, landed an agent and a deal at Hart-Sharpe Entertainment to adapt the play 10 Unknowns by Jon Robin Baitz. Then Hart-Sharpe folded; Terrio’s sole consolation was that their development director, Nina Wolarsky, promised she’d find another project for him.
A year later, working for George Clooney and Grant Heslov at their production company, Smoke House, Wolarsky kept her word. They had optioned the rights to an article in Wired magazine by Joshuah Bearman, along with a chapter in former CIA officer Tony Mendez’s book The Master of Disguise, about a risky rescue in Iran. Did Terrio want to take a crack at pitching it?
His initial thought: Not really. “It was a weird time for me,” he explains. “Again, I didn’t know what my next job was or how I was going to pay my rent, yet I slightly resisted the idea [of the hostage script] because when I first heard it, I was afraid it would be one of those snarky ‘we’re so clever’ movies, where it takes a serious geopolitical issue and turns it into a big joke.”
Then Terrio read the material.
The true story seemed unbelievable: During the Embassy takeover, six diplomats managed to escape and hide out in various places in Tehran, including the residence of the Canadian ambassador.The CIA got wind of these “house guests” and came up with a variety of exfiltrations (CIA speak for getting people out of dangerous locations).None seemed plausible.Mendez, an expert in such rescue operations, heard a series of crackpot ideas before hitting on the most cracked: disguise the group as a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for a science-fiction film called “Argo.” Employing Hollywood colleagues to create the cover production, Mendez smuggled the hostages out of Iran. It all Remained secret and the CIA hadn’t received credit for the rescue, because the operation was classified until 1997.
Terrio found the story compelling and liked the challenge of telling it. “You could find a tone that both honored the seriousness of the subject and also had slightly ironic rhythm to it.”
As he walked from his apartment in Little Italy to pitch Wolarsky at the Mercer Hotel, still struggling with his approach, an idea struck him. What if the operation hadn’t been classified, and in 1980 the film could have been made by somebody like Sidney Lumet and cast with some of those great actors of the time? “Once I began to imagine that the movie was written by a better writer than I was—Goldman or one of those guys—then I started to feel like the characters showed up and could start talking.” He even used the name Jack, for actor Jack Warden, as a placeholder for Bryan Cranston’s CIA boss; the name stuck.
The Smokehouse folks liked the pitch, and his subsequent two-page outline sealed the deal. Terrio dove into research, reading accounts and studying documentary footage from the period. The story encompassed three environments: Hollywood, the CIA, and Tehran. Not only were they disparate and dated to 1979—each would be an insider’s world that he had to penetrate.
“The ghost of John Chambers gave me a little window into the Hollywood world,” Terrio says. The Oscar-winning makeup artist, who died in 2001, had helped Mendez with previous exfiltrations and was key in creating an ersatz film production to fool Iranian officials. His name is still classified, so Mendez had to use the name Jerome Calloway when recounting stories about Chambers. “Apparently John was hilarious. He used to hang out in Burbank and drink these gigantic margaritas that were named after him. He was always cracking everybody up on set.”
The character of producer Lester Siegel, a composite of a couple of participants, came to Terrio soon after that, birthed not only of Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run archetypes but also a friend’s dad from Brooklyn. “He has a bit of that Lower East Side acerbic irony in him. I heard his voice in my head. I kept thinking about how, if Lester is about 80 in 1980, he was born in the turn of the century. Just like most of those producers of Hollywood’s golden age, he came from the Lower East Side and took the same street smarts he might have used selling dresses on Orchard Street and brought those to selling movies to Hollywood.”
Those characters defined Hollywood for Terrio, rather than Hollywood defining the characters.
The writer also watched every classic Hollywood satire he could find, sometimes just to make sure he wasn’t stealing anything. “I don’t know if other writers have this paranoia, but sometimes you think of a joke, and then you think, Oh shit, is that my joke? I don’t even know where that came from. I’m worried I stole it from somewhere.”
In one of the (original) jokes sure to be a favorite of screenwriters everywhere, Mendez asks Chambers, “Can you teach somebody how to be a director in a day?” The reply: “You can teach a rhesus monkey how to be a director in a day.” The line changed slightly on set thanks to, well, director Ben Affleck.“There’s no how in the delivery,” Terrio points out. “It’s funny how in comedy, one syllable will completely change whether or not it works.” He credits Affleck’s ear, as both a writer and actor, with such improvements.
The actual “Argo” was a script treatment by Barry Geller, based on a book by Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light. Warner Bros. Didn’t want to use the real fake screenplay, so Terrio wrote a fake fake one. “That in itself was really fun, to imagine the film within the film within the film.”
The Hollywood scenes are funnier than one would expect, intercut as they are with action and suspense. Terrio and Affleck discussed how to keep from going too far. “I just kept saying, ‘Don’t be afraid to tell people to throw the line away,’” Terrio says. He references a favorite film, Network, with its casually tossed off one-liners. “There’s that great scene when Faye Dunaway’s assistant is describing all these proposals for new shows and describes one called Amazon Squad, and without even looking up, Faye Dunaway says, ‘Lady cops?’ The shot might even be on her back. I always thought of lady cops as the model for some of the jokes.”
Making the leap from Hollywood to the CIA was easier than Terrio anticipated, once he realized they’re both in the bullshit business. “That was one of the insights that convinced me I could write the script.”
To learn more about the CIA, Terrio drove to rural Maryland and spent time with Mendez. Over the years, the retired Agent had been interviewed extensively about the rescue, “so part of my job was to knock him off stride a little bit in the things that I asked.” The writer came away with small, telling details of CIA office life, down to overflowing ashtrays and coffee pots with signs that read, change filter if you use, do unto others. (Upon finishing the script, Terrio discovered actual CIA office photos from the period matching Mendez’s memory—and Terrio’s description—perfectly.)
To research Tehran, Terrio intended to grab his backpack and jump on a plane, but that approach was strongly discouraged, so he had to rely on what he read and reviewed. He spent endless hours at the Paley Center for Media, watching news programs from the period, and inserted actual footage in the script to provide some key plot beats. He found a particularly telling moment in an episode of the nightly show America Held Hostage. “There’s a guy named Jack Stroup, in a place that ABC News considered a barometer community: Pecatonica, Illinois.They interview him in a bar, and he says, ‘I’m just like that guy in that movie program Network. I’ve had enough, and I’m not going to take it. And if I have to, I’ll bear arms again.’ That day I got goose bumps.He was invoking one of my heroes and a movie that I kept thinking about when I was preparing to write the script.”
Now that moment is in Argo.
The film assumes that the audience Is smart enough to catch on to the swirl of events.Nobody explains what an exfiltration is or even uses the full word. After all that research, Terrio notes, “You get to the point where you have the same impatience with saying the four syllables of exfiltration as the actual exfiltrators do, so it starts to become natural that you call something an exfil.”
After circling the script as long as he dared procrastinate, Terrio borrowed a friend’s house in upstate New York and shut himself in to write, breaking for little more than daily walks to the supermarket to pick up 12-packs of Diet Coke.
Warner Bros. Had asked for one addition to the outline: an opening scene that set up Tony Mendez’s character. Terrio refers to it as the Indiana Jones beginning “that just tosses you into the action and off you go.” He worked for weeks on the sequence, an elaborate Cold War exfil in Moscow.Eventually it was deleted because it gave the film two big openers, one in Russia and another in Iran. “I knew somehow, in a Darwinian sense, that it was a tail that wasn’t needed, and it was going to fall away,” he says of the scene.“The weird thing is, writing that whole Moscow monologue gave me the rhythm of the film. So even though it was cut, I kind of thank God that I spent so much time writing it, because it started to tell me how people talk in this world.”
From the outset, Terrio had envisioned the script’s centerpiece.“I wasn’t exactly sure how it would play out, but I started to imagine wallpapering this trip around the world to these disparate parts of the story with a reading of the science-fiction fantasy that is ‘Argo.’” One day on set, Affleck called him over to a monitor to watch an early cut of the scene; Tehran Mary speaks at a press conference in Tehran while actors read their parts in Hollywood.“I’m not a terribly emotional person, but I think I started to cry,” Terrio admits. “That probably sounds cheesy and I’m embarrassed to say it, but all of us who are writers live in a pretty lonely place in our heads, and you never imagine that some idea you have walking in Little Italy is going to someday become this beautifully realized Hollywood movie.”
At that point in the shoot, he had no clue if the rest of the film would work, but from that scene, he saw the possibility that the tones would mesh. “If Ben reads that I cried, he’s going to make fun of me for about a year, but that’s okay,” Terrio adds, before asking if perhaps Affleck’s Written By subscription could lapse for an issue.
When Affleck first came onto the Project, he asked to see all of the scenes Terrio had deleted. He brought back a few, including the negotiations between Lester and Max Klein over the “Argo” script, which Terrio had cut for fear of straying too far into the world of The Player. “Ben gave me some notes about the way in which Lester bests Max. He had a sense of what the topper was going to be.” Terrio welcomed the input. “Whenever I hit a wall or was lost, I would look to him for guidance, not only as a director but as a writer.”
During the shoot, Terrio was on set for all but the first week.Affleck had the crazy notion that it would be helpful to include the one other person who knew the story as well as he did.
Their only battle was over the film’s opening, and Terrio is now glad he lost. “I kept arguing with Ben that it should be like Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday; you should just be dropped into the action right in the middle of the riot in Tehran, and the audience will catch up. And Ben said, ‘I think we need context.’” The film opens with a prologue that swiftly describes the history of the Shah’s accession to power, reign and fall, the Iranian revolution and subsequent hostage crisis. Storyboards illustrate the action, linking the prologue to the rest of the film thematically as well.
Truth in Artifice
Terrio agonized over the story’s flights from fact that any adaptation necessitates. He knew that the actual houseguests had hid in different locations, separately, throughout their ordeal. Two Canadians, John and Zena Sheardown, sheltered some of them for a time. Zena was Ghanaian and didn’t even have the protection that a Canadian national had, yet she took the risk. Terrio was desperate to include their involvement.“I tried, but if you were going to two different locations every time you went to Tehran after being in Washington and Hollywood, it was disorienting.” So he combined the Sheardowns with Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and his wife, Pat, and put all the Americans together in their home.
The houseguests’ tension-filled visit to the Tehran bazaar didn’t actually take place either, but Terrio created the scene to viscerally portray how trapped they were, surrounded by a hostile population, with no escape. He declares that, “It’s almost this Joseph Campbell journey, going into the belly of the beast.”
Another dilemma was how to keep the Hollywood subplot active through the end of the film. “There was a detail in the article that said the phone in the [fake production] office only rang once,” Terrio explains. “I got to thinking that their only job was manning the phone. So what if you could create some obstacle whereby they couldn’t get back to the phone? That’s how the shoot on the back lot came into play. It was Ben’s idea to stage it as a bad-looking fake-fight over a cop car, which I loved.”
Most challenging was the climax of the film, a perilous escape that didn’t actually occur. “I had a dark night of the soul about the very ending,” Terrio confesses. “I was afraid that it was falling too much into genre territory.” But after reading the houseguests’ accounts of the rescue, and their relief and euphoria, he felt motivated to evoke those same feelings in the audience. “In many cases, the job of the filmmaker and the writer is to create empathy and to put you in the shoes of the people having the experience. Suspense is one of the tools in your toolbox.” He adds that much of the danger was real.It was simply concentrated, and as in the film’s ending, the houseguests were largely unaware of the danger.
Terrio did stick to one reality. “No bullets are fired in the rescue. It’s done purely through imagination and bullshitting and storytelling.” That crucial point is exemplified by Mendez’s line to a recalcitrant houseguest: “I think my story’s the only thing between you and a gun to your head.”
As he wove together the threads of drama, satire, and thriller, another thought came to Terrio: A border is in itself a fiction.“We’ve collectively decided to believe the story that if you step over here, you’re in the United States, and if you step over there, you’re in Iran. The protesters decided they weren’t going to believe that story, and they were just going to charge on through and write their own story.” With that realization, an even deeper theme emerged. “So much of not only international relations but also human relations, depend on the stories we tell each other, and whether or not we believe them.”
But the very ending of the movie put aside such weighty issues for a simpler truth: Tony’s motivation, throughout his hero’s journey, was always to get back home. Terrio had the scene in mind from the beginning: Tony in his son’s bedroom, an “Argo” storyboard sitting on a shelf in the background.
“I knew that I wanted to get to a place where you could have that last scene with Tony and Ian in the bedroom, after watching Tony blown this way and that throughout the movie.” The room is chockful of science fiction paraphernalia— Star Wars sheets and Millenium Falcons—just as Terrio’s room was decorated when he was a child. Affleck’s too. “That was probably the other really moving moment to me on the set,” says Terrio: seeing their childhood rooms through the monitor.
Not that it made anyone cry or anything.