With the awards-laden Argo hitting the home market this week, Cinema Editor David Watson talks to Oscar-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio.
With the awards-laden Argo hitting the home market
this week, Cinema Editor David Watson talks to Oscar-winning screenwriter Chris
1979 was a pretty momentous year. Sid Vicious died
of a heroin overdose. Scotland voted for home rule but didn’t
get it. The first Sony Walkmans went on sale. Jacko
released Off The Wall. Margaret
Thatcher swept to power becoming Britain’s first female Prime Minister. And in Iran, the Islamic Revolution
paved the way for the return from exile of the Ayatollah Khomeini and a wave of anti-Western unrest culminating in
a mob of Islamist students storming Tehran’s
US Embassy and seizing 52 American
hostages who would eventually be held for 444 days by the Iranian regime. Six US diplomats however escaped the takeover of the Embassy
and went into hiding at the homes of Canadian
Embassy staff, eventually being rescued in what came to be known as the “Canadian Caper.”
Born in 1976, screenwriter Chris Terrio was three when the Canadian Caper played out and last week deservedly won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Argo, his dramatisation of the rescue
and his first major produced screenplay.
“I live in New York and I was writing a lot of spec scripts
that weren’t getting made,” says Chris Terrio, “But I’d worked for a producer
named Nina Wolarsky who was
producing independent films in New York and she went to work for George (Clooney) and Grant (Heslov).”
“And they had this idea about making a film about this
episode and they’d optioned a magazine article about it. But they didn’t quite know what the
story was, they didn’t know whether it was like The Men Who Stare At Goats or more like Syriana or some other thing because they knew it involved all these
disparate elements and tones.
“So I asked them to let me pitch it, to let me go off and
create a pitch. So I went off and
wrote quite a long pitch about what the movie might be, including a bunch of
scenes that are still in the movie that I just scrawled as my original
take. And then, ah, I was cheap
and they hired me.”
Obviously any film that’s based on true story takes certain
liberties with the truth. Names
are changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike. Facts are massaged.
Characters become composites.
Events are sexed up, made more dramatic, more cinematic. Sacrifices always have to be made
particularly when you’re trying to make such a complex story fit the
conventions of the traditional Hollywood thriller structure.
Terrio explains: “First of all, there were other Canadian
diplomats involved in this.”
“There were John and Zena Sheardown, who are fascinating
people and kinda heroic in what they did,” says Terrio, “but as there were so
many different things going on the film, when you came back to Tehran, we felt
that we had to centre the houseguests in one house instead of in two different
houses so first of all there were things like that.
“But then there were also all these other sub-plots like the
fact that the press found out about this, which is slightly alluded to in the
film in one scene, but there was this whole other story about the press getting
hold of the story and if the press revealed it then they would have been
compromised and they could have been killed. So there was a whole sub-plot about that going on.
“There was whole other things about the Canadian Government;
they had to hold a special session of Parliament in Ottawa to approve the fake
passports because that was something Canada had never done before.”
“There were all these other stories around the main story,”
Terrio continues, “but finally I thought the railroad track you have to follow
is Tony Mendez (director Ben Affleck’s character).
“Except for the beginning, once we get to Tony, every little
tributary of the river has to come off Tony otherwise it becomes a mini-series
of all these things going on. So
in centring the story on Tony, you definitely sacrifice all these other
interesting aspects of the story.”
“Honestly, the way that things happen within the
Ambassador’s residence, in Ken Taylor’s residence,” says Terrio, “to me that’s
like a play in itself, it’s like Jean-Paul Sartre, all these people stuck in a
house together, that in itself is fascinating drama but we could only gesture
at that in the course of two hours.
“So yeah, lots of sacrifices. And some of them quite painful. But ultimately Ben and I shared the idea that if the
audience isn’t…if you’re not constantly moving the story along then nobody’s
going to see the film and then everything’s in vain. So we tried to be as economic as we could.”
A dazzling thriller which credits its audience with at least
as much intelligence as the filmmakers, the engine driving Argo is the real-life character of CIA exfiltration specialist Tony
Mendez, played in the movie by director Ben Affleck.
“He lives in Maryland now and I went down to meet him and
spend some time with him, spend nights drinking with him and getting to know
him,” says Terrio. “And then he
took me to Washington DC and took me to Langley so I got to meet other retired
CIA officers, mostly, some of whom were very active during the Cold War.
“And there’s this whole sort of…colony of former Cold War
spies who now live in DC, both on the American side and on the Soviet
side. You have certain guys who
were like KGB agents who now are buddies with Tony Mendez.
“I felt very lucky that most of the participants are still
alive and so I could get details from them that otherwise I wouldn’t be able to
get. You know you’re not gonna
necessarily find in a book the fact that the CIA “Pit,” which is the big office where things are done, that it’s
always a mess and the coffee maker didn’t work and the ashtrays were piled a
foot high and all these little textural details that give you the quotidian
sense of life as a CIA officer, which I think takes you out of a glossier
version of the intelligence world and more into the world of Argo.”
“All of the houseguests now have seen the film and they’re
really supportive,” Terrio continues.
“Joe Stafford who’s portrayed
by Scoot McNairy in the film hasn’t
seen it, he’s in the Sudan, but his wife Kathy’s seen it and everyone else has
“And once the actors playing the houseguests started talking
to the houseguests, we would get interesting moments on set where, like, Rory Cochrane who plays Lee Schatz would say to Ben: “I’m not
going to smoke in this scene because Lee didn’t smoke at this time,” Ben would
be like “I want you to smoke,” and Rory would be like “No! Lee doesn’t smoke!”
“And that’s always the tricky part of dealing with living
people. You have to give yourself
licence to fictionalise things even while you’re dwelling upon them as a
While Argo deals intelligently with a dark time in US
foreign relations and the events it depicts still reverberate today, it’s also
a sharp satire on the movie biz, turning a jaundiced eye on Hollywood, allowing
the filmmakers to successfully juggle very different tones.
“A lot of that was trial and error,” admits Terrio. “There were certain scenes that we felt
went too far into the territory of The
Player or What Makes Sammy Run? We could never get too broad as a
Hollywood satire but that said, within the film, you do have people who
embodied these disparate tones.
who John Goodman plays really was,
first of all he looked strikingly like John Goodman and second, he was this
kind of acerbic, hilarious guy who was making creature masks on the set of
sci-fi films but by night was working for the CIA developing disguise
“So right in the middle of the story, in Burbank,
California, we had the two-faced Janus who embodied two tones of the film,
which is to say, acerbic Hollywood satire and espionage thriller. So, I felt like we had this gift of
having John Chambers at the centre of the movie.
“But then, also other characters, like the Alan Arkin
character, developed around…some of it just around my own observations as kind
of an outsider coming from New York, looking at Hollywood. And some of it just because of my love
of ‘70s films that could embody that.
Like Network that so many
screenwriters always talk about, it’s a bit of a cliché, but there’s a film
where you have Paddy Chayefsky who
has almost this dark, immigrant sense of humour and he could focus that on big,
“So, at once, you could have this satirical film that is
actually about something broader and bigger and important. Whenever I was lost tonally, I would
look to those films and think “Well, they pulled it off, so if I can do it half
as well or a quarter as well as those guys, I’ll be ok.”
There are no big FX-laden action scenes in Argo; much like Tomas Alfredson’s game-changing
adaptation of John le Carre’s Tinker,
Tailor, Soldier, Spy much of the tension in key scenes is derived by
watching grey men, bureaucrats, arguing in a room. How do you make that exciting?
“It’s hard,” says Terrio. “I think of film as, primarily, a visual medium. I think there’s the theatre and there’s
fiction, prose and poetry. And
then there’s film which has to take in elements of all those kinds of writing
but ultimately is a visual experience.
“Those scenes, they’re hard. You write them and you tweet them and you keep trying
different things but ultimately you rely on the director and rely on the actors
because those scenes are so difficult to direct and you have to be so careful
not only on the day of the shoot but so careful in the casting.
“You know, Bryan
Cranston giving one loaded look to Ben Affleck tells you a whole lot that I
couldn’t accomplish in the script or Zeljko
Ivanek, who’s the State Department guy giving this ridiculous idea about
the hostages escaping on bicycles, which was a real idea by the way that the
State Department floated, that could easily sound like Theatre of the Absurd. But, you get an actor as truthful as
Zeljko, and you don’t doubt for a second that this State Department guy is
earnestly giving this bad idea.
So, there’s a lot of tweaking, but ultimately it’s in the director’s
Terrio’s admiration for Affleck is obvious and touching as
he enthuses about his director.
“Ben, and I’m not just saying this because he’s famous and
stuff,” says Terrio, “but Ben really is the easiest, smartest person to work
“This is the first movie I’ve gotten produced that I’ve
written and I really didn’t know what to expect. I got a call one day on my cell phone that Ben Affleck was
calling to talk about your script and I had no idea, I don’t know a lot of
movie stars, I didn’t know what to expect but he immediately put me at ease and
you just felt, like, he was – in a nerdy, intense way – he was dedicated to
trying to make the film good.
“And that’s where I feel like we could meet because, as a
writer, you spend a lot of time alone, I’m probably, like, a slightly awkward,
nerdy person but the great thing is when you find somebody who exists on that
same nerdy plain as you do and, maybe I’m not that good at small talk, but I
thrive if we’re talking about how to make the scene better.
“So Ben and I immediately clicked on that level because he’s
a really dedicated director and a student of film. He has a library in his house of thousands of films and can
just immediately refer to any number of films from any era, including the ‘70s
which is probably his favourite era and mine.”
A director himself, there must surely have been moments
where Terrio thought: “That should be me.
I should be directing this.”?
“It’s such a big complicated film,” says Terrio, “and my
experience in film has tended to be smaller and more independent so, sure as a
director there are definitely some moments where you think “Oh God, I’d love to
be in his chair,” but Ben was actually so inclusive and so generous about it
and so I felt like we were on the same team and I would say to him “You know,
I’m happy to be Robin if you’re Batman.”
I felt like he genuinely had a utility belt and a skillset that I didn’t
have and had so much experience and has been in so many films and directed two
very good films, I was just grateful to have somebody with his virtuosic abilities
to just get in there and make it work.”
Terrio continues: “You show up sometimes for work and it’s a
scene with thousands of extras in Istanbul outside the embassy, I think
“Christ! I’m glad I’m not in
charge of all these people! I’m
glad I’m not the guy who has to make it work!” So it’s been like free film school for me because I’ve got
to work on the script and then watch really good people execute it. But, you know, Ben and I are gonna work
together on something, we’ve made plans, we’re gonna work together again so,
yeah, I think something went right with us creatively.”
Oscar and BAFTA award
winning Argo is out on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download on Monday 4th
MARCH. Order your copy HERE