So you want to write a screenplay. Now you are starting your journey of swimming up-river. Don’t give up. In Hollywood anything can happen. What I found out during the Toronto International Film Festival from Chris Terrio.
Before “Argo,” screenwriter Chris Terrio had written half a dozen screenplays–three of them had landed on Hollywood’s “Black List” while the rest sat in a drawer for years.
But “Argo,” Terrio’s first script to be plucked from the Black List for feature-film production, was directed by Ben Affleck and produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov. It has also led to an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Terrio.
“I had screenplays that went around Hollywood and independent film land, that got close and didn’t make it,” Terrio said.
“So I feel like I’ve won the lottery to have a movie that a) gets made, b) gets made by a great film director, and c) to have people see it and to even have it in the same conversation as other films this year,” he said.
“Argo” has been on an award-collecting path to the Oscars that will air on Feb. 24. The film recently won the BAFTA, Golden Globe (Drama) and the Critics Choice Awards for Best Picture, and it’s nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture.
Terrio also won the Scripter Award, which he shared with journalist Joshuah Bearman and Antonio Mendez, the real-life CIA officer who hatched the plan for staging a fake Hollywood movie called “Argo” to free six Americans hiding in Tehran amid the Iran Hostage Crisis.
How did you collaborate with Tony Mendez on this screenplay?
In the summer of 2009, I went down to Maryland and spent some time with him. He lives at the edge of the woods in what looks like Ken Burns Civil War documentary territory. So we spent time just hanging out, having dinner, talking, having a bottle of wine. He then took me to Washington D.C. and to the CIA. So I was able to get a tour of Langley and see some of the more public spaces which then ended up being exactly where we shot. I was brought to those halls of the CIA that still kind of looked like a 1960s building. Even the same art is on the wall in 1979 in some cases. Then he started introducing me to other Cold War spies, many of whom still live in the D.C. area because a lot of them work as consultants for security companies. In some cases they were KGB spies that were Tony’s nemeses in the Cold War.
How did he react when he read it? For example, he was still married during the operation, which differed from the film.
That was something that I worried about because Tony’s first wife passed away and in the film, what we say is that they’re taking time off, which is that they’re not living together. Famously, the CIA is somewhere where marriages hardly ever last because it’s obviously such a strange lifestyle. I tried to extrapolate some of the tensions in Tony’s personal life and then just physicalize them by saying Tony and his wife aren’t living in the same spot. Tony and his first wife in some ways had a successful CIA marriage because until unfortunately she passed away, they were together. But Tony was okay with my trying to dramatize the low boil of tension that’s always in a marriage like that. In fact there’s a scene in the film that’s taken right out of what Tony told me, which is when Tony Mendez takes off his wedding ring and puts it down on the dresser before he heads off to Tehran, which was kind of a ritual Tony always did. He would quietly sort of take off his wedding ring, always put it in the same little bowl, and then he’d go off assuming a new identity. In that same shot of the film, you see a photograph of a little boy, and that is Ian Mendez, Tony’s real son, who also passed away.
Talk about some of the liberties that you and Affleck took at the end of the film, particularly the escape scene, compared with the actual exfiltration.
We put so much deliberation and debate into it because the end of the film does unapologetically use drama elements to try and grab the audience by the collar and say, here, watch this. In a film, you have to externalize things that are internal and of course it becomes a debate about to what extent you do that. You have to create the mimetic experience of the lived moment and when you read about the house guests and later when we talk to the house guests, they would describe this incredible euphoria when the plane took off. That they almost couldn’t believe it. So we have the advantage in 2013 of living in the future and knowing that six people were not executed in Tehran in 1980, and so the question becomes, how do you then work against what your head is telling you and put the audience in an almost physical experience of what it was like to be on the plane? Ben and I decided that we were going to really go for it and use sight and sound in the cinema in a way that could make you feel as tense as the house guests actually were. It’s not something we take lightly. I certainly don’t take it lightly as a screenwriter. I think there are lines that you draw yourself. You draw yourself a tennis court and you say I’m not going to step out of these lines. I would not have people shooting at the plane. I would not have had people killed on the runway. I would not have had one of the house guests left behind. There are certain things I would not have done, but tonally to create a really tense scene is something that within those bounds I certainly feel a dramatic license allows us to do.by