Affleck On 'Argo' And The 1979 Hostage Crisis

NPR | Jan. 15, 2013 7:22 a.m.

At Sunday’s Golden Globes, Ben Affleck looked genuinely surprised and delighted twice toward the end of the evening: first when he won Best Director for Argo, and then again when the film won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture/Drama.

The film, in which Affleck also stars, is the mostly true story of the CIA operative who helmed the rescue of six U.S. diplomats who managed to escape at the outset of the 1979 Iran crisis that held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days after militants took over the American Embassy in Tehran.

Although Affleck — who was a Middle Eastern Studies major in college — was a child when it happened, memories of the news coverage didn’t inspire his interest or influence his approach to the film.

“The earliest memory I have of … world events is President Reagan’s assassination attempt, which was 1982,” he tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “… So this was sort of history in the same way [that] doing a movie about the Revolutionary War would have been history for me. I had to start from scratch.”

The film, however, isn’t 100 percent historically accurate. There are certain plot points with which Affleck took liberty. While that might be problematic for some, Affleck says it’s part of his job as a director to tell a story in a way that will make it exciting and tense — and that sometimes slight tweaks to the plot are the result. It’s a larger truth, Affleck says, that matters.

“It’s that struggle,” he says, “between … the bookkeeper’s reality and … the poet’s reality, and you make judgments as a director. And my judgment falls really cleanly on the line of, ‘It’s okay to embellish, it’s okay to compress as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and what happened.’”

Interview Highlights

On what to believe

“I do think it’s fundamentally a really interesting question: … To what extent is it okay to make these alterations — and I wouldn’t want to comment on any other filmmaker’s work, except to say that I understand that there is definitely a push and pull and for me as a filmmaker. The line is about what I believe is … the deeper, essential truth. … You know, you can look in historical movies, dialogue gets changed because people don’t really speak that way anymore so it would be inaccessible. … Unless the movie is about that, to me, I go, ‘Okay, that’s part of the storytelling,’ but I deeply, deeply believe that one has to stay true to the essence of the events that you are telling, because you are conferring meaning. You want people to walk out of there and say, ‘I understand this more deeply.’ … And if you corrupt that, it’s a tremendous betrayal as a director.”

On directing his first movie, ‘Gone Baby Gone’

“I was very, very scared. I just didn’t know if I could do it. The only thing I can think of is … running a marathon where you just don’t know, ‘Am I even going to finish? You know, maybe I’ll fall over at mile 15 or something.’ It seems so daunting and so far, and, yeah, I had been prepared in the sense that I had directed shorts, I had always wanted to be a director. … But that just felt like very little compared to the task of directing a movie, when I went into it. And every day I was scared, and I probably stayed that scared throughout … and not sure of myself at all.”

On child actors

“I hate directing young actors. I hate auditioning them, rather. I don’t even like having them in the movie. I like to get them in and out. … I would never in a million years allow my children to be actors … as children. I would never allow them as adults, but I think I’ll have very little control over that. And I think … I find it difficult because I had some complicated experiences as a young person. When I look back on that, some of it, [it] was really valuable and some of it I think was not. And I just see kids, you know, oftentimes getting pushed out there and forced to do stuff, and maybe I’m over-reading stuff into it … [but] it’s a tricky thing. I think it says something that I wouldn’t let my kids be actors, put it that way.”

On his fondness for doing impressions

“I like to do impressions. … I feel a little bashful of it because I know it’s not really acting. Like, once you get into mimicry and impressions, it is a gift and a gift that I love to watch. The guy on SNLwho can do Denzel, to me, it’s just amazing, but I try not to rely too much on it because I know that it’s sort of like, I used to play chess a lot with my brother and Matt [Damon] when we all lived together, and then we got into speed chess, and all the teachers will say, ‘You can’t play speed chess. It will ruin your game.’ And I think there’s something about impressions a little bit that will ruin your game, because it’s just like the fast, Chinese-food-accessible version of a character.”

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