Finding “Argo”: Telling The Houseguests’ Story 30 Years Later

An exclusive clip from a documentary featuring the subjects of the Oscar front-runner.

Bringing an unknown corner of history to light after 30 years — and compressing weeks in the experiences of handfuls of individuals on different sides of the planet into a two-hour story — is a complicated matter.

Fortunately for the makers of Argo, the participants in their particular forgotten moment were ready and willing to share their story and bring it to light after decades of enforced silence. The clip above, shown exclusively on BuzzFeed, is part of a documentary about the making of Argo that’s included on the film’s soon-to-be-released DVD; it features the original “houseguests” at the Canadian embassy in Teheran speaking about their ordeal, including the parts of their story not seen in the film version. To find out more about the journey to the screen, what was included, and what was left out, we spoke with the reporter who first brought the story to the public’s attention. Joshua Bearman’s 2007 article for Wired magazine was optioned by George Clooney and became the basis of the film, which is now the runaway favorite to win the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy this weekend.

We spoke with Bearman about reassembling and understanding an incident that took place three decades ago.

BuzzFeed: How did you find out about and get involved in this tale?

Joshua Bearman: As with a lot of great journalistic tales, this story was a tip. A friend of mine, David Klawans, suggested it to me. I’ve always gravitated towards strange and unusual stories. And David said, “I’ve got a good one for you.” He had heard about it years before, in 1998, when he was browsing the Annals of Intelligence, or whatever the CIA quarterly is called. [ed.: Studies in Intelligence, a quarterly journal of declassified files.] The story had just been declassified by President Clinton, in 1997, as part of the CIA’s 50-year “jubilee.” Presumably, they wanted to put forward some examples of CIA success, especially where they’re the good guys, as part of the celebrations. That’s why the story wasn’t really known. And it was, as David suggested, a great story, and right up my alley. I pitched it to Wired, and at first they almost didn’t want to run it. There was no timeliness, no “hook,” as they say, and so there was some debate. But they realized it was a yarn worth telling, thankfully.

CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) goes into the moviemaking business with Hollywood players John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Warner Brothers

BF: When you reached out to the houseguests, how did they feel about telling their story after all this time?

JB: Most of the houseguests were glad to tell the story. Charmingly, the Lijeks and Staffords were both still together, and in the foreign service. I think the Lijeks had just retired. The Staffords were posted in West Africa. Bob Anders was retired. It was great to talk to them all, because that allowed me to piece together the narrative in better detail, as they all remembered different things. That is really unusual, to be able to report something that the same group of people all experienced exactly simultaneously. Each recollection added something, which allowed me to give the narrative atmospherics and texture, which can be hard to come by sometimes, especially when reporting a story that’s 30 years old.

BF: Were there any pieces of the story they refused to speak about?

JB: There wasn’t anything the houseguests didn’t want to talk about. Although Lee Schatz didn’t want to be interviewed. As in the film, the other houseguests, who were all fond of Lee, did say that was a “bit of an oddball,” and warned me that he might not want to talk. I tried him last, and it didn’t work out. The next time I talked to him was at the premiere of the film, five years later, in Los Angeles.

BF: With so many great pieces to this tale, were there parts of the story that you had to leave out for space?

JB: Yes, there was a lot of great tangential detail, or compelling backstory, that didn’t fit in the Wired article’s word count. Or in the film. At one point in the development of the script, there was an attempt to have a sort of “Bond opening,” where you meet Tony Mendes on another mission and see him as the Master of Disguise and exfiltration specialist. The same thing happened in editing the print story; my editor suggested we try what he also called a “Bond opening,” and I wrote a lede where Tony is in Laos, years earlier, during the Vietnam War, using movie magic to allow a CIA officer to work a clandestine asset in the Laotian cabinet. It was an interesting story, of Cold War–style spy-versus-spy in a crumbling colonial capital, and it was an episode that helped create Tony’s reputation in the agency. It was also kind of funny, because the way Tony disguised these two guys — the officer and asset — was with latex movie masks and other “identity transformation” techniques that borrowed from Hollywood and the expertise of Tony’s friend John Chambers (who is played in the film by John Goodman). And, in a bizarre twist, the masks Chambers sent Tony were from an actual film and had been made from (and for) the faces of Victor Mature and Rex Harrison.

Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) guides the “houseguests” disguised as a Canadian movie crew through the streets of Teheran. Warner Brothers

BF: Was was the hardest thing to leave out?

JB: The thing that I could fit into the article, but which didn’t really have a place in the film, was the backstory on the Argo film itself. In reality, “Argo” was the name Tony gave to a script that was in turnaround and sitting in a pile at Chambers’ house. That script was called Lord of Light and had been adapted from a successful Roger Zelazny science-fantasy novel of the same name. A small-time self-starting dreamer who called himself a “producer” — isn’t that how it always starts? — named Barry Geller had optioned Zelazny’s book himself and raised money to get the project started. He hired Jack Kirby to do concept art and Chambers to make the alien masks. But the whole project fell apart when Geller staged a press conference in Aurora, Colorado, where he announced his intention to film Lord of Light there, and then use the sets to create a theme park, called Science Fiction Land. Geller told the assembled press that this theme park would include a 300-foot-tall Ferris wheel, voice-operated mag-lev cars, a “planetary control room” staffed by robots, and a heated dome a half-mile high. (That’s twice the size of the Empire State Building.)

Rosey Grier was at the press conference with people dressed like aliens. The assembled press thought, sensibly, this sounded crazy, and quickly discovered that theLord of Light project had a lot of holes, including the fact that the production manager Geller hired had allegedly embezzled the movie’s funds. It crashed and burned, leaving the drawings and the half-written script — or really, a treatment, as I understand it — which was why that stuff was at Chambers’ house when Tony showed up, looking to create his movie crew cover for Tehran.

BF: What’s the significance of all that to you, as far as the tale goes?

JB: I always loved how the story gets at this parallel between statecraft and stagecraft, and the similarities of Washington and Hollywood, being in the same business, as politics is so much about image and projecting an illusion. The nested layers of para-reality go even deeper if you think about how the CIA’s fake movie was created out of an existing fake movie. But that’s a complicated story to tell in a two-hour movie narrative. I always missed that little detail, but I have to say that my favorite scene in the film contains the ghost of Geller’s fake film: the long sequence built around the table read at the Beverly Hilton. I just think that’s a brilliant moment, combining the idea of the Lord of Light press conference with the fact that the hostage crisis itself was a giant press conference, and visually showing the presentation of artifice, Hollywood style, and in geopolitics, while advancing the story so dramatically. Without getting into the particulars and details of Lord of Light, that scene gets the weirdness and thematic grandeur of that weirdness really well.

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