Argo: Location Shooting–Washington D.C.

The story of “Argo” opens with the explosive events in Iran, which trigger strong reactions in Washington, DC, ultimately leading to rescue plans unfolding in Hollywood. In navigating between those disparate settings, Affleck collaborated with his creative teams to depict the culture clashes, as well as the times. “My main goal was that it all had to feel organic and not self-conscious,” says Affleck. “Everything from the sets to the clothes to the hairstyles had to blend into the background, and also be unimpeachable in terms of accuracy.”

Affleck and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto endeavored to evoke what the latter calls “a visual tapestry that gives a specific quality and frame of reference to each section of the film. We wanted to help the audience instantly identify where we are as soon as the images change on the screen.”

This was especially important, as there were segments shot in Los Angeles that would need to blend seamlessly with other perspectives of the same scene, accomplished later on location—whether in Washington, DC, or in Turkey, which stood in for Iran. Prieto continues, “We needed to unify the look of each section, even if shots were done in different parts of the world.”

One example Prieto points to is the harrowing embassy takeover, which sets “Argo” in motion. “The embassy compound and interiors were filmed at the Veteran’s Administration north of Los Angeles, while everything outside the embassy wall was shot weeks later in Istanbul. We connected the Iran-set sequences with a distinctly granular texture to enhance the feeling of uneasiness.”

For scenes within the ambassador’s home, Affleck mainly utilized handheld cameras but qualifies, “I didn’t want it to be obvious; I told them not to add any shake, no pop zooms. Instead, I had the actors do the scene as written a few times and then I would have them start improvising, so what resulted was the cameramen were the ones improvising. They’d be expecting one person to talk and then somebody else would speak, so it’s that feeling of shifting your attention as you normally would in a conversation.”

By contrast, Affleck says, “For the DC scenes, there was nothing handheld; it was all on the dolly so the movements were much smoother and more grounded. Then for Hollywood, I put in a lot of zooms—zooms from helicopters, zooms from cars—which was a technique you saw a lot in the ’70s. And the color was much more saturated. So, photographically, every setting has a very specific look.”

Production designer Sharon Seymour and costume designer Jacqueline West collaborated with Affleck to establish the period and backdrops in a more tactile way. With the help of researcher Max Daly, they began by poring over scores of photographs and stacks of print media, and watching hours of television news footage and movies.

Seymour observes, “So much has changed that we take for granted now. Technology was totally different; there weren’t computers on every desk. For all the office scenes, we had to track down old typewriters, telexes, and other equipment we don’t see, or hear, anymore.”

The Los Angeles Times building in Downtown L.A. was repurposed for various interiors, including the ’70s-era offices and conference rooms of the CIA. In dressing the sets, Seymour’s team paid careful attention to even the smallest details, from the ubiquitous ashtrays, which would be unseemly today, to the world maps, which have drastically changed over the last three decades.

In designing costumes for those working at the CIA or in other areas of government, West offers that, despite the serious nature of their jobs, “the ’70s were a wonderfully freeing time, when even somewhat conservative people could express themselves in their clothes. There were colorful wide ties and plaids with prints… All of the fashion rules were broken. Working on movies is wonderful in that way—you get to live, for a while, in another time and place. I loved it.”

For the character of Tony Mendez, the costume designer had the added bonus of being able to consult Affleck’s real-life counterpart. West confirms, “I emailed Tony and asked him for a description of what he wore, and it was lovely of him to share that with me. When he went on missions, he turned into what he calls ‘the little gray man,’ so he would kind of disappear into the crowd. But at the CIA, I figured he wasn’t so much of a suit guy, more of an independent thinker. I found out he did sometimes wear suits, but he preferred herringbone Harris Tweed jackets, so that’s something I put Ben in.”

West reasoned that the six houseguests would have limited wardrobe changes, as they arrived at the Taylors’ home with just the clothes on their backs. “We assumed that they would exchange a piece here, or there or that Pat Taylor might have brought them some things, but overall, their look stays pretty much the same throughout.”

The Canadian ambassador’s home was located in the Los Angeles suburb of Hancock Park. The flow between the rooms of the house, as well as the existing decor, lent themselves perfectly to the production. Seymour comments, “Avocado was the color for kitchens at the time, and the kitchen in that house had never been redone. In fact, it was more lime than avocado, with green and white tiles and fern-colored wallpaper. When I walked in, I thought, ‘Oh my, this is even better, or should I say worse, than I could have designed it,'” she laughs.

Studio Six Productions set up its offices on the Warner Bros. lot, where the logo on the emblematic water tower was changed back to The Burbank Studios, as it was known then. Down the street from the studio, Mendez and Chambers began developing their fake movie at the historic SmokeHouse Restaurant, from which Clooney and Heslov took their production company name.

Going over the hill from the San Fernando Valley, scenes were also filmed at the luxurious Beverly Hilton Hotel. A posh Bel Air house once owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor became the home of Lester Siegel.

Befitting his status, Lester drives a 1975 gold Rolls Royce, while John Chambers sports a ’77 Cadillac Eldorado. Picture car coordinator Ted Moser was charged with finding and, in some cases, refurbishing those and other now-vintage vehicles, including the gleaming Airstream trailer, which serves as Chambers’ headquarters. He remarks, “We polished it up to the nines and then crafted the inside to be this cool makeup trailer. We also restored his Eldorado to look like new, but the background vehicles couldn’t look like they came out of car clubs.”

That especially applied to the assortment of cars Moser gathered for the Iran sequences, including Granadas, Fiats, Peugots, Mavericks, and a VW Bus, as well as a 1962 Unimog troop transport and the classic Matador cop cars that are seen in a nail-biting chase sequence at the Tehran Airport.

Ontario International Airport, about 150 miles east of Los Angeles, stood in for the crowded Tehran Airport. Seymour’s team dressed the terminal with Farsi signage, as well as giant posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Affleck recalls, “We were fortunate to have many Persian extras, some of whom had been in Iran during the Revolution. I was very gratified when they would come up to us and say, ‘This brings me back 30 years…’ and tell us their stories. They were also very committed to helping us make it right; in fact, some of them really got into it, pointing out the tiniest discrepancies. It did allow me to needle Sharon, like, ‘Sharon, that man told me the lion is wrong on this poster. I can’t believe you let this happen,'” he grins.

The filmmakers knew it was unfeasible to shoot on location in Iran, so they chose Istanbul, in neighboring Turkey, to stand in for Tehran. The only city in the world to span two continents—bridging Europe and Asia—Istanbul also serves as Tony Mendez’s transit point, where he obtains his visa from the Iranian Consulate.

“Istanbul is a phenomenal city to be in and work in,” Affleck states. “We were all struck by the friendliness of everyone we met. We were also enormously grateful for the outstanding local crew and the cooperation of the public.”

Notably, two of Istanbul’s most magnificent landmarks were used to film scenes set in the ancient city: the Blue Mosque, which is viewed only from the outside; and the interior of the Hagia Sofia, where Tony Mendez has a clandestine meeting with a British Intelligence counterpart. Says Affleck, “The Hagia Sofia is an incredible place because it was a church, then a mosque and it’s now a museum, so it truly represents an intersection of cultures.”

One large space in which they were shooting is lit by dozens of circular chandeliers, the light bulbs for which had, in recent years, been converted to compact fluorescents. Unfortunately, they cast too harsh a light—not to mention they did not exist in 1980. Members of the crew worked overnight to switch out the more than 4,000 bulbs, resulting in the softer light the filmmakers needed.

Perhaps the most challenging sequence was the escalating demonstration that boils over into the breach of the U.S. Embassy’s Roosevelt Gate. The scene was accomplished on a soccer pitch in the residential district of Barkikoy. The field could accommodate the more than 1,300 people, all shouting anti-American chants in Farsi, which swell to a deafening crescendo.

Dressing the extras was an especially daunting task because Jacqueline West not only had to accurately reflect the time but also the mores of that society. She says, “We made hundreds of chadors, the long, black cloak the women wore, and also made all the clothes for the Mullahs. Military jackets, in the style of Castro or Che Guevara, were the badge of the revolutionaries, so we provided dozens of those. But it was a cast of thousands, so we had to be very resourceful in either creating or finding everything we needed.”

To bring the audience directly into the erupting chaos, Affleck infiltrated the mob with cameramen dressed as extras, armed with 16mm cameras to shoot random footage. In addition, the director, along with several others, waded into the throng to film the mounting riot in Super 8. “The negative for Super 8 is tiny, so when it’s blown up in a movie theatre, it looks incredibly grainy,” Affleck explains. “Pulled together, it all looked and felt so much like the actual imagery, but other than the little bit of stock footage that you see on the TVs, it’s all new.”

Chris Terrio comments, “It’s chilling because it looks so much like the archival material. There was a sea of humanity outside the embassy gates, and that’s what they re-created. The extras really got swept up in it, because you can’t help but feel the energy when you’re in a crowd of people with that kind of fervor.”

That also held true for the smaller yet equally vehement demonstration that Mendez and the six houseguests—now posing as a Canadian film crew—must drive through on the way to their supposed location scout in the Grand Bazaar.

“When they started rocking the van, we were genuinely frightened,” Clea DuVall affirms. “It did feel like it could tip over, and there were all these people screaming at us. I can tell you, it definitely didn’t require much acting to appear nervous.”

Christopher Denham adds, “It’s one thing to read in the script that protesters are banging on the bus, but to actually be surrounded by hundreds of people acting like they want to kill you is quite another thing. It really does a job on you.”

That included Affleck. Scoot McNairy reveals, “One guy grabbed a rock and began hitting the windshield. I remember looking over at Ben and even he looked scared for a minute there. It was intense.”

For filming in the Grand Bazaar, the timing could not have been more perfect, as the normally teeming shops were closed for a major holiday. “The bazaar in Istanbul was fantastic,” Seymour enthuses. “It very much had the flavor of the one in Tehran, because they’re both among the oldest in the world. Not surprisingly, a lot of the stuff in the shops has a timeless feel, so we didn’t have to change a lot. The main challenge was the huge amount of Turkish signage that had to be converted to Farsi.”

“The Istanbul bazaar was labyrinthine; it was all at odd angles so you could easily get turned around in an alleyway and be totally lost,” Affleck recalls. “But it was very cool and we were fortunate that everything was shut down so we had the freedom to film there.”

Grant Heslov says, “I’ve heard Istanbul referred to as the ‘crossroads of the world,’ but until you’re there, you don’t realize how beautiful it is. The history of the city is profound and it’s everywhere you turn. We had a very ambitious schedule in Turkey, and it all went off without a hitch, thanks in no small part to the local people. It was definitely the right place to shoot.”

Shooting in Washington D.C.
From Turkey, the production traveled to Washington, DC. The filmmakers and members of the cast were honored to be given even limited access to the actual CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, where they learned the CIA is very much…well…the CIA. Heslov relates, “When we entered the building, everybody was told to leave their phones in a basket, and, to be honest, I didn’t do that. It’s not that I wanted to make calls; I just didn’t want to give up my phone. And minutes later, a CIA officer walked in and said, ‘Okay, who’s got the iPhone?’ I admitted it was me, but then I had to ask how he knew. He took me to the back where he showed me this whole computer set-up where they can monitor where a cell phone is, what the number is…they can tell everything. It was pretty eye-opening.”

Bryan Cranston comments, “Just walking down the halls at Langley was inspirational. Those were the most important scenes to me because I knew what a privilege it was for me, as a civilian, to be there.”

Affleck says, “There was an interesting duality to the building because you’d be walking down this rather plain looking hallway, but then you’d see a door marked Counter Terrorism Unit. That was impressive. It was moving for me just to walk over the seal and to see the stars on the wall commemorating those who have given their lives in service to the Central Intelligence Agency. That’s why I designed a specific shot where Tony goes by and we hold on the stars. We wanted people to see that.”

The filmmakers had to digitally remove some of the stars because the number was fewer at the time of the events in the film. It is noteworthy that some stars still don’t have the names of the fallen officers because their missions are still deemed classified.

Following the wrap of principal photography, Affleck teamed with editor William Goldenberg to bring the interwoven pieces from the different location shoots together.

The director also knew that music would serve as the connective tissue between the story’s three separate worlds. Affleck utilized source music from the era to put the audience into the time frame, especially in the Hollywood sequence. “Associations with music are something we all carry in the back of our minds. You hear a song, and it sets the scene, in and of itself,” he says.

Affleck adds that within the score, composed by Alexandre Desplat, “We needed to find a theme that we would use throughout—obviously different instrumentation and tempo, but still the same piece of music. Alexandre was amazing at crafting an atypical score, incorporating uncommon instruments, many Middle Eastern in origin. It doesn’t feel too literal or cliché, but he created a sound that instantly puts you in that place.”

Nevertheless, Chris Terrio emphasizes, “You don’t need to know anything about the Middle East or the politics of the time to get caught up in the story. At the heart of this movie is a daring rescue of six people from a very dangerous place, and the fact that it’s based on truth makes it all the more compelling.”

Affleck concludes, “It’s thrilling and suspenseful and scary, but it’s also funny and, I hope, entertaining. On a deeper level, it’s about the power of storytelling because for so long this story could not be told. But this is a moment when we can all be proud of what these people did.”