Premise: The true story of how the CIA, with help from Hollywood, used a fake movie project to smuggle hostages out of Tehran during the 1979 hostage crisis.
About: Argo, which finished high on 2010’s Black List, is Ben Affleck’s next directing project. The script is based on an article written in Wired Magazine which you can find here (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/15.05/feat_cia.html). Chris Terrio, the writer, has been making some noise lately. He’s rewriting Scriptshadow favorite Tell No One, also for Ben Affleck. He adapted a project called “Snakehead,” about human smuggling, last year. He broke onto the scene in 2007 with writing partner Jesse Lichtenstein with a Black List script titled “Baltimore,” about the only other time in history a city in the continental United States has been attacked by a foreign enemy besides September 11th.
Writer: Chris Terrio (based on an article written by Joshuah Bearman)
Details: 118 pages – March 25, 2010 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
No, Argo is not a prequel to Fargo. But I will say that the Coen Brothers could go absolutely bat-fucking- insane with this script. It’s that bizarre. And it’s appropriate we’re talking about titles because Argo is a great example of how a bad or vague or uninspiring title can affect the chances of a script getting read. Lots of people have been telling me about Argo. But every time I considered picking it up, I kept thinking of that title. “Argo.” It just sounded boring.
Now of course this was developed through a production company – and is NOT a spec script – so different rules apply. They don’t have to wow a reader with a great title because the people they’re sending it to already know what they’ll be reading. You don’t have that luxury unfortunately. Your title is your 60 million dollar marketing campaign. It is the only billboard the world will see before they read your work. Better make it good.
Anyway, Argo throws you right into the heart of the hurricane to start its 118 pages of craziness. So much is going on, in fact, that I can’t possibly explain it all. But the nuts and bolts is that it’s 1979, and CIA agent Tony Mendez is extracting another CIA agent out of an impossible to get-out-of situation. This is what Tony does. He charges in when Americans are in trouble and gets them out of sticky situations. As you’ll see, this will become important later on.
Now for those of you who have never been to Los Angeles and seen the Persian empire that now resides at the heart of the town, you probably don’t know much about the revolution that happened back in Iran in 1979. I don’t claim to be an authority on it either, but basically, the lower class rose up and booted the upper class out. All the rich Persians needed somewhere to go, so they flew to Los Angeles. Now at the time, the U.S. had an embassy in Tehran, Iran’s capital. So the Iranian people stormed the embassy and held a bunch of the workers hostage for over a year. It was a huge brouhaha and the U.S. government looked like bumbling idiots for how long it took them to resolve the thing.
What not a lot of people know, is that five of the Americans at the embassy were able to escape before it was overrun. And they went into hiding in the city. Argo is about a team led by Tony Mendez tasked with getting those people out of there.
Now for obvious reasons, Americans couldn’t just drop into Iran at the time. I mean sure, you could book a vacation there if you really wanted to. But you’d probably end up with a permanent blindfold and a really hefty late fee on that Chevy Caprice rental. So the CIA had to be more clever. Hence, Tony and his crew came up with the idea to create a fake Canadian film (the biggest Canadian film in history) that wanted to shoot the bulk of its movie in Iran. They would go there to “scout” their film, covertly grab the 5 Americans, then get on a plane to freedom.
Here’s where Argo gets fun though. The movie they were “making” was basically the next Star Wars. Or “the Canadian Star Wars.” This would’ve been a huge deal back then, since Star Wars had only hit theaters two years earlier. This film, of course, is titled, “Argo.” (no confirmation yet on whether this later became “Delgo”)
Now the CIA knew that they needed this to look legit. So they actually found a movie producer and started up pre-production on the thing. They started casting. They drew storyboards. They even wrote a script! And a lot of these people (if I’m to understand correctly) had no idea they were part of a secret CIA operation.
The heart of the movie is once they get all their ducks in a row, they head over to Tehran – the most enemy of enemy territories at the time – and grab their hidden embassy members. But they can’t just leave right away. They’re on a locked-in pre-approved schedule with the Iranian government. So they have to go out, do some location scouting, all with the newly acquired members, who know nothing about filmmaking. It’s pretty riveting stuff. And overall just a wicked-awesome idea, as Ben Affleck would say.
Here’s the first thing I realized while reading Argo. There’s never been another movie like it. It’s completely unique. It’s its own thing. And it wasn’t until I realized that, that it became clear how valuable a commodity the project was. I mean you have a spy movie here. You have an international crisis movie. And you have a comedy of sorts of these people putting together a fake Star Wars film. Can you imagine the possibilities?
This isn’t in the script but I’m hoping Affleck realizes the potential here. Imagine being able to do fake 1979 acting auditions for roles in the film? Imagine putting sets together for a Star Wars rip-off movie? Shooting test scenes? This movie could be so fucking hilarious and out there. And again, it’s like a director’s dream. You get to cover so many different areas with the material.
I only had two big problems with the screenplay. The first was the first act, which read like Aaron Sorkin plowed through a case of Miller High Life then ingested half a pound of speed. We’re jumping around to all these different people walking and talking in important hallways in different countries and it was way too fucking much. It was so chaotic, in fact, that I almost gave up after 20 pages. It was a mess. Luckily, once we shift to the actual plan, the script finds its focus.
This is something I see more on the amateur level actually. Really ambitious first acts with tons of stuff going on but zero focus. You have to remember this is the first thing your reader reads – the first act. If there’s 50 characters in 15 pages and we’ve jumped from 5 different continents, chances are we’re not going to be intrigued. We’re going to be annoyed. You can create mystery in your first act. But you must do so with focus. It must feel like there’s a plan. I didn’t feel that in Argo at all.
Also, the central set piece seems to be the location scout in Tehran. I didn’t think this was big enough to carry the biggest moment of the movie. I felt like they needed to get into something more intense and scary. Walking into the heart of Tehran as a group of hated Americans posing as Canadians will no doubt make a great scene. But I don’t know. It seemed like it was missing something. Maybe they should actually have to shoot a test scene. Really put these characters who know nothing about filmmaking to the test. Or maybe the president of Iran (whose son is supposedly a huge Star Wars geek) invites the film crew to a prestigious dinner. Now you’re talking.
Still, this script is so different from anything I’ve ever read. It’s officially on my most anticipated list of next year. The only question left to ask is this: Is there indeed a script somewhere out there of Argo? Does some studio executive have this thing collecting dust in a box? If so, I absolutely have to read it. That would be hilarious to review. House that Death Built would have nothing on this. Please, if you know anything about this script, contact me. I have to have it!
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Argo uses dual-column dialogue pretty liberally. However, I would recommend against it for your own screenplay. Sometimes you have to use it, but it’s rare I read a script that uses it for more than one line. I don’t know any readers who like the practice and the reason is we have to read one column then we have to trudge over and read a whole other column. It takes twice the time and doesn’t even achieve the desired effect. The effect is supposed to be two people talking at the same time. But if we’re reading the two columns separately, how does that sound like two people talking simultaneously? It’s just a clumsy device. I would avoid it.