Director's Chair: Ben Affleck - 'Argo'
Issue: November 1, 2012

Director's Chair: Ben Affleck - 'Argo'

HOLLYWOOD — Who says there are no second acts? After winning the Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting with pal Matt Damon (in which he also starred), Ben Affleck’s acting career went turbo-charged thanks to such global hits as the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. 

Then came Gigli, with then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez, and a perception that his career had crashed and burned. But instead of fading away, Affleck picked up the pieces and in 2007 made his directorial debut with the taut thriller Gone Baby Gone, and followed that up with 2010’s acclaimed The Town, another crime drama set in his hometown of Boston.

Now, with Argo as his third film as director (in which he also stars), the ambitious Affleck has traded in Beantown and gangsters for Tehran and the Revolutionary Guard. Based on a true story, the hostage rescue thriller tells the tale of six Americans who escaped the 1979 takeover of their embassy, hid in the home of the Canadian ambassador, and who were eventually smuggled out of the country in plain sight — posing as members of a Canadian movie crew scouting Iran for a schlocky sci-fi movie titled Argo, all part of a covert CIA operation. Part period drama, part political thriller, part spy story, the result is already getting its director strong Oscar buzz.

Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Affleck talks about making the film, which he also co-produced with George Clooney’s company, and his love of post and editing.

POST: How would you describe this movie, and what sort of film did you set out to make?
BEN AFFLECK: “The big appeal for me was that it didn’t fit neatly into any one genre or type of movie. It was an unusual hybrid, with comedy mixed in with all the suspense and the CIA spy story, along with a kind of humanistic feel about storytelling. And the over-arching element that makes it all so fascinating is that it’s true.”

PO ST: You shot this in Istanbul, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. Were you happy to move away from the Boston setting of your other films?
AFFLECK: “I was. I never meant to pursue ‘Boston filmmaking,’ or Boston as my natural go-to setting. I ended up with the films I did because the themes and topics interested me, and they just happened to be set there. The city was also like a character in them. But I realized after The Town that if I didn’t do a movie set someplace else, I ran the risk of being pigeonholed — even if only in my own mind. This presented a chance to really step outside all that — and I’d studied the Middle East at college, so I was always interested in that part of the world. And this had multiple tones and foreign locations, so it was a nice stretch for me.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges of making such an ambitious film?
AFFLECK: “Directorially, it was all the different tones that needed to be reconciled and made to feel like part of one larger whole film. That process was very daunting, and I continued to wrestle with it well into production. Ultimately, I found that it didn’t take any great directorial magic tricks as much as just good acting. If the acting was real and consistent — whether it was the Hollywood satire or scenes in Iran or DC — it’d all feel like part of the real world.”

POST: This was your first time working with DP Rodrigo Prieto, who shot Brokeback Mountain and Babel. What did he bring to the mix?
AFFLECK: “One of the reasons I wanted to work with him was because I’m such a huge fan of his work with Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Films like Babel are some of the most realistic-feeling films I’ve ever seen, while being also incredibly compelling. So I was hoping to get some of that magic touch, that instinct for honesty in-cinema. 
“He’s a wonderful hand-held operator. He made my film better, he made wonderful choices, and he’s just so gifted. Being the director, you get to take the credit for the film, but anyone in this business knows it’s really a compilation of many people’s work and a truly collaborative affair.”

POST: Did you shoot film or digital, and what guided your choice?
AFFLECK: “We shot film. There wasn’t any real talk of going digital. I don’t like digital. Though we used a digital camera for a few sequences in Turkey, where there was very low light and we couldn’t use lights in these historical sites. But even that small bit of the movie... I don’t like how it looks. I will shoot film until there’s no more left.”

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
AFFLECK: “It was all done in LA over about six months. We rented an office above my dentist’s office in Brentwood for editing — the same place we used for The Town. It’s close to my house, so I was able to work on the cut fairly easily. Then all the mixing and scoring was done on the lot at Warners, with a bit of scoring at Capitol Records, which was pretty cool. Then we did the DI at EFilm. Last time I used Company 3.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 
AFFLECK: “It’s my favorite part of making a film, for sure. Prep is always very anxiety-ridden, and shooting is this mad scramble to try and get the material you need. Then in post, you’re in the cool dark editing room, calm and focused, and if you don’t figure out the solution to a problem, you just come back the next day. You have the chance to calibrate the film in tiny little ways; you have the ability to make massive changes and completely re-arrange stuff — and then you get to look at it and study it. 
“I screen the movie a lot — I like to make changes and then show it to an audience of a few people, and get feedback. Then I’ll go back and make more adjustments, and keep getting that feedback. I have a screening room at my house and I really like to watch it with an audience because it gives me a better feel for it and how post is going. So that whole process of cutting, changing, correcting, experimenting and screening, and then going back to the drawing board, is just wonderful. For me it’s the big reward for all the hard work getting to that point.”

POST: Tell us about working with editor William Goldenberg, who received Oscars nominations for The Insider and Seabiscuit, and who cut your first film. How does that relationship work?
AFFLECK: “He came on set a couple of times. He’s very talented, low-key and cooperative. You don’t have any of those situations where the editor and director get into a toxic battle about who’s right. He’s very accommodating and respects the director’s vision, but has great input. So it’s a great relationship and Billy made the film so much better. He’s willing to put in long hours unlike some editors, and put up with my micro-managing! 
“I love editing — in fact, I own an Avid. When I was younger I tried to make money by selling nonlinear PC-based editing systems using Adobe Premiere, but the drives were too slow and they’d drop frames. I was trying to cut my friends’ acting reels. But I kept up my interest in nonlinear editing, and eventually saved up enough for my own Avid. On Gone Baby Gone, I had an editor but we parted ways in the middle of production and I hired Billy — but he was booked and couldn’t start immediately, so I got an HD Avid, which at the time was considered unnecessary — ‘You don’t need to cut in HD. It’s ridiculous!’ So I began cutting it myself and got halfway-through before Billy came on board.”

POST: Who did the visual effects work, and how many visual effects shots are there?
AFFLECK: “Method did all the VFX, and we probably had over 600 shots, including all the 2D stuff. A lot were clean-ups and wipes and so on, and we also hired a guy in-house who did a lot of those, which was a smart move in terms of the post budget. The whole process was a tremendous education for me.
“Probably the smartest thing I ever did was to make sure I learned from every experience. I turned my acting career into a free film school, and I’ve now turned my directing career into a free course in post production. I’ve picked up so much along the way, and you can’t learn enough about visual effects since the technology keeps progressing so fast. I find it fascinating and an amazing tool.”

POST: How important are sound and music to you?
AFFLECK: “They’re so critical because they’re the part of film that affects the subconscious so powerfully. For me, all the visuals are like the meat you toss to the guard dogs while the sound burglars sneak into the subconscious. I do feel that you can have too much music if you’re not careful. You just become inured to it and it loses its impact, so I try to use less and more silence — so when the music comes in, it’s more effective. I like it to creep in around the periphery, rather than barge into the middle of a scene, where you begin to wonder, ‘Is there some orchestra here I’m not seeing?’ (Laughs) 
“I had just one classic movie score moment when the plane finally lifts off at the end and they’re all celebrating, but mainly I kept to nuance and subtlety as much as possible, and kept paring it down. As for all the sound design, it was so important to scenes like the embassy take-over, with all the chanting, glass breaking, tear-gas canisters popping and rolling down steps. It’s a score in itself, especially when you have period and international locations. You get so much information from little touches, like the call to prayer, Farsi conversations, sounds of older cars and foreign horns. We did the mix [John Reitz and Gregg Rudloff using a Neve Gemini console] at Warners in a fantastic room [Stage 10] and I was very pleased with the results.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you originally envisioned it while writing the script?
AFFLECK: “It did. I was able to keep it pretty much in line with what I’d imagined, and there were some wonderful additions made by people like Billy and Rodrigo, and so on. Like I said, it’s always a big collaborative effort.”