Ben Affleck doesn't blame you for losing faith in him during the "Gigli" era. "There definitely was a period," he says, "a run of movies that I got into that I didn't like." That portion of Affleck's IMDb page feels like a relic from another era, now that we know him as the director of "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town." With "Argo" -- a film that has been slathered with critical praise since debuting in August at the Telluride Film Festival and making a strong showing at the Toronto International Film Festival -- opening this Friday, those lean years look like nothing more than a historical footnote.
Affleck directs and stars in "Argo," which tells the stranger-than-fiction story of a mission to rescue six Americans who escaped the overrun U.S. embassy in Tehran during the Iranian revolution in 1979. The Americans hid out at the home of the Canadian ambassador and waited as a CIA agent named Tony Mendez (Affleck) hatched a wild scheme to sneak them out of the country under the guise of a fake film production for a non-existent sci-fi movie called "Argo." Here, Affleck discusses the politics of his new film and its disturbing parallels with current events; explains how and why he decided to make such a drastic career shift after a streak of critical and financial failures; and reveals that he -- and one of his most notorious sketches -- may return to "SNL" this December.
Mike Ryan: President Bill Clinton declassified this mission in 1997. How has this story not been made into a movie before now?
Ben Affleck: That's an interesting question. I get the sense -- though I have no real firsthand knowledge -- that when things are declassified, they're not issued by press releases, you know? They're huge boxes of material that get moved from one room to another. Josh Bearman was just an enterprising magazine reporter from Wired magazine who eventually sniffed around and dug it up and then did a bunch of more research around it. He wrote this definitive story -- that and Tony's book ["The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the C.I.A."] is kind of what it's based on. But when Bearman eventually shopped the project, it finally found a home at Smokehouse, [George] Clooney and Grant Heslov's production company. And then they had to hire a writer and then -- you know what I mean? There was one thing after another. But, eventually, this incredible script found its way to me -- and I was thrilled.
Even though I knew the end result of the mission before I saw this movie, it's still very tense. That seems like a hard thing to do.
Well, I think one benefit of this story is that, on the one hand, it's true. So that roots to you in it more firmly, because you know it really happened. You have a greater degree of investment. And on the other hand, it's not very well known. So you don't know the end and you don't know every detail. You can still be surprised.
I've heard you describe the difference between "based on a true story" and "this is a true story." What change from the real story did you wrestle with the most?
We made sure to stay true to the spine and the heart of the story. The fact that six Americans were in the American embassy when it was taken over, escaped, hid out with the Canadians, and were rescued by an operative of the CIA who conspired with his Oscar-winning makeup-artist friend to disguise them as a movie crew is absolutely true. All those characters are absolutely real and rooted in fact. The problem is that you have a story with so much detail in it -- to get to A to B, you would have to be a 10-hour movie. So stuff gets compressed just to make it watchable and to expedite the story.
Obviously, a line someone says or the color shirt they wear or even needing to compress things didn't bother me. The biggest thing that bothered me is just the sins of omission. A more complete story is told with more information. And when you have to take stuff out for the sake of moving it along, you lose a little bit. Because the other thing about it is, it's kind of a "Rashomon" effect: You talk to one person and they give you their version of events from their perspective. And, ultimately, we had to be rooted in Tony's perspective, naturally. But I definitely had the sense that I had a very strong ethical obligation to tell the story truthfully because, among other reasons, it has resonance to things that are going on today.
Right. When I was in Toronto for the festival, I couldn't believe all the stuff that was going on in the real world. Not just the attack in Libya, but also Canada's announcement that it was cutting ties with Iran.
Yeah, somebody said to me if it were a Weinstein Company movie, they would have just thought that Harvey had orchestrated it. Yeah, it seemed kind of eerie that the Canadians were withdrawing their embassy from Tehran the day or day before we premiered in Toronto. And it's really sad and tragic and depressing that the movie is as relevant as it is now, to what's happened with the diplomats who put their lives on the line in these countries. And it seems as though so little has changed.
Do you worry about "Argo" being used as some sort of right-wing propaganda?
I tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual. And that's another reason why I tried to be as true to the story as possible -- because I didn't want it to be used by either side. I didn't want it to be politicized internationally or domestically in a partisan way. I just wanted to tell a story that was about the facts as I understood them. And what that meant was probably two people with different political perspectives would walk away with two different interpretations. Because I find, most times, your interpretation depends on what you went into the situation believing. And I think people will use things. You know, it's like, if people want to misrepresent something, they'll do it anyway. You can't worry about that too much.
So the Internet is kind of a cynical place, if you haven't noticed.
[Laughs] You think?
Yeah, I do. But, right before I saw this movie, I was in a discussion with some other movie writers and everyone, genuinely, is really happy for you, in comparison to where you were a few years ago -- with some of the movies that weren't as well-received as "Argo" and "The Town."
Really? I wish I'd been there! That sounds like such a nice thing.
Do you feel more support than you used to?
I mean, that's really nice. Honestly, I'll remember that. I heard you say that, and it makes me feel really good. I mean, honestly, mostly I kind of keep my head down and try to stay out of paying attention to anything at all, because I'm just a little gun shy, I guess, and I've found that it doesn't help me to be paying attention to what other people say about me. It's probably not good either way. But you know, I would say I just kind of decided to do my best work and hope for the best.
Well, one of the main points is not everyone can have two or three movies in a row that don't do well and then rebound the way you did so drastically. Was there a specific moment in your career where you thought, I got to do some better stuff? Or does it not work that way?
I know that there's a temptation to see things through the prism of that arc, from the outside. And I'm even sometimes tempted to see it that way. The truth is, I'm not exactly sure. There definitely was a period ... a run of movies that I got into that I didn't like. And that I didn't tend to continue in the vein of. And, as you get older, I think you get a little bit smarter and you get interested in different things. And in my case, I worked harder and I kind of dedicated myself more, because I got to a point where I realized you only have so much time, you know? And you only have so much to leave behind. And, also, the truth is that sometimes you get lucky. And I kind of had been unlucky and I've been lucky. And on these movies, I've worked with people who were really, really gifted and there's definitely, for the stuff that worked, a lot of credit to go around. And it's really hard to make a good movie, so you certainly can't do it alone. But I will say that I definitely feel that I'm at a point where I feel really inspired by the opportunities that I'm getting and the work I'm doing -- and really comfortable and happy in my family life. When you feel lucky and you're kind of knocking on wood, you know you're in the right place.
From an outsider looking in, I think something that helped you was that you've always been very self-deprecating, which people like. Like the "Frondi" sketch on "SNL," which was not kind to "Gigli."
[Laughs] That's still my favorite one ever that I did! I almost pissed myself while we were doing that sketch.
I loved "Sidecar," too. I don't know why, but no one talks about "Sidecar" anymore.
"Sidecar" was good, too! The Keith Olbermann thing was really fun. To me, and I'm sure to people on the site, political impersonations are the sort of height of "SNL" comedy. He wasn't a candidate, granted, but he was a political person, and to work on an imitation and do it on the show and work with those guys was incredibly fun.
I'd like to see "Frondi" back before Fred Armisen leaves the show.
[Laughs] I'm going to try to go back in December, so I will put in a good word.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.