LOS ANGELES -- Leaning back in his chair, Ben Affleck sounds a bit resigned.
"I thought it would be totally irrelevant. I wish this movie was much more irrelevant," the actor-director says about his new film, "Argo," which opens Friday and is set during the Iranian hostage crisis.
However, recent American embassy attacks including the one that killed Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, have given the film a timeliness neither Affleck nor the producers were looking for.
In fact, "Argo" is meant more as a feel-good story. It's based on a real event that took place during the crisis, which began in 1979 and lasted more than a year.
When demonstrators overran the embassy building in Tehran, six U.S. State Department officials managed to slip out and took refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. Several months later they were smuggled out of the country, and the moment was seen as a bright spot in what is considered a dark episode in our country's history. The Canadian government was given credit for the exploit, and, indeed, the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, was rightly commended for his bravery.
But as it turns out, the daring plan was hatched and carried out by a CIA "exfiltration" expert named Tony Mendez with the help of Hollywood.
The spy had been friends with John Chambers (played by John Goodman), a famed makeup artist who had won an honorary Oscar for his work on the original "Planet of the Apes." By using Chambers' influence, floating news stories and putting advertisements in the trades, they were able to create the illusion that there was a sci-fi movie in the works called "Argo." The title is a bit of an inside joke that can't be printed in a family paper.
At the time, everyone was trying to duplicate the success of "Star Wars." (Affleck himself, who just turned 40, was a big fan as a kid.) So the idea that Hollywood was looking for exotic settings for a sci-fi movie and was considering Iran was somewhat credible.
The plan was for Mendez to enter the country posing as a producer and prep the Americans on how to act like filmmakers. The six were to be given passports as Canadian citizens who had entered the country to scout locations, and then the whole group was to simply fly out of the country right under the noses of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Crazy, right? And a slip-up would not only have caused a huge diplomatic incident but probably cost lives.
Yet it worked, and then the whole thing was classified top secret in order not to inflame the Iranians. There were still 52 hostages being held. Mendez was even given the highest award for a CIA agent in a secret ceremony by then-President Jimmy Carter, who had sanctioned the operation. No one knew about it for nearly 20 years, until it was declassified under the Clinton administration.
Besides directing it, Affleck plays Mendez in the movie, which itself is a highly enjoyable Hollywood version of the story. Certain characters, like Mendez's rock-solid boss played by Bryan Cranston and an over-the-top Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin) are composites of real people. Other facts are altered for dramatic effect.
Affleck is sitting in the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where a scene in "Argo" was shot: a costumed reading of the script for the fake "Argo," complete with scantily clad Princess Leia types.
Was that part of the story true?
"That was slightly elevated," Affleck admits with a smile. "They really did take out ads and really did go to lengths to demonstrate that the movie was the real thing, but they didn't have girls in bikinis at a script reading. That was my touch."
But he adds that while "Argo" got to make fun of Tinseltown, at the same time it's a bit of a tribute.
"There are people in Hollywood who we love, who make us laugh and make us smile, like Alan Arkin's character. Those two things exist side by side."
This is Affleck's third turn behind the camera. He did not act in his 2007 directorial debut, "Gone Baby Gone," but he did in his 2010 hit "The Town," about Boston bank robbers. He says he's much more sensitive about directing other actors. As for himself, he takes a make-sure-you're-covered approach.
"I do a bunch of takes and I use my instincts -- the kind of stuff I do in other movies," he says. "Then I have the luxury of cutting my performance in the editing room."
There is a scene in "Argo" shot in Istanbul, Turkey, where some 1,300 extras are shouting "death to America" in Farsi and then storm the U.S. Embassy.
"That was my little baby 'Lawrence of Arabia' moment. That would have been a small day for David Lean. It was a lot for me," says Affleck, who adds they shot 8mm, 16mm and 35mm and "got in there with the crowd to mix it up."
The filmmaker watched a lot of newsreel footage from the event to get it right. (As the credits roll on the film, comparisons of the real footage and what Affleck shot are remarkably similar.)
The day they filmed was cold and rainy and, Affleck says, it was difficult to whip the extras into an anti-America frenzy.
"That energy is a hard thing to fake, particularly if you're not an actor," he says, noting "The Turks were friendly and everybody was kind of chill" and most people didn't know what they were saying since it was in Farsi.
At the time, the director was only looking at it as a scene in his movie, but the recent anti-America demonstrations in the Middle East and the attack in Libya has given immediacy to the story of something that took place more than 30 years ago. Affleck, who says he has always been interested in the Middle East, says he was stunned by what was happening in the area.
"It was terrifying and tragic ... not what people had imagined for Libya," he says. "So my first reaction was just sadness and reflection on the tragedy of the loss of this State Department official."
At first, Affleck says, he didn't even think about his movie, but since then says he can't help but notice similarities in what he saw in his research material and what "we're seeing on CNN today.
"And it's saddening because one wonders how far we've gotten," he says. "What's it going to take to move past this."
Three-time Emmy winner Cranston says its impossible to avoid the "backdrop of politics" in "Argo," but "The goal was to make it an entertaining movie based on a true story and illustrate that truth at times is stranger than fiction."
The actor known for portraying Walter White on "Breaking Bad" credits Affleck with setting "the right tone, the right sensibility ... and making a very difficult puzzle into a very clear picture."
Affleck stresses he didn't direct a documentary and that as a filmmaker it was his responsibility to make people like the movie.
"It's a thriller, and there's true laugh-out-loud comedy," he says. "It's a complicated CIA plot, but it's all based on true events. That's pretty special. When I saw that in the screenplay I thought I really wanted to be involved in it because if I could pull it off, I'll be able to execute something I'm really proud of."
At the moment, Affleck doesn't have another film lined up to direct. ("I'm hoping this movie does well so I can get another job," he says.)
He would like to do some acting before getting back in the director's chair, though, and already has finished roles in two upcoming movies -- the thriller "Runner, Runner" and Terrence Malick's romantic drama "To the Wonder."
In the meantime, Affleck is hoping audiences will enjoy "Argo" as entertainment.
"I wish it wouldn't get politicized," he says. "I know that before an election everything gets politicized. I know that internationally it's a hot-button issue. I know that people will take anything they can get their hands on if they think it validates their case. And I don't want to be part of that."