Ben Affleck may have found his next directing gig, a movie called Argo. It’s based on a true story, and it’s the weird true story of how a fake scifi film - produced by John Chambers, who won an Oscar for make-up on Planet of the Apes, and with storyboards by Jack ‘King’ Kirby - helped rescue Americans during the Iran Hostage Crisis.
You’ll remember that in 1979 the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran was overrun by revolutionaries who supported the Ayatolla Khomeini. Sixty-six people were held hostage for 444 days, an event which effectively ended the presidency of Jimmy Carter (and gave us the Delta Force films). But not everyone who was at the Embassy was taken hostage; six employees managed to escape during the chaos and, after a couple of weeks on the run, ended up taking shelter at the Canadian ambassador’s official residence.
They were safe there for a while, but trapped. And over time the situation started getting dicey - the Iranians weren’t respecting much of anybody’s diplomatic rights. So the CIA concocted a crazy scheme to sneak them out of the country - they would pose as a crew doing location scouting for a Hollywood movie.
While the American Embassy was being taken by radicals, Iran’s official position was that they wanted international business, and they needed the dollars. So a CIA agent named Tony Mendez got together with his friend John Chambers, who had helped the CIA before (a previous Mendez op had involved making a black man and an Asian man look white using masks - I imagine Chambers had a role in that), and they set up a fake production company. Mendez became an Irish producer. And they took a real film project - Lord of Light - and turned it into Argo.
The Lord of Light movie had been a huge project. Based on a Roger Zelazney novel, the film was being designed by Jack Kirby, and his designs would also be used to create a scifi theme park called Science Fiction Land - which would have a heated dome twice the size of the Empire State Building. Producer Barry Geller had thrown a big press conference with Kirby and Rosey Grier - who was going to star - in attendance. Then it turned out that Geller’s number two guy had been embezzling and everything fell apart.
But Chambers, who had been contacted to do the make-up, still had the script and the concept art. It turned out that Iran’s landscape would be perfect for the film’s location, which was a human-colonized planet. And so the cover page reading Lord of Light was replaced with Argo.
But it didn’t end there. Chambers and Mendez really set up an office at the Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood. And they put an ad out in Variety announcing the project, and pretty soon their office - Studio Six Productions, named after the six people they would extract - was inundated with resumes and head shots. People were getting in touch with all sorts of projects on the main phone lines while one special phone line was set up just for calls from the CIA.
While Chambers maintained the illusion of the production company, Mendez got himself into Iran and began the work of helping these six pretend to be film people and sneak out of the country.
There’s more, of course, but I don’t want to spoil the whole story before Affleck is even signed! It’s a pretty cool little tale, and the report in The Hollywood Reporter says that the script, by a guy named Chris Terrio, is said to play with the story’s humorous elements.
George Clooney and Grant Heslov are producing, and I wonder if Tony Mendez wouldn’t be a character Clooney would be interested in playing. Of course he could also be someone Affleck plays, should he decide to act in this as well as star…