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Argo - Chris Terrio interview (exclusive)

Argo, Chris Terrio

Interview by Rob Carnevale

CHRIS Terrio talks about some of the challenges of writing the screenplay for Argo and why working with George Clooney and Grant Heslov, the film’s producers, and Ben Affleck, its director, proved so collaborative and inspirational.

He also talks about his own path to success, the type of films he’s keen to continue writing scripts for, his own best bad idea and why he’ll be working with Paul Greengrass next. He was speaking on the eve of the BAFTAs, prior to his Oscar win.

Q. Congratulations on both the BAFTA and Oscar nominations for Argo
Chris Terrio: Thank you… I’m in this room in Claridges, looking out over the roofs of Mayfair, so whatever happens I can’t complain about not getting a great trip to London.

Q. How much do the nominations mean to you?
Chris Terrio: Well, I think that… I lived in the UK for a while and was at Cambridge during graduate school. I’m not saying this just because I’m in the UK now, but to get a BAFTA nomination genuinely means a lot. When I was at Cambridge I was in a really difficult place about what I wanted to do in life and whether I’d go and try to make films or not. I was sort of pulling my hair out, questioning whether I really could try to make a go of it as a writer. I remember I used to come down to the cinema here and spend many hours trying to get up the courage to decide to commit to possibly 10 years of starving and not paying the rent in order to write scripts. So, I did that and to now come back to London in this context is great. It’s an emotional thing and I’m just so happy to be here, whatever happens from this point onwards.

Q. Argo is a fantastic film and yet it balances so many elements, from comedy to thriller to political movie. How challenging was juggling all of those elements when writing the script?
Chris Terrio: It was a big juggling act. There were so many tributaries flowing into this one river. And that one river was the story of Tony Mendez, who is kind of the mighty Mississippi, and then there’s all of these side stories and the question was how far into the side stories could you go and incorporate all those different tones within the main thrust of the story? I mean, take for instance the side story of the Canadian diplomats… there were other people, even UK diplomats, who helped the house guests at various times. So, the question becomes how to make a two hour movie centred on Tony Mendez without taking a side road that gives the audience a 15 minute detour.

It was also hard to balance the tones, which is to say that you have a Hollywood movie that’s maybe somewhat in the world of The Player, you have an espionage movie set at the CIA and involving the internal bureaucracy of the CIA, and you have this larger geo-political story, which is ripped from the headlines – this story about Iran. So, it became sort of like sitting at the volume button trying to adjust the volume of the different stories at different times.

Q. How involved were you with, firstly, George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and then Ben Affleck as a collaborator?
Chris Terrio: Well, it was George and Grant that hired me. So, at the beginning they were the people I had to convince that I could make a film incorporating all these tones, which still felt like it had the same overall tone. So, they were collaborative in giving me a long leash to hang myself with [laughs]. And then when Ben came on board, there were all kinds of things that he brought to it. He had an actor’s ear for comic timing, which was invaluable when it came to handling the John Goodman/Alan Arkin parts. So, he gave me a lot of straight advice about the structure of certain scenes involving them. And for the more serious parts, he studied Middle Eastern politics and knows a lot about the region, so he had a good sense of how to get the sense of a place that was in the middle of a messy revolution.

So, there are certain images in the film, like the man hanging from a construction crane, that he knew would short-hand the messiness of that revolution. So, he would say, ‘put that into the script’. At various times he found exactly the right answer. I’ve also said before that screenwriting is often a long and lonely process, so when you find someone that is willing to collaborate as closely as Ben did with me, it makes the creative work feel a lot less lonely. And we could also be honest with each other. If something was terrible we’d admit it to each other. Ben and I don’t have to censor or edit ourselves. I could tell him: “On a scale of 1 to 10 how much does this suck?” And he’d be able to say when it was a 9 without having to worry about hurting my feelings.


Q. Is that rare to find that kind of relationship in Hollywood?
Chris Terrio: It definitely makes me understand why so many of the great filmmakers keep working with the same people. There’s so much kabuki theatre involved in Hollywood, in terms of going through the performative motions of respect and getting to know someone you’re working with. But Ben and I could fast forward past that within the first hour of meeting each other, which in turn enabled us to roll up our sleeves and get to work knowing that we were trying to make the same movie. It’s sometimes the case that you can have two people trying to make two different movies and that has repercussions that carry through the entire creative process. On Argo, Ben and I could just work from the same page, literally.

Q. You’ve directed independent films, as well as an episode of Damages. Did working with a director of Ben Affleck’s stature so closely whet your appetite to get back behind the camera yourself? Or is writing now your primary focus?
Chris Terrio: It did. And I have some scripts in the drawer that I’d like to go and make. Ben has this encyclopaedic knowledge of film. He’s been in 30 or 50 films, which has meant that he’s worked with and watched some of the great directors and learned from them. And I’ve been able to watch him on-set, which means that I’ve also been in the room with all the directors he’s worked with. So, yes there were times when it whetted my appetite to be back on set. But then when it was raining in Istanbul, and there were thousands of extras screaming ‘death to America’, I was really glad that I wasn’t the one who had to pull everything together [laughs].

Q. You have since signed a major deal with Warner Bros haven’t you for two more scripts?
Chris Terrio: Yes, although I don’t yet know what those films are. Coming from the New York indie film scene, I had always dreaded the studio system. I thought there’d almost inevitably be this horrible moment where a scene would be re-written to include a CGI monster and a car chase. And yet Warners, probably as a result of the trust they have in Ben, didn’t do that. They left us alone. They said: “Here’s the money, go make a film.” And that’s such a rare thing. It’s the ideal scenario and we all dream about that… that someone will trust you to make a movie. So, I thought I’d be crazy not to sign up to do that again. That being said, maybe in the next movie they’ll need to have a CGI monster marching through a scene… but I hope not!

Q. Are wordy, gritty scripts the thing you aspire to? The kind of ‘70s style thrillers that Sidney Lumet might have directed?
Chris Terrio: They are. And yet I have a lot of respect for directors like Paul Greengrass, who is a friend, and Christopher Nolan, who I don’t yet know, where you feel they are using the big canvass of a studio movie to make personal films. That’s a really interesting prospect for me… to use the resources and to harness the energy of the studio leviathan to try and make interesting films that I’d want to see. With Argo, we got very lucky and I don’t take it for granted that every film will have the same good luck – both in terms of creative freedom or box office and critical success.

But it’s a bar that I aspire to reach. And while I think that my heart is always in independent film, I love the fact that in Argo, we could have 2,000 extras outside the embassy and could delve into the visual manifestations of a revolution and present a cinematic experience. In an independent film, you could talk about a scene like that, but you wouldn’t be able to see it. And that calls for its own kind of creativity, and I’m interest in that, but I’m pleased that in the case of Argo we were able to stage all those things.


Q. One of the great lines in the film is ‘it’s the best bad idea we’ve got’. What is the best bad idea you’ve ever had in your life?
Chris Terrio: Oh, I guess my own best bad idea was probably to decide to go into filmmaking in the first place. But this is why I’m a writer – I can’t instantly come up with an interesting answer to that question. I’ll have to go away, think about it for a little while and then do it in three drafts [laughs]. But for now, the best bad idea for me was making that decision, or taking that risk, to become a writer.

Q. You’re working with George Clooney and Grant Heslov again. And they do seem to share that same view on filmmaking as both you and Ben Affleck do. How inspirational are they to you?
Chris Terrio: Well, I think it’s inspiring that given the opportunity to make any movie in the world, George Clooney would choose to make Goodnight, and Good Luck and Ben made Argo and The Town. It says something about who they are as movie stars and how they choose to spend their time. I love that and admire that – to see that’s how they choose to use their influence in the studio as opposed to simply cashing in and having an easy life. I said this to Ben the first time I saw him – you won me over when I saw the first few moments of Gone Baby Gone because you were shooting, almost in a documentary style, the faces of the people who live in South Boston… faces of human beings standing in their own neighbourhood in Boston. Ben is a humanist. He uses genre elements to tell these fast-paced stories but it’s all about the human faces first and foremost.

Q. And what is the project you’re working with George and Grant about?
Chris Terrio: Well, it’s untitled as yet but it’s a New York crime syndicate movie that Paul Greengrass is directing. So, it’s a dream team for me – my favourite director in the world and these two producers who have been really good to me. So, I now feel like I’ve used up my share of good luck now and should be careful when crossing the street to make sure there’s no bus heading in my direction.

Q. I hope the good luck extends at least until tomorrow night and that you can take home a BAFTA?
Chris Terrio: Whether I get the award or not, it’s just great to be where I am right now.

Read our review

Argo is available to own on Blu-ray & DVD from Monday, February 25, 2013.