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The Road to Argo

Posted By Jesse Gordon, Monday, February 25, 2013

By Jesse Gordon

The Producers Guild of America would like to pay tribute to Argo in celebration of its claiming Best Picture at the 2013 Academy Awards.  The following article is re-purposed from the Produced By Magazine.

Producer Grant Heslov brings real Hollywood experience to a "fake” Hollywood thriller

How does one create a suspenseful thriller in which the audience already knows the ending? It was a unique challenge faced by the team responsible for Argo, but as producer Grant Heslov will tell you, with a compelling story and the right personnel, the job is far less daunting.

"When you’re producing a film like this, you find a kernel of something, and you see the potential of it,” Heslov explains. "You see the end product in your mind, and your job is to realize that.” The film that Heslov and his colleagues were ultimately able to realize is the declassified story of CIA operative Tony Mendez, and his daring plan to free six Americans from Tehran in 1979. After Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy, six employees of the State Department managed to escape to hide out in the Canadian Ambassador’s home. With their lives at stake, Mendez crafted a caper in which the rescue team would pose as a movie crew for a fake science fiction film entitled Argo.

It’s a rich story, to be sure, but as Heslov would surely profess, that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making a quality film. "In this case,” he notes, "it was about finding the underlying material, finding the right writer, getting a script that we felt really strongly about, and getting a director that could then make the film we imagined from the first moment we thought about this.” That director turned out to be Ben Affleck — who also stars as Mendez — and his vision helped create a film that has garnered both wide critical praise and commercial success.

"Ben turned out to be a great partner,” Heslov shares. "He turned out to be one of those directors that allows a lot of input from a lot of people ... and not just from me, but from the cinematographer on down. And he’s able to filter out and take those bits that make sense.” It stands to reason that Affleck’s collaborative style as a director would resonate with Heslov, as the latter has spent the majority of his career working in tandem with another one of Hollywood’s most famous leading men, George Clooney.

Heslov was born and raised in the Palos Verdes area of Los Angeles, and he began his entertainment career working as an actor while attending the University of Southern California. He was taking an acting class at the time, and it was there that he met Clooney, now his longtime business and writing partner, as well as close personal friend. In what has become a wonderful piece of Hollywood legend, Heslov actually loaned Clooney a couple hundred dollars to get his first set of headshots. The two men have come a long way from the rigorous life of struggling actors, thanks in large part to their cooperative relationship. "Mostly, I work with George,” says Heslov, "and we have a real shorthand in the way that we work. We’re very collaborative because we mostly write the stuff together.” That partnership helped the duo garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Good Night, and Good Luck. The two gentlemen also operate their own production company, Smokehouse Pictures, which has a deal with SONY.

Like many success stories of the entertainment industry, Heslov has become a Hollywood jack-of-all-trades, having worked as an actor, producer, director, and writer. Though he spends the majority of his time behind the camera these days, Heslov’s work as a producer/writer/director has been directly impacted by his time as an actor. In fact, the first project that Heslov ever wrote and directed was inspired by a unique experience that he had had in the acting world. A short film titled Waiting for Woody, it’s the story of a Woody Allen fan who goes to audition for the eclectic director. Regarding a bizarre series of events that befell him, Heslov recalls, "My experience going to audition for him was like something out of a Woody Allen film. I was taking the subway there, it was summer, it was hot, and I got a bloody nose and bled all over my shirt. But I was almost an hour early, so I went and bought a new shirt. Then, when I got there, I couldn’t get in because they didn’t have my name, and they didn’t have the right information from my agent. And when I finally got in, and I was sitting there with all these weird people in the waiting room, everything from a midget to this unbelievably hot chick wearing snakeskin leather pants.” The experience was so unique that Heslov felt compelled to put it on paper, and thus began his writing career.

Though he relished the experience of writing and directing Waiting for Woody, Heslov continued to act in small roles for the next seven or so years, racking up credits in everything from The Scorpion King to True Lies. Then, in 2005, he sat down to pen Good Night, and Good Luck with Clooney, beginning his transition away from full-time actor. Since then, Heslov has stuck largely to writing (The Ides of March, The Monuments Men) and producing (The American, Leatherheads and Memphis Beat, in addition to the titles he’s co-written), although he does continue to act in many of the films he is involved in.

In 2009, Heslov made his feature length directorial debut with the film adaptation of The Men Who Stare at Goats, which starred Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, and of course, Clooney. While most first-time directors might feel pretty nervous being entrusted with a $20 million budget, Heslov seems to have been better prepared than most to make the leap. As he says of his prior cumulative experience, "I learned a lot through osmosis, just being on set. I would try to soak up everything; I was like a sponge. I think what I learned most was how to create an atmosphere where everyone can work and do their best work, without a lot of tension. I think that those are the best kind of sets, and where the best work gets done. There are some people that believe that if it’s chaotic and crazy and people are yelling, out of that comes good art and good work. While I believe that it can happen that way, it doesn’t have to happen that way. We’re so lucky to get to do what we do, to make it a drag seems counterintuitive.”

Heslov’s experience across different roles in the industry undoubtedly helped to prepare him for Argo. As with most historical dramas, the ultimate challenge lay in maintaining the perfect balance between doing justice to the events that occurred while at the same time juggling the cinematic elements that make for a quality film. In the interest of properly capturing the story’s essence, Heslov, Affleck, and Clooney (who also worked as a producer on the film) were in constant contact with Tony Mendez, himself. "I talked to Tony when we bought the article [on which the screenplay was based],” Heslov says. "Once we bought the article, we also optioned a chapter out of Tony’s book that dealt with this particular incident, so he was a consultant on the film. I talked with him, and then the writer [Chris Terrio] talked with him a lot, and went and visited him a bunch. When Ben [Affleck] came on, he met with Tony and went to Tony’s house, and they went to the CIA together. Tony also came to shooting, so he was pretty involved.” According to Heslov, Mendez and his family even make a small cameo in the airport scene when Affleck’s character is leaving for Tehran.

Despite working hard to portray as many of the details as accurately as possible, there were some clear artistic liberties that are taken in the interest of ratcheting up the suspense. The pacing, particularly in the third act of the film, departs a bit from the historical accounts, but Heslov is content with how the film ultimately balances the truth and the suspense. "We wanted to make sure that we were getting things right,” Heslov says. "And when I say ‘getting things right,’ I don’t mean that every beat of our story matched every beat of [Mendez’s] story, but that things looked right, and that the spirit of the operation was intact.”

Though Argo is largely billed as a thriller, the film does have its bits of lightheartedness, mostly provided John Goodman and Alan Arkin, who play the producers in the fake production company set up by the CIA. Though the majority of the films that Heslov is involved with tend to be dramatic, he remains a huge fan of comedy. "I love comedies,” he adds. "I wish that we could find some comedies to do, but it’s hard to find ones that are funny and aren’t just silly. The comedic elements of Argo are really up our alley.” The laughs in Argo mostly come as a self-aware critique of the ostentatious nature of the movie industry, with Goodman delivering lines like "So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in.” The humor creates a more complex and varied story, which ultimately helps make the suspense toward the end even more palpable.

Visually, the film does a remarkable job of creating an accurate portrayal of the time period. From the cars, to the costumes, to the constant smoking, Argo’s viewers are instantly transported back to 1979. Even the color saturation feels native to the ’70s. The level of accuracy is made fully apparent in the film’s credit sequence, which presents a juxtaposition of the passport photos of the six actual U.S. diplomats with the passport photos made for the actors in the movie; the similarities are incredible. When asked if casting decisions were made in the interest of having the actors physically resemble the people they were portraying, Heslov responds, "Some of that was just dumb luck, and some of that was great hair and makeup work.” The sequence is beautifully tied together with a voice-over from President Jimmy Carter praising the efforts and bravery of the diplomats and Mendez. Interestingly, that sound bite is not actually from 1979, but was collected by the filmmakers specifically for the movie. "Ben had the idea of talking to Carter, which I thought was a brilliant idea, and a great touch.”

Despite the success of Argo and all the other projects he has been involved with, Heslov is not resting on his laurels, and he is currently hard at work on two major projects that look to be very promising. The first is an adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize–winning stage drama August: Osage County. Heslov and Clooney are involved as producers, with John Wells directing and Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts attached to star. In addition, Heslov and Clooney are co-writing their next screenplay, The Monuments Men. The World War II–era film is set to star Clooney, Daniel Craig, and Cate Blanchett, with Clooney once again donning the director’s cap. With those two projects taking up the majority of his time, Heslov has yet to figure out what his next project as a director will be. "I’m not looking too much past [those projects] at this point,” he admits, "but I definitely want to get behind the camera again.”

Given the significant success of Heslov’s career as a producer, this magazine can only counsel: Take your time.

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