L.A. plays Tehran in Ben Affleck caper ‘Argo’
To create the dramatic opening sequence for the CIA thriller “Argo,” filmmakers visited two continents to depict Iranian students storming the American embassy in Tehran. The scene in which students demonstrate in 1979 and climb up the embassy’s gate was shot in Istanbul, Turkey. The scene in which they climb down the gate and burst into the embassy compound was filmed some 7,000 miles away -- in the San Fernando Valley.
A Veterans Affairs medical building in North Hills, with its institutional, red brick facade, turned out to be remarkably similar to the U.S. embassy in Tehran from which six Americans escaped and sought refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.
“It even had the same number of stories as the U.S. embassy in Tehran,’’ said Chris Baugh, location manager for “Argo.” “It was a huge stroke of luck.”
The building was one of several locations that enabled “Argo” producers to film the bulk of the movie in the L.A. area in the summer of 2011, with the help of a $6.4-million California film tax credit and a large pool of local Iranian-American extras.
“Argo” is directed by and stars Ben Affleck, who plays the real life CIA agent who devised a seemingly impossible plan to rescue the six Americans by performing a little Hollywood trickery -- disguising the Americans as members of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi movie. The thriller, which Warner Bros. will release Friday, also stars Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman and a cast of lesser known actors who play fictitious film crew roles, including that of a location manager. ‘Argo’ was produced by Warner Bros. in association with GK Films and Smokehouse Pictures.
Affleck and his crew faced their own daunting challenge: how to film a period drama set in 1970s Iran mainly in Los Angeles for about $44 million.
The task fell to Baugh and his team, including location scout Lori Balton. A 20-year veteran, Baugh has worked on such recent films as “We Bought a Zoo,” “Inception” and the TV series “Arrested Development.”
“After I first read the script, I thought it would be a pretty tall order,’’ said Baugh, 41. “You have a better chance of matching the surface of Mars in Los Angeles than finding the look of Tehran of the 1970s.”
Aside from two weeks in Turkey and one week in the Washington, D.C. area, the bulk of the 14 weeks of filming was done in the L.A. area. One of Baugh’s most difficult tasks was finding a home in Hancock Park to serve as the Canadian ambassador’s home in Tehran.
Baugh had to secure special permission from film-weary residents and the Hancock Park Home Owners Association to spend nearly a month at the house, including a week the actors spent sequestered in the home before filming began so they would get used to living in close quarters.
“They could have shut me down right away and they didn’t,’’ Baugh said. “They were big supporters.”
Another key location was Ontario International Airport, where a dormant terminal was converted to look like the chaotic Tehran airport.
About 800 people, many of them Iranian Americans, were bused in from Beverly Hills and other locations to perform as extras. The terminal was dressed with Farsi signage as well as giant posters of then-leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Computer graphics filled in the mountains in the backdrop of the Tehran airport and created a digital 747.
“We were fortunate to have many Persian extras, some of whom had been in Iran during the Revolution,’’ Affleck said in production notes from the film. “I was very gratified when they would come up to us and say, ‘This brings me back 30 years,’ and tell us their stories.”
“Argo” set up offices for Studio Six Productions (the company behind the fake sci-fi movie) on the Warner Bros. lot, where the logo on the water tower was changed to read “The Burbank Studios,” as it was known then. The nearby SmokeHouse Restaurant, where “Argo” characters hatch their fake movie plan, played itself in the film.
The Los Angeles Times building served as the CIA headquarters. (Producers also shot at the actual CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.) Zsa Zsa Gabor’s house in Beverly Hills was used to depict the home of Lester Siegel, the salty film producer.
For his work on “Argo,” Baugh was named among three finalists for location manager of the year by the Film Liaisons in California Statewide, a nonprofit group representing regional film offices and commissions that hosts an annual awards event Oct. 28.
He takes pride in the nomination and the fact the film casts a rare spotlight on his craft.
“It’s the first time I can recall where a location manager is portrayed in a film,’’ he said. “For us, it’s exciting.”
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