It’s a truism that all Hollywood screenwriters learn, either the easy way or the hard way, that filmmaking is a collaborative art. Still, some personality types struggle with that.
Not Chris Terrio. That becomes all the more clear when, intending to text the publicist setting a meeting, he accidentally sends the text to his interviewer. “Do we really need to make this guy drive across town in the rain?” he messages. “Why don’t I meet him halfway?”
In a milieu in which such messages are generally complaints about the subject’s fizzy water having gone flat, such consideration for another comes as a surprise.
The film Terrio will speak of on this January day, “Argo,” has already had a fine season of being celebrated — including wins for drama film and director at the Golden Globes early this week — as a credible and engrossing drama about rescuing six trapped U.S. State Department officials during the tumultuous Iranian revolution and hostage crisis of 1979-80. And the writer would have every excuse for self-importance, given that producer-director-star Ben Affleck, not incidentally a co-winner of a screenwriting Oscar for 1998’s “Good Will Hunting,” has widely related that he was staggered by how well Terrio’s first “Argo” draft encapsulated and dramatized a complex saga whose happy ending we are, after all, well aware of.
From his first meeting with Terrio, Affleck recalls, “I was impressed he was just so smart and collaborative and generous and kind and good — and everything you want in a person — and I just immediately realized this guy is a huge asset to me, and I’m going to stick with him for as long as I can have him.”
Affleck had signed on only after George Clooney and Grant Heslov’s Smokehouse production company had nurtured the story for five years, compelled by the tale in which Affleck’s real-life model, CIA “exfiltrator” Tony Mendez, smuggles his charges out of Iran with the subterfuge that they were part of a B-movie Canadian production.
Terrio, over coffee, finds that, despite the passage of more than two decades since the drama in Iran, there are messages relevant to our media-centric world: “The hostage crisis was the first big world event in which media was used in this way — that’s something the students, the hostage takers, the Iranian government and [particularly] the ayatollah certainly understood. He was a master of manipulating his image and his message to the world. That interview he did with Mike Wallace that you see in the film was no accident. He’s thought of sometimes as being stuck in some medieval paradigm. But it’s clear that this is a man who was quite savvy about how to manipulate world opinion to bolster his power.
“That’s where the Hollywood part of the film begins to overlap a lot with the geopolitical world, which is to say that whoever tells the story better has control, whoever’s manipulating the images is the person who’s getting power.”
But despite their fascination with the 2007 Wired magazine article that gave rise to the film, across five years of nearly inertial development, Clooney and Heslov had the constant worry that no writer could capture both the humor and intricacy of a tale that juxtaposed an at times hilarious Hollywood comedy of manners with a tense real-life narrative.
Terrio was given a chance on the say-so of a mutual colleague and aced it first try, with one key change that Affleck wanted — rather than jump right into the mobbing of the U.S. Embassy, as the script proposed, a series of images and instructive “cards” would set the context. Terrio quickly acceded, based on a level of insight he saw in Affleck: “It’s certainly a great comfort to a writer to know that you have a shorthand with the director — that he gets what you’re doing and is on the same wavelength and can make you better.” Adds Terrio, who spent extensive time on the set doing revisions on the fly, “I think it must be the same with actors, where he has a shorthand with them, so you feel like you’re in good hands. The most subtle differences between two takes, Ben is tuned in with them.”
This praise from the lean and hungry-looking Terrio, who up close conveys a likable intensity and a subdued, wry wit, comes despite one of the better lines he gives John Goodman’s John Chambers character (a makeup expert Mendez had employed before), when he’s asked if one can teach a guy to be a director in a day. “You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day,” Chambers shoots back.
Having been thrown into the deep end himself when his employers at Merchant Ivory Productions promoted him from office aide to director of a brooding 2005 New York theater-world drama called “Heights,” Terrio, who just turned 37, has a certain credibility here. A graduate of the USC film school who rushed back to his native New York (he grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and on Staten Island, where the former family home was recently turned into wreckage by Superstorm Sandy) upon graduating, he has Chambers depict how producers operate. “You want to go around Hollywood acting like you’re an important person in the movie business,” Chambers says to Mendez, "... but you don’t want to actually do anything ... you’ll fit right in.”
Despite rigorous research, when it came time to bring the story to its engrossing conclusion, Terrio took advantage of a dramatist’s loophole: “We don’t know how close the Iranians were to discovering [the CIA plot]. How do we create a compelling end of the film while showing the Iranian side? So I decided that we would give the most nail-biting version, where your adrenaline is telling you that you don’t know if they’re going to get out. So we decided we were going to go for it. If we’ve done that, we’ve succeeded, because I think suspense and empathy for the characters are actually really closely related.”
All the attention the film has received — “Argo” earned seven Oscar nominations, including a screenplay nod for Terrio and a best picture nomination — surely must feel like vindication for Terrio’s work history of ducking so-so film projects that could pay the bills in favor of more humble but interesting work. “I think any writer could tell you it’s so lonely, and so full of self-doubt and angst, that when you actually are working on a project, it has to be a world you look forward to going to every day.”
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