Chris TerrioWith the Oscars only hours away, many of the categories look pretty much sewn up, and no doubt in LA right now, sure-thing winners are putting final touches to their speeches for the big night.

One of the few categories the still very much an open field is Best Adapted Screenplay, with Argo, Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook all possible winners.

We caught up with Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio last week, when he made a flying visit to London for the BAFTAs, and it turns out we weren’t the only ones, as Terrio explains:

Chris Terrio: I had a meeting with Paul Greengrass, I’m working on this film that Clooney’s going to be in that Paul and I are doing, so we’d planned to get together and talk, and then with the delay everything got pushed back.

HeyUGuys: Was that in the UK you were meeting Paul Greengrass?

Yeah, just now. We walked the streets, pulling our hair and talking. It’s weird, people stop and ask for a picture of Paul. Of course, he’s a celebrity in my head, but it’s nice to see him as a celebrity out among kids in football jerseys, who were stopping and posing with Paul.

What are you working on together?

We’re working on – it’s going to be the same producers as Argo, for Clooney and Greengrass. It’s sort of a New York crime syndicate movie, some of which I’m still formulating, but it’ll be a dark, New York crime movie.

Before we get properly into the interview, was Argo a spec script, or was it commissioned?

It was commissioned, but it was – it sort of had a strange history, because before I had worked mostly in New York, and one person that I’d worked with , named Nina Wolarsky, went to become Grant and George’s [Heslov and Clooney} development person. She remembered me as, I guess, the crazy guy who writes weird, independent spec scripts in New York – two of them had been very different period things – I think she thought of me for Argo.

So they came and said, “there’s this incident we want to make a movie about, we don’t quite know what the tone is, but here’s this article about it, etc. Do you have a take on what it would be?” So I sort of wrote a – and here’s where the spec part comes in – I wrote a long proposal of what I would do with it. At the time I don’t know whether they knew whether it was Men Who Stare at Goats, or it was Syriana, or whether it was The Player, or whether it was all of them, so I came to them with a long – I’ve recently looked back at it –  about 25 page novella of what Argo would be.

Argo does something many films try, but few succeed at, which is to mix the serious with the farce. How do you strike the right balance?

When I first thought about it I thought it could be one of those snide ‘nudge and wink’ films, and I didn’t want that. I felt, if you were going to show scenes of this life and death urgent geopolitical crisis involving the lives of millions of people in Iran, and the lives of 60 Americans in the embassy, it can’t  be some snide, nudgey-winkey film. But then, in the DNA of the story are these contradictions, like this guy John Chambers – who John Goodman plays, this was a guy who really did sit in Burbank California, holding court with a giant margarita about as big as an oil vat – sorry, I’m a bit slow and tired, and not coming up with many ready metaphors – he would sit with it, making ironic jokes just like the character in the film does. He won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes, was working on these absurd science fiction films, and yet by night – literally was making disguises for the CIA to smuggle assets out of South East Asia. So right in the DNA of the story you have the contradiction of these worlds that John Chambers, and then Tony Mendez simultaneously existed.

I thought if you could find an organic tone in which you could inhabit both of those worlds at the same time, then you would have the freakishness of Hollywood, also maybe hint at the freakishnesss of the media spectacle that was the whole Iran hostage crisis. There’s a scene at the reading of the script in which you cut from robots and aliens reading the story, and then you cut to Tehran Mary, and some of the student activists and revolutionaries, having this media spectacle in Tehran; that’s really  a deliberate juxtaposition. What we’re trying to get at is, whoever controls storytelling, controls history and controls politics. Tony Mendez understands that, which is at the heart of the operation.

You brought up Tehran Mary. There’s a lot of archive footage in the film, and I did notice that that was specifically referred to in the script. Presumably there was a hell of a lot of research on your part over the development process.

I found that in order to have people – I think the Iran hostage crisis was the first crisis of this sort in which live satellite technology was available to beam images into people’s houses, and into people’s living rooms. So I knew that the news and the media had to be integral to the story it couldn’t just be a trick to – sometimes as screenwriters we’re guilty of the sin of having a television on in the background, giving you exposition. But here, I thought that not only did the television and the media stuff need to do exposition, but it needed to feel like part of the texture of the film, because so much of the crisis was about the media, and the representation of the story. So I did months of research. There’s a great resource in New York called the Paley Centre; it used to be the museum of Television and Radio. They have hours and hours of footage where you can just watch chronologically , news broadcasts from every single day, and so I watched many days before the crisis, and then watched the news almost every day for a year after it.

We also had a great researcher who added to it and found all kinds of great things, but some of the excerpts in the film had to be deliberately chosen, so that people are responding to specific things that were on the news at the time. Tehran Mary is an example of that; she in a way, because she spoke English so well, was the face and the voice of the hostage takers for a lot of the crisis.

One of the things that had been mentioned in reviews was that you did create things, and tweak the story to be more filmic. How do you strike the balance between the demands of drama, and reality?

It’s trial and error, and you’re not always sure if you got it right. There’s compression of certain things; there are places, especially in the third act, where we turn up the volume and raise the adrenalin. And so I think, at least in my head, and I think in Ben’s head, what we’re trying to do is figure out what the spirit of the event is, and so you draw yourself lines. For example, the airport scene has been talked about: it’s much more kinetic in the film than it actually was, so we said to ourselves, “OK, we’r not going to have anybody shot, we’re not going to have some big, epic event that didn’t happen, but since we didn’t know how far behind the revolutionary guards were – were they twelve hours behind? Were they twelve seconds behind? In that kind of absence of information on the Iranian side, we decided to fill it in with the most adrenalin producing version that we could; and yet it’s trial and error. Sometimes we step back and ask, “did we push it too far? Did we push it far enough?”

How collaborative is the process?

Very collaborative. I started work on the project in late 2008, and Ben came on in 2011, so I’d been around, in research, and had written the script before Ben came on; then when he came on, he injected me with new energy. He was the easiest person in the world, he would just call me, and it wasn’t as if you were having an audience with the Pope, it was more collaborative, like a friend from film school. He’s a really hard worker, that’s something that people don’t really realise about Ben, he’s kind of a workaholic, I could send an e-mail at two in the morning, he’d respond in ten minutes, because I knew he was up working on it too. So it was really collaborative.

He was a Middle Eastern Studies major, he already knew a lot about the period and the history, and he added all kinds of things that clarified and added to the texture of the story. I’m making plans to work with him again, I feel like  to work with him on anything.

How did the script, and the characters change as people were cast?

I think that the Tony character changed a little bit, in that Ben’s a little younger than I had originally written the character. Ben – how do I say this in a way that makes sense? – As the actors come on they do fill shoes, and they do change and evolve, but I think especially the Tony character, I think Ben brings a mixture of earnestness and also  irony to it. The Tony character is a really hard character, he both has to be in on the joke, and the emotional centre of the film, and I think when Ben came on, it really helped me find the tone to strike where you can straddle those extremes. So I really think the character started to be moulded around Ben, in ways that I can’t even articulate, but is in every little micro beat of the script.

ARGO available on DVD & Blu-ray from 4th March. You can pre-order it here