"Argo" tells the story of a top-secret CIA operation to "exfiltrate" six American embassy workers hiding in Tehran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1980. In the movie, as in real life, the cover story or the six Americans was that they were part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in the Middle East for a science-fiction fantasy film called, "Argo." But what's the real deal about that movie within a movie? Here are some answers to burning questions you might have about the fake movie that never got made.
Was the script the CIA used real?
Yes. CIA Chief of Disguise Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck's character) really was a master of providing a deep cover story for the risky "exfil" which is commonly referred to as "The Canadian Caper." The script used was originally a version of screenwriter-producer Barry Ira Geller's adaptation of science fiction author Roger Zelazny's award-winning novel "Lord of Light." Well, take note, "Game of Thrones" fans – George R.R. Martin is a close friend of Zelazny's and even wrote the afterword.
What was it about?
Describing the plot to science-fiction epics can be underwhelming and confusing – think of the "John Carter" trailer. We haven't read the original, but according to Geller himself (as quoted in the "Rocky Mountain News"), the story is about a "very advanced civilization" that colonizes a new planet, uses technology to assert their superiority and establishes themselves as the "gods" with the rest of the planet's inhabitants subjugated to a strict Hindu-like caste system. The protagonist, Sam, is a renegade who rejects the godlike status and wants to return power to the people. Or something like that.
Was the movie going to be made?
Yes. Capitalizing on the popularity of George Lucas' first "Star Wars" film, Geller planned for a $50 million production (an astronomical budget in 1979). With such talent as make-up artist John Chambers (played by John Goodman in "Argo"), comic-book artist Jack Kirby, sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury and actor/NFL alum Rosey Grier attached to the project, Geller had hopes of not just a movie franchise but also of developing a 1,000-acre science-fiction theme park called "Science Fiction Land" along with a 10,000-acre industrial complex dedicated to science and technology in Aurora, Colo. The total proposed budget for the film/park/complex was up to $400 million.
So what happened to the project before it landed in CIA hands?
Eventually Geller's expensive and wildly elaborate plans for the film, park and science mecca fell through, but Chambers' involvement with "Lord of Light" and CIA agent Mendez that led to the use of the script. Mendez changed the title to "Argo," so as not to involve the real production company (none of whom had ties to the CIA besides Chambers). So unlike in the movie, there was no perusing of dozens of scripts until "Argo" was found, because Chambers immediately knew of the perfect sci-fi script with a desert location – the recently nixed "Lord of Light."
Who is Hollywood producer Lester Siegel based on?
While Chambers and Mendez are very real, the Hollywood producer played so fantastically by Alan Arkin did not exist at all. So those of you who might assume he's a composite for a real-life award-winning '70s producer who didn't want his name disclosed – nope. He was just added for dramatic effect. Not that we're complaining, because Arkin's one of the best part's of the movie.
What else do you know about "Argo"/"Lord of Light"?
If you think "Argo" is as fascinating a story as we do, you can add the following to your holiday wish-list: Antonio Mendez' "The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA"; a visit to the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., where Mendez gives fairly regular talks about his mastermind of the Canadian Caper, and you can see a fake poster/production still for "Argo" in their collection. Also read Joshuah Bearman's 2007 Wired article which inspired the movie: "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran" and consider giving to the Kickstarter fund for "Science Fiction Land: A Stranger Than Fiction Doc," which will explore Geller's ambitious plan for "Lord of Light" and his Colorado science world.