Ben Affleck’s Argo recreates Iran filming on location in California
Filmmaker Ben Affleck recreated Iran on location in the Californian cities of Los Angeles and Ontario for his new movie Argo. Set in 1979, Affleck’s film tells the true story of a team of CIA agents who posed as sci-fi moviemakers as they set out to rescue US diplomats caught in the Iranian revolution.
With Iran remaining an unwise filming location 30 years after its revolution, Affleck and his production team decided to take advantage of the flexibility of Californian locations. It was a move that reportedly kept the budget under USD50 million, although two weeks were spent in Istanbul, doubling for Tehran.
Chris Baugh was the project’s Location Manager: “For the opening sequence in which the American Embassy is stormed, we shot the neighbourhood street outside the embassy walls in Istanbul.
“But, once we're over the wall the sequence was entirely shot at a closed section of a Veterans Hospital in the San Fernando Valley, California. For the wide shots, including action on the rooftops, computer-generated mountains were added in the background.”
Once we're over the wall the [embassy] sequence was entirely shot at a closed section of a Veterans Hospital in the San Fernando Valley, California.
Chris Baugh, Location Manager
Los Angeles had a significant influx of Iranian immigration in the late 1970s and this growing community resulted in architecture that reflected central Asian building design using materials like stone and marble.
Most Los Angeles homes use natural wood from California’s forests, but Baugh and Location Scout Lori Balton were able to find Asian-style alternatives. These included Government buildings designed by Ides van der Gracht, the same architect responsible for the Tehran embassy itself. They even used the house now owned by screen legend Zsa Zsa Gabor and her husband (above), who welcomed the production after a ‘cold scout’ from Balton.
The international airport in the city of Ontario near Los Angeles – not to be confused with the Canadian province of the same name – was used to double for Tehran Airport. The medium-hub airport has an unused terminal building opening onto ‘active tarmac’ that predates Argo’s time period and so offered the right look.
Baugh comments: “[Production Designer] Sharon Seymour did an amazing job dressing every square inch of the airport, from the curb throughout the terminal and onto the tarmac. We went to great lengths to redress the interior of the actual control tower including pulling windows and using a crane to load in filmmaking equipment.
“Extensive signage, period cars and about 800 Persian extras created a very convincing set. The 747 was completely computer-generated. We used a helicopter to do running shots with the jeeps and painted in the plane.”
Balton adds: “[Ontario] was the only consideration because I knew it was perfect before showing it to anyone. It's of the period, it's a blank slate with the correct basic design elements, it's an actual functioning airport with a tower and tarmac, and they go out of their way to accommodate filmmakers.”
One unexpected and sensitive challenge came about when the filmmakers found out that the coffin of an American soldier killed in action in Afghanistan was to be returned home through the airport. With only 12 hours notice the production team was careful to temporarily return the terminal building to its original state in time for the repatriation.
[Ontario] was the only consideration because I knew it was perfect before showing it to anyone. It's of the period [and] it's a blank slate with the correct basic design elements.
Lori Balton, Location Scout
Argo's story actually sees the role of the Location Manager put in the spotlight as the CIA works with the Canadians to figure out their best way into Iran. Balton comments: “[It was] interesting to see our career choice vaulted to such epic proportions. We are so often the red-headed stepchild on the production/creative team, [so] it was gratifying to have a Location Manager included.”
Baugh was recognised for his work on the project at the California on Location Awards (COLAs) in 2012 and concludes: “Ben Affleck is the real deal. He cares very much about making well-crafted, intelligent films and was very much a hands-on participant during the location scouting process. Affleck was very respectful to my department and to the locations we shot.”
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