“I believe that audiences care about set decorating…they just don’t know it. That’s how you sink an audience into the reality of something...”
—Director-Actor-Writer-Producer Ben Affleck
During the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, six Americans manage to slip away and find refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. Knowing it is only a matter of time before the six are discovered and likely killed, CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez comes up with a risky plan to get them safely out of the country. A plan so incredible, it could only happen in the movies.
Mendez [Ben Affleck] enlists Oscar winning Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers [John Goodman] to help him set up a fake film production, in order to legitimize a location scouting expedition in Iran as cover to extricate the Americans. Unbelievable as it may seem, it all works…and it’s true!
Based on the actual events, the feature film ARGO chronicles the life-or-death covert operation as it unfolded with secret deep collaboration between Canada and the US, the CIA and the State Department, and the White House and Hollywood—the truth of which was unknown by the public for decades.
Director/Actor/Producer/Writer Ben Affleck received accolades for his first directoral efforts, the films GONE BABY GONE and THE TOWN, which presented realistic portrayals of his hometown environs and the lives of everyday people. ARGO is a wide step beyond, onto the world stage, depicting world events, yet with the same dedication to reality and truth…and storytelling.
To make ARGO as credible as possible, Affleck enlisted Production Designer Sharon Seymour and Set Decorator Jan Pascale SDSA to re-create the three worlds and the era in which much of the true story takes place: 1979-80 Iran, Washington DC and Hollywood.
The real-life Mendez says, “Ben and everyone else involved in the film did a remarkable job. Watching AGRO brought me right back to that moment in time. Simply put, they got it right."
Sitting poolside at the Beverly Hills hotel in which some of the ARGO Hollywood scenes are set, Affleck chats with SET DECOR about the scope of the tasks, the collaboration involved and his focus throughout.
SET DECOR: You’re a detail person…set decoration is about details. Let’s talk about the importance of set decoration to your films…
Ben Affleck: I think I’m really, really hard for a production designer and set decorator to work with because I’m incredibly specific.
In some ways I feel like it’s the most important thing on the three movies that I’ve done.
So for ARGO, I said to Sharon right from the beginning, “We’re going to get deeper on this one. We have to get even more stuff, get even more realistic.” Part of this is that I like to shoot “interest”…to find details and shoot tight on the set…and it’s got to be there. Not only there, but really interesting. I want people to surprise me with the brilliant stuff they find. I kind of push and push, but they’re great about it. You know, only really, really talented people get into that amount of detail and like it! We had a good time and we had a good process where I think everybody involved was totally committed to do something “real”.
SD: That’s certainly the goal of a set decorator like Jan…layers of elements that give depth to the depiction of a realistic time and place, and when appropriate, clues to the character.
Affleck: You know, what works in the movie is the stuff that she brings. I don’t have time enough to say or to ask for every little thing, nor would I know how to do it…so she brings stuff and it’s great.
It’s a thankless job because you bring in five great things and one thing that doesn’t work, and all you hear about is, “Get rid of this damn thing! What is this here?!”
SD: That does happen! However, she pointed out that you were appreciative…if you mentioned something you felt the set needed, when it would later appear on the set, you noticed it. She described you as having “laser focus on the set”.
Affleck: I DO have laser focus on the sets! [Chuckles] Even though other directors are probably right about thinking, “Oh it doesn’t matter, if we’re not going to see it that close…,” I feel it absorbs into the energy of the room.
The details. If they’re right, the room is right, and everyone feels it. I know actors feel better about their performances and they feel more comfortable because they feel more grounded. If you look at stuff around you that seems fake and crummy, it takes you out of it.
SD: So as an actor, just how important is the set dressing…
Affleck: It’s vital. I can’t tell you how many actors get to the set of their [character’s] office or room or some personal space and start checking it out right away. And then if they think, “What is this? This isn’t in keeping with anything I’m doing. Why didn’t they even talk to me?”…they struggle with it. And if you think it doesn’t matter to actors, you’re dead wrong. Actors are really looking to create their space.
SD: And good set decorators will often fill the spaces with things that are accurate and meaningful, that can be useful for the actor, even though they may not be seen on camera.
Affleck: Yes, like we did for Tony…all the things to do with making the fake stamps and the fake passports, the visa stamps…there was a lot of material around to use.
And to me, it’s GOT to be accurate. So go to the thrift store or the garage sale or go on eBay or to the prophouse or wherever…but it’s got to be accurate to the period. I hate seeing something current in a period film.
I mean, what are we all doing here, if we’re not going for excellence?
And just as there’s the rare great actor, there’s the rare great set decorator and the rare great production designer…
SD: Part of getting it right is research.
SD: Jan noted researcher Max Daley’s invaluable help.
Affleck: Max is a genius.
SD: But even he and all of their staff couldn’t find a visual reference for a detail you were rather adamant about…Jan reached out to a relative of one of the crew members, a woman who had attended school in Tehran when all of the events transpired. She and her family had fled to the US, but she had kept in touch with her friends. They started a Facebook page re: their “incompleted” school year, and put up snapshots from that time. Jan, as a set decorator, studied what was in the background in these photos, which helped her in the accuracy of the set decoration.
Affleck: That’s fabulous.
SD: Yes! And an example of that is the Kentucky Fried Chicken that you very much wanted for the initial Tehran scene…
SD: In all the research being done for the film, no one had been able to find any reference to a Kentucky Fried Chicken existing in Tehran at the time, and yet someone in this group had a photo of that KFC, and of the KFC box printed in Farsi! So Jan gave copies of the photos to Sharon and the propmaster, Mike Sexton…
Affleck: Ahh! That’s how she got the box! That’s great! When they showed me, I said, “This is brilliant!”
The Kentucky Fried Chicken thing was a just drive by…it’s like 2 shots, but it was so important to me. I felt it was iconic. The incongruity of it was so interesting and it was emblematic of this shift in cultures, and of the time and the changes that were taking place there. And I said that it has to be right…the right box, chicken, the walls, all the stuff. They were saying, “Well, what if we drive by and we just see signage…” And I was adamant, “No. I want to do the looking in the doors and the people eating the chicken…the whole thing.” So I know I drove them crazy on the Kentucky Fried Chicken, but now I know how they got it!
SD: And then, there’s John Chambers’ trailer, with the actual life casts of actors Burt Lancaster, John Barrymore, Rod Steiger, Peter Lorre, Katherine Hepburn and the masks from the original PLANET OF THE APES and other creatures…
Affleck: I know…it’s amazing. And it was one of those things, too, where there were these great masks and incredible life casts, but still, the first time, there wasn’t enough stuff. I said “We’ve got to have more of the masks. I want to make it even more real. Just fill it up with stuff!”
And you know, it’s an example of…all I have to do is say that. That’s not hard to do. And then THEY go out and find it and build it and make it happen. We came back and it was overflowing, in the way I think it really would be. And when you work with all these masks and you have all these brushes and make-up and stuff strewn all over…you get so much more. And you can see when I shoot them in close up, that I care about that stuff…
I believe that audiences care about set decorating…they just don’t know it. That’s how you sink an audience into the reality of something, you know. That’s why I photograph it really closely. That’s why I incorporate it into the scene, because that’s taking it from a movie to a real place. Because how we identify reality in our own minds is by the things that are very close to us, the things that are literally the set decoration of our lives.
And the set decoration in movies has got to mirror that accuracy in order for the audience to get invested.
SD: Well, once again, it’s all about the details. From the moment the picture comes on the screen, we’re getting information about character or place.
Affleck: Yes! They did a great job with the bazaar, too. That was hard. I was hounding them, but they really got it done there. That was a tough one….filling every single doorway, because we were walking and walking and walking through this labyrinthine bazaar. Each little merchant shop had to be synched and they all had to be different, so there are lamps, carpets, towels, pots and pans…. That was a huge undertaking, and in a way, you don’t get respect for it because people look at it and think, “Oh, they just went down to the bazaar.”*
SD: The CIA was another major set, with its massive bullpen and myriad offices, conference rooms and hallways. Besides such things as telex machines and 70s computers, there were the pneumatic tubes…
Affleck: Yes! I went to the State Department and the CIA, and both places had pneumatic tubing that was left from almost half a century ago. That was incredible…this detail…who would ever think of this? So we put the pneumatic tubes in there, and when we got ready to shoot I said, “Guys, I want to start the scene with the tube.” I went over to it and it didn’t work. So I said, “Hey, this capsule that has the message inside has to go up the tube in the beginning of the shot.” [Grins] So it caused a mad scramble of engineering and, like McGyver, they got it to work. There in the movie, you can see that tube going…it sucked the capsule right up and we got the shot.
SD: The magic of movies!
What about Tony’s son’s room, with the STAR WARS sheet set and all the action figures?
Affleck: That was me. I was the age of that kid at that time. So to me, that was the most important set decoration-production design scene in the movie. It had to be exactly how I remembered it…my own childhood bedroom and stuff…the sheets, the posters, the toys…all the right toys. They did it so well that I stole it.
SD: Including them in the credit roll at the end was perfect.
Affleck: [Smiles] That’s what I mean about shooting the set decoration. If it’s good, it’s telling the story as well as anything.
*Editor's Note: Key Set Decorator Jan Pascale SDSA would like to acknowledge the work of Set Decorator David Smith SDSA in Ontario and Set Decorator Talik Aydin in Turkey