Far from being a reaction to Ben Affleck's film, the documentary was actually begun prior to "Argo," and simply aims to tell a fuller, more historically accurate version of the dramatic events in Tehran. This meant not only giving Canada and former Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor their proper due, but also many others who had their stories tweaked for the necessity of dramatic tension -- even Tony Mendez himself.
In advance of the documentary's premiere at TIFF, Moviefone Canada spoke to Weinstein and Taylor about the difference between a true story and a movie based on one, how they managed to get the project together so quickly, and why the directors ultimately had to turn down an offer from Ben Affleck himself.
What was the impetus behind the project?
Drew Taylor: It originally stemmed from a conversation with Elena Semikina, one of the executive producers on the project, with Ken [Taylor], in July 2012, before "Argo" had come out. Essentially it was this very candid conversation where they were talking about what happened over there. And it became evident right away that, look, there's parts of this story that people don't know, and it's important that Canadians do know this. And I think that it should be put into a documentary form, not a feature film form, which ended up coming out while this project was in development. And when it was started, there was the knowledge out there that "Argo" existed or was gonna come out.
Larry Weinstein: And we knew it was based on the book by Tony Mendez, so that was going to be very much the CIA point of view. But we didn't realize how much the Canadian story was going to be swept under the carpet. It's a great film, and it actually isn't that inaccurate, historically. There are embellishments ... but just the idea of making a documentary, and we had a lot of support very quickly, because we did it very quickly. There's a lot of archives in this film, and usually you don't try to do an archival content film so quickly.
Did you try to get it ready for TIFF this year? Was that always the end goal in mind?
Weinstein: That was his goal. See, I've made a lot of films, and I know it's impossible to get a film done that quickly. But Drew wasn't experienced in that way, so he had all this naïveté and hopefulness, and I said it's not gonna happen. But in the best of all possible worlds, since "Argo" premiered last year, it would be great if we had a bookend the year after. And here we are, so I'm an idiot and Drew is brilliant. And sometimes optimism pays off. So it is nice. We're actually really excited that it's a year after "Argo," symbolically, and this time Ken Taylor was invited. [Laughs]
Taylor: That is a good thing. We remembered to invite Ken. Very proud of that.
How much was Robert Wright involved in the development of this? I saw he was credited as a co-writer.
Taylor: Yeah, Robert Wright wrote the book "Our Man in Tehran," invested a good chunk of his life in researching this topic and did a fantastic job. It was a bestseller, and I think that what we wanted to do is use that basis, and then approach it in film and try to get this story straight from the people. Ken was obviously interviewed by Robert for the book, and he scratched the surface on a lot of these things that hadn't been exposed before: how much he was involved with the CIA, what the context of his help was versus the six houseguests vs. the 52 hostages that were still at the embassy, what was his role in all of those things.
Now what we've been able to do based on that work is to go a little bit deeper, get the story straight from the horse's mouth and talk to CIA agents, talk to Ken Taylor and find out exactly what happened, and get to the bottom of who did what and how the story unfolded. And that was, I think, an important thing for Canadians to know.
Weinstein: But we didn't do a film that has narration, for instance. So because his book was so instructive and he had done so much work, and because he was always there as a consultant and helped devise some of the interview questions, we just thought the writer credit was correct for him.
The story really isn't any less thrilling or engrossing without all the dramatization. Why do you think Hollywood felt the need to pump things up for "Argo"?
Weinstein: Yeah, but the six people who were exfiltrated, in fact, nothing very much happened there. The Canadians did an amazing job at protecting them, and there they were sipping cognac and bonding, very aware of their colleagues down the street who were being abused, but not much happened. So I think Ben [Affleck] probably saw that and said I need to do some embellishments because this isn't a very filmic story. And you can't blame him for that. It's true. They were just treated well.
It's the other elements of the story that come in, and the Canadian role of trying to get these passports and breaking all the rules and then this other thing that Ken did, this other activity of trying to help the CIA, and that's something that people really don't know. And in a way they could've shown that. There are certain things that happened in reality that I think should've been in the film. I think it's amazing that the plane they took away had that name inscribed on it ["AARGAU"]. That's so Hollywood! That's something people wouldn't have believed, but it's in our documentary.
Taylor: But it was true, so they took it out. [Laughs]
The opening night film for TIFF this year, "The Fifth Estate," is another movie inspired by real-life events. What do you think the risk is of the Hollywood version of events becoming the "official version" in moviegoers' minds in these cases?
Taylor: It's not necessarily the filmmakers' -- for instance, Ben Affleck's -- fault, but I think that people in general take their history too often from movies. We were just talking about this a little while ago, if you look at "Braveheart," I mean, is that really who William Wallace was, or is that something that a filmmaker is putting together and piecing together and making a great entertaining film that is loosely based on real events? I think it's up to the audience to have the ability to differentiate between what is entertainment and what was done for that purpose, and what was done to try to document history, to give you a more in-depth view into what actually happened.
Weinstein: I think if you have a little bit of sensitivity to reality and film, I think a lot of people watching "Argo" and seeing the car chasing the airplane at the end, it's like, "Oh, come on!" [Laughs] And I'm somebody who, if I see a film that is based on historical events, I immediately go home from the theatre and start doing research on if it was true or not. And so often you're delighted to find out how accurate things are, and then you see things that are a little bit of an embellishment. But you're right. It's wrong to think that that is history. But something like "Argo" though, it really is through the prism of one man and it's like the "Citizen Kane" thing. It depends who you ask.
How much of an obligation did you feel to do right by Ken Taylor and the others in this documentary that may have had bits of their story left out?
Taylor: I think we felt obligated to do right for everybody. I mean, there are things about Tony Mendez that were changed as well.
Weinstein: His family situation. Ben Affleck wanted more drama in Tony Mendez's life and we don't even go into his personal life, but the fact that he was separated from his wife, that's not true! But it added drama. But in terms of setting things right, one thing that we decided very early on was not to assert the filmmaker's point of view as blatantly. I mean, every film is subjective, but we wanted it to be a chorus of voices. We wanted to have Joe Clark and we wanted to have Flora MacDonald, we wanted to have Americans, we wanted to have Canadians, we wanted to have Iranians. We wanted different points of view. It's much harder as filmmakers not to have a narrator to smooth over information in the gaps and everything like that.
Taylor: And we had a pretty good offer for narration. Ben Affleck actually offered to narrate the film.
Weinstein: But it seemed like that was not really in keeping with what we were doing.
Taylor: It would've added a voice that wasn't on the ground in Tehran. And it was fantastic, but we decided we would really like to do this without a narrator at all. It was a great offer. But at the same time, when we look at our movie, to keep it focused on the people that were on the ground at the time, we thought it was better to try to do it without narration.
Do you think that having Ben Affleck do the narration would've connected it too much to "Argo" in a way?
Weinstein: I think so, yes. I think it would've felt like some kind of weird DVD extra to "Argo." I actually at one point said anybody but Ben Affleck. So his wife, Matt Damon, whatever, anyone but him. [Laughs]
Taylor: We would've loved Jennifer Garner. That was my first choice.
"Our Man in Tehran" opens in theatres on September 20.