'It Was So Insane It Had to Feel Real': The Other Man Behind 'Argo' Speaks

What began as a simple magazine pitch has now taken writer Joshuah Bearman all the way to the Oscars. (Well, he's working on getting a ticket.) Here's the story of the article that inspired Argo.

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In 2007, Wired magazine published "The Great Escape: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Iran," the article that would later be turned into the soon-to-be-Oscar-bedecked hit movie Argo. Recently we had a chat with that article's author, Joshuah Bearman, about his experiences with writing the piece and watching it become the big movie it is today, Clooney and all.

Tell me a little about the origins of the Wired piece.

I have always gravitated toward unusual characters and stuff like that. A friend had first read about this in the CIA quarterly journal and said that it would make a cool story. Wired was looking for a story and I had suggested a bunch of Wired-type stories that they didn’t really go for, you know like neurology type stuff, and then I said, "Well what about this non-technological historical yarn about the CIA and the Iran hostage crisis and Hollywood?" And they went for that. Although it almost didn't get through, but then my editor said, "It's such a good yarn, let's do it."

What were their reasons for maybe not going ahead with the piece?

Well, newsstand magazine publications have to have a hook and something timely. I've always bristled at that editorial parameter, to me it doesn't really matter, if it's a good story. And that was ultimately the case here. Because it was spies and there was some tradecraft in it — the stuff that Tony Mendez, the guy that Ben [Affleck] plays, what his field was — that seemed Wired-ish. Like analog Wired almost? So they got sold on that aspect of it and luckily so, because the piece came together, I had a blast reporting it. I spent all this time talking to a CIA agent and then the "Houseguests" and the Canadian ambassador. My friend, when he first told me about it, he said, "This could make a really cool movie." And I didn't really know anything about that and I didn't quite believe him, but it turned out to be true.

When were you doing all the legwork and research, did you find that this was a bit of lore that had been passed around?

No. Nobody knew about it. It was a hundred percent unknown until the declassification. And even then nobody really knew about it. Though I discovered later, once the movie went into production and I encountered more movie people, they would tell me, "Oh, yeah, I'd heard something about this." But certainly in Hollywood circles it's not like everybody knew that Hollywood was helping [the CIA]. The guys involved were sworn to secrecy and John Chambers [the makeup artist who worked most closely with Mendez] was a very serious CIA... not asset, I don't know the term for it. But there was another makeup guy, who's sort of like the Alan Arkin character in the movie, except not a producer, he was good friends with John, and he was the only other person that knew. He and his wife. When I found them to interview them, they were shocked.

How long did it take to research and write?

I spent about a couple months on that story, I think. It's hard to say because I was reporting it on and off, I was on staff at L.A. Weekly at the time. It was, shockingly, one of the most straightforward pieces I've ever written. Now I've done a lot more historical nonfiction where the story's more complicated, there are more people, there's more to understand. This story is deeply compelling, but it's actually pretty straightforward. So it went pretty fast, as far as those things go. I just finished a story that I spent six months on, and I've been tracking it for years. So this was kinda nice — I got on the story and maybe three months later I was done.

What was the time-frame between publishing the article and the movie deal?

It was pretty instantaneous. Maybe before it hit the newsstands or as it hit the newsstands? I had a film agent already. We liked each other and we were friends, but I didn't really have a movie, so she didn't really have to represent me in any way because I didn't have anything to do. I mean, King of Kong there had been some contracts to sign. But then I sent her this and she said, "Ohh, maybe I could do something with this." Smokehouse, which is [George] Clooney's company, and Plan B got a hold of it and were interested and there was a little bit of a competitive situation between them. So my agent called me all excited, which had never happened before, to say, "Hey this is going on..." It was really exciting. I don't really know exactly what happened, but Clooney got it and there was a deal within like twenty-four hours.

So it's been optioned. Is it then completely out of your hands? When did the screenwriter Chris Terrio come aboard?

Well, originally George Clooney was going to write it. He was going to write it and direct it and star in it, was the operative idea. And I was all for that, I loved Good Night, and Good Luck. I thought, "This guy knows what he's doing." So I was into that idea, but then over time it seemed maybe he was not going to get a chance to write it, so they brought in this other writer, Chris Terrio. I had given them all of my extra research — it's a lot of material, of course, that you have to assemble to put together a nonfiction magazine piece that's going to get through a Condé Nast fact-checking department. Only a tiny fraction of what you collect actually ends up in the story, so that was all very helpful, because they wanted to adapt the story with some authenticity. Because it was so insane it had to feel real. If it seemed like a fictional story it would be ridiculous. They knew they were going to have to present it as "based on a true story" and it would have to feel like a true story. So with that in mind you want all that detail. Chris had all that and he did quite a bit more research on his own. I've have had other stories adapted now, but Chris has done the best adaptation, and he did the best research. He talked with Tony, he went to the CIA offices, he did all kinds of stuff. And, you know, once it was sold it was kind of above my pay grade? Because it's like, there's Clooney.

Did you meet with Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov?

Yeah, I've met with Grant a lot of times. I've met with Clooney, but Grant is really the producer on the film. But yes, George Clooney is just as charming and pleasant and nice as you'd imagine. It's one of those occasions when you meet a person like that and you're not disappointed, like you usually are. You're like, "Fuck, I wish I had not met my hero." But he's like the George Saunders of movie stars, just as awesome as you would imagine.

When did you learn that the project was shifting over to Affleck?

That came after the script was done for some time. And again, still, George was going to direct it and star in it. But he was working on Ides of March, I think was the one, and he was in The Descendants, doing all these great projects. So at a certain point... I mean the script was around, you could just read it. It was on the Black List even, I think. Lots of people could get a hold of it. And I don't know how or when Ben got a hold of it exactly, but he was pretty much immediately interested.

And this was how long after you originally published the article?

It's coming up on two years ago right about now, so this was four years after I wrote the piece, exactly. Then it went into overtime and it was off to the races.

So were you just hearing about this stuff through your agent, or were you pretty looped-in?

I was pretty looped-in. It was a very small operation. Nina Wolarsky, the executive who was there through the entire process, we're friends, so she would send me the script and we would share thoughts. At a certain point they wanted to add an opening where you would meet Tony on another mission, him being an exfiltrator. And I had actually intended to put some of those scenes into the article, I had these other whole scenes written, so I sent them that stuff. There was one mission where he was in Laos, it was pretty awesome actually. Stuff like that. I would look at it and provide any thoughts. To be honest, Chris didn't need that much help.

What were your expectations? I mean, I'd assume they've at least been met.

I didn't really have any expectations. I had no idea what this meant. Stories get optioned all the time and nothing happens. So that was probably my expectation. Though, I'm kind of an optimist. People think about Hollywood very cynically and they kinda like to do that, sit around at cocktail parties out here and say, "Oh, in development hell as usual, you know how it goes." And people in town have this defeatist attitude about it. I did not actually have that. I just... It seemed like, "Well, George Clooney knows what he's doing, these people are smart. Warner Bros. — why wouldn’t they want to make this movie?" I had a little bit of a naive attitude where I probably assumed that it was going to get made. And what I've actually since learned with other projects is how things can go totally wrong, adapted into oblivion or the regime can change and all these different things that can impede a story from transitioning to the screen. But I certainly didn't expect that the script would come in and it would be great, and then Ben Affleck would come along and make the movie the way he did. And beyond that that it would connect with audiences. Even when I first saw the movie, I saw it at the production facility, and it was awesome, I didn't understand what that would mean with real world people and how it would find an audience the way it has.

Are you involved in any of the post-release hoopla? Are you going to awards shows?

Yeah, I went to the WGAs when Chris won, which was exciting. I've been to a lot of the press stuff. I went to the Globes. And there are parties and stuff. I didn't go to any of these other guild awards because they're not really my guilds, but there are a lot of screenings and Q&As and a bunch of different things. You actually wouldn't want to go to all of them, that would be impossible. I mean, actually, I think Ben Affleck has to go to all of them. But it's been fun. The WGAs were the most fun because it was a really competitive category, with Tony Kushner and David O. Russell.

[Bearman told me later over email that he's got a lead on a ticket to the Oscars and should find out this afternoon. Wish him luck!]

Do you buy into the conventional wisdom that Argo is going to win Best Picture at the Oscars?

Before the Golden Globes I sort of thought, "Oh, I'll just be happy if we're nominated." I did not imagine it was going to pick up momentum again.

It really did, it outlasted everything else.

I'm really fighting the urge to feel that, y'know, it's all downhill from here.

On that note, what's next for you? More reporting or have you been bitten by the Hollywood bug?

Well, since Argo came out, I've been reporting and writing a nonfiction, sprawling story, and I just finished it.

Are you at liberty to say what it's about?

Actually, I probably should not.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.