Story Behind The Story: Argo

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Unusual tales in Hollywood usually aren’t so unusual.  But this particular story caught our attention because it’s about science; it’s about entertainment; and, most of all, it’s unusual.

The story begins with the highly successful movie Argo, the darling of the award show circuit, eventually winning the Oscar for best picture of 2012.  

For those who haven’t seen it, Argo takes the audience through the steps leading up to the daring rescue of diplomats trapped in Iran after the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in 1979.   Most of us weren’t aware of this footnote in recent history, including the imagination and heroism of CIA operative Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck in the movie. That was, until Mr. Affleck made Argo.  

But, like most great Hollywood tales, there is a story behind this story. The story was pure Hollywood – with a little dash of science tossed in — until Argo swooped onto the big screen.

It was Mendez’ idea to use the making of a fake science fiction movie as a ruse to extract the hiding Americans from an increasingly untenable and hostile situation in Iran.  To pull off his scheme, the fake movie had to reek with authenticity. Mendez and his accomplices had to convince the Iranians that Hollywood was indeed scouting out possible locations in Iran for shooting a movie called Argo.  Mendez solicited the assistance of a CIA consultant named John Chambers (played by John Goodman in the movie) who happened to be an award-winning make-up artist in Hollywood.  At the time, Chambers was involved in the making of another movie, what was supposed to be a science fiction blockbuster of Star Wars proportions, called Lord of Light, based on a 1967 novel of the same name by Roger Zelazny.

 As it turned out, the script and preliminary artwork for Lord of Light eventually became the fake Argo.

Barry Ira Geller was the mastermind behind Lord of Light and he subsequently planned to erect a theme park with the same name. Geller envisioned that the park would act as a home for scientists and artists working together on technologies to benefit the world.  Unfortunately, neither of Geller’s projects ever got off the ground and the story of what happened to Lord of Light and Science Fiction Land may have been destined for obscurity – were it not for the making and subsequent success of Argo.

But not all was lost for Science Fiction Land! Enter Judd Ehrlich, a successful documentary filmmaker.  Ehrlich had spent several years working on a project called Science Fiction Land, the true story of what happened to Geller and his movie/theme park fiasco. 

But Ehrlich lacked the resources to put the finishing touches on his documentary – until the success of Argo and the interest it generated about the real story behind Lord of Light.  

Using Kickstarter, he was able to raise $50,000 for graphics, special effects, and additional footage and interviews.  Now, the film’s completed and Ehrlich is shopping for a distributor.  He’ll also be helming a panel on Science Fiction Land this summer in San Diego at Comic-Con.  Naturally, Ehrlich also dreams of following in the footsteps of Ben Affleck — all the way onto the stage of the Dolby Theater – to accept the Oscar in the Best Documentary category.  That might never happen.  But it could.  There could also one day be a real Science Fiction Land, which would be ever the more unusual ending to an already unusual story.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.