On Location: Hollywood's Iranian caper comes to L.A.
At the height of the Iranian hostage crisis, artist-turned CIA technical officer Tony Mendez pulled off a stunning caper when he helped six American diplomats in the Canadian embassy in Tehran escape by disguising them as members of a Hollywood film crew.
Thirty-two years later, Mendez's daring plan has been turned into a movie called “Argo” that will begin filming next week on the streets of Los Angeles.
The movie, starring and directed by Ben Affleck and produced by George Clooney, is one of several high profile studio feature films shooting in L.A. this summer and fall. Others include “The Gangster Squad,” a star-packed crime drama starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin and Emma Stone in a story about the Los Angeles Police Department’s efforts to keep the East Coast mafia out of L.A. in the 1940s and 1950s.
Both Warner Bros. films will be shot primarily in L.A., lifting local feature film activity, which was virtually flat in the first two quarters of the year compared with the same periods in 2010. On location movie production climbed 8% in 2010 from 2009 but was still nearly half what it was a decade ago due to competition from cities outside of California.
The state’s film tax credit program has helped stem the tide. Indeed, each of the new Warner Bros. pictures, which have budgets in the $50 million to $60 million range, received approval for state film tax credits: $6.3 million for “Argo” and $11.5 million for “The Gangster Squad,” according to the California Film Commission.
“These are healthy-sized features that employ a lot of our members,’’ said Ed Duffy, business agent for Teamsters Local 399, which represents location managers, studio drivers and casting directors. “Producers are starting to look at L.A. a little bit more.”
“Argo,” based on a 2007 Wired magazine article and stars John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston, will film some scenes in Turkey and Washington, D.C., but the bulk of the movie will be shot in L.A.
The production is slated to shoot for 50 days in various local locations, from the Ontario International Airport, which will stand in for the Tehran airport, a private residence in Hancock Park and a Veterans Affairs building in North Hills. Some filming will likely take place on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.
Chris Brigham, an executive producer for “Argo,” said the state tax credit program was an important factor in the decision to shoot locally, as was the fact that part of the movie’s story takes place in L.A., where the film crew caper was plotted. Hollywood’s talented crews were also a factor in keeping the production in L.A., Brigham said.
“There’s such a wealth of knowledge here that you can’t find anywhere else,’’ he said. “The film crew here is pretty much the best in the world.”
“The Gangster Squad,” a co-production between Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures, will begin filming in L.A. in early September. The film is based on the “Tales from the Gangster Squad" series by former Los Angeles Times writer Paul Lieberman.
“It was budgeted for a number of locations but we decided we could do this old style: actually shooting L.A. for L.A., “ said Lisa Rawlins, Warner Bros.’ senior vice president of public affairs.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. and Legendary’s big budget Batman film “Dark Knight Rises,” expected to cost at least $250 million, has been filming in Britain and Pittsburgh but will shoot at least two months in L.A. this fall.
-- Richard Verrier
Photo: Cover of the fake "Argo" script used in the escape. Credit: Mendez Collection