Eye on the Oscars: Below the Line

While very different in tone and approach, “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” share a lot of similarities. Both are based on true stories largely set in hostile countries — Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis, and Pakistan during the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, respectively.

Not surprisingly, the production teams faced similar challenges.

First, they had to find shooting locations that would approximate the look and feel of lands where filming is severely restricted or impossible. Then they would have to recreate the recent past – often a bigger challenge than doing a period piece set a century ago.

“The big problem is that all the technology has changed so quickly since the ’70s, and most (items from that time are ) considered junk today, not collectibles,” says “Argo” production designer Sharon Seymour, who had to track down old typewriters, computers, telephones and TV sets to help establish the right look for embassy and CIA offices.

Seymour and her team also had to build the pneumatic tubes the State Department and CIA offices used in the 70’s for messaging, “to make audiences think about how communications have changed. Ben (Affleck, the film’s director and star) wanted as much detail as possible.”

Location manager Chris Baugh (who won a COLA award from Film Liaisons in California Statewide for his work on “Argo”) notes that while the film used Istanbul to double for Tehran, “eleven weeks out of the 14-week schedule actually shot in L.A.”

After “tons of research” and scouting local locations for six months, Baugh found a Veteran’s Administration building in the San Fernando Valley’s Northridge area that could double for the Tehran embassy interiors, “and then we’d use a lot of old tricks, like shooting the embassy wall scenes later in Istanbul, and then marrying the footage,” he says.

The team also got lucky with another key location to double for Tehran’s airport. “We shot it all at Ontario International (just east of L.A.), which was a real gift as we had a closed-down terminal and tower we could dress, and views of the tarmac,” says Seymour. “I don’t know how we’d have managed without that.”

For “Zero” production designer Jeremy Hindle and executive/line producer Colin Wilson, the big challenge was to be “insanely authentic and really hard-core as (helmer Kathryn Bigelow) didn’t want to make a ‘Bourne’ movie, full of flash,” says Wilson. “This is telling the truth, as much as we can.”

To get the details right, the production team spent months researching potential locations, breaking down the script “into the different requirements, such as recreating U.S. forward operating bases where we’d have not only the necessary locations but also access to meaningful military hardware, and all within our budget,” Wilson adds. “So it was a combination of looking at the overall design of the movie, and all the needed locations and sets.”

The filmmakers ultimately settled on Jordan doubling for Pakistan, and then reverse-engineered for further authenticity. “Once we had an edit of the film, we sent out little splinter groups to capture extra footage of establishing shots, which we then peppered the film with,” adds Wilson, who reveals that the CIA’s Langley, Va., headquarters “was actually shot at a building outside London.”

The team also wanted to stress the “huge contrast” between the CIA headquarters and the run-down, cramped, dangerous U.S. embassy in Islamabad. “It was important to show that when you go back to Langley, these people have a very different outlook on what’s really on the ground in this Third World country,” Hindle says. “Although we were shooting in Jordan, I couldn’t find the right embassy location. Everything’s too new and small there.”

The team finally picked an engineering school in Chandigarh, India, as the stand-in. “The moment I saw it, I knew it’d work,” says Hindle. “The room layout and scale just felt right.” Even so, everything to dress the offices – paper, computers, pens – “had to be shipped to Jordan, then India.”

Eye on the Oscars: Below the Line
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