DUMBO director’s documentary tells true story behind ‘Argo’

DUMBO director’s documentary tells true story behind ‘Argo’
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

In Hollywood, it’s based on a true story. In Brooklyn, it is a true story.

A DUMBO filmmaker is working on a documentary about the real-life events that inspired the Ben Affleck blockbuster “Argo” — a miraculous story about a science fiction script used by the CIA in a ploy to rescue six Americans in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.

And unlike the Affleck version, director Judd Ehrlich says his movie will tell the truth and nothing but it.

“A lot of people go into a film like ‘Argo’ thinking that it is based on a true story, but it does have a lot of fictionalized elements,” said Ehrlich, who is making “Science Fiction Land” through his Flatbush Pictures studio on Jay Street. “But we’re not making a political thriller.”

Ehrlich’s story focuses specifically on the script that CIA officer Tony Mendez used as part of a rouse to spring the hostages.

And it’s a tale screenwriters couldn’t make up if they tried.

With the help of makeup guru John Chambers — who made disguises for the CIA in addition to his Academy Award-winning career working on productions such as “Planet of the Apes” and “Star Trek” — Mendez procured a big-budget script that had been scrapped (incidentally, a grandiose science fiction production called “Lord of Light” that involved some of Hollywood’s finest minds and even inspired plans for a spin-off theme park in Colorado before collapsing spectacularly amidst corruption probes).

By having the six trapped Americans — who were hiding in the Canadian embassy — pose as a crew of filmmakers working on the script, Mendez was able to get them out safely.

But it’s the characters behind this most improbable of scripts that Ehrlich wants to highlight — people like Jack Kirby, the legendary comic book illustrator who brought to life such characters as the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk, and did designs for the production, and Barry Geller, a young inventor who wrote the screenplay based on a Roger Zelazny book.

Both were major players who got the short shrift in “Argo,” Ehrlich says.

“There’s a responsibility to make sure these people get the recognition they deserve,” Ehrlich said.

“Argo,” which has been well-received by film critics, features bold names including Affleck, who acted in and directed the movie, Bryan Cranston, and John Goodman, and revolves around the dramatic elements of the Americans’ escape.

Ehrlich is more interested in the story behind the story — such as how and why the “Lord of Light” script and theme park went bust.

“Some people have raised the question of whether the CIA was involved,” said Ehrlich. “It’s understandable that a Hollywood film would not get into the complexities of the story, but we have the ability to explore things more deeply.”

The filmmaker has set up a Kickstarter page to raise the final $50,000 he says he will need to complete the picture.

“Unless you’re Ken Burns, it’s the type of stuff you have to do to make documentaries,” said Ehrlich.

Ehrlich is not the first to tackle elements of the story from a nonfictional perspective.

Documentarian Errol Morris did a piece on Tony Mendez for a series called “First Person,” in 2000, and a 2007 story in Wired magazine — which “Argo” eventually purchased the rights to — depicted much of the tale in narrative form.

But he says his film will tell an urgent and original story.

“It goes back to the notion of a big Hollywood film as opposed to a grassroots effort,” he said. “When you dig into this story it really is stranger than anything that Hollywood could come up with. It’s like a true-life science fiction film.”

Reach reporter Eli Rosenberg at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-2531. And follow him at twitter.com/emrosenberg.

Ehrlich and the associate producer of “Science Fiction Land,” Ruchi Mital, are part of a community of filmmakers in DUMBO.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini