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Documents From ‘Argo’ Production Reveal What It’s Like To Film At CIA Headquarters

Since the early 1970s the Central Intelligence Agency has granted access to their Langley headquarters to a small handful of film and TV producers to add credibility and authenticity to spy dramas—often in exchange for positive portrayals of the agency.  

Newly released CIA documents shed light on this process, as well as the close relationship between the Agency and the makers of the Oscar-winning spy drama “Argo,” especially with the film’s director and star Ben Affleck.  

In early 2011, Affleck was gearing up to shoot “Argo,” about the real-life CIA operation to smuggle six embassy staff out of Iran by masquerading as a Hollywood film crew. The operation was the brainchild of Tony Mendez, a fake document and disguise specialist in the CIA’s Office of Technical Services.  

Affleck worked closely with Mendez as he developed the script, and in March 2011, the CIA arranged a tour for them of the Old Naval Observatory, the former headquarters of the CIA, and the location of the Agency’s Office of Technical Services at the time of the Argo operation.  

Following this tour, the pair attended a roundtable discussion session in the Director’s Conference Room at Langley, where the filmmakers received input from CIA officials. 

One officer who attended the meeting emailed a colleague, and commented, “FYl – In the category of weird things the Agency has asked me to do.”  

‘We Love the Agency’

During his March visit to Langley, Affleck visited the CIA museum, and in an email, he thanked the agency for their hospitality, signing off, “I look forward to returning to headquarters again soon, and I hope very much to see you then.”  

In one email exchange between the CIA and Affleck, the Agency apologized for the time it took to clear some archive photos he requested. Affleck responded “Definitely will take what I can get. As far as government goes…you guys have been amazing.”

A few weeks later, the film’s production designer Sharon Seymour also went on a tour of CIA headquarters. She took a walkaround and gathered details on Langley’s décor.

Seymour asked for copies of more photographs, showing what their offices looked like in the early 1980s. 

After a months-long clearance process, the CIA provided the photos, which were used to help recreate various sets for the production.

In May, Affleck first broached the question of getting permission to film at Langley, and in June, Affleck, Seymour, executive producer Chris Brigham, and location manager Peggy Pridemore took another tour of the building.  

Following this trip, Affleck sought permission to film on the Langley campus, and in one email he exhorted, “We love the agency and this heroic action and we really want the process of bringing it to the big screen to be as real as possible.”

One public affairs officer wrote back to assure Affleck “We’re trying,” and told Brigham, “I’m optimistic, and hope we’ll be working together.”

A Brief History of Filming at CIA Headquarters

The CIA-Hollywood relationship hasn’t always involved such mutual flattery. The first movie to be allowed access to the Langley campus was 1973’s “Scorpio” —a violent, moody thriller that did very little for the CIA’s desire for more positive public relations. It featured the agency trying to kill one of their own simply for wanting to retire from his life as a CIA spy and assassin.  

When word of the filming leaked, director Michael Winner protested, telling a London newspaper, “We only show the CIA killing nasty agents. Young people in America think the CIA should not exist, but that is naive.” Then Winner described CIA officers as “terribly charming and cheerful and gentlemanly at all times.”  

Nonetheless, the film did nothing for the CIA’s increasingly dinged-up reputation and came at a time in the 1970s when investigations exposed the agency’s role in numerous assassination plots. 

As historian Simon Willmetts observed in his book In Secrecy’s Shadow: The OSS and CIA in Hollywood Cinema 1941-1979, “Whatever the reasons behind their decision to allow the Scorpio crew to film Langley, they surely regretted it three years later when the film’s scenes of amoral CIA assassins aired on primetime American television amidst the fallout from the ‘Family Jewels’ revelations.”  

In “Scorpio,” John Colicos is shown driving through the security barriers, up to the CIA headquarters building, walking through the lobby doors and over the CIA seal on the floor of the lobby. This money shot sequence was replicated in future agency-supported productions, including Harrison Ford in “Patriot Games” and Ben Affleck in “Argo.”

An internal CIA memo shows that the decision to allow “Patriot Games” to film at Langley was made because they anticipated that the movie would offer a “positive view of the agency and its activities.”  

When the FBI’s counterintelligence division hired Rocket Media to produce the educational drama “Game of Pawns” about the case of Glenn Duffie Shriver, an American student recruited by Chinese intelligence who tried to join the CIA, the company was granted access to Langley. Joshua Murray, who played Shriver, walked the same steps taken by Affleck and Ford, as well as by the real Shriver.  

Other productions, including the first “Mission: Impossible” film, the Nicholas Cage torture thriller “Dying of the Light,” and the CBS spy drama “Allegiance,” were also granted permission to film at the headquarters of America’s top spy agency. But in 2015 the CIA suspended access.  

Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie’s request to film at Langley for “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” was turned down, because, as Cruise revealed on the DVD commentary, “You’re not allowed to film the CIA any more.” 

Likewise, CIA documents show how Michael Bay’s request to shoot the memorial wall in the headquarters’ lobby for his Benghazi film “13 Hours” was rejected, as the CIA were only engaging with Bay “for the sole purpose of keeping sensitive and unapproved material from the book out of the film.” 

This apparent ban on filming at Langley was lifted in 2018 when Amazon’s “Jack Ryan” came calling, and John Krasinski took the same journey as Ford, Affleck, and others (only this time he rode a bike up to the building before crossing the threshold).  

Screen shot from “Good Morning America” featuring Ben Affleck and former CIA officer Tony Mendez as they promoted “Argo” (Source)

‘I Trust You Not to Poison/Bomb Me’

On “Argo,” Affleck, Seymour, and Brigham continued to send “ticklers” to the CIA, who responded that they were “enthusiastic about this project” but had to wait for higher officials to give the go-ahead for filming. 

When approval was eventually granted the deputy director for public affairs let the filmmakers know, and Affleck shot back, “This is great!!! Thank you so much!! I am thrilled. Please let me know whatever I can do. This is a thrill. We will do the agency proud I promise you.”  

During the months leading up to the shoot in November, the relationship between the agency and the filmmakers grew closer. In August, a skeleton crew did a technical scout of the areas where they wanted to film, which meant they all had to undergo security checks and ask permission to bring basic equipment, including a tape measure and a light meter, onto the CIA campus. 

The response from CIA security was, “Assuming your light meter does not have any recording/transmission capabilities it’s no problem to bring it in. Ditto for the tape measure.”  

While scouting a corridor in the Old Headquarters Building, the crew hit upon a problem—a large graphic of the Statue of Liberty that had only been installed three years earlier and had a very modern look. It would be out of place in a film set in 1979 and 1980. 

Various solutions were proposed, including using temporary wallpaper, leading to one public affairs officer giving Seymour their home address so she could send her a sample. The officer joked in an email, “I trust you not to poison/bomb me.”  

Pridemore was given permission in September to tour the CIA director’s office while actor Bryan Cranston was provided a walk around Langley in October.

Ahead of a weekend shoot in November, all of the film crew and their equipment was vetted by the CIA, and the Office of Public Affairs sent an email for volunteers to act as minders.

CIA staff were enticed to monitor the production, saying, “You’ll get to watch the filming happen, see the movie stars (including Ben Affleck), and eat free food from their catering operation. What better way to spend a Saturday?”  

Meanwhile, one entertainment liaison officer working on the project gave their cell number to Pridemore, admitting, “I’ve held off giving out my cell to someone on Argo for 8 months! All good things must end, though, I suppose.” 

Pridemore replied, “I WON!” before promising not to share the phone number.  

Script Reviews and Electronic Surveillance

The producers showed multiple drafts of the script to the CIA, who reviewed it before filming took place. 

An email by an entertainment liaison officer responding to the script said it “looks good,” elaborating, “The agency comes off looking very well, in my opinion, and the action of the movie is, for the most part, squarely rooted in the facts of the mission.” 

The officer referred to the ending of the film, “There is some fiction thrown in toward the end for dramatic effect, but nothing too ridiculous. For what it’s worth, I really enjoyed reading it.”

This sequence, where armed Iranian guards chase the airplane carrying Mendez and the others as it takes off from Tehran, never actually happened. The Iranian National Guard were depicted as an insane and reckless mafia, but the CIA were perfectly happy with this gross and xenophobic deviation from the facts.  

Filming itself took place under the strictest security conditions. In production notes put out by Warner Bros, the film’s producer Grant Heslov recalled, “When we entered the building, everybody was told to leave their phones in a basket, and to be honest, I didn’t do that.

“It’s not that I wanted to make calls. I just didn’t want to give up my phone. And minutes later, a CIA officer walked in and said, ‘Okay, who’s got the iPhone?'” Heslov added. “I admitted it was me, but then I had to ask how he knew. He took me to the back where he showed me this whole computer setup where they can monitor where a cell phone is, what the number is.”

“They can tell everything. It was pretty eye-opening.”

Screen shot from the Oscars broadcast, where First Lady Michelle Obama presented the award for “Best Picture” (Source)

The result of this intensely intimate and affectionate relationship between the CIA and “Argo” producers was the most positive image of the CIA that Hollywood has ever produced.

“Argo” was also perhaps the most celebrated. It won the Best Picture award at the 2012 Oscars in a ceremony presented by First Lady Michelle Obama that was widely watched.

Long gone are Langley’s regrets over allowing directors to film inside their headquarters, and so may be the days of Hollywood portraying the CIA and its agents in a realistic and critical light.

Tom Secker

Tom Secker

Tom Secker is a private researcher who runs spyculture.com, an online archive about government involvement in the entertainment industry. He has used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain unique government documents since 2010 and hosts the popular ClandesTime podcast.