“Argo” Producer Seeks Next Story Stranger Than Fiction

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Leaning over a desk in his Spartan Westwood apartment, David Klawans narrows his eyes at his computer screen and frowns in concentration. “I’m reading,” he said.

His eyes roam through almost indecipherable headlines on a web page displaying around 800 stamp-sized images of newspapers from 90 different countries.

“Two children running?” What is it? “He exclaims before clicking on a photo.” Oh, it’s the refugees. Whatever. Move on.

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Almost every day, for more than 10 hours, the independent film producer quickly reads detective blogs, RSS feed articles and trade magazines in the relentless pursuit of an elusive prize: a story to base his next film on.

His biggest hit to date is “Argo”. Before the film garnered seven Oscar nominations (including one for Best Picture) and two Golden Globes (including Best Drama), before it generated more than $ 180 million in worldwide revenue, “Argo” existed as a declassified story in the quarterly journal of CIA Studies. in Intelligence, which Klawans once consulted in 1998.

“It’s like going to the beach with a metal detector,” says the self-proclaimed junkie of his process. “As Kanye West flips through records to sample his songs, I’m looking for stories to turn into movies.”

Klawans, 44, established itself as Hollywood’s least likely film to chew listening to advice from his mentor, old-fashioned producer David Brown (“Jaws”, “A Few Good Men”): “Read whatever you can get your hands on.”

Tireless in his quest to root out true and weird, overlooked stories, Klawans turns material most others ignore into cinematic gold.

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“Argo” took nearly 14 years to reach the big screen after Klawans read about CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez’s rescue of six US diplomats hiding in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. Mendez (portrayed in the film by “Argo” director Ben Affleck) introduced the group as Canadian filmmakers searching for scout locations for a sci-fi film, setting up a fictional production company, and planting articles on the bogus project in the Hollywood trade papers.

Throughout the 90s, Klawans worked as a production assistant for a Japanese TV advertising company based in Los Angeles. He didn’t own a car, so he cycled through the UCLA magazine archives to verify the story. In microfiche files he came across CIA articles in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety for January 1980. “My jaw dropped,” he says.

The problem was that Mendez was already represented at the Creative Artists Agency and was about to publish a memoir, “The Master of Disguise”. Despite this, Klawans persuaded Mendez to let him attempt to put together a film project. He eventually bought the rights to Mendez’s life story.

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“I cycle to pitch meetings with a backpack with a change of clothes. It’s summer and I’m sweating. And I’m getting to know the security of the studios. They call me ‘bike boy’, ”recalls Klawans, who switched from biking to business attire outside the studio doors. “I would basically throw my backpack behind a bush – I was embarrassed to look like a messenger.”

The New York University film school graduate was born in Chicago. His family moved to Belgium when he was 2 years old and he grew up in Europe and the United States consuming a steady diet of science fiction and fantasy films, including “Star Wars”.

He almost put together the “Argo” project as a telefilm for cable television. But when that deal broke down, Klawans says, “it hit me that Tony had planted stories in Variety and Hollywood Reporter for cover. For the CIA, it’s all about illusions and perception. I was like, ‘This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to plant an “Argo” story in a magazine. “

The producer had met Joshuah Bearman, former LA Weekly editor and “This American Life” contributor, through friends who believed the two shared an appreciation for the offbeat material. Bearman also had the experience of turning a magazine story into a movie; an article he reported for Harper’s became the 2007 documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”, about two die-hard video game players vying for the world’s highest score in arcade gaming vintage “Donkey Kong”.

Klawans turned over his research and contacts to Bearman and proposed that the reporter write “Argo” as a magazine article that would attract movie supporters.

Bearman landed a Wired magazine assignment, then interviewed all he could: Mendez, State Department officials with knowledge of the exfiltration, and Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran who housed some of the diplomats. fleeing Americans, as well as the six embassies “The guest house.”

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“He had a hunch that by doing all of the research for the story, I would be able to flesh out those characters and bring the story to life in a way that was difficult for even screenwriters to do,” he said. Bearman said. “The work involved makes it easy to see that the story could work elsewhere as well. “

It wasn’t the first time that Klawans – who loved movies so much as a child that he subscribed to the Chicago Sun-Times for movie commercials – challenged conventional Hollywood MO to sell movie property. . To feature a story from a British newspaper about 52 animals, including a dog, cat and horse, which were awarded medals for bravery during WWII, Klawans created a poster of a pigeon being greeted by soldiers. Executives at Sony Pictures bought the idea, although “Pet Heroes” was blocked during development and never made.

Unfazed, Klawans came across a story in 2001 about a Mexican priest who moonlighted as a lucha libre wrestler to raise money for the church’s orphanage. After buying the idea from Antonio Banderas’ production company and negotiating with Benicio Del Toro, Klawans struck a deal with Nickelodeon Pictures. This project evolved into the 2006 Jack Black comedy, “Nacho Libre,” which grossed nearly $ 100 million worldwide.

“David is a guy who works totally outside the system,” says Bearman. “In other words, it wasn’t some big Hollywood producer saying, ‘Let me tell you, man, it’s gonna happen.’ He didn’t give the impression that we knew what we were doing.

Just before the publication of his article – “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Movie to Save Americans from Tehran” – Bearman’s agent circulated a copy of the story to Hollywood production companies. In less than 48 hours, Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment and George Clooney’s Smokehouse Pictures were vying for it.

“When I read the article, I thought, ‘This could be a commercial and entertaining movie that could say a few things and press a lot of buttons,” recalls Grant Heslov, Clooney’s partner at Smoke House. “This is a story you can’t believe would actually happen; the truth is so much stranger than the fiction. The fact that it’s based on actual underlying material is key to its appeal. People get more involved because it’s based on the truth.

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“The Men Who Watch the Goats”, directed by Heslov, is based on a non-fiction book, and Clooney co-wrote (with Heslov) and directed “Good Night and Good Luck”, the real-life drama about the showdown. between presenter Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Smokehouse bought “Argo” from Klawans and Bearman, with Clooney attached to directing (in 2011, Ben Affleck replaced him in the director’s chair).

“I always knew it was going to be done,” says Klawans. “I had no idea it was going to bring in over $ 100 million for the country.”

The success of the film barely changed Klawans’ lifestyle. While he can see a hefty six-figure salary if a project is made, Klawans can’t earn anything if an idea never gets turned into a movie. His spacious apartment gives little evidence of his news junkie tendencies, except for walls lined with movie posters he produced and an office closet filled with boxes of newspaper clippings, transcripts. and microfiche prints from the early 1990s – the raw material Klawans reserved as possible films.

Bearman and Klawans have set up two other films and an HBO series through stories that Bearman has posted – or “planted”, in Klawans’ mind – on NPR, Rolling Stone and other media, although the projects are in production limbo. Another article Klawans has purchased the rights to, about a bank security guard posing as an FBI agent, is in production at Fox Searchlight.

After a pause in reading, Klawans is back in full scan mode on his 23-inch Samsung touchscreen computer to watch.

Browsing through the articles clogging his inbox, he pauses as a few headlines jump out: “Clone Dogs Go Wild in Central Park.” “Naked sauna rampage forces alcohol limit at spa.” “The Red Bull killer has his wings chopped off.” “The family puts the children in charge for a month.”

Any of those stories might do the trick for “the trash,” the office file where he keeps ideas with serious cinematic potential.

Klawans glances at his framed “Argo” poster, then returns his attention to his monitor and says, “It all starts here.”

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