Ken Taylor’s name may sound familiar to you. Taylor (shown in the photo above) was the former ambassador to Iran, who was the centre of the narrative in Ben Affleck’s Hollywood blockbuster film ARGO – a true story about how he personally sheltered six American diplomats during the 1979 hostage crisis.
Although ARGO was based on a true story, it wasn’t the entire story.
OUR MAN IN TEHRAN is a fascinating documentary that details what has become known as “The Canadian Caper” and premiered during the Toronto International Film Festival this year. It’s currently showing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Having watched both films, I wanted to dive-in deeper with one of the co-directors, Drew Taylor (no relation to Ken Taylor) to give you a little bit more insight and his point of view about the film and about what goes on behind the scenes. I was completely amazed to learn that this is Drew’s film directing debut.
It’s incredible to learn that this is your directing debut and it’s a biggie! What was the driving force for you to make such an ambitious leap of faith?
Growing up my brother and I always had a keen interest in movies. Matthew followed that passion and went to Queens University studying Film and has been working in the industry since graduating. Although my path was a little different we started Film House Inc. in 2012 and started developing projects. In the summer of 2012 one of our partners Elena Semikina met with Ken Taylor, former Canadian Ambassador to Iran. After a candid conversation she recognised that there were elements to the story that were not commonly known. She proposed a theatrical documentary exploring the events of the 1979 hostage crisis – including revelations which have never been revealed. These included the lengths that Canada went not only to protect six fugitive American diplomats, but also Ken’s participation in the planning and preparation for Operation Eagle Claw, the rescue attempt for the 52 remaining hostages. It tells the story of an important moment in history that Canadian can take pride in. For that reason we felt a great sense of obligation to do it justice. After Argo premiered at TIFF last year, it created a sense of urgency to tell this story and release it at TIFF this year – in a sense, providing a bookend. We didn’t really have much time to dwell on the fact that this was our first film, we just kept our heads down and focused on making the film.
“it was important to these people that the story be told as a documentary that stays true to the facts”
This documentary was co-directed with Larry Weinstein, and no doubt an incredible learning experience. What were some key things you’ve learned from him about the business?
I knew that we needed to bring together the right team and Rhombus has an exceptional reputation for producing world-class documentaries. They were exactly the right partners to help tackle this project. In addition to their awards and accolades, Larry Weinstein and Niv Fichman are known for approaching difficult topics with a great deal of passion, sensitivity and integrity – all of which were critical components in order to tell this story.
As a young filmmaker, my experience working with Larry has been invaluable and perhaps immeasurable. He makes a total commitment not only to the project itself, but to the people involved as well. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to work alongside one of Canada’s leading documentary directors and producers and to see and learn from his artistry in action.
One great lesson I learned as a young filmmaker was not to try to do everything yourself. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses and it takes a team of people to make a film. Somewhere Larry is chuckling as I make a comparison to baseball… but a great parallel can be drawn. Baseball can be described as an individual sport played in a team setting. Everyone has a job they have to take care of and a pitcher’s is very different than an outfielder’s, but neither one is very good at the others. Filmmaking is the same way, know when to hand off a job to someone else who is able to do it better – the goal in the end is take a story and make it into the best film you can – and that is rarely done alone.
It can also be difficult to let things go in the edit room. There are a multitude of reasons you can get attached to certain shots or clips – the degree of difficulty in ascertaining them, the emotion of the interviewee, etc, but they are not always necessary in the film. You only have a finite amount of time to tell the story and sometimes great shots have to fall to the cutting room floor. It was hard at times, but Larry held my hand through it, plus, I managed to sneak one clip that was dropped from the film back into the trailer…
“Our Man in Tehran” will be probably be referred to as “you know that movie ARGO? this is the documentary that will give a deeper understanding of what happened.” How are you responding?
It is true, we have been getting that reference a lot and I think it is unavoidable. Argo is a great movie and has a lot of awards to back it up – but it is a Hollywood movie – made for entertainment. Naturally, the story is embellished and changed in order to dramatize the events, and in the story of the six houseguests this was very necessary. In fact, when the six people were exfiltrated nothing very much happened there. The Canadians did an amazing job at protecting them. While staying with the Taylor’s and Sheardown’s they were sipping cognac and bonding, still very aware of their colleagues down the street who were being abused, but they themselves were in a much better situation. Additionally during the exfiltration, they were not questioned or chased down the runway, they simply went through immigration boarded a plane and took off… Ben Affleck had to create a scene where they left the house to venture into the Bazaar to test their identities and manufacture a chase seen as the plane raced down the runway. Without these embellishments the story of the six is not very exciting. That being said there were changes that some might consider unnecessary – including the reduction of the Canadian participation. Ken Taylor and his staff were very active in the planning and execution of the exfiltration. Our documentary also goes beyond this story to include the extent that Canada helped prepare and plan for Operation Eagle Claw, the rescue attempt of the 52 remaining hostages. This is information that was not previous known. I think there is a place for both movies and it is important that we approach important historical moments through documentaries that stay true to the facts.
“Our documentary also goes beyond this story to include the extent that Canada helped prepare and plan for Operation Eagle Claw, the rescue attempt of the 52 remaining hostages. This is information that was not previous known.”
Where there any obstacles faced when filming this documentary?
The greatest obstacle we faced was time. After the release of Argo the project kicked into high gear. We felt a sense of urgency to tell this story and set out to have the film ready for TIFF the following year. After Argo premiered at TIFF in 2012, we wanted to be able to present a bookend to the story by telling it through a documentary at TIFF in 2013. Despite the project starting development in July of 2012, we did not really start filming the bulk of the interviews until this past spring.
Where you surprised about anything – when it came to the people interviewed on camera for the film?
The people we interviewed were extremely generous. The Iranian Hostage Crisis is a very complex story, and we ended up conducting some very long interviews in our efforts to cover ground. I think that it was important to these people that the story be told as a documentary that stays true to the facts, and for this reason they were tremendously magnanimous with their time and energy.
Will you continue working on documentaries or is there another genre you’d like to try?
I think I will approach another documentary for my next project – but I am already working on an idea for a feature film.
OUR MAN IN TEHRAN is currently showing at the TIFF Bell Lighbox in Toronto. Visit tiff.net for show times. IT’S A MUST SEE!
Here’s the incredible trailer…