We Spoke to the Guy Who Wrote the Real Screenplay for 'Argo'

By Rick Paulas


Courtesy of Flatbush Pictures, from the documentary Science Fiction Land.

While Ben Affleck's teary Best Picture acceptance speech thanked the right Hollywood honchos, there's one person he snubbed who literally made Argo a reality: Barry Ira Geller.

In 1979, Geller penned Lord of Light, an adaptation of Roger Zelazny's Hugo Award-winning sci-fi novel. The title morphed into Argo when the CIA evacuated six US diplomats from Iran by turning them into a film crew. But contrary to how Affleck's film portrays it, the script wasn't just some jokey, throwaway nonsense a hack writer shat out. It was the opening salvo for a dream that would change the world.

With assistance from sci-fi visionaries Ray Bradbury, Paolo Solari, and artist Jack Kirby, Geller was using the script to help fund a science-fiction theme park named, appropriately enough, Science Fiction Land. Science Fiction Land would have been a place for top scientists to show off their gadgets to the public. In other words, something that's way more exciting than the movie Argo. (My friend described the situation best by saying, “Maybe this makes me a bad person, but I want to live in the alternate universe where a couple of Americans died in Iran and this theme park exists.”)

While the park's long dead, an Oscar-based jolt of enthusiasm has Geller kicking the tires on finally seeing his original script turned into a film, and he's the subject of a forthcoming documentary called Science Fiction Land.

VICE: What rides would be in Science Fiction Land?
Barry Ira Geller: I had envisioned and had worked with various engineers utilizing the technology of magnetic levitation. The bullet train, at the time, in Japan was using that. If you wanted to go anywhere, you'd get in a car, hit a button, and they'd float and take you there. How that worked is that, very simply, I had metal tracks under the ground. And we'd have holography, vast outdoor projections on buildings. And the whole park was going to be enclosed by a Buckminster Fuller dome, over a half mile high and two quarters of a mile wide, which would float based on the differences of the weather inside and out.

What kind of money would that take?
This is where we ran into problems. It was gonna cost half a billion dollars.

Can you explain the cross-promotion between the movie and the park?
The park was funded first because that generated the financing for the films. Now you sell a film, you have product placement. I was sort of doing the same thing on a mass scale. All of the money to finance the film was by selling restaurant space to different countries, selling concessions, raising sponsors that way. I personally raised somewhere between half a million or more just in limited partnerships and private investors.


One of Jack Kirby's mock-ups of the park. Courtesy of Flatbush Pictures, from the documentary Science Fiction Land.

Where did things fall apart?
My supervising producer turned out to have underworld connections; his real intent for the whole project was getting his own zip code. Then he got caught stealing $50,000 from a private investor, had some shady financial documents from Canadian banks, and the FBI tracked him down. It was one big mess. But I got completely exonerated. They found out my signature was forged on a lot of these documents, and the judge said, “Well, see you later.” But he went to jail.

After that, the script's just lying around?
Earlier in the process, John Chambers [the makeup artist played by John Goodman in Argo] and I were talking about potential actors. I was favoring Marlon Brando but was worried about his age. John said he invented some stuff that could make people look younger, and he'd been using it for the CIA. I looked at him for a moment and went, “OK, sure John.” And we went back to our work. But I didn't take it any further. At the time I was looking at Walter Hill and a few others to direct. But after the shit hit the fan for us, that's when John gave the script to Tony Mendez [Ben Affleck].

What's inaccurate about Argo?
You know, I've made half a dozen attempts to right inaccuracies on the Argo wiki, and within minutes, it gets deleted by you know who. Actually, I don't know who. But it is obviously someone who wants to keep the film's version of history. In the movie, they're told the plan's off a half hour before they leave, but that actually happened a month before. And Jack's designs weren't meant as sets. They were for the theme park. If you look, they're from a point of view of 400 feet up. Those aren't production designs. And they said they bought the rights to the script. They never bought any rights. You can see the real Tony Mendez admit that in interviews. “I stole the script from Lord of Light,” is what Mendez himself has said. How much bigger of a smoking gun can you get?

In the movie they say they bought the rights?
There is some mention of that. Very quickly, but it's just a write-in so that Ben Affleck can have his character be an honest, upstanding man. It was all his idea, and they did everything legally—when in fact that was totally not the case at all.

What should Affleck and company have done?
When George Clooney bought the rights to the Wired magazine article, which is pretty close to the actual thing, he had the right to invent anything he liked. Just like when I bought the rights to Lord of Light, I had the right to create from that. So I'm not complaining, in that sense. But it would have been so much better if he had just allowed the real events to be depicted or just added notes at the end of the film. That's what I'd say. It shouldn't be any hair off their well-oiled backs to give credit to the artists who actually made it happen. You wouldn't have had Argo without the Lord of Light screenplay, because that's what made it a credible plan. It's like, you can't drive a car without an engine. But in the end, I'm happy those people were saved through the imaginings I had.

@rickpaulas

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