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'Argo' producer scours for the next stranger-than-fiction story

David Klawans found the idea for that Oscar-nominated hit in a CIA journal. The next true tale he sells to Hollywood could be in a foreign paper, an RSS feed ...

January 28, 2013|By Chris Lee, Los Angeles Times
  • Film producer David Klawans does much of his work researching movie ideas, including "Argo," at the Westwood Public Library.
Film producer David Klawans does much of his work researching movie ideas,… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

Hunched over a desk in his spartan Westwood apartment, David Klawans squints at his computer monitor and knits his brow in concentration. "I'm perusing," he says.

His eyes dart between headlines almost indecipherable on a Web page displaying about 800 stamp-sized images of newspapers from 90 different countries.

"Two kids running? What's that?" he exclaims before clicking on a photo. "Oh, it's refugees. Whatever. Moving on."

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Nearly every day, for upward of 10-hour stretches, the independent film producer speed-reads police blogs, articles from RSS feeds and niche-interest journals in dogged pursuit of an elusive prize: a story on which to base his next movie.

His biggest hit to date is "Argo." Before the film landed seven Oscar nominations (including one for best picture) and two Golden Globes (including best drama picture), before it generated more than $180 million in worldwide grosses, "Argo" existed as a declassified story in the quarterly CIA journal Studies in Intelligence, which Klawans happens to have been perusing one day in 1998.

"It's like going on the beach with a metal detector," the self-described news junkie says of his process. "Like Kanye West looks through records to sample on his songs, I'm looking for stories to turn into films."

Klawans, 44, has established himself as Hollywood's least likely movie macher by heeding the advice of his mentor, the old-school producer David Brown ("Jaws," "A Few Good Men"): "Read everything you can get your hands on."

Indefatigable in his quest to root out oddball, overlooked true-life stories, Klawans spins 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 American diplomats hiding in Tehran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Mendez (portrayed in the movie by "Argo's" director, Ben Affleck) posed the group as Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for a science-fiction film, created a fictitious production company and planted articles about the bogus project in Hollywood trade papers.

Throughout the '90s Klawans was scraping by as a production assistant for an L.A.-based Japanese TV commercial firm. He didn't own a car, so he bicycled to UCLA's magazine archive to check the story. In microfiche files, he came across the CIA's planted articles in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety from January 1980. "My jaw dropped," he says.

Problem was, Mendez already had representation at Creative Artists Agency and was preparing to publish a memoir, "The Master of Disguise." Even so, Klawans persuaded Mendez to let him attempt to set up a movie project. He eventually bought the rights to Mendez's life story as well.

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"I'm cycling to pitch meetings wearing a backpack with a change of clothes. It's summertime and I'm sweating. And I'm getting to know studio security. They call me 'bike boy,'" remembers Klawans, who would switch from bike to business attire outside the studio gates. "I would basically throw my backpack behind a bush — I was embarrassed to look like a messenger guy."

The New York University film school graduate was born in Chicago. His family moved to Belgium when he was 2 and he grew up in Europe and the U.S. consuming a steady diet of sci-fi and fantasy films including "Star Wars."

He came close to setting up the "Argo" project as a cable TV movie. But when that deal fell through, Klawans says, "it hit me that Tony had planted stories in Variety and Hollywood Reporter as a cover. For the CIA, it's all about illusions and perception. I thought, 'That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to plant an "Argo" story in a magazine.'"

The producer had met former L.A. Weekly staff writer and "This American Life" contributor Joshuah Bearman through friends who thought the two shared an appreciation for offbeat material. Bearman also had experience 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 the vintage arcade game "Donkey Kong."

Klawans handed over his research and contacts to Bearman and proposed that the journalist write "Argo" as a magazine article that would entice movie backers.

Bearman landed an assignment from Wired magazine, then interviewed everyone he could: Mendez, officials in the State Department with knowledge of the exfiltration and Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran who housed some of the fugitive American diplomats, as well as the six embassy "houseguests."

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