A little over a year ago, Ken Taylor unintentionally become the centre of controversy in absentia, when Ben Affleck's "Argo" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and had many Canadians complaining that Hollywood's version of events didn't give the country or the former Canadian ambassador to Iran enough credit when it came to their involvement in rescuing six US diplomats from Tehran.
Now, a new documentary called "Our Man in Tehran" from directors Larry Weinstein and Drew Taylor (no relation to Ken), looks to set that record straight by filling in those gaps, as well as uncovering new information that many people in Canada and around the world probably don't know -– like Taylor's heavy involvement with the CIA in attempting to rescue the remaining 52 hostages at the American embassy as well.
Still, Taylor remains, for lack of a better word, diplomatic when discussing what "Argo" missed, and what it was like watching a fictionalized take on that chapter of his life unfold on-screen. With the premiere of "Our Man in Tehran" and a post-screening panel discussion with Taylor proving to be one of the hottest tickets at this year's TIFF, Moviefone Canada spoke to the Canadian hero about what it's been like reliving these events on-screen, and what he hopes fellow Canadians will gain from finally hearing the full story of what happened in Tehran.
Moviefone Canada: What made you want to do this documentary? How'd you get involved with it?
Ken Taylor: A team in Toronto, Film House, Drew Taylor and Elena Semikina, who are the principals, approached me and said, "We'd like to make a documentary." I said, really? And they said they were going to try to get it financed. I said, "Yeah, OK." I didn't initiate it. But the idea of the documentary, even at that stage, I wasn't sure whether it would take off, even in those early stages. I welcomed that as a means of conveying to Canada what really happened in Tehran, and what Canadians can do abroad.
So did you appreciate getting the opportunity to tell your story here?
Yes, I did. Because I never envisaged it, really. I didn't see it happening. I'm not a producer, a director, and have been living in New York. And I think certainly as far as a movie, it was thought that "Argo," Best Picture, big budget, who wants to do anything after that? Pat [Taylor, Ken's wife] and I saw it for the first time yesterday, and it seems the response has been good.
What's it been like for you reliving these events, first through watching "Argo" and then now with this documentary?
[Laughs] You're watching "Argo" and you wonder, "Where is the end?" "Argo" was entertaining, I enjoyed it, but it had nothing to do with reality. This one, I think moviegoers will find it entertaining. Maybe not with the same degree of dramatic tension as "Argo," because if you stay with the truth, sometimes the truth is better than fiction, and sometimes imagination is better than truth. With this one, it follows the story and I certainly was happy to see it unfold how it did. There's a curiosity, and in some cases, even some degree of dissatisfaction among Canadians with "Argo." So I think this addresses those.
What's it like watching someone play you in situations or scenarios that didn't necessarily happen that way in real-life? Is that a surreal experience?
Yeah, there's not much you can do about it. [Laughs] There it is, it's a movie made. And how you're portrayed and what you do, particularly when it was so distinct from reality, you sort of raise your eyebrows and then decide, well, I'll go along and enjoy it.
One of the nice things about this documentary is that it really shows the context and background leading up to these events.
That's a good point. Because even though there's been 33 years, there's been so much done about the Iranian Revolution, that lead-up in the documentary is, in a brief time, really quite a sound story of the Iranian Revolution before it gets into whenever we were involved. It sets a context within which everything else takes place. Because of the nature of the Iranian relation to government, the unfolding revolution, it's all in a circle. It all has a bearing on the predicament we found ourselves in.
Do you think that there's any danger in reducing the collaborative effort that went on here and turning into it a more traditional Hollywood narrative with one main hero?
Yeah, I think that "Argo" didn't really deal with the degree of collaboration between Canada and the U.S. So much of what was basic to seeing the six diplomats out was documentation and work done in Ottawa. I'd still be there if it wasn't for people in Ottawa. And of course in "Argo," Ottawa didn't exist. It just never appeared. And then of course, it was John and Zena Sheardown who had four of [the diplomats], and they didn't appear. Now they said that's a practical matter, you can only put so much in a movie. OK. But in that case, to what degree is it based on a true story?
How heavily involved were you in the development of this documentary and getting it off the ground?
When Film House was looking at financing, I went with them to [co-producers] Rhombus and talked about it ... talking about diplomatic life, myself, and the early concept of the documentary, as an introductory piece to see if they thought that as a character this may work out. So I was involved in that sense. The direction they took was something that really was the matter of Rhombus primarily and Drew Taylor. [There was] a lot of talking, and Pat was also involved in the preparation period. So it was very much part of, not my life, but I was continually involved in it, in talking about that, talking about this, turning up for shooting.
Were you there when they were talking to any of the other interview subjects?
No. I found it best to keep myself totally out. When anybody was interviewed, I made a point of not being present.
I know that this project started before "Argo," but then that movie came out, which in a way makes this more topical. Do you think that people are more interested in learning about the full story now, because of that?
Inevitably, I think. And I think quite logically they will. People who saw "Argo" and then they're thinking, "Well, maybe we missed something. Let's go and see this." This is a documentary, and then when you look at it -- I was trying to put it in perspective last night -- quite apart from the content, there's a lot of "Canada" in this. There's the Canadian flag, there's the House of Parliament, there's the debate in the House of Commons. It's very much a Canadian setting. For instance, there's nothing about the liberations in Langley with the CIA, there's nothing about making the movie in Hollywood. It's Canada. And then Tony Mendez, of course, is part of it when he comes to Tehran. So in that way I think it'll be seen and Canadians will feel it's really got a Canadian identity to it. And yet at the same time, it's reality. It isn't just a fabricated Canadian involvement.
What do you hope that audiences take away from this documentary then, both in Canada but also abroad as well?
One is, and this was the case with "Argo" as well, is that really I think it shows the public, taxpayers, citizens, about what life is like in an embassy today. I'm not suggesting that every embassy is under siege, but it's a dangerous neighbourhood in the Middle East. Life is very varied as a diplomat, there's any number of issues that you have to cope with these days. And that's what I hope audiences take away. For young Canadians, I hope they see it as illustrative of what Canada is capable of doing internationally, and we are prepared to do internationally. We're just not prepared to sit back and let events overtake us. We can feel if we need to, we will get involved. And I think Joe Clark puts that forward very well, very articulately here.
"Our Man in Tehran" opens in theatres on Friday, September 20.