Sometimes sound design starts with research, according to Erik Aadahl, supervising sound editor and sound designer for Argo. He offered, “Authenticity is so important in a film like this, based on true events.” After reading the script and meeting with Ben Affleck to discuss the director’s thoughts and philosophy, Aadahl started looking up archival footage.
“The protests outside of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 were pretty well documented visually, but not too much with sound,” Aadahl added. “We did find a few sound recordings, and the most interesting thing to me was hearing the energy, and the howling cries and chants. I realized that would be one of the most important design elements for Argo.”
Aadahl assembled about 100 Farsi speaking Persian extras, and recorded them on the Warner Bros. backlot. They put microphones on rooftops and behind cars, as well as in the middle of the crowd in a surround-sound configuration. The crowd did a series of chants, which Aadahl had found in his research to be the actual chants that were done outside of the embassy. “‘Death to America,’ was obviously a very popular one, as was ‘Death to Carter,’ ‘The Shah must be hanged” and ‘The Shah must be returned,'” Aadahl recalled.
At one point in the film, the crowd is pushing against the VW Van that the escaping embassy staff, posing as a fake film crew, is riding in. As Aadahl was recording surround sound from inside a truck for that scene, his assembled extras almost turned over the vehicle, and he actually feared for his life. He knew then that he had gotten authentic sound for the scene.
Other sound effects needed for the design were period and locally specific sounds like emergency sirens. These were often sounds that most people would never notice, or recognize, but they were important for a realistic portrayal of the times.
To evoke a sense of claustrophobia and overwhelming panic during the climax of the actual escape toward the end of the movie, the audio team layered a cacophony of sounds into all of the Tehran scenes. Then, as the “fake film crew” waited in the airport to be allowed on their flight, they started to strip away those layers – slowly, so as not to be noticeable. The effect turned the atmosphere inwards. “We obviously didn’t want the audience to notice what we were doing, so we had to be careful,” Aadahl explained. “But with them just standing there waiting for their passports to be stamped, the tension is so critical. Sometimes for tension to work, less is more.”
“Another trick we used,” Aadahl continued, “We copied these old radio broadcasts that were messages from the revolutionary guard about ‘watching for westerners,’ ‘being careful what you do,’ and things like ‘women must cover their heads,’ and we put those through the airport PA system. As [the escapees] get closer to the gate, the messages get more and more serious, and dire. Even though there is a language barrier, those announcements still convey an emotion that is so important to that tension.”
“Our main challenge with sound was to keep the tension going, and keep it alive so that the picture did not need to be cut down, as would be the tendency for a less bold filmmaker,” said Aadahl. “I need to give credit to Ben for having the confidence to let it play out.”