Myth -> Novel -> Theme Park -> Caper -> Movie!

Jack Kirby art for the "Lord of Light" movie

Now here’s a story that by my count involves four different levels of pretense: Hollywood Reporter says that Ben Affleck is in negotiations to direct a movie based on the Canadian Caper, a ripping yarn of the CIA and the Iranian Revolution that happens to be true.  The caper itself was based on stolen plans for a movie and theme park based on the novel “Lord of Light”, which itself was based on Hindu myth.   Let me see if I can unpack all the meta-ishness here:

  1. In 2011, Hollywood decides to make a movie based on an article in Wired magazine by Joshuah Bearman: “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran” (scroll down past the header error to read it).   Affleck wants to direct it, George Clooney and Grant Heslov are producing, and one Chris Terrio wrote it.  No telling who will pretend to be the operatives involved, but Affleck has starred in previous movies that he has directed.
  2. In 1979, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard captured 66 Americans at the US Embassy in Tehran, but 6 escaped.   They found refuge in the Canadian Embassy, but then needed to be smuggled out of the country.  They could get Canadian passports, but what would be their cover story?  A CIA operative named Antonio Mendez is put on the job.  He had recently moved from the Office of Disguise (yes, the CIA has one) to becoming head of the Office of Authentication.   His specialty was just this kind of ‘exfiltration’ (more proof that there’s a word in English for everything). He hooked up with a well-known makeup and effects expert named John Chambers, who had won an Oscar for his work on “Planet of the Apes”.   The refugees will pretend to be location scouts for a movie called “Argo”.   Mendez sets up a fake studio in Hollywood, Studio Six, and steals a script and concept art from a failed SF film pitch.  It goes off without a hitch – they walk through the Tehran airport under the noses of suspicious guards and fly off to Zurich on Swissair.  His own description is here.   He wins awards within the Agency, as does Chambers.  The Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, also gets a lot of the credit.  His fake studio only exists for two weeks, but gets 26 script proposals, including one from Steven Spielberg.
  3. In 1978, one Barry Geller gets the rights to film the famous SF novel “Lord of Light”.   IMDB says that he has no film or TV credits. It’s a spectacular story, and is going to be expensive, so he has a brilliant idea – he’ll turn the sets into a theme park afterwards, “Science Fiction Land”!   That way the production cost can be amortized over many years.  Says Geller:

    The Producer’s vision (in 1979) was to include computer-controlled rides, magnetically levitating cars operated by voice command, billboard-sized Holography, a bullet-train from Japan, and many other venues for children to envision the future.”

    Yeah, sure.   However, he gets a god of comics, Jack Kirby, to do some production drawings:

    Jack Kirby's costume for Sam in his Kalkin persona

    He also gets Buckminster Fuller somehow on board, and blithely steals Fuller’s concept drawings for a dome over Manhattan:

    "Let's dome over all of Midtown because, well, um, umbrellas are a nuisance."

    Investors must have looked at that and said “What an interesting concept!  My girl will let you know when we can fit another meeting into our schedule.”  It goes nowhere at all, but Geller still maintains a website,, where he will still sell you Kirby’s extraordinary drawings and the script rights.

  4. In 1968, the hot young writer Roger Zelazny wins the Hugo for his novel “Lord of Light”.   It’s got everything: a wry rebel hero, a best friend who is also his nemesis, a femme fatale who actually is the goddess of destruction Kali, real demons and fake techno-magic, and a revolt against Heaven by the proletariat, all in 250 pages.  The premise is that when the crew of an interstellar colony ship arrived at their new world, they decided that they didn’t want a gold watch for the end of their job; they wanted to be gods.  They set themselves up as the Hindu pantheon and turn the thawed-out colonists into serfs.    If you’re a good serf you get reincarnated in a cloned body.  If you’re a bad one they nuke your city.  The crew cultivates psionic powers which are enhanced by advanced technologies until they are indistinguishable from magic.   Our hero is one of the most powerful of the original crew, but comes to sympathize with the downtrodden.  He decides that the only way to beat one religion is with another, and so introduces Buddhism.   Thus the novel’s famous opening lines:
  5. His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.

    So the crew pretend to be ancient gods, and their story is taken up by a guy who pretends to be a movie producer, and his story is taken up by a CIA agent who pretends to be the another producer, and now that story is taken up by Affleck and Clooney et al, who will pretend to be CIA.  Are other levels possible?  In 30 years will there be a machinima version of the making of “Argo”,  where you can play being Affleck or Clooney in the good old days of actual movie making?

    Me, I would still like to see that Kirby version of Lord of Light.  Kirby was more into Aztec gods than Hindu ones, but his sensibility really fit.    Walter Jon Williams can do a note-perfect Zelazny pastiche, so have him do the screenplay.  Johnny Depp plays the insouciant Sam, Matt Damon does the unstoppable Yama, and Olivia Wilde does the fierce and fickle Kali.   Film in Nepal for color, have ILM do cool god effects, somehow keep from offending actual Hindus, and you’ll have a hit.

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11 Responses to Myth -> Novel -> Theme Park -> Caper -> Movie!

  1. Barry Ira Geller says:

    Hey, great article! More funny to have lived it, though!

    • jlredford says:

      Good to hear from one of the people on the inside! Can you tell us – did the CIA ever apologize for stealing your script, or even thank you for its help?

  2. Barry Ira Geller says:

    No the CIA (nor Mendez) never apologized for stealing my script or my production designs I created with Jack Kirby. And, BTW, several serious Investors flocked to me because I showed them viable tax structured investments and many areas of participated return, backed up by some of the best financial & legal management in town. Go ahead, you try raising 1 Mill+, which I did, with just ideas and rights to a novel without a final script (at the time) 🙂 I dare ya 🙂

    Please read the Wired Article more thoroughly so you can get a better idea what went on and what Affleck and Clooney/Keslov are doing — it is the rights to that article they are filming — which is only about 50% of the full story. We hope one day to get the rest of it out.

    I do remain happy that even so inadvertent and implausible as history came to be, those people were saved through an aegis which had its germination in thoughts I had as a 70s screenwriter.

    The series of coincidences are mathematically impossible. Divine Intervention? LOL! You tell me.

  3. Barry Ira Geller says:

    BTW#2 I do appreciate the wacky humor of your last paragraph re, “Kirby’s Version” — which was MY version telling Jack what to draw but indeed became OUR version 🙂 You are also correct about the Mayan thing. It took me a few months to get Jack to get into the Hindu thing — which you can see transitioning in the in Hostels and then coming full bore in the Brahma series.

    To Quote “Doc” in Back to the Future #3: “The Future is not written yet” 🙂 These are words I believe in, even at 63 🙂 Be Excellent with others, dude, and do better research 🙂

  4. Barry Ira Geller says:

    BTW#3 Do you honestly believe people like Jack Kirby, John Chambers (Oscar for Planet of the Apes), Ray Bradbury, and Buckminster Fuller were just idiots — or were truly the visionaries history depicts them to be? I looked upon them as visionary peers — as they looked upon me, and together we hoped to change the future of the planet and expand the consciousness of children — my manifesto — that was in 1978. Who on this blog is not the recipient of our dreams?

    • jlredford says:

      Yes, it’s a shame that all this talent didn’t come together for a project as promising as this one. R. Buckminster Fuller in particular was a fascinating guy. Can you tell us more about what he was going to do?

      • Barry Ira Geller says:

        My plan was to build a dome 3/4 mile long and 1/2 mile high over the Theme Park, based upon the exact plans Bucky had proposed to New York City – hence the photo above (taken from my wbsite) but sans the witless caption you put on it 🙂

        Essentially, his theories revolved around specific formula for changes in temperature and air pressure from the inside, causing the dome to “float” on a body of air!

        Originally he’d planned to air-condition Manhattan in that manner — totally nutso to others but to me, I saw a very practical vision and made it a part of my overall plan and promotion. I mean, the reduction in electrical power is incredible if you cool or warm the air temperature outside and it really fit the bill for the kind of visionary Science applications I wanted to introduce. Mr. Fuller was to act of course as consultant and designer with me, in collaboration with an Architect / Archeologist called Paolo Soleri, of Arcology fame. I had, at the time, 3M company interested in contributing the large part of its financing, which my engineers estimated about 1/4 billion in cost. I truly miss the potential opportunity to have collaborated with him as well as Mr Soleri. When the “fit hit the shan”, I did not pursue the matter further, for obvious reasons 🙂

        Yes, thank you for your good words. It was the most exciting thing for me, bringing this kind of “talent” together.

        OK, that’s it.

  5. keiron lyons says:

    this maybe a silly question but can you not still make the movie?
    I think it would be easier today,Its like how the matrix should been,It be awesome to see this movie in 3D.

  6. keiron lyons says:

    sorry about my eagerness its just I feel really excited at the prospect that this could be the best sci-fi movie ever made

  7. keiron lyons says:

    you should sue the cia for copy right theft,that should generate enough funds to get the project off the

    just a thought;)

  8. Pingback: Too Much Heaven: A Brief Look Back at 1979

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