Ben Affleck's Argo tells the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez, who posed as the producer of a fake science-fiction movie to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran. But if Barry Geller had had his way, the fake sci-fi movie would have been real.
In the mid-'70s, Geller was a geeky beatnik and aspiring producer with a dream: adapting Roger Zelazny's 1967 sci-fi novel Lord of Light into a grand entertainment franchise. He envisioned a $50 million film directed by Walter Hill and starring Marlon Brando. He hoped to build a $400 million theme park called Science Fiction Land. ''Lord of Light,'' Geller says, ''was going to be awesome.''
The project attracted great talent, including Planet of the Apes makeup guru (and secret CIA consultant) John Chambers and legendary comic-book artist Jack Kirby. But in late 1979, a scandal involving how the film and theme park were being financed caused the entire project to fall apart. Geller was implicated but cleared of wrongdoing. ''I was pretty screwed up from the whole thing,'' says Geller, 64, who now runs his own software and technology firm.
In 2000, Geller learned of Light's strange afterlife from a PBS documentary on Mendez. He discovered that Chambers had helped cook up the Hollywood cover story for Mendez's rescue operation using Geller's script and Kirby's concept art. Affleck's Argo doesn't mention Lord of Light, Geller, or Kirby. Instead, the filmmakers created a true-ish fiction to dramatize the film-within-a-film misdirection. Geller, obviously, is disappointed. ''What I want is for our part of the work, which lent itself so well to helping those people get out of Iran, to be acknowledged.''
He may still get his wish. Filmmaker Judd Ehrlich is wrapping a documentary about Geller's ordeal called Science Fiction Land. ''Barry's vision did [help] alter the course of history: It led to six lives being saved. Perhaps this was its true purpose.''