When Maziar Bahari met with The Daily Show’s Jason Jones for an interview in Iran during the 2009 elections, Bahari had just returned to his homeland from London in order to cover the events for Newsweek. Yet, his relationship with that program and its host Jon Stewart would continue for long after that sit-down.
Shortly following the dubious election results, which unbelievably showed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winning in a landslide, Bahari filmed the backlash of protestors in the streets. He was subsequently arrested by the Iranian government and charged with being a spy. Part of their absurd charges rested on his interview with The Daily Show where Jason Jones called himself a spy. After 118 days of torture and interrogation at the hands of a “specialist” known as Rosewater, Bahari was released under the belief that he would spy on the west for Iran. He soon was back on The Daily Show, striking up a real friendship with Jon Stewart as he wrote his memoir Then They Came for Me. As a result, Stewart felt he needed to write and film that story for a wider audience. The result is Rosewater, a new film that opens this weekend. Last week we sat down at a press conference with both Stewart and Bahari to talk about the film.
Can you talk about how [your collaboration] on making this film came about?
Maziar Bahari: What happened, basically, is when I came out of prison, I went on The Daily Show…I went on The Daily Show and became friendly, and then we talked about doing a film. Jon wanted to be a producer on the film. We of course talked to people, Jon talked to some people, I talked to some people, and people were busy, or were not interested—
Jon Stewart: Being paid to write, as opposed to what we were going to do. [Laughs]
MB: Exactly. I think after a year and a half, Jon just said we cannot wait, and it had to be done. He started to write the script, and we collaborated on the script.
And J.J. Abrams? Did he have something to do with the script?
JS: Obviously on the show, we had a few directors that had come on, so I would sneak back into the green room and be like, “Soooo…” But they’re friends of mine that were generous enough to read it, more to give me a sense of the viability of it. So that they could just look at it and say, structurally, “Yeah, you know what, you’ve got a viable project here,” rather than more specific notes or anything.
Jon, were you nervous about making this film considering how the Iranian government treats journalists?
MB: I think he’s going to keep it a secret. [Laughs]
JS: Good point! I mean I’m nervous when the weather changes, so that’s a general state of being, kind of a lifestyle that I’ve embraced. You can’t control how people see your work or what their reaction is to it. And I’ve learned a long time ago that you can’t outsmart crazy. So, you do the best work you can do, and you do it with the most integrity you can do it, and you tell the story in its finest iteration or that you hope you can, and hope that it’s perceived in that way.
How did you go about choosing the moments to let the humor shine through?
JS: So much of that is organic. You can’t impose that on the story, and if you did—the humor comes from how absurd the reality of the situation was. Maziar’s not a spy. He’s done nothing wrong, so they’ve got to create this scenario that implicates him in some way. There is an absurdity that regimes have this monopoly on the truth. So, we tried to capture that, because it’s from the book, Maziar’s ability to recognize that as he was being held was one of the most marvelous things of the memoir that he wrote. So, trying to capture that in its natural state as opposed to imposing it on the film is where I tried to go with it.
Given that journalism is a somewhat endangered profession these days, is there something you were trying to convey with this film that make people appreciate more journalists and the risks that they sometimes take?
MB: I think, as you say, journalism is going through a very difficult time in [its] history, especially professional journalism. But journalism, I think, is becoming more invigorated, yet professional journalists are having a more difficult time getting paid, because citizen journalism is on the rise. And it’s not only in this country; it’s all around the world that citizen journalists are replacing professional journalists, and information is becoming more democratized.
I think what the film shows is the importance of citizen journalism around the world. One of my favorite shots of the film is that little boy filming the destruction of the satellite dishes, which shows these governments can create all these obstacles and barriers in the way of professional journalists, and then little Mozart of citizen journalism comes along, and films it, and just puts it on Facebook, or YouTube, or Twitter, and shares it with the world.
Jon, it’s well known from The Daily Show that you have a complicated relationship with the 24-hour news cycle, and cable news in particular, but this film shows a very euphoric approach to the social media news cycle, as well as other communications in the 21st century. Could you talk about your opinion on that and how you wanted to showcase that as a filmmaker?
JS: Well, I think it’s important—you can be critical of things that are not holding up the ideal of what you might imagine journalism to be. But then at the same time, it’s important to demonstrate what that ideal might be. Because places are cutting back on the finances of journalists, and now a lot of them are out there without the infrastructure and support of these big news organizations; they’re freelancing, and they’re on their own.
Even when you look at a case like James Foley, this was a guy that wasn’t kidnapped by ISIS; he was kidnapped by locals, and they sold him to ISIS. It’s the type of situation that you are in great peril, and you don’t know where it is. And it’s all for the hope of capturing things that are happening in parts of the world that you think people should know about.
And that’s something that should be revered, protected, honored—criticism comes from a feeling of disappointment in an ideal. And when you recognize that ideal, I think it’s important also to highlight it and to celebrate it, and to try and preserve it, and protect those who are risking so much to bring it.
Going back to when you were saying how viable the project was, beyond J.J. Abrams and getting to the level of like Scott Rudin, who would have to write the check, how quick was the process? Or was it like ‘the guy from Big Daddy’ wants to make a serious movie?
JS: It’s interesting you say that. There was a lot of “the guy from Big Daddy is here.” [Laughs] Whenever I would go to a movie. Whenever I go to a restaurant, “The guy from Big Daddy wants a cheeseburger!” I think part—obviously I think it helped that I had some profile. So, they could view it as an added value to a project like that. The director could go out and try to sell it in places, so you had that going for it, and you had this incredibly compelling story.
What also helped in our favor is that we were doing it and assembling it outside of the traditional development of a film. So, by the time I went to them looking for finance, I had a script. I had a timeframe that I had to shoot it in, because there was only a certain amount of time I could do being away from the show. So, I knew very specifically when it had to be done, this is the script I had, so they had clarity in terms of what their involvement would have to be. And I was only in LA for a weekend!
So, it was one of those where we sort of set it up through Scott [Rudin] and through an agent that he works with at UTA. Send this to five or six independent financiers that you think might appreciate or take to the material. And if they are interested, I’ll meet with them that weekend there. And by the end of that weekend, we had our money and we had our timeframe. My experience with the process is that you just always wanted to be in the game at each stage. I wanted to be able to write a script that was viable enough that we were still in the game. I wanted to be able to go get enough money that we ‘d still be in the game. At each stage, you just want to keep it alive.
Could you talk about the aesthetics and the beginning of the film opening on rosewater?
JS: The scent of rosewater is something that’s used in mosques to mask the perspiration of the devout. And so, we just thought it’d be a beautiful image to show the production of it. To show how it was made. But as I would watch it, the explicitness of it became kind of overwhelming. It was very much, “Oh, I see: something beautiful is ripped from its stem, crushed, and put into boiling water, and put under pressure and heat, and then its essence is extracted from it. So what’s your movie about?” [Laughs] I didn’t want it be on the nose, but fortunately, Maziar had put this beautiful poem at the front of his book, and it was the perfect anecdote to cut the kind of explicit nature of that opening scene. So, it exists now as a sort of background in which Shohreh [Aghdashloo] doing the poem, and Golshifteh [Farahani] underneath it, gives you enough distance that it doesn’t overwhelm you. It isn’t so over the head.
[On recreating Iran while shooting in Jordan]:
JS: …Originally, when Maziar and I would first talk about it, I was a purist. I would say, “This must be done in [the language] Farsi, and it must be done with a cast of actors who had all been imprisoned in Iran!” And Maziar would say very calmly, “But don’t you want people to see it?” [Laughs] So, those are the decisions—I always kind of deferred. If he was okay, I was okay. I had to embrace my limitations. My ear is not tuned to that accent, so I had to create a kind of generalized palate. This is not a Southie movie where everybody—it’s about how well someone can capture just that one particular accent. The idea was to create a template that could fade back and let the story come to the fore. That was the general practice at every point in the movie.
Jon, you said Maziar humanized the people who tortured him, because if you view them as monsters you can’t fight them. My immediate thought was the cable news coverage of ISIS. So, I’m curious what we can take from your story, and this portrayal of it, that we can apply to other demons we fight?
JS: My next movie is about Ebola. [Laughs]
MB: Well again, ISIS is another case where these people are supposed to be this monstrous giant devil incarnate, and it’s supposed to be something that’s going to end western civilization if it’s not bombed to pieces. I think that’s the wrong approach.
ISIS, the Iranian regime, many corporations, whatever institutions you’re thinking of that are composed of people, these are composed of human beings. And human beings with their complexities, vulnerabilities, weaknesses, good qualities—for me to start with [that] was a selfish decision, to humanize him, because I knew I was fighting him on two different fronts. One was a physical battle that I knew I had lost from the beginning. I was a prisoner; I had a blindfold on; he was stronger than me. But the other battle was a psychological battle that I had with him, and I knew I could be the winner, because I had a richer life, I was more cultured than him, I was more open to ideas.
So, in order to take advantage of that superiority, I had to humanize him. If he was a monster, if he could not be manipulated, I was going to lose that psychological battle as well. So [certain] scenes you see in the film, even though they are funny, it came from that point of view. I recognized this guy is an employee. He’s working. He could be a dentist, he could be an accountant, a bookkeeper, or whatever. He had a boss. So, he had to give something to his boss. At the same time, he had a wife, he cannot see his wife, he spent all his time beating people, insulting people—he’s horny! I had to give him something in order to let him go…it just happened in a moment of inspiration. I started the “massage stories,” and of course in the book we have many more massage stories.
How long was it before you felt comfortable enough to inject humor with him?
MB: I humanized him from the beginning, but it was difficult to assess the situation, because when they put me in the interrogation room on the first day, and they charged me with spying for four different intelligence agencies, I was just shocked. I did not know what to do. So, it took me a while; I’m not sure how long that it took to do that…but what happened is they wanted me to name names at the beginning, and they wanted me to implicate people by fabricating stories, and they were encouraging me to fabricate stories about different people.
After a while, when they realized that I wasn’t going to do that, they delved into my personal life and sex life, and they wanted me to write those kind of testimonies in order to implicate names, because they wanted to portray me as corrupt.
Which made me laugh about it, but is punishable by death in Iran. So, I had to come up with a way where I was [corrupt] but I wasn’t corrupting it that much. I did not have relationships with these women. There was no penetration as such, because according to Islamic law, you have to penetrate in order to—I’m giving you too much information [Laughs]—in order to be sentenced to death. So, I had to come up with these ridiculous massage stories in order to please them, but not be sentenced to death. So, maybe 74 lashes?
Could you talk a little bit about casting Gael Garcia Bernal?
JS: I saw a lot of actors, and there is something—this is a really dark story. And you have to play with the nuances, and I think occasionally, the actors want to overemphasize that aspect of it. So, you get a lot of wrenching auditions, and they’re beautifully done, but they lacked the subtlety and agility. The thing about Gael that he had from the first audition is agility.
If you remember there’s one scene where Maziar is being told to call his wife for the first time. So, he goes from terror, because the interrogator has told him to stand up, to incredulity because he’s been told to call his wife, to unbridled joy at finding out he’s having a baby girl, to having the shit kicked out of him for laughing in his face. And that all takes place in two and a half minutes. The ability for an actor to do that with grace, and without drawing attention to his craft, is unheard of. And I felt Gael was the one guy who captured that one ability. Even within the audition, he had glimmers of Maziar’s mischief while still doing scenes of real duress. So, it was for me, a very clear choice.