IAR INTERVIEW: Jon Stewart Talks 'Rosewater'

Monday, 17 November 2014 10:59 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR INTERVIEW: Jon Stewart Talks 'Rosewater'

On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart employs razor-sharp wit and absurd humor to both underline and leaven serious political commentary.

With his directorial debut, Rosewater, Stewart leaves behind the comedy for a true story that is far from funny.

That's not to say Rosewater is utterly without a sense of humor, but it is certainly telling a tale that doesn't exactly invite laughter.

The film is based on Then They Came For Me, a bestselling memoir in which Maziar Bahari recounts his imprisonment in Iran.  Bahari, a Tehran-born Iranian Canadian journalist, was covering the election protests in June 2009 when he was arrested in his family's home.  For 118 days, he was interrogated, beaten, and forced under duress to publicly confess to espionage.  Throughout his months of captivity, Bahari interacted almost exclusively with a captor known to him only as "Rosewater."

Stewart had a connection to the story long before writing and directing Rosewater: Iranian authorities used a clip from Bahari's earlier appearance on The Daily Show as evidence of his alleged spying.

IAR's Justine Browning was on hand for a press conference promoting Rosewater in New York, where Stewart discussed the challenges and experience of making his feature directorial debut with Maziar Bahari's wrenching true story, talking about the movie's crew, language, leading man, and reception in the world.


For his first venture as a director, Stewart enlisted the assistance of seasoned professionals. "We assembled a team that were expert in the craft of film, from the cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski, all the way down to the editor, Jerry Rabinowitz," he said. "And I had Maziar's source material and Maziar himself as the touchstone of the film. So it wasn't so much external inspiration as it was The Avengers, if you will, that we had put together that was influential."

While Rosewater is based on a true story, it also embraces what Stewart called "a quiet inauthenticity."

"Originally, when Maziar and I first talked about it, and I would say—I was a purist—'This must be done in Farsi! And it must be done with a cast of actors who have all been imprisoned in Iran!' But Maziar would very calmly say, 'But don't you want people to see it?' I always deferred," the director explained. "If he was okay I was okay. I had to embrace my own limitations. My ear is not attuned to that accent. So I had to create a generalized palette. This is not a Southie movie. It's a movie about how someone can capture 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."

Starring as Bahari is Gael García Bernal, the Mexican actor best known for his acclaimed turn in Y tu mamá también

"This is a really dark story. You have to play with the nuances. Actors tend to want to overemphasize that aspect of it, so you'd get a lot of wrenching auditions. They were beautifully done, but they lacked the subtlety and agility," Stewart said of the casting. "The thing about Gael that he had from the first audition was agility."


"If you remember there's one scene where Maziar is being told to call his wife for the first time," he continued. "In the room he goes from terror, because the interrogator has told him to stand up, to incredulity that he's going to get a chance to call his wife, to unbridled joy at finding out he's having a baby girl to getting the shit kicked out of him to laughing in his face. And that all takes place in two-and-a-half minutes. That all takes place within two minutes. An ability for an actor to do that with grace and without drawing attention to his own craft is unheard of. I felt like Gael was the one guy who would capture that ability. Even in the audition he had glimmers of Maziar's mischief while still doing scenes of real duress. So for me it was a very clear choice."

Asked if he cried the first time he actually watched Rosewater, Stewart replied,"I can tell you I absolutely cried the first time I saw the movie: it was the rough assemblage. It was three-and-a-half hours long. I cried my eyes out. I was like, I can believe I spent a year and a half making a giant piece of shit! So I was very upset," he joked. "Honestly, the times that I cried the most were on set. Watching it, I've seen it 3,000 times. Also, I don't want to spoil it, but I know how it ends."

"But yeah, there were some very poignant and very emotional things that occurred. And also there was a lot of emotion in the process of making it and gratitude towards the people that I know sacrificed an awful lot to be there, to do it," he explained. "We got a lot of very experienced actors to work for no money in conditions that I'm sure were less than ideal than what they're accustomed to. Shohreh Aghdashloo is kind of the heart of the whole movie, she plays Maziar's mother. This is an Oscar-nominated actress and I'm asking her to come over there and run around in 100-degree weather during Ramadan for a couple of weeks. The cast's belief in the story, the department heads' belief in the movie created an atmosphere that I was really grateful for, so a lot of my emotion comes from."

As for whether or not he's nervous about the Iranian reaction to the film, Stewart said, "I'm nervous when the weather changes, so that's a general state of being. It's sort of a lifestyle that I've embraced. You can't control how people see your work or what their reaction to it is. And I learned a long time ago that you can't try and outsmart crazy. So you do the best work you can do and you do it with the most integrity that you can and you tell a story in its finest iteration or you hope you can and you hope it's perceived in that way."


Though it's not the focus of the movie, Rosewater dramatizes radical shifts in contemporary journalism and the implications of new technology.

"Professional journalists are having a more difficult time because citizen journalists are on the rise. Citizen journalists are replacing professional citizens. Information is becoming more democratized," said the director. "What the film shows is this importance of citizen journalism all around the world. One of my favorite shots is the last one of that little boy filming the destruction of the satellite dishes, which shows this government thinking that it can create all these obstacles and barriers in the way of professional journalism and then a little Mozart citizen journalist comes along and films it and just puts it on YouTube or Facebook or Twitter and shows it to the world."

"You can be critical of things that you think are not upholding the ideal of what you imagine journalism to be, but at the same time it's important then to demonstrate what that ideal may be," he said. "Because places are cutting back on the finances of journalists, well now a lot of them are out there without the support of 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: he was kidnapped by locals and they sold him to ISIS.

"It's the type of situation where 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. When you recognize that ideal, it's important to highlight it and celebrate it and to try and preserve it and protect those who are risking so much to bring it," Stewart concluded.

Rosewater is now playing in select cities and will expand to more theaters in the weeks to come.


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