Jon Stewart makes an auspicious debut as a writer-director with the political thriller “Rosewater,” based on Tehran-born documentarian and journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir, “Then They Came For Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival,” about his torture and confinement in an Iranian prison after an appearance on “The Daily Show.”
Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal plays Bahari, who was 42 when the action unfolded during the 2009 elections in Iran. Bahari covered the campaign for the BBC and Newsweek, in which Mir-Hossein Mousavi was the prime challenger to the buffoonish president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Bahari shot footage of the street riots of Mousavi supporters who challenged the government’s claim of Ahmadinejad’s victory. He also made an appearance on “The Daily Show,” where interviewer Jason Jones joked that the journalist was a spy.
No one ever accused the Ahmadinejad regime of having a sense of humor, so in hindsight, “The Daily Show” appearance was probably not the best idea. After the segment aired, Bahari was arrested by the Revolutionary Guard police and over 118 days interrogated and tortured by a man known only as Rosewater (Kim Bodnia) for his scent, which also recalled for the journalist the smell of the perfume sprinkled in the shrine where Bahari’s aunt took him to pray as a young boy.
Rounding out the film’s terrific cast is Academy Award-nominated Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Bahari’s long-suffering mother.
Because it is a Jon Stewart production – the political pundit tried to find another writer-director, he quipped at the New York press conference recently, but they wanted to be paid – there are lighter moments in the film to alleviate the scenes of brutal torture. A scene where Bahari dances around his cell to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the Edge of Love” in both defiance and ecstasy is a hilarious highlight.
Stewart and Bahari have tirelessly promoted the film, which Stewart remarked on more than one occasion was penance for the part his show contributed to Bahari’s ordeal. Recently at a press conference in Manhattan, the director and journalist fielded questions from the press, and Stewart made his points with his typical witty and dry take on politics, life and art.
Following are highlights from the recent press conference for “Rosewater,” which opened Friday, November 14.
Q: Were you nervous about how the Iranian government would react to the film?
Jon Stewart: 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.
I keep feeling like you guys are about to do a song. They hand the mic and it’s like, “This is a little something from the band Toto.
Q: Speaking about music, how did you go about choosing the music? It’s to help keep the tone lighter.
JS: So much of that is organic. You can’t impose that on the story. The humor comes from the reality of how absurd the situation was. Maziar’s not a spy. He hasn’t done anything wrong. So they’ve got to create this scenario that implicates him in some way. And there is an absurdity to this idea that regimes have a kind of a monopoly on the truth. We try 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 remarkable things about the memoir that he wrote. So trying to capture that in its natural state rather than imposing it upon the film was where I tried to go with it.
Q: Given that journalism is a somewhat endangered profession these days, is there a feeling that you’re trying to convey the importance of journalists and the risks that they take?
JS: 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. 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.
Q: 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 or progressive approach to the social news cycle, as well as other communications in the 21st century. How did you want to showcase that as a filmmaker?
JS: 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. 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.
Q: Did you cry when you first saw the movie?
JS: 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.
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.
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. Shoree Agashloo 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 there.
Q: You said that Maziar humanized the people who tortured them, because if you view them as monsters, you can’t fight them. My immediate thought was the hysterical news coverage about ISIS. What can we take from your story and your portrayal of it that we can apply to other demons?
JS: My next movie is about ebola!
Q: Talk about casting Gael Garcia Bernal.
JS: 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. 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. 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…
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.
Photos of Jon Stewart and Maziar Bahari at the New York Press Conference for “Rosewater.” Used with permission by photographer Paula Schwartz, who attended the event for coverage on Reel Life With Jane.