Interview: Jon Stewart and Maziar Bahari Talk 'Rosewater'

Striving to protect everyone’s basic civil rights, even if it puts your own life in danger, is a respectable act that powerfully showcases how people are truly determined to defeat the world’s greatest injustices. A prime example of how one man’s determination to defend other people’s freedoms is showcased in the new biographical drama, Rosewater. The film is based on the true story of how reporter Maziar Bahari chronicled the violation of Iranian citizens’ right to vote, and his relentless stance to support that freedom, even though his actions led him to be imprisoned and beaten by authorities for months. His determination, which was embraced by western society while he was wrongfully held in prison in 2009, is captivatingly chronicled in the feature film writing and directorial debut of The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart.

Rosewater follows the Tehran-born Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal), a 42-year-old broadcast journalist with Canadian citizenship living in London, as he returns to Iran in June 2009. The reporter set out to interview Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the prime challenger to controversial incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  As Mousavi’s supporters rose up to protest Ahmadinejad’s victory declaration hours before the polls closed on election day, Bahari endured great personal risk by submitting camera footage of the unfolding street riots to the BBC. He was soon arrested by Revolutionary Guard police, led by a man identifying himself only as “Rosewater,” who proceeded to torture and interrogate the journalist over the next 118 days.

The following October, with Bahari’s wife, Paola Gourley (Claire Foy), led an international campaign from London to have her husband freed. In the process, she received support from Western media outlets, including The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. As she continued to keep the story alive, Iranian authorities release her husband on $300,000 bail and the promise he would act as a spy for the government.

Stewart and Bahari generously took the time to talk about filming Rosewater, which is based on the reporter’s 2011 memoir, Then They Came for Me, during a recent press conference at The Crosby Hotel in New York City. The filmmaker and journalist discussed how Bahari didn’t demonize his captors while they were wrongfully imprisoning him, as he knew if he thought of as humans who were just doing their jobs, it would be easier for him to find a way to be released. Stewart also noted that as a first-time director, he initially wanted to remain completely true to the journalist’s story, including having the actors speak Farsi, and casting performers who had actually been in Iranian jail. But Bahari suggest he take some creative freedom with the drama, in an effort to make the story more relatable to audiences.

The Movie Network: How did you both come together to adapt your memoir, Maziar, Then They Came for Me, into Rosewater?

Maziar Bahari: What happened, basically, is when I came out of prison, I went on The Daily Show. After that, we became friendly, and we talked about doing a film. Jon wanted to be a producer on the film. We of course talked to people, and some people were either busy or not interested-

Jon Stewart: -in being paid to write, and what we were going to do. (laughs)

Maziar Bahari: Exactly. I think after about year-and-a-half, Jon just said we cannot wait, and it had to be done. He started to write the script, which we collaborated on.

TMN: Can you talk about the aesthetics and the beginning of the film opening on rosewater?

Jon Stewart: The scent of rosewater is something that’s used in mosques to mask the perspiration of the devout. So we thought it’d be a beautiful image to show the production of it, and how it was made. But as I would watch the explicitness of it, as it became 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. It was the perfect anecdote to cut the kind of explicit nature of that opening scene. So it exists now as a background in which Shohreh (Aghdashloo) doing the poem, and Golshifteh (Farahani) underneath it, and gives you enough distance that it doesn’t overwhelm you. It isn’t so over the head.

TMN: What was the process of recreating story’s setting in Iran while you were shooting in Jordan?

Jon Stewart: Originally, when Maziar and I first talked about it, I was a purist. I would say, “This must be done in (the language of) Farsi, and it must be done with a cast of actors who had all been imprisoned in Iran”. 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. 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.

TMN: Jon, you said Maziar humanized the people who tortured him, because if you view them as monsters, you can’t fight them. So what we can take from your story, and how we can apply to other demons we fight?

Maziar Bahari: Well, ISIS is another case where these people are supposed to be this monstrous giant devil incarnate. 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 and whatever institutions you’re thinking of, are composed of human beings. They have complexities, vulnerabilities, weaknesses and good qualities. For me to start with (that) was a selfish decision.

So I had 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, and he was stronger than me. But the other battle was a psychological one that I had with him. I knew I could be the winner, because I had a richer life, was more cultured than him and 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 who had a boss. He had to give something to his boss. At the same time, he had a wife, but cannot see her. He spent all his time beating and insulting people.

TMN: How long was it before you felt comfortable enough to inject humor with him?

Maziar Bahari: I humanized him from the beginning, but it was difficult to assess the situation. 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 didn’t know what to do. So it took me a while to (use humor); 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 implicate people by fabricating stories.

After a while, when they realized that I wasn’t going to do that, they delved into my personal life. They wanted me to write these testimonies in order to implicate names, because they wanted to portray me as corrupt.

TMN: How did you go about choosing the moments to let the humor shine through?

Jon Stewart: So much of that is organic. You can’t impose that on the story; 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 his memoir. 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.

TMN: Jon, how did you decide to cast Gael Garcia Bernal as Maziar?

Jon Stewart: I saw a lot of actors, and I think occasionally, they want to overemphasize the story’s nuances. 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.

There’s one scene where Maziar is being told to call his wife for the first time. So Gael 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. All those emotions take 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. 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 a very clear choice for me.