Rosewater: Jon Stewart on his Feature Debut

rosewater_posterWith the release Novemner 7 of his feature directorial debut, Rosewater — which will premiere at the Telluride Film Fest and also will screen at the Toronto Film Fest on September 8, Jon Stewart, 51, is very much man of the hour.

Stewart was not planning to direct Rosewater or even write the screenplay, which is based on Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari‘s memoir, Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, about Bahari’s 118-day incarceration inside Iran’s notorious Evin prison.

Bahari, ran afoul of the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard while covering the Green Movement and the 2009 elections for Newsweek, was arrested days after appearing in one of Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones‘ field pieces from Tehran.

Bahari’s interrogator used the clip — titled “Persians of Interest” and which featured Jones playing a belligerent “spy” interviewing Bahari and two prominent Iranian activists — as proof that Bahari was colluding with foreign meddlers and engaging in “media espionage.” (Freedom Movement leader Ebrahim Yazdi and pro-democracy activist Mohammad-Ali Abtahi were the others interviewed; they also were arrested, though both were released later.)

“I don’t think that Jon felt responsible for my arrest,” says Bahari, who now lives in London with his wife and daughter, born eight days after he was freed from Evin on October 17, 2009. “But I think he felt personally invested in the story because his name came up in a dark interrogation room in a prison in Iran.”

Stewart agreed to look at the galleys for Bahari’s book about his ordeal; Bahari hoped that Stewart’s connections would lead to a film adaptation. Stewart did reach out to several screenwriters, as did Bahari’s agent at ICM. But, as Bahari notes, his story “is not the usual Hollywood project. It was Jon Stewart going to people and saying, ‘I have a story about press freedom and an imprisoned Iranian journalist.’ I guess they gave him a funny look and said, ‘OK, we’ll get back to you.’ There was a lot of procrastination and suspicion about the whole project.”

rosewater_1Stewart declined to say whom he attempted to enlist in writing the screenplay. “I was unfamiliar with the filmmaking process, which can be very long,” he says. “And I’m not built for that. Ultimately, I said to Maziar, ‘I feel like I know a path through this. I think I have a sense of what the individual story is but also what the larger thrust is. Let me just go f—ing write this and let’s be done.’ ”

He wrote on the weekends and during dark weeks on The Daily Show, mapping out the structure with index cards on a board in his office.

“I was working from a brilliant book,” he says. But the book toggles back and forth between Bahari’s ordeal in Evin and the efforts of his fiancee and colleagues to secure his release. Once Bahari is arrested, Stewart confines the action to Evin. “The difficulty was just a structural one: How do you create a more dramatic narrative arc?” he explains. “As I said to Maziar, ‘I’m going to make you slightly more cowardly so I can make you more heroic at the end.’ ”

Stewart had written a few books but never a screenplay, so he sought out such Hollywood friends as J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard as sounding boards, sending them his first draft.

Once Stewart had written the screenplay, directing became to him a “natural extension” of the creative process. “One of the things about being a stand-up and doing your own show is, you are accustomed to a certain level of material control,” he says. “And at that point in the process, I was loath to give that up.”

The five-week shoot in Amman, Jordan, during the summer of 2013 required a hiatus from Daily Show and considerable time away from his wife, Tracey, and two children, Nate, 10, and Maggie, 8.

Israel, despite its well-established production infrastructure, never was considered as a location, says Stewart; “You’ve already got a Jewish guy directing it. They’re already putting out seven-minute pieces, the Iranian press, that I’m a CIA and a Mossad agent. So the last thing we want to do is add fuel to that.”

After its Telluride premiere, Rosewater will be shopped to the international market in Toronto — and likely will play in some Middle Eastern countries, though not Iran, with which the U.S. has no trade relations.

Financed by Gigi Pritzker‘s OddLot Entertainment,with Scott Rudin producing, it was made on a tight budget of $5 million. So when they needed 800 extras for a riot scene at the pro-government Basij headquarters, they launched a tongue-in-cheek social media video campaign that had Stewart pledging hugs in exchange for an afternoon’s work.

Stewart also relied heavily on the considerable experience of his crew and cast, especially Gael Garcia Bernal, who stars as Bahari and has himself directed a feature and several shorts.

“I don’t necessarily have the vocabulary to articulate my intention in a film sense. My vocabulary is basic cable,” explains Stewart. “The thing that I tried to establish early on was, trust your discomfort.

The days were long — 14 hours, six days a week. “Every day was hard,” he says. There also were cultural considerations; filming commenced during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, which is marked with a month of fasting.

It was not until about 10 days into shooting — he began with the prison scenes so that Bernal could come to the set having lost weight and slowly put it back on for the pre-prison section that opens the film — that he realized “we had a movie.”

That epiphany came with a pivotal scene during which the frustration of Bahari’s interrogator, played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia, explodes in a torrent of rage that culminates, ironically, in the interrogator ordering Bahari to call his wife and tell her to stop campaigning for his release or, as he puts it, “talking shit.”

It is the moment that Bahari’s despair and isolation finally lifts. The interrogator screams, he beats Bahari and then thrusts the phone at him and says, almost sheepishly, “And you have to dial 9 to get out.” It’s one of the many scenes that is punctuated by Stewart’s humor.

“The comedy comes from the contradictions and the ridiculousness of the situation,” observes Bernal. “That’s what he does on his TV show as well. He points out the most intense angle of the contradictions.”

The scene ends with Bahari learning that he is having a daughter; his then-fiancee, Paola Gourley, was pregnant when he was arrested. When Bahari is taken back to his cell, his joy pours forth in a languid samba to Leonard Cohen‘s “Dance Me to the End of Love” as his flummoxed guards watch on surveillance monitors. Cohen allowed the production to use his music, but Stewart’s original idea was to have Cohen himself in the cell with Bernal.

I told Gael: ‘I’m going to stick director of photography Bobby Bukowski in there with an easy rig, and I’m going to play you this song. Knock yourself out.’ And he delivered that dance in one take. He and Bobby created a chemistry in that room that was just wonderful, man.”

As the film hits the festival circuit, current events have put it into an extreme and gruesome new context. When members of the militant group Islamic State (ISIS) beheaded American photojournalist James Foley in Syria in August and uploaded the video to YouTube, Stewart was devastated by the footage.

But he rejects the notion that Foley’s death could render the Rosewater story less urgent for potential moviegoers. “I’m taken by the bravery of anybody who puts themselves in harm’s way to bear witness,” he says. “But it strikes me as a commerce question, not a real question: Do you think people aren’t going to like your movie or go see your movie because this man was beheaded? It’s the last thing anyone should be concerned about. Both of these people, all of these people in these situations, suffer greatly.”

Stewart is ready for criticisms he will face for a film about such controversial issues — including for decisions like casting a Mexican actor to play an Iranian. “I saw some great Iranian actors,” he says, “but because I know Maziar, I felt like I was casting a person. The one thing that I was really having trouble finding was someone who was able to have that distance, who, within the horror of what was happening to them, maintained a certain light. And when Gael came in to read, it was kind of immediate.”

Iran’s state-run media already has started its campaign to discredit Rosewater, calling it “anti-Iranian,” “ultra-formulaic,” conceived by the “Zionist lobby” and commissioned by Stewart’s “masters,” among them the “Jewish family Pritzker.”