[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published in October, during the 2013 Mumbai Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics opens “The Past” in select theaters this Friday, Dec. 20.]
It is a good time to be Asghar Farhadi. The Iranian director’s last film, “A Separation,” received acclaim all over the world, a journey that culminated with its Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012. Farhadi became the first Iranian to be accorded with this honor. Later that year, he was listed as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time Magazine.
Leaving an Iran beset by a draconian regime, he went to France and chose that country as the setting of his latest film, “The Past.” Not only was the film rewarded with a Best Actress honor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for lead Berenice Bejo, even Iran has overcome its hesitation over the film’s foreign setting and language, selecting it as its official entry for this year’s Oscars.
The director has now moved back to Tehran, and will soon begin a promotional tour for “The Past” as the awards circuit heats up. Indiewire recently sat down with Farhadi at the Mumbai Film Festival, where he is serving on the jury, to discuss the new film, its role on the world stage, and the director’s next projects. Sony Pictures Classics will release the movie in late December.
“A Separation” was a global hit. Did you find its success affecting your work on “The Past”? Were there more expectations this time around?
Thankfully, it did not have any effect on me. When I started to write “The Past,” it was before “A Separation” had been released. While [“A Separation”] was releasing in other countries, I was writing “The Past.” That helped me a lot. I did not get involved with all these awards and all this success. I believe that the awards one can get are very good in general, but really dangerous for the filmmaker.
Marion Cotillard had to leave the production of “The Past” due to scheduling conflicts. What made you decide on Berenice Bejo as a replacement?
I chose Marion [Cotillard] because she is a very good actress and I really liked her work. For “The Past,” I needed her to be with us a long time but she could not make it. She was involved with another project [promotion for “Rust and Bone”]. I could not change my schedule to accommodate her. Thus, I had to start a search and found Berenice.
I came to know her when, two years ago, I was going to the U.S. for “A Separation” and she was going there for “The Artist.” [We] kept meeting each other at different hotels and happenings. Slowly, I felt that I liked her. At first, I enjoyed her performance — how she performed in “The Artist.” I also liked her personality; she seemed very sympathetic and nice.
In “The Past,” windows and glasses figure prominently in many shots, with characters unable to hear conversations on the other side. What was the thinking behind such staging?
You can find this type of staging in all my other movies as well. But in “The Past,” I had more concern about this. For example, in the first scene of the movie, there is a glass between the two characters. They are talking to each other but can’t hear each other. You can understand this even later when you’re watching the film: people talk to each other in person but even they don’t understand each other. This starting of the movie is in some ways saying what will happen afterwards. It’s foreboding in that sense. Another job that the windows are doing is that when you’re watching people from beyond a window, it is impossible to reach them. They are in the same time, close but far away. This was in “A Separation” too.
Your films are notable for having no obvious “bad guys,” but rather centering on good people making bad decisions. While writing a story like “The Past,” does this apportioning of blame get in the way of momentum or arise naturally?
Every time I write, I try my best to work on details in a way that the audience watching the film will not understand directly…but it will affect them unconsciously nevertheless. Usually, audiences do not get irritated with this; they see the whole movie and then the details affect them. However, the people who know the other movies that I have made are more conscious. They find the details. Thus, in the future I have to find a different way for integrating them.
Speaking of writing, there is a thank you for French playwright Yasmina Reza in the end credits of “The Past.” What role did she play in the making of the film?
Yasmina Reza did not help me with this film. She was helping me in writing another one. But I chose to thank her in this itself. We had started to work with each other on a story but in the middle of work, I decided to leave that and work on another story.
Do you see yourself going back to complete that collaboration?
It is not certain yet. In fact, I don’t know anything about the future yet, such as my future films. What I do know is that the time that I was working with her was really good. She is an extremely good writer.
When “The Past” was announced as Iran’s official Oscar entry, some domestic criticism alleged that the film wasn’t “Iranian enough.” What do you have to say about that? Do you believe “The Past” is an Iranian film?
I believe that “The Past” is a movie of the filmmaker, who in this case is me — an Iranian. But, yes, I made the movie in another country. Irrespective of that, I think it’s all about the movie.
Last year, Iran chose not to participate in the Oscars as a mark of protest, despite winning the previous year for “A Separation.” What do you think of that move?
They announced the reason [displeasure over “The Innocence of Muslims”]. In my view, this wasn’t a good one. I think it was a big mistake. I think the country should take these opportunities and use them. If you don’t use the opportunities, then for sure it is against your own country. For that reason itself, I don’t agree with this.
There have been indications that the new Iranian government is more tolerant and that the scene in the country is more receptive now. How do you see things changing in the near future?
I have a good hope about what is happening in Iran right now. In the very short time since the new government came, they have done a lot of things. One of them was reopening The House of Cinema [Iran’s main film industry guild]. Now, all these happenings are taking place slowly. I just hope that these changes occur in all parts of our country and not just in the culture or cinema. The new regime is working on the mistakes of the other government and correcting them.
Given the change in system, do you see yourself making another film in Iran soon?
I do not usually “decide” where I’m going to make my film. The stories I write are going to decide for me where I make them. I prefer to make movies in Iran, but maybe suddenly one story will come to my mind that should be set in other countries.
You are working on an English-language script. What is its status today?
At this stage, I am just doing research. I have not written anything. I am just researching the kind of story that I want the script to have. This will take at least five or six months more. Only once this research is finished will I decide whether to work on this story or some other one. One thing is for sure: it will be set in a foreign country, one where they talk in English.
One of your most interesting projects is an opera in Rome. When can we see that?
How do you know this? It’s secret! [laughs] You’re very smart. For the last two years, they have been suggesting me to work on an opera in Italy. Last year, I really could not do anything because I didn’t have the time. But maybe I will do something next year. For me, this is interesting because my background is in theater. Moreover, I am sure that this period can help me get a little distance from cinema, get a new breath and come back fresh.
Do you feel the kind of stories you want to tell are dependent on a particular medium? Or can you switch between them?
No, I can’t. I am only a filmmaker. I am not the kind of artist who, when he can’t make movies anymore, starts painting or works on some music. Maybe, one day, I shall work for the theater but not all the time. This is because, for me, theater is a checkup: You go to the doctor and check yourself. Similarly, theater looks like it is checking on me.
Given your recent trip to Los Angeles and frequent interactions with parties there, what do you think of the American industry right now? Do you see yourself working there?
There are, as you may know, two types of film industries in the U.S. right now: One is Hollywood (dominated by studios and companies) and the other is indie cinema. I think that if, one day, I am supposed to work there I shall work for independent cinema.
From what you’ve seen this year, what have you liked the most? Has something lingered on your mind?
Sadly, I have not watched enough good movies this year. For example, I watched “Nebraska” from Alexander Payne. That was good. In India, I saw one that was good. However, I really can’t say which one was my favorite. That makes me sad. I feel that good movies are becoming less and less.