Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi‘s work has been quietly stunning audiences for almost a decade. His last three films—”Fireworks Wednesday,” “About Elly“ and ”A Separation“—racked up festival accolades from Berlin to Tribeca to Sydney, with the latter film going on to win both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012. (“A Separation” also received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, a rare international coup.) Farhadi’s latest film, Golden Globe nominee “The Past (Le Passé),” has also been selected as Iran’s submission to the 2014 Oscar race (nominations will be announced on January 16th).
This time around, Farhadi has traded in Iran for France, proving that his talents cross cultural and language barriers with ease. “The Past” stars French actress Bérénice Bejo (“The Artist”) and Iranian actor Ali Mosaffa as an estranged couple (Marie and Ahmad) who have been living apart for several years. Marie, who lives with her two daughters in a Paris suburb, summons Ahmad from Tehran to finalize their long-overdue divorce. When he arrives, Ahmad discovers that Marie is involved with Samir (Tahar Rahim, “A Prophet”), an immigrant small-businessman with a young son. Very soon, layers of regret, guilt and misguided love and blame bubble up among the players, fueled by an inability—or unwillingness—to communicate honestly.
It would be a shame to give away any more—a key pleasure in watching Farhadi’s films is how the intricate stories develop and unfold gradually. Plot points peek around corners and tensions build almost imperceptibly, until you suddenly realize you are on the edge of your seat. The actors are phenomenal, including the three perceptive child actors (also a constant in Farhadi’s work), perhaps due to the intense and comprehensive rehearsal period on which the director insists.
We recently caught up with Farhadi at the Waldorf Towers in New York City, where he shared (through an interpreter*) his thoughts on his unorthodox rehearsal process, his requited love affair with France, and his tricks for working with actors.
Let’s start by talking about your inspiration for “The Past.” Where did the story come from?
This came from a personal memory of one of my friends from years ago. My friend had told me that he was on his way to another country to finalize his official divorce with a woman with whom he had lived with years before. Of course, the things that happened in this movie didn’t happen to him, but the memory of what he had told me had always stayed with me.
Your films have many layers, allowing the stories and characters to intersect in complex ways. And so often, miscommunication leads to doubts and guilt and lack trust and pain. What are you trying to say about our struggles to communicate with one another?
A big part of it comes from my unconscious. In fact, I don’t want to give a certain manifesto, or have a particular message, with these films. I want to remake and reconstruct situations that you see [in everyday life], situations in which people face a lot of dilemmas, and they live in a lot of doubt. I believe in our daily lives this is exactly how it is: we are constantly dealing with dilemmas.
How does technology play a role? How has email changed how we communicate?
For the first time, I discuss email in “The Past.” Even though there are a lot of tools and means in today’s world that could possibly make us communicate better, or talk to each other better, quite the contrary. People seem like they are understanding and communicating with each other less and less.
In the film there is a dialogue between Ahmad and Marie, when they are talking about the email that one of them claimed was sent, and the other one claims they never received. This creates an ambiguous atmosphere, and we finally don’t know whether or not it happened.
Speaking of communication, you chose to film “The Past” in France, and yet you don’t speak French. Why?
I chose France because the story was the story of a man who was traveling outside Iran, so I had to go somewhere outside Iran. But why France in particular? I’ve made a lot of trips to France, and I’m familiar with the country and the culture because of my filmmaking. My films have a big audience in France, and that has made me feel close and not so much a stranger in that culture. When I am in France, I don’t feel like I am somewhere very far from my own land.
What about New York? Does this feel very far away?
[laughs] I have mixed feelings about New York. I really like and admire this pace of life, and this livelihood, and this activeness in New York. At the same time, I don’t understand how one would live in this part of the town—all these skyscrapers!—I really don’t get it.
Did you have an interpreter on the set?
Yes, I did have interpreters, and each of them had a certain responsibility, helping me with different things. One of the translators, for instance, was working on the script, but it wasn’t like I gave her the script and she went and transcribed it. No—she was working with me, and she explained to me exactly the word choices that she made, and we went over everything together. This process took a few months.
And on the rehearsals before the shooting, I had an interpreter who was my voice. For instance, he would even copy my gestures.
Let’s talk about your cast. Bérénice Bejo is amazing, but I understand that Marion Cotillard was initially slated for the role. Would you like to work with her someday?
I believe we will work with each other one day, because I really like her acting. But for this film, I actually needed a lot of time for rehearsal before shooting, and Marion couldn’t find the time. And I’m very happy that Bérénice, the person who replaced her, is someone with whose work I am really satisfied.
Your last three films have featured children in pivotal roles, and you seem to like working with child actors. Do they bring something to the table that is crucial for you in your films?
They bring a lot of things to the table. Children are like the spices of a meal; without those spices, the meal cannot be edible. They expand the emotional atmosphere of the film. They bring honesty. They become the contrast to the adults, and they allow us to understand the adults better. At the same time, they are the first victims of the adults’ decisions.
Can you tell us about your rehearsal process, and how you work with your actors? Does everyone work together, including the children?
The rehearsals begin a few months before the shooting, and they resemble theatrical rehearsals. We don’t actually work on the script when we rehearse. What we’re trying to do is to create a background for the characters, and find the characters’ backstory together. So in these rehearsals, the point is that instead of the director telling the actors what he needs, the actors will discover what is going to be in the film and what is going to be in the relationships between the characters. Because I don’t really believe in directly telling the actor what I want; they have to experience it themselves.
For instance, in the rehearsals between Ahmad and Marie, we practiced a scene where Marie and Ahmad called each other on the phone, and Marie asked him to come to France and do the paperwork for the divorce. This was neither in the script nor in the film, but it created a background for the actors. Another example: we played out the situation where Marie and Samir met for the first time, and this is of course not in the film. Or when Lucie calls the dry-cleaning and tells a lady that she wants to send an email. Of course, this is not in the film, but we rehearsed it many times.
How strictly do you stick to the script? Is there room for improvisation?
When we’re shooting, I pretend that I am not strict about it, but in fact, I actually am. [laughs] Because actors like to think they are actually improvising and changing the script… so you have to pretend that they are changing the script, but in the end, [you must] do something that allows the script to remain intact.
Ahmad is a catalyst for much of the action in the film. He spills secrets, and he seems to know exactly what he’s doing as he tries to make things happen. How did you come up with his character?
Ahmad is a strange character. He’s a catalyst who seems like he’s only helping others reveal their secrets. But halfway through, he realizes that the big secret is what he’s hiding inside himself.
Ahmad is trying to be very kind to everybody, and he seems like he’s a good person. But it’s actually he who caused this family to be in such a mess today [by leaving]. Perhaps [his kindness] is his effort to undo all his bad deeds. Marie has a sentence in the film that is key in understanding Ahmad: as he’s fighting with her, she says, “I hate when you act all-knowing, like this good hero character who’s trying to teach us something.” And I think Marie is right.
Once again, one of your films is Iran’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. What do awards mean to you as a filmmaker?
The Oscar is a little different in what it means, because the Oscar nomination is awarded by a country, so the film that’s being nominated is actually representing the entire country. So when a film wins the Oscar, it’s in fact the people of that country who are winning the Oscar. To me, it’s very important to do something where I represent my people and my country in a cultural activity.
Of course, one part has to do with the people, but the biggest thing that happens for me is that my audience expands throughout the world.
Do you know what you are planning to do next?
I haven’t decided yet, but I’m still thinking about three stories. One of them is in Iran, and two of them are outside Iran. And I will make a decision by the end of this year.
The Past opens in New York (Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Film Forum) on Friday, December 20.
*Interpreter: Sheida Dayani