This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Update 10/16/12: We regret that incorrect information ran in an interview with director Abbas Kiarostami on Oct. 10. Due to a transcription error, the location of Kiarostami’s next film project was incorrectly stated as Israel when in fact it is Italy. We apologize for any problems this may have caused.
Perennial Iranian director/legend Abbas Kiarostami’s second filmmaking-holiday (the first being the wonderful “Certified Copy”) finds him in Japan, observing two days in the life of an unlikely trio: a student moonlighting as a call girl, her aged, patriarchal client, and the woman’s hot-head boyfriend. “Like Someone In Love” contains many of the auteur’s persistent fascinations — long car rides, lengthy conversation, numerous off camera actions and characters, leisurely pacing — but has the unfortunate position of coming directly after a very unique, wonderful piece of cinema. Reactions have been quite mixed since its first festival appearance early this year (our man at Cannes was not as impressed while this writer thought it was lovely) but most can agree that it’s a visually stunning film with plenty of substance to ruminate on.
In town to promote his new film at the New York Film Festival, we’ve compiled our interview with director along with some notable moments at the NYFF press conference, including what he’s up to next and an amusing story about his elderly lead. “Like Someone In Love” rolls into theaters next year courtesy of IFC Films.
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Since your working environments have changed, have you also changed the process of gathering inspiration?
In the process of filmmaking it’s the other way around, you start having ideas and they shape the environment you create even when you’re in a different country, culture, and language. It’s not very different from working at home. Maybe retrospectively once the films are made I can look back and wonder if working in different countries had a special impact on my evolution as a film director.
But after working in your home country for so long, how do you see your new work? Is it liberating in any way to be doing projects in new places?
I do feel a difference when the films are screened. When I watch the Iranian movies with an audience, they make me feel very anxious during the screening. I feel responsible for every single detail in the film, the people, the characters, the story, even the street I show. When I see the last two films I’ve made I’m much more detached because I feel like I’m a guest director or guest author, that I’m only partly responsible for it. The characters have their own lives and truths beyond my responsibility. I’m only part of it. I feel that maybe even the audience is closer to it than myself.
That’s a bit melancholic.
It’s a feeling that has nothing to do with cinema because cinema is universal and that’s the point of going and working elsewhere, showing that it’s not related to local identities, cultures, and languages.You use jazz songs throughout the film, and the title is even a reference to a fairly popular one. What did this strong connection do in shaping the film?
I usually do not use music in my films, and in this one music is not used just as soundtrack but as a kind of identity or biographic detail about the character. I didn’t want to give too many obvious details about the character but I wanted to have hints of his life and background with this kind of indirect information. It also has a universal aspect to it. In Iran I was brought up listening to jazz, you as an American consider it from your country, and this Japanese man also relates to the same kind of music. So it’s here to give some depth to the character, a past, an identity, but it’s also a way of putting a link to the different cultures.
What’s your perspective on the movie/trailer ‘Innocence of Muslims’ and the uproar that followed?
I think violence can never be justified. At the same time, nobody’s culture or beliefs should be insulted, that’s not something I can accept either. But I cannot justify or accept any violence at all. The news that I found quite comforting was that the reactions were quite violent in all the Muslim countries except in Iran, where the reaction was more civilized. They did protest, but in a more quiet and peaceful way. This for me was a comfort because at least it shows that people can react in a pacifistic way.
A large part of the film seems to be a look at two very different generations and their dependency on one another.
My purpose was not to make a point about any generation or say some general things about them. That’s what cinema gives to us, to have a view which is a collective view of the generational co-existence that you’re referring to. Cinema gives you the opportunity to be both a grandparent and a grandchild whereas in life you cannot be both at the same time. It just allows us to identify with them without making a point or without being harsh or judgmental of them.
The elder actor, Tadashi Okuno, is fantastic but seems to have very little credits to his name. Where did you find him?
To start with, when he came he told me that he earned a living in films for 50 years by being an extra. He had never uttered a line in his whole career and had always been in the background. Although I had already cast him, if I told him he would be my main character he’d be too intimidated so I told him that I had a very small role in the film. He wasn’t given a script, I would just give him the lines that we were shooting at the time and he had no general view of the film.
How did your relationship go after that?
I would talk to him a bit through an interpreter, but after that I would talk to him very personally in Farsi telling him what I really felt about him: that I meant to make a film 20 years earlier about this character, but I hadn’t because at the time I wasn’t able to understand his state and his age. Now we were both ripe for understanding each other. There was something special and non-verbal that happened between us.
It sounds like the two of you grew extremely close.
Once the film was shot I went to him with an interpreter and I told him that it was a wonderful experience working with him, and that there was another film that I wanted to shoot with him in Japan. He thanked me very politely, but afterwards he told my interpreter that although he was touched by my proposal, he didn’t want to act as a lead again. He wanted to return to being an extra. I think this is the very definition of oriental wisdom.
You are not only a filmmaker but a poet and photographer. How do you feel when engaging in these different mediums?
Photography, poetry, digital art is just a way of finding a solution to the restlessness of expressing yourself. Photography is the medium in which I feel the most comfortable because there’s less of a risk of misunderstanding that you have in filmmaking because of this necessity of storytelling. I find the obligation of telling a story as an obstacle. Whenever people ask me what the story is for my next film, I won’t tell and people feel it’s because I’m being secretive or something, but it’s actually because I’m ashamed to sum up a film in three sentences. I’m sure that true cinema-viewers don’t come for the story, it’s not about telling stories so why should I sum something up in a pitch? This embarrassment I feel is something that I get rid of through photography.
Your films have been devoid of violence until this one. Why the change now?
It all depends on the situation of the film. There is something very natural in the context of the film. When I used to make films in the Iranian countryside, the characters were anchored in their landscapes, so the silence given by nature was obviously in their minds. The same for the violence. There is violence in real life but I would never impose violence in a film just to attract the audience. I would rather make it more discreet, but here the situation is a violent one, there is something emerging between the characters and I just showed how it came naturally given the situation between the characters and the context of the society and the landscape.
Do you have any interest in returning to your roots and shooting something in Iran?
I am longing to work again in Iran, I have scripts that are ready. I wish to go back in that landscape, but simultaneously I am preparing a project that will be shot in Italy.
There was some news that you’d be working with Juliette Binoche again. When do you think that will happen?
I have plenty of scattered ideas that are there, and then all of a sudden some of them come together and they evolve to become a script and a film happens. One of the ideas I have is that I still want to make another film with Juliette Binoche and William Shimell from “Certified Copy.” It might happen one day but it’s not real just yet.