Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has created one of the best screenplays of the year with “The Past,” a measured domestic drama where every frame counts. In a recent Q & A with the LA Times’ Mark Olsen, Farhadi, with help from a translator, discussed the film, his idiosyncratic writing process and the state of cinema today (highlights below). (Our Cannes coverage is here.)
In 2012, the Iranian director’s “A Separation” won the foreign language Academy Award and now with this Iranian Oscar entry out of France, he returns with another absorbing and flawlessly acted chamber piece about a splintered family whose past is very much in the present. “The Past” has just been nominated for the foreign language Golden Globe and back in May, Bejo won the Best Actress prize at Cannes.
“After ‘A Separation’ I had to do something that was a major risk, that if I just did something I knew I was able to do, I was lying to myself,’ Farhadi said.
Despite different characters, setting and circumstances, “The Past” begins exactly where “A Separation” left off, with a pane of glass between the two leads. Here that glass is between estranged spouses Marie (Berenice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who has just arrived from Iran to formalize a protracted divorce. Marie brings Ahmad back to her home, where pieces of information about her motives for tying up loose ends slowly trickle in to devastating effect.
While a film like “The Past” could collapse into melodrama for its own sake, Farhadi’s formal rigor and organic, mathematically precise storytelling elevate the film from easy, reassuring sentimentality to the plane of Greek tragedy akin to Mike Leigh’s “Secrets and Lies.”
Using his stage background, Farhadi, who speaks no French, doesn’t get in the way of his actors. He likes asking them questions about the character so they feel they’ve had some part in their creation. As a screenwriter, he’s a masterful courier of information, twisting the screw ever tighter as we learn something new and startling in each scene. And while this isn’t a taut thriller like “A Separation,” there is a Hitchcockian precision that bears looking closely at tiny moments, gestures and exchanges.
On assembling the story:
Farhadi: When I’m working I can’t see myself from the outside. But the structure I attempt when I begin writing is similar to a dominoes game where the first piece falls and then it causes the next and the next and the next piece to fall.
A friend of mine told me he was going to another country to formalize his divorce with a woman who he’d been separated from for several years. What an odd circumstance for a man to be under the same roof with a woman from whom he’s been separated for a number of years. This man and woman must avoid their common past, which is now before them. When you try to avoid a subject, you tend towards it more and you can’t escape it. I imagined that I could expand these few days that this man and woman spent together and turn it into a drama.
On his writing process:
Farhadi: I begin with a few things that are scattered and I just make scattered notes for myself. And then almost like a mathematical endeavor, I try to place these incidents next to each other. And then I walk, and it’s when I walk that these things come through my mind. I was writing the story in Paris, in my house, and all the houses in Paris have wood floors and when you walk they squeak and creak a lot. When there’s some excitement in the story I walk back and forth faster in the same room. One day a neighbor downstairs called and said, “I have no peace because there’s so much noise.” He asked, “What do you do up there to make so much noise?” I said, “I’m writing a screenplay.” He said, “me too, I’m writing a screenplay downstairs but I don’t make any noise.” I said, “Well, I’m sure your story’s not going to be very good because there’s no excitement down there taking hold of you if you’re sitting still in a chair the whole time.”
On current cinema:
Farhadi: There is this misconception that if the character gets more and more complicated, the audience will move further and further away from that character. To me, audiences like complication. It’s a mistake and misconception to think that one has to state everything clearly and simply for the audience to be able to follow the character, and this is what is bringing American cinema down from its position in the classic golden period. There’s this misapprehension that the audience is not smart. The more complex a character is, if the complexity is approached correctly, the audience is going to be more absorbed. One thing I experienced in this film is that you always imagine that people first think and then they do something. But at this age I’ve come to realize that people often do something and then ponder why it is they did it, which is true of Marie in this film. This makes the characters more complex.
On directing actors:
On directing actors:
Farhadi: [Upon filming] the screenplay is completed and if I were to change one thing, the whole thing would fall apart. When you have a completed screenplay and give it to an actor, they tend to feel they have no part in the creation of the character. They feel they don’t have absolute freedom. In rehearsals, I start at zero again but tread the path that I tread along in the writing once more with the actors. And after a few months, they begin to feel like they themselves created the character and not that it was imposed on them by someone else. All that mattered was for Berenice Bejo to believe that she was a partner in creating this character and that she played a part in the formation of this character.
Farhadi: When I write the story, I don’t ask myself, “what is this about? What is the theme?” In all the stories in the world, all the themes are hidden. It’s a matter of how you tell the story that will make one theme rather than another stand out. Even bedtime stories told by mothers to their children have everything in them. It’s the way the mother tells the story that makes one theme stand out. I place certain small signposts that when you put them next to one another, the theme emerges. As an example, in this film, the motif of wiping and cleaning appears frequently, like rain that comes down as though to wash things clean, like the windshield wipers in the first scene. The paint in the house seems to want to cover the previous layer of color on the walls, like the laundry service that wants to clean and take things off. All of these put next to each other seem to tell us that there is something human beings want to erase.
Farhadi: My greatest influences were the great playwrights, people like Williams, Ibsen, Chekhov. In cinema the filmmaker that most influenced me is Kurosawa. “Rashomon,” in some ways, resembles my films. In that film there’s an event that has occurred and is retold from different perspectives. Another filmmaker where the incidents in the student proceed like a game is Billy Wilder, or Ingmar Bergman who explores closely his characters and their relationships matter to him a great deal. He seems to really love all the characters in his films.
On working in French (a language Farhadi doesn’t know):
Farhadi: To make this film I went to Paris and lived there with my family for two years. I would walk endless hours on the streets in the metro and listen to the melody of the language. Contrary to what we often think, that it’s through language that we establish contact with each other, we actually connect through the gaze and through gestures. I had several interpreters who not only helped me convey the words I spoke but even mimicked my gestures and movements.
“The Past” hits theaters December 20th via Sony Pictures Classics.