In 16 years of hosting “The Daily Show,”Jon Stewart has transformed into a major cultural figure. He now has the ability to alter the political media landscape in ways he likely never imagined. That makes his decision to return to the world of movies surprising. Then again, “Rosewater,” which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival (read our review here) and is currently playing the Toronto International Film Festival, is a bit of a passion project for the first-time director.
The movie tells the true story of journalist Maziar Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal), who was detained in an Iranian prison for 118 days and accused of being an American spy. Part of the evidence used against him was a satirical interview Bahari did with Jason Jones on The Daily Show. The former Newsweek correspondent went on to write a book about his experience. When it came time to turn the book into a movie, he approached Stewart, who went searching for a screenwriter to take on the project. However, Stewart eventually decided to do it himself. He may have lacked the requisite experience for directing a film of this caliber, but he felt it was important to get this story out as quickly as possible, to aid other journalists and civilians who were and are still imprisoned.
Though “Rosewater” doesn’t open until November 7, Stewart is now making the festival press rounds to get the word out on Bahari’s moving story and the state of oppression in the Middle East. I sat down with the 52-year-old TV host in Toronto a day after briefly speaking with him at the “Rosewater” premiere. Below, we discuss the film’s unexpected humor, why he solicited big-time writers and directors for advice (among the names: Kathryn Bigelow and J.J. Abrams), and his earlier acting work that he often pokes fun at.
Stewart: We met last night. Did you get any sleep?
Does one get sleep at film festivals?
No. Well, actually I wouldn’t know that, having not been to too many.
But you’ve been doing the film festival circuit the last couple weeks.
Well, we did Telluride, and I just assumed no one got sleep there because the altitude makes it impossible. And then this. And we come in, we’re sort of lucky, there’s another eight days of this or seven.
And then next stop on the press tour is Iran, I assume?
Yep! We’re gonna go there.
This movie is funnier than I thought it would be.
[Laughs]. Well, the book is also funny. One of the things that I think is really special and appealing about Maziar is that he is able to retain that. That’s what gets him through: that ability to recognize just the utter absurdity of what is happening to him at this time.
It makes his oppressors look more ridiculous.
Well, it makes oppression look ridiculous! Just as a form of a bureaucratic sensor.
I enjoyed seeing Jason Jones in the film.
He plays a tremendous Jason Jones! I don’t know how he inhabits that part.
How was the casting process for that?
We saw a lot of Jason Jones, but he was one of the best. Actually there was another guy but we couldn’t get him. He was very busy.
Can I ask who it was?
Jason Jones. No, he was great.
So you filmed the whole thing in Jordan?
We filmed everything there but one day. We filmed one day in London, where some of the street scenes are.
A lot of the film takes place inside a small room. Were there any thoughts to filming somewhere easier than Jordan?
In one aspect obviously for me, I wanted to shoot a little bit more in New York, because so much of it was an interior prison. With that being said, that’s prohibitive. This was not a —as is probably quite obvious— [made with] a large budget. It’s a two-hander with an easy rig, and we spent an awful lot of time in interior sets. Looking back, I am pleased that we did it outside of our cultural zone in a different landscape because that inspired the actors and the crew and the cross-cultural experience of working with the Jordanian crew, and they were wonderful.
Were there any other Middle Eastern locations you were considering?
You know, you had a variety of locations in Iran. Maziar was pretty good about knowing, “Yes, this can double for Rabah Tarin, “which is a lower-income neighborhood. Jordan had the best iteration of the variety of locations that we were going to need. Interestingly enough, Sao Paulo, Brazil was one of the locations.
Interesting. Why there?
Mazair just said that there were aspects of Sao Paulo that remind him of Tehran. It was really more being able to take photographs and just showing him and Maziar saying “Yeah, that works.”
Were you and he working pretty much hand-in-hand throughout the production?
Well, he was always the touchstone. We would do stuff and then we would go “can you look at this?” He was a great source of authenticity.
So you ended up soliciting some help from J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard on the script.
It was more to show it to them and have them validate it as a viable project. Those guys are busy and they are doing their own [thing]. They were very gracious. It was more a question of like “could you read this and tell me if it’s a movie or not?” People who had done it previously and could look at it and go “oh yeah, you got your three acts there. You’ve got your in. All the pages are numbered. I think you’re alright.”
If they had said no, would you have continued the project?
I would have worked on it. It’s all a process. There’s never a point where you feel like “now it’s perfect!” You know, the process is revision, not writing. It’s rewriting. So there was an awful lot of it. Scott Rudin was incredibly helpful. Kathryn Bigelow was very helpful. She shot in Jordan twice for “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” She was incredibly helpful with even people’s names: “Call this guy, he was tremendous.” So even just the mechanics of it. So people were very gracious with their time.
Now that you’ve met with J.J. Abrams I assume your next directing project will be one of the “Star Wars” spinoffs.
Right, some sort of weird cyborg Bar Mitzvah [film]. You are a boy who becomes a robot. Something like that. He and I will have to talk about it. Although I think he’s a little busy right now.
I have been to many bar mitzvahs but I don’t think one had a cyborg theme.
You know, that’s a new thing. We didn’t get to do those. When I got Bar Mitzvah’d, there was no “here is the theme.” It was: the family doesn’t have much money so we’re going to do it in the back of the synagogue.
Did you guys play games at all during Bar Mitzvahs? A big one I played was Coke and Pepsi. They also call it Bagel and Lox.
Nah, what is it? Like a taste test?
No it’s a red rover-type game. There’s one side that’s Coke, another side that’s Pepsi, and they run back and forth.
No, but I am encouraged it’s that and not kids making out in the hallway.
So during your Mavericks conversation at TIFF earlier this week, Maziar mentioned “Half-Baked.”
The man is erudite, and has a breadth of cultural knowledge that is extensive and deep.
See you’re poking fun, but I think a lot of your early films are pretty beloved. “Big Daddy,” “The Faculty,” “Half-Baked”…
And of course you like to poke fun at all these experience during “The Daily Show.”
It’s more that I know the difference between acting and doing what I do. So it’s not so much that I am suggesting that those weren’t entertaining.
I just sort of know what my roles in those movies were.
Hey, my friends and I used to get stoned and recite your “Half-Baked” monologues.
Well, that’s very kind of you! Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly Lee Strasberg work in that one. I was method in “Half-Baked,” but not in the way that you would imagine.
Wait, in what way then?
I was high!
[Laughs] You said not in the way that I would imagine, and that’s what I would have imagined! You also did the romantic comedy thing for a bit too. You were in “Wishful Thinking.” And then there was one with Gillian Anderson and Angelina Jolie and Sean Connery.
Oh yes, what was that one called? I know the original title was “Dancing With Architecture,” but I can’t think of what they ended up calling it. [pauses] “Playing By Heart!”
I feel like we just won a parlor game. It’s a little slice of Trivial Pursuit.
Were those experiences fun for you?
You know, I think it was interesting, but when you don’t feel as capable when you’re doing something like that, there is an awkwardness to it that is hard to overcome. It’s not my particular skill set, so you always feel kind of overmatched, like there was magic that you were missing that other people were conjuring. You were operating a universal incompetence, which you don’t really know how to overcome. You fake it.
“Rosewater” hits theaters November 7.