Making a first feature film is a daunting endeavor for anyone, but when you’re Jon Stewart, it’s downright terrifying. This week, American audiences went to theaters to find out if Stewart’s leave of absence from “The Daily Show” was warranted — that is to say, if his directorial debut, “Rosewater,” is any good.
The film chronicles the true story behind the imprisonment of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, who’s detained under the pretense of espionage for speaking out against the Iranian government. Because “Rosewater” is based on Bahari’s memoir, Stewart took great pains in creating an authentic representation of both modern Iran and the story at hand; he worked closely with Bahari to weave humor and courage into what is inevitably a dark tale. The result is earnest, featuring a strong performance from Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari.
How it All Began
“The film stemmed from Maziar and my relationship after he had been released, and the beauty of his memoir,” said Stewart. “He has a great ability to recall and is generous enough to share. It’s not an easy thing. Maziar finds it cathartic.” After working together to develop the script directly from the memoir source material, Stewart “had friends [such as J.J. Abrams] read it to give me a sense of the viability of it.”
Stewart’s name recognition helped expedite the process, but it was also beneficial to work outside of the constraints of the studio system. “Whenever I’d go to a meeting, it’d be like, ‘The Guy from ‘Big Daddy’ is here.’ I mean, obviously it helped that I had some profile, so I could be viewed as an added value to the project — I could go out and try to sell it. Then there’s this incredibly compelling story. What also worked in our favor was that we were assembling it outside of the traditional studio system. So by the time we needed financing, we already had a script and a timeline.”
Authenticity: Casting and Culture
In casting the film, a major concern for Stewart was the ability for the actor playing Bahari to move gracefully through a complex spectrum of emotions. “I saw a lot of actors, but… this is a really dark story,” said Stewart. “You have to play with the nuances. Actors tend to want to over-emphasize that aspect of it, so you’d get a lot of wrenching auditions. They were beautifully done, but they lacked the subtlety and agility of Gael [Garcia Bernal]. There’s one scene where Maziar is being told to call his wife for the first time. In the room, he goes from terror to incredulity to unbridled joy to getting the shit kicked out of him to laughing in his captor’s face. And that all takes place in two minutes. The ability for an actor to do that with grace, and without drawing attention to his own craft, is unheard of. Gael was the one guy who had captured that ability.”
Once Garcia Bernal was cast, Stewart and Bahari turned their attention to cultural authenticity. “I know the culture,” said Bahari. “I studied Iranian politics, history. I know the literature, film. We worked together. Jon was open to suggestion and collaboration. Also, I was on the set, so I was giving advice on that.” The duo was also fortunate enough to obtain original POV video from the streets of Iranian protests to use in the film. Stewart, however, is less confident about the film’s truthfulness. “It does also embrace a quiet inauthenticity,” he said. “Originally, when Maziar and I first talked about it, I was a purist. I was like, ‘This must be done in Farsi, and it must be done with a cast of actors who have all been imprisoned in Iran. And then Maziar would say, ‘But don’t you want people to see it?’ If he was okay, I was okay. I had to embrace my own limitations.”
Reality Sets In
In making the film, Stewart had more to contend with than the potential reactions of the American audience. Was he concerned the Iranian government might take action against him? “I’m nervous when the weather changes,” Stewart said, adding that nervousness is “just a general state of being” for him. “It’s kind of a lifestyle I’ve embraced,” he joked in his familiar wry manner. He returned to the gravity of the question: “You can’t control how people see your work or what their reaction to it is, and I learned a long time ago that you can’t try and outsmart crazy. You do the best work you can do and you do it with the most integrity you can. You tell the story in its finest iteration and hope that it’s received in that way.”
And Stewart himself was unhappy with his own initial reception of the film: “I cried the first time I saw the movie [in the editing room],” he said. “It was the rough assembly and it was three and a half hours long. I cried my eyes out because I was like, ‘I can’t believe I spent a year and a half of my life making a giant piece of shit.’ So I was very upset.” When someone asked how he kept his trademark sense of humor throughout the difficult filmmaking process, Stewart said, “Have you ever heard of a thing called Xanax? Sometimes you take it with water at night? It’s not so much how you retain your sense of humor, but that is the method. It is the enzyme I use to process these events. One of the things that appealed to me so much about Maziar is, well — you’d imagine you’d retain that ability under duress, but it’s a hypothesis. So to meet someone who’s had the ability in that situation to maintain humor, and even to utilize it as his strength, his way of defeating — it’s kind of an incredible real-life experiment.”
The biggest question on everyone’s minds was what was next for Stewart. He wasn’t able to give a definitive answer, citing that the circumstances that arose around the making of “Rosewater” were unique. “My next movie’s about Ebola,” he joked.