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Between Stage and Screen: A Conversation with Asghar Farhadi

Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Cohen Media Group

In a series of tautly constructed dramas that imbue the everyday struggles of married life with suspense and tragedy, filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has proven himself a remarkable observer of the social, moral, and personal dimensions that shape contemporary Iranian society. His latest film, The Salesman, explores these themes through the story of two actors, Rana and Emad (played beautifully by Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini), whose marriage is thrown into crisis when Rana is assaulted in their apartment. Drawing on Farhadi’s background in theater, this visceral look at the psychological effects of retribution is named after Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a play that the protagonists are depicted rehearsing and performing in, and whose tale of family conflict gives them an outlet to release the tension in their lives.

Last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, I met with Farhadi for coffee while he was in town with The Salesman, which has since earned him Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for best foreign-language film and is now playing in theaters. In our conversation, the director, speaking through a translator, discussed the passions that inform his creative process, including his love for the purity of theater and the pleasures of writing.

Can you start by telling me about your early moviegoing experiences?

The first time I went to the cinema, I was very young, and the theater was very far from our house. Because it was in another city, our parents wouldn’t let my cousins and me go, so we just snuck out. We’d get there late, and we’d just watch the last twenty minutes of the film. That’s where I think filmmaking started for me. When I got home, I was always wondering what was the first part of the film—I’d try to make it up in my head. That played a huge role in me becoming a filmmaker.

Do you have a memory of the first film that really affected you?

When we were young, we mostly watched movies on a black-and-white TV. Every Friday, we’d watch Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton’s films, or Harold Lloyd—they were very famous in Iran. At the same time, because we were at war, there were some French and German war films on TV. The first film that really moved me was Seven Samurai—the only thing I knew was that it wasn’t like the other films, it was something new.

When you were growing up, what was your relationship to Iranian cinema?

When I was a teen, Iranian cinema had the most influence on me. I was seven years old when the revolution happened in Iran, and at that time, the only hobby that we had was cinema, nothing else. Although Iran was at war with Iraq, there were still very good films made at that time. We have a filmmaker called Bahram Beyzai, who’s actually living now in the U.S., and his films were influential to me. Dariush Mehrjui is another director who made great films and had an influence on me. The film that the teacher [in The Salesman] shows to the class is [Mehrjui’s] The Cow. I think that is one of the best films in Iran’s cinema history.

While studying, you wrote your thesis on Harold Pinter, which is interesting to think about in the context of your writing. What was it about his work that spoke to you?

When I was working on my thesis, I started to study the language in Pinter’s work, and something that got me very interested was the silence in his plays. Characters talk a lot, but it seems they talk to hide something. Everything is underneath.

How has your relationship to theater informed your work as a filmmaker?

Before I came to cinema, I was a student in theater and was working in the theater. My professional character was shaped by those seven years. There I understood what I like and what I don’t like in cinema. It was a period when I started reading foreign plays, and it just opened up a whole new world to me.

Do you find that you have a different style or practice as a director when working in different mediums?

In each medium, I feel like I’m the same person—the medium’s changing and the techniques are different, but I’m not changing. When I was working in TV, for example, my stories were about society and the connections between people. It seems that’s my inner issue that I go back to all the time.

Every person has questions about their own life, and working in cinema, I have the chance to share these questions with other people. One of the questions I’ve always had is how we justify that somebody did something moral or immoral. In film after film, I started to ask this question in different ways. When the audience comes out of The Salesman, they have the same question that I have: which character was doing the right thing?

Where did The Salesman originate for you?

Usually, my stories start with an image. I don’t know where it’s coming from, but it’s been stuck in my mind for a while. For this film, I had the image of the stage of the play. There is a lighting guy turning the lights on and off at different parts of the stage, and at the end, he turns them all on and you can see the whole stage. I thought this image is like my films: you always see parts of family connections, and then at the end, when everything adds up, you feel like you’ve seen the whole family. I put this scene at the beginning of the film, but I didn’t know what the story was. In the film, the border between real life and theater begins to vanish. At the end, that house becomes like a stage.

Have you always loved Arthur Miller’s work?

Yes, I love him because he talks about the relationships between people within a family. His plays are multi-angled—if you’re a political person, you see the political part of it; if you care about relationships, you see the relationships; if you care about society, you see society. And that’s what I love.

The way you've staged Death of a Salesman in the film is so intimate and compelling, I wanted to pause and watch the whole thing. Do you still want to direct theater?

Actually, during the shooting, the crew told me that when the film was over, I should just go on and do the play. It got serious for me, and even though there’s no time, I’m thinking maybe I should do it.

As an artist, what do you get out of directing a film that’s different from directing a play?

I think that theater is very different from cinema, especially when I’m working with someone else’s writing. Theater, I think, is more pure. It’s closer to music; there’s nothing extra in it.

You always elicit strong and honest performances from your actors. What is your process like with them?

It depends on the actor, but usually before the shooting I do a lot of rehearsal. It comes from my theater background. I approach some of the actors in an emotional way, and I try to put them in an emotional situation. But with some of the others, I really have to explain to them so they understand.

What part of the filmmaking process are you still most excited by?

The hardest and most beautiful part of filmmaking, for me, is the writing. When I’m writing, I enjoy it, and I feel like I’m not in this world. Every time I do it, I always say it’s the last time. It’s a kind of enjoyable torture.

Who are some modern filmmakers you admire?

There are a lot. Michael Haneke, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Alexander Payne, Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu.

What was the last thing you saw that moved you?

The last time I was moved was the three weeks before the death of Abbas Kiarostami. We watched his latest short films that he made at his home, and they moved me. I really respected him, and we had a very good friendship. He’s a master.

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