It was 30 degrees outside, but my palms were slick with sweat as I cut through midtown New York, headed to a posh hotel for a meeting I was both elated about and dreading. There have been few moments in my life as nerve-racking as those leading up to my interview with Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi about his stunning new drama The Past. I've interviewed bigger "names" before, but I was about to sit down with the man who, by my count, is one of the greatest living filmmakers .
After a string of Iranian TV shows and films, Farhadi won the world's notice and an Academy Award in 2012 for his absolutely sensational ensemble drama A Separation. Catching it while covering NYFF in 2011, I was in utter awe, having never before seen a movie that put so much of its identity in the hands of its audience. It hid key moments, thereby forcing the viewer to take sides of characters without the omniscient view movies often offer. Afterwards I spent hours debating the meaning of the film's intentionally ambiguous scene with a colleague. More than two years later, I still tear up remembering that drama's poignant and provocative conclusion.
A Separation beat out The Artist for my Top 10 list that year. But to be clear, I don't just think it's one of the best films of 2011; I think it's one of the best films ever made. Which should explain my anxiety over meeting Farhadi, despite the fact that he seemed perfectly pleasant in other interviews I'd witnessed. What if I embarrassed myself? What if my questions didn't translate? What if he wasn't everything I hoped he'd be? They say you shouldn't meet your heroes, don't they?
My fears were allayed almost instantly when Farhadi, a small man with a contagious calm demeanor and neatly trimmed beard, entered the luxurious suite and offered his hand in way of introduction. In response, I blurted out my love of A Separation, and how thrilled I was to see The Past, a drama that stars The Artist's Oscar-nominated Bérénice Bejo as a woman who invites her estranged Iranian husband to return to France so they can finalize their divorce. He smiled and thanked me through his translator Sheida Dayani. And then began a conversation unlike any I've ever had before.
It was a new experience for me to speak to someone through a translator. Dayani was a total pro, so it made for an easy exchange. But what shocked me was how much of Farhadi's communication I felt I understood without any knowledge of the Persian language. He also spoke no French and yet directed a French-language film with fluent actors who claimed the translators weren't always needed to know what he was saying to them. That seemed kind of heady artist-speak when I'd read it in the press kit. But through the intonation of his voice, the pauses in his speech and the way he spoke with his hands, it was uncanny to me how much of our conversation I felt needed no translation.
Here it is in full, fully translated:
So, I want to start by telling you that A Separation was at the top of my list in 2011. I completely adored it, and actually The Artist was number 2, so I was completed elated to see The Past. Actually, this is a really tricky interview, because I don’t want to ask you anything that’s going to give any kind of certainty to the film, because I really love the way your films create this ambiguity and uncertainness that forces the audience to make kind of character judgments on their own. I was hoping though that you could talk to me about that approach to storytelling.
Asghar Farhadi: Doing interviews about my films really bothers me sometimes, because I have to speak directly and clearly about things I’ve intended to keep ambiguous, and in a way I feel like I’m betraying my film. But ambiguity is important and valuable because it helps the audience to go think about the film after they’re done seeing it and the film doesn’t finish in the audience’s mind. They’re still thinking about it. People who ask me those kind of questions think that I know something about the characters that I’m hiding from the audience, but that’s not the case. Everything I knew about that characters I told the audience and as ambiguous as they are to the audience, they are to me.
That’s really interesting because your characters do feel like they have private lives, apart from us. It feels like they do have rich backstories that we’re not party to. But I’m curious if in the development and the rehearsal stage, if that’s something that you cement more with the actors.
Yes, most of the rehearsals go to this, and there are little signs of those private lives that you talked about in the film. For instance, there is a part where Marie tells Ahmad that for the first time she saw Samir’s wife in the pharmacy when she would come to get her medication. We practiced and rehearsed that scene in our rehearsals, even though it’s not in the film. We rehearsed this process of Samir coming to the pharmacy, explaining that his wife is sick, explaining that he needs certain medications, then coming back in a few days. We were trying to make the actors get to know the backgrounds of the characters and the relationships with each other before the film started.
That’s so cool. Another thing I’m really impressed by is that while father-son stories are kind of a dime a dozen, both The Past and A Separation focus very much on a father-daughter story. Why is that so appealing to you as a filmmaker?
Perhaps because I am in that situation myself. I have two daughters. My first daughter (Sarina Farhadi) was the one who played in A Separation. And the father-daughter relationship is a very strange relationship to me. It’s both a very close and a very far relationship. It’s one of those that I think I will work on in my other films.
Did you ever consider having your daughter for A Separation play Lucie (the teen daughter) in this?
No, I really didn’t think about it from the beginning. I didn’t want the audience to have the image they had of the character in A Separation to be broken by this new image, and I didn’t want the audience to mix these two characters.