Can you tell us about your rehearsal process, and how you work with your actors? Does everyone work together, including the children?
The rehearsals begin a few months before the shooting, and they resemble theatrical rehearsals. We don’t actually work on the script when we rehearse. What we’re trying to do is to create a background for the characters, and find the characters’ backstory together. So in these rehearsals, the point is that instead of the director telling the actors what he needs, the actors will discover what is going to be in the film and what is going to be in the relationships between the characters. Because I don’t really believe in directly telling the actor what I want; they have to experience it themselves.
For instance, in the rehearsals between Ahmad and Marie, we practiced a scene where Marie and Ahmad called each other on the phone, and Marie asked him to come to France and do the paperwork for the divorce. This was neither in the script nor in the film, but it created a background for the actors. Another example: we played out the situation where Marie and Samir met for the first time, and this is of course not in the film. Or when Lucie calls the dry-cleaning and tells a lady that she wants to send an email. Of course, this is not in the film, but we rehearsed it many times.
How strictly do you stick to the script? Is there room for improvisation?
When we’re shooting, I pretend that I am not strict about it, but in fact, I actually am. [laughs] Because actors like to think they are actually improvising and changing the script… so you have to pretend that they are changing the script, but in the end, [you must] do something that allows the script to remain intact.
Ahmad is a catalyst for much of the action in the film. He spills secrets, and he seems to know exactly what he’s doing as he tries to make things happen. How did you come up with his character?
Ahmad is a strange character. He’s a catalyst who seems like he’s only helping others reveal their secrets. But halfway through, he realizes that the big secret is what he’s hiding inside himself.
Ahmad is trying to be very kind to everybody, and he seems like he’s a good person. But it’s actually he who caused this family to be in such a mess today [by leaving]. Perhaps [his kindness] is his effort to undo all his bad deeds. Marie has a sentence in the film that is key in understanding Ahmad: as he’s fighting with her, she says, “I hate when you act all-knowing, like this good hero character who’s trying to teach us something.” And I think Marie is right.
Once again, one of your films is Iran’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. What do awards mean to you as a filmmaker?
The Oscar is a little different in what it means, because the Oscar nomination is awarded by a country, so the film that’s being nominated is actually representing the entire country. So when a film wins the Oscar, it’s in fact the people of that country who are winning the Oscar. To me, it’s very important to do something where I represent my people and my country in a cultural activity.
Of course, one part has to do with the people, but the biggest thing that happens for me is that my audience expands throughout the world.
Do you know what you are planning to do next?
I haven’t decided yet, but I’m still thinking about three stories. One of them is in Iran, and two of them are outside Iran. And I will make a decision by the end of this year.
The Past opens in New York (Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Film Forum) on Friday, December 20.
*Interpreter: Sheida Dayani