Asghar Farhadi directs Berenice Bejo and Tahar Rahim in 'The Past.'
Asghar Farhadi directs Berenice Bejo and Tahar Rahim in 'The Past.'

Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has created one of the best screenplays of the year with "The Past," a measured domestic drama where every frame counts. In a recent Q & A with the LA Times' Mark Olsen, Farhadi, with help from a translator, discussed the film, his idiosyncratic writing process and the state of cinema today (highlights below). (Our Cannes coverage is here.)

In 2012, the Iranian director's "A Separation" won the foreign language Academy Award and now with this Iranian Oscar entry out of France, he returns with another absorbing and flawlessly acted chamber piece about a splintered family whose past is very much in the present. "The Past" has just been nominated for the foreign language Golden Globe and back in May, Bejo won the Best Actress prize at Cannes.

"After 'A Separation' I had to do something that was a major risk, that if I just did something I knew I was able to do, I was lying to myself,' Farhadi said.

Despite different characters, setting and circumstances, "The Past" begins exactly where "A Separation" left off, with a pane of glass between the two leads. Here that glass is between estranged spouses Marie (Berenice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who has just arrived from Iran to formalize a protracted divorce. Marie brings Ahmad back to her home, where pieces of information about her motives for tying up loose ends slowly trickle in to devastating effect.

While a film like "The Past" could collapse into melodrama for its own sake, Farhadi's formal rigor and organic, mathematically precise storytelling elevate the film from easy, reassuring sentimentality to the plane of Greek tragedy akin to Mike Leigh's "Secrets and Lies."

Using his stage background, Farhadi, who speaks no French, doesn't get in the way of his actors. He likes asking them questions about the character so they feel they've had some part in their creation. As a screenwriter, he's a masterful courier of information, twisting the screw ever tighter as we learn something new and startling in each scene. And while this isn't a taut thriller like "A Separation," there is a Hitchcockian precision that bears looking closely at tiny moments, gestures and exchanges. 

 Berenice Bejo in "The Past"
Sony Pictures Classics Berenice Bejo in "The Past"

On assembling the story:

Farhadi: When I'm working I can't see myself from the outside. But the structure I attempt when I begin writing is similar to a dominoes game where the first piece falls and then it causes the next and the next and the next piece to fall.

A friend of mine told me he was going to another country to formalize his divorce with a woman who he'd been separated from for several years. What an odd circumstance for a man to be under the same roof with a woman from whom he's been separated for a number of years. This man and woman must avoid their common past, which is now before them. When you try to avoid a subject, you tend towards it more and you can't escape it. I imagined that I could expand these few days that this man and woman spent together and turn it into a drama.

On his writing process:

Farhadi: I begin with a few things that are scattered and I just make scattered notes for myself. And then almost like a mathematical endeavor, I try to place these incidents next to each other. And then I walk, and it's when I walk that these things come through my mind. I was writing the story in Paris, in my house, and all the houses in Paris have wood floors and when you walk they squeak and creak a lot. When there's some excitement in the story I walk back and forth faster in the same room. One day a neighbor downstairs called and said, "I have no peace because there's so much noise." He asked, "What do you do up there to make so much noise?" I said, "I'm writing a screenplay." He said, "me too, I'm writing a screenplay downstairs but I don't make any noise." I said, "Well, I'm sure your story's not going to be very good because there's no excitement down there taking hold of you if you're sitting still in a chair the whole time."

On current cinema:

Farhadi: There is this misconception that if the character gets more and more complicated, the audience will move further and further away from that character. To me, audiences like complication. It's a mistake and misconception to think that one has to state everything clearly and simply for the audience to be able to follow the character, and this is what is bringing American cinema down from its position in the classic golden period. There's this misapprehension that the audience is not smart. The more complex a character is, if the complexity is approached correctly, the audience is going to be more absorbed. One thing I experienced in this film is that you always imagine that people first think and then they do something. But at this age I've come to realize that people often do something and then ponder why it is they did it, which is true of Marie in this film. This makes the characters more complex.

On directing actors: