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'The Past' Director Asghar Farhadi Says Illusion That Audiences Don't Like Complication Is Hurting American Cinema (Q&A)

Photo of Ryan Lattanzio By Ryan Lattanzio | TOH! December 12, 2013 at 1:54PM

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).
Berenice Bejo and Tahar Rahim in "The Past"
Berenice Bejo and Tahar Rahim in "The Past"

On directing actors:

Farhadi: [Upon filming] the screenplay is completed and if I were to change one thing, the whole thing would fall apart. When you have a completed screenplay and give it to an actor, they tend to feel they have no part in the creation of the character. They feel they don't have absolute freedom. In rehearsals, I start at zero again but tread the path that I tread along in the writing once more with the actors. And after a few months, they begin to feel like they themselves created the character and not that it was imposed on them by someone else. All that mattered was for Berenice Bejo to believe that she was a partner in creating this character and that she played a part in the formation of this character.

On themes:

Farhadi: When I write the story, I don't ask myself, "what is this about? What is the theme?" In all the stories in the world, all the themes are hidden. It's a matter of how you tell the story that will make one theme rather than another stand out. Even bedtime stories told by mothers to their children have everything in them. It's the way the mother tells the story that makes one theme stand out. I place certain small signposts that when you put them next to one another, the theme emerges. As an example, in this film, the motif of wiping and cleaning appears frequently, like rain that comes down as though to wash things clean, like the windshield wipers in the first scene. The paint in the house seems to want to cover the previous layer of color on the walls, like the laundry service that wants to clean and take things off. All of these put next to each other seem to tell us that there is something human beings want to erase.

On influences:

Farhadi: My greatest influences were the great playwrights, people like Williams, Ibsen, Chekhov. In cinema the filmmaker that most influenced me is Kurosawa. "Rashomon," in some ways, resembles my films. In that film there's an event that has occurred and is retold from different perspectives. Another filmmaker where the incidents in the student proceed like a game is Billy Wilder, or Ingmar Bergman who explores closely his characters and their relationships matter to him a great deal. He seems to really love all the characters in his films. 

On working in French (a language Farhadi doesn't know):

Farhadi: To make this film I went to Paris and lived there with my family for two years. I would walk endless hours on the streets in the metro and listen to the melody of the language. Contrary to what we often think, that it's through language that we establish contact with each other, we actually connect through the gaze and through gestures. I had several interpreters who not only helped me convey the words I spoke but even mimicked my gestures and movements.

"The Past" hits theaters December 20th via Sony Pictures Classics.

This article is related to: Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Asghar Farhadi, Asghar Farhadi, The Past , Berenice Bejo

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.