'The Past' Director Asghar Farhadi on Finding Art in Life's Dilemmas
The Oscar-winning filmmaker behind "A Separation" discusses his latest critically acclaimed feature.
Each new film that Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi releases somehow manages to collect even more awards and accolades than the previous. It will be hard, though, for his new film, The Past, to outdo A Separation's (2011) impressive run, which culminated at the 2012 Oscars with a surprising nomination for original screenplay and taking home the award for best foreign language film.
Not surprisingly, Iran has chosen The Past as its official submission for this year's Oscars -- this despite protests claiming there was nothing particularly Iranian about the film, which was shot in Paris with an almost entirely European cast. Yet it was likely a wise decision on Iran's part, as the film has already been nominated for a Golden Globe and labeled a top contender in the Oscar horse race.
The Past tells the story of Ahmad's (Ali Mosaffa) return to Paris to finalize his divorce from Marie (Berenice Bejo) after they have been separated for four years. Marie insists Ahmad stay at her house, despite the awkwardness of having her jealous fiancé, Samir (Tahar Rahim), and his troubled son (Elyes Aguis) living with her. At Marie's request, Ahmad tries to help thaw relations between Marie and her teenage daughter (Pauline Burlet) while he visits, but in the process, he starts to discover the dark secrets that hang over his ex's new family and finds himself getting drawn into their drama instead.
Fans of Farhadi's work will find themselves in familiar thematic territory as the adult characters struggle with the weight of their choices and the ramifications their decisions will have on the children. As with his previous film, Farhadi is less concerned with what is right or wrong, but instead is fascinated by his character's conflicting emotions. In her rave review of the film, THR's Deborah Young wrote, "The most fascinating thing about the script is it gradually unpeels motivation without taking sides."
Farhadi recently sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about his new film, the Oscars and how no one can escape his or her past.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did you end up making a film in Paris?
Asghar Farhadi: I never thought I would be making films outside Iran. I had the chance once or twice. I thought about it and decided against it. But when this story occurred to me, I realized it was not leaving me alone. I even had another story that was almost finished, but I had an excuse to put it away. But when this one came, it was one of those that confiscated all of my mind.
THR: So what was it about this story that called for you to shoot in Paris?
Farhadi: It's a story of a man who travels to another country. And the distance between this man and his family is important. It's important they are far apart. The reason I picked France was it was where I traveled most often during these years. Outside of Iran, my largest audiences have been in France, and this made me close to them. I didn't feel like a stranger in Paris. The rhythm of life in Paris is very close to that of Tehran.
THR: Do you think you will continue to make films outside of Iran?
Farhadi: I have left myself open. I want the stories to determine for me where I work. I might have a story tomorrow that happens in Iran, and I will definitely make it in Iran.
THR: You write movies that present your characters with impossible choices. Is exploring these dilemmas what drives you as a storyteller?
Farhadi: To me, the dilemmas that people face have always occupied my mind. As [Jean-Paul] Sartre says, "People are only definable once they start choosing. When they don't choose, you cannot get to know them." One of the tragedies for people sometimes is no matter what side they pick, there are still consequences. Can we tell which one is the right, happy and fortunate choice for Marie, if she picks Samir or Ahmad?
THR: There's a scene in The Past when Ahmad's friend advises him to cut ties with his past and move on with his life. Do you agree with this advice?
Farhadi: I can say what I think not as a director of this film, but just as a viewer. I don't agree with that. What he is saying is not realistic. We cannot really cut from our past, and if we do, we are really lying to ourselves. The past is always with us, unless we choose not to see it. The same person who is giving that advice to Ahmad, this cafe owner, has this second job fixing those old frames, and this shows he's still connected to the past.
THR: You recently said that you wouldn't be able to make another movie without children. Why are children so important to your stories?
Farhadi: I personally have this wish of being like a child. Children are very honest; they don't look at the world in a complex way. It's only the adults that make children separate from this honesty and the way they look at the world.
THR: Your cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari said that working with you is thrilling because things are very spontaneous, with lots of last-minute changes and decisions. What is your process on set?
Farhadi: It depends on which scene I'm working on. Some scenes are completely set in my mind, and that is exactly how I want it to happen. And there are other scenes I have in my mind, but when we bring them out, it's not what I'm looking for, and then a war starts for me. I try to change everything to achieve something new. When I say change everything, I'm not talking about the script. I mean the location of people or the camera or the tone of the dialogue. Maybe what's weird to others is I do not explain why I am making these changes.
THR: Is this directing style possible because your scripts are so well structured?
Farhadi: When I write a script, I write it completely and with a lot of details. When someone reads the script, it might appear that the crew and actors cannot do anything creative with it. But when it comes time to shoot, I do not allow this to be transferred to them. I try to make them feel like they are free. I try to make them move in their own way and reach for what I wrote in the script.
THR: Congratulations on your Golden Globe nomination. THR's Oscar analyst, Scott Feinberg, called The Past "the film to beat" for best foreign language film. What was your takeaway from your Oscar experience with A Separation?
Farhadi: There are a lot of experiences in it. It caused my audience to grow larger around the world, and I am one of those filmmakers whose audience is important to me. The other experience I got is that I was put in touch with my audience and I could hear their opinions. More importantly, I came to believe that all around the world, people are very much similar to one another. So a film like A Separation -- that happens in Tehran with a story that belongs to Iran -- has been able to communicate with people around the world. When that film was picked by the Oscars, it meant it was relatable to a lot people that were far from the Iranian culture.
THR: What filmmakers have influenced you?
Farhadi: In Japan, [Akira] Kurosawa. In European cinema, [Ingmar] Bergman and [Krzysztof] Kieslowski. And the type of films that Billy Wilder made, because the way he is as a storyteller, has influenced me as a director.
Mr. Farhadi's translator for this interview was Sheida Dayani.