By Iain Blair
Iranian writer and director Asghar Farhadi burst onto the international film scene with his 2011 film A Separation, which won both the Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The film also earned Farhadi an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay and won the Golden Bear at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival.
After being named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People following the release of A Separation, Farhadi moved to Paris to film The Past, which premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film.
After the success of these films, two of Farhadi’s earlier works, About Elly (Winner: Best Director, 2009 Berlin International Film Festival) and Fireworks Wednesday (2006), found US distribution and critical acclaim.
Farhadi’s latest film, The Salesman, is another low-key, intimate and suspenseful drama that starts off innocently enough, but which slowly peels away layer upon layer of a relationship to reveal the shifting internal struggle beneath. After their old flat becomes damaged, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), a young couple living in Tehran, are forced to move into a new apartment. However, once relocated, a sudden eruption of violence linked to the previous tenant of their new home dramatically changes the couple’s life, creating a simmering tension between husband and wife.
A master of slow-burning, visceral dramas that expose domestic discord through his multi-layered screenplays, Farhadi uses the story to study the psychology of vengeance and a relationship put under strain while continuing to explore the condition of women in Iran and the male psyche. The film was a Golden Globe nominee for Best Motion Picture Foreign Language and is up for an Oscar this year for Best Foreign Language Film.
I recently talked to Farhadi about making the film, and his workflow.
What were you aiming for with this film?
I was going for a lot of different things. One was the idea of taking Arthur Miller’s play and then trying to erase the boundaries between theater and life so that the audience begins to wonder, “Is this part of life or is it part of a play?” The other thing that mattered to me was the relationship between the audience and these characters. To what extent could the audience put themselves in the characters’ shoes? In my previous films, audiences could relate, but this was different and a new experience for me.
There are certain actions taken by the characters that people may not approve of, but hopefully can understand. It’s a paradoxical situation for the viewer —while they may disapprove strongly, when you ask them what they would do in the same situation, their reactions can be far more extreme than those taken by Emad after his wife is attacked. I very much wished to place a viewer in this position, where they were tested.
Why did you choose Death of a Salesman as a backdrop to your drama?
When I reread the play, I came across so many similarities between it and the couple in my film. My couple is like the Iranian version of Willy Loman and his wife Linda, and I’d always had the idea of doing a film that takes place in the world of theater. I grew up doing a lot of theater, and I always loved the play. When I began writing my script, I developed this idea of characters putting on a play. The idea that it was a mirror of the actual lives of the characters. They’re actually playing Willy Loman and Linda, and the film and play are very close to each other thematically. For me, in the play the most important aspect is the humiliation, which is also the main theme of my film. It’s humiliation that causes Willy Loman to destroy himself, and Emad feels completely humiliated by what happens to his wife. There’s also the theme of boundaries, of personal space and safety in that space.
Your last film, The Past, was shot in France. How important was it to shoot this in Tehran?
Very important. In fact, I was all set to go to Spain to make a film, and it was all planned and ready to go, with Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem starring, and Pedro Almodóvar as a producer. But it was going to take a while to get everyone together, and I suddenly felt I just wanted to stay in Tehran. It was a purely emotional decision, and I didn’t know how to tell everyone in Spain, but I told my producer, “My heart tells me I should stay in Iran and do this film instead.” I prefer to make most of my films in Iran.
Do you like the post process?
I love it, but I also find it a very difficult experience. I always feel very restless in post, as I go to every minute of every bit of post production and watch everything. It’s all about deciding what to cut and get rid of — and that kills me. You spend so much time and effort collecting all the raw material and then you get into post and it really becomes about dispensing with a lot of stuff you love, and these decisions are so final. I find it very hard.
Where did you do the post?
Since About Elly, I’ve always done all the post at Moon Studios in Tehran. I do all the editing there as well as all the sound design and audio work. It’s a very relaxed place to work. We did the DI at Studio Kamrani in Tehran with colorist Hootan Haghshenas. Again, I’m there for every minute of it.
Tell us about working with editor Hayedeh Safiyari, who also cut A Separation and About Elly for you.
Before we start shooting each time, I give her the script and we talk a great deal about it. We don’t discuss the edit — just the characters and the story. She visits the set sometimes, but not as an editor, it’s more about just looking around and getting the atmosphere. Then after the shoot, we sit in the edit room together, but I don’t say anything. She does her work. We don’t cut the film and then start changing stuff and fine tuning it. We cut each scene like a fine cut and get them right by adjusting length and pacing and so on, and at this stage we talk a lot. It’s a very successful working relationship, and we cut this in about four months.
Can you talk about the importance of sound in the film?
It’s really important to me, not just in post, but during the shoot. For example, when we first see a character, the viewer doesn’t get any additional information visually. But you can feed an audience more and more information using sound. That’s why, when we rehearse a scene, I don’t even look at the monitor. I just listen. That tells me so much more. In post, I always strive to make the sound as realistic as we can. We try not to introduce too much sound, and it’s rare for me to use much music in my films since that stirs up so much emotion. Usually, it’s just used over the end credits.
How important are the Oscars and other awards to you?
They’re very important for smaller indie movies like mine, but any success is always a two-edged sword. It makes your film known to a far bigger audience, all over the world, but the danger is that it also puts you in a competitive situation, both with yourself and others, and that’s not healthy for a filmmaker. (Editor’s Note: Farhadi has gone on record that he will not be attending this year’s Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles in reaction to President Trump’s travel ban, as Iran is one of the seven countries that is affected.)
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.