Director's Cut: Asghar Farhadi ('The Past')

Asghar Farhadi

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi likes space – or, more accurately, the “A Separation” and “About Elly” writer and director likes spaces, and how his many talents move about them, how they look, how they feel, and how his audience relates to them. Farhadi’s “A Separation” earned the filmmaker some well-deserved international notice, along with an Oscar nomination for his screenplay and a Best Foreign Language Film win for the film at the 2012 ceremony, but that doesn’t seem to have gone to his head – he’s still making the kind of films he wants to make, and the kind he excels at.

Farhadi’s latest feature, “The Past,” serves as a compelling companion piece to “A Separation.” Like the earlier production, “The Past” centers on a broken marriage and the myriad of secrets that are revealed during a relatively short amount of time in a relatively confined space (here, the action is mainly set in an under-repair French house, one that’s just as complicated and memorable as the apartment in “A Separation”). “The Past” stars Berenice Bejo as Marie, a French woman who has somewhat recently entered into a new romance with local dry cleaner owner Samir (Tahar Rahim), a romance made mercilessly complicated by their respective children (Pauline Burlet shines as Marie’s daughter Lucie, and young Elyes Aguis is heartbreaking as Samir’s son Fouad) and the lingering legal issues of Marie’s marriage to Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa). When Ahmad returns to France to finalize their clearly amicable divorce (so amicable, in fact, that Ahmad stays in Marie and Samir’s home during his visit), unforeseen issues arise, setting off a chain of well-crafted and increasingly upsetting events that impact everyone in the house. The past, it seems, cannot be avoided – but can it be overcome?

Last month, I spoke with Farhadi in advance of the film’s release, having previously caught it at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where it stuck with me throughout the mad rush of watching five films a day. Of note, while Farhadi does speak and understand English, he was accompanied during this interview by his frequent translator, Sheida Dayani, who did a consistently wonderful job of both translating our questions and answers and keeping the flow of our conversation moving right along.

FILM.COM: The film is wonderful. I saw it at Toronto and sort of early in the festival, and it really stuck with me.

Farhadi: Oh, thank you.

I know that Marion Cotillard was originally cast as Marie, and then she had to drop out because of scheduling conflicts. How did you pick Berenice Bejo for this role?

When I was first thinking about the casting, I wrote a list for each character. For the character of Marie, I thought of five or six people, and I had both Marion Cotillard and Berenice Bejo [on the list]. Unfortunately, someone had told me that Berenice only works with her husband, so I wasn’t sure. I had seen Marion Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose” and I really liked her. I talked to her and we really wanted to work with each other. I really liked her to come before the shooting for a few months of rehearsals, and even though she was enthusiastic about it, her time didn’t allow this. Then I started thinking about Berenice, and then I realized that it’s a very good choice and we ended up working very comfortably with each other. I got to know her from “The Artist.”

Did the role change at all when the casting changed?

When Berenice came, a few things changed. Before her, the character of Marie was completely French, but then when she came, I made changes to the character so that she would have a non-French background.

Did you consider recasting the role of Lucie after Berenice came on board, because Pauline had previously played a younger Marion in the film “La Vie en Rose,” and she looks so very much like her?

Yes, exactly, I chose Pauline based on Marion Cotillard because she looks very much like her. But when Marion couldn’t make it, I had to naturally change Pauline, but she was good in the rehearsals and she played so well that I started thinking of her as an actor, not because she looked like Marion Cotillard. I think she is a very talented actress, and she can be one of the biggest stars of the world.

Your process in writing this film pulled from a number of sources and experiences, how much of that process is owed to inspiration versus hard work to make everything fit?

The parts that came inspirational were, of course, very attractive, but then at some other instances, they didn’t really fit and I had to sit down and make it like a puzzle: go together. Because these two were simultaneous, I cannot really remember now how much of it or what parts of it came as inspiration or what parts of it I had to sit down and plan. It took me about eight months from the time that I started writing to the time that I finished the first draft. The part where I had to bring these two together was mostly in the editing and in the rewriting of the first draft.

Were there any pieces that you originally wanted to include in the film but that ultimately couldn’t fit?

Yes, a lot of parts. It was a story that was very long and complicated, and in order to fit it into this certain time, I had to cut many things.

Your films tend to focus on families and family units, and one of the things that is so compelling about both “The Past” and “A Separation” is how their living spaces become their own characters. What is your process in conceiving of what these spaces will look like and how you go about creating them and moving your actors around inside them?

That’s right, when you’re making a film about family, the house gets a key role, and I thought that house itself could have a character. In other words, it could be a reflection of the interior of the people who live in it. In this film, all the characters are trying to eradicate their past, eliminate their past, and start something new. The same thing is happening inside the house – they are painting the walls in order to change the atmosphere. The architecture of the house itself is very complex, and it’s like the floor plan of human beings themselves. It’s layered upon layered, and you can’t really make your way through it right away.

You mentioned earlier about your rehearsal process, and I know that you favor a long rehearsal process. Does that come from your background in theater?

It came from that background, but it doesn’t mean that I do theatrical rehearsals. It only looks like theater rehearsals, but when we start it and we go in it, we’re doing something else. What is similar in theater rehearsals is that in theater too they dedicate a long time to rehearsing, and of course a lot of the theater is formed in the rehearsals.

Do you plan continuing to use the long rehearsal format for your films?

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but I tend to like this, and I enjoy it personally. It’s like a game to me. Imagine that everyday you meet with a certain group in a certain location, you put music on, you do exercises, you do certain practices together, and this could be a very enjoyable time.

A lot of your actors have spoken about how precise you are with your direction and how having the longer rehearsal process aids that, but there’s also mention that your direction can be emotion-driven, so how do you marry those two styles into your own trademark style?

I try to not really show that preciseness and strictness that I have about what I want from the actors, I try to hide it, and that is usually overshadowed by my emotional relations to humans. I try to have, as much as I can but it doesn’t happen with everyone, but as much as I can, I try to have an emotional bond with my actors. So once that bond is created, then a lot of things can be understood and carried without having to be communicated in words.

You previously directed your own daughter in “A Separation,” did your existing emotional bond help in that process?

It was a very complex situation, because both of us were trying to overcome the relationship that we had with each other. For instance, when we went to shot, she started calling me “Mr. Farhadi,” and I was very strict on her and harsh with her, because I didn’t want her to think that, only because she’s my daughter, I am going to be kind. Because of being my daughter, she felt more responsible, and she was trying to put more effort into that. But I am very happy about this experience because, for the first time, we came out of our roles as daughter and father and we got to know each other better, from different angles, as two other people.

You’ve had good luck in general with your younger actors. Is your process any different with the children in your films than it is with your adult actors?

I also rehearse a lot with the children, but there is a quality in children that you cannot tell them what you want. Children play a lot, and they imagine a lot, but they don’t take the games of the adults seriously. Therefore, it’s very wrong to tell a child “imagine your mother being in a coma, you have to be upset about it,” because he is going to laugh at you. But you have to put them in certain situations that creates in them certain reflections and those reflections become his acting. So the scene in the subway when you see Tahar [as Samir] and Elyes [as Fouad], beforehand I rehearsed with them a very close and intimate relationship, that they were very happy with each other and they were constantly playing with each other. When we went to shoot that day, I asked Tahar to not be close to Elyes, not answer him, not respond to him, and act like he’s upset with him. So Elyes, like every other day, was trying to play with Tahar, and he was trying to talk to him and play with him, and Tahar didn’t respond and acted like he’s not talking to him. So, after awhile, Elyes felt very strange and he was kind of offended. And then we started shooting that scene, and in his acting, he really felt ambiguous and he had mixed feelings about Tahar. He loved him but, at the same time, he didn’t like him at that moment.

You’ve had great success with your films at film festivals – do you enjoy that experience?

It’s starting to get tiring for me. I’ve been traveling too much and I’d like to stay steady somewhere [Laughs].

Do you have a favorite film festival?

There have been some festivals that I’ve really enjoyed because I have good friends there - Telluride is one of them. I think it’s one of the best festivals in the world.

Do you feel that the Oscar buzz and the eventual win for “A Separation” changed your career or your outlook on your career?

What it changed for me was it expanded my audience throughout the world, to a great degree. From now on, the opportunities and the hopes that I can have for making films have become more and more. Of course, in the past, I also made films more easily, but right now I have more means to make films. It hasn’t changed anything in my personal life.

Do you feel better prepared for this year, with “The Past” being the Best Foreign Language Film entry for Iran?

Not really, because I can’t predict what’s going to happen to the film, I can’t really feel anything about it, it’s like two years ago at this time. Because two years ago, we couldn’t predict anything either.

"The Past" opens in limited release on December 20th, 2013.