In 2012, A Separation — Asghar Farhadi’s wrenching film about a couple seeking divorce — earned Iran its first Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Foreign Film. In January, the director and screenwriter could add a second Golden Globe to his wins with his sixth film, The Past. Like A Separation, Farhadi’s latest is a small masterpiece of psychological suspense. There are no heroes or villains, no moral truths, just the inherent emotional chaos of human experience. As New York film critic David Edelstein wrote of A Separation, “What makes it so good is that no one is bad.” The Past is the first of Farhadi’s films to be set outside of Iran: After deserting Marie (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) and her two daughters four years ago, Iranian filmmaker Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris to finalize their divorce. Unbeknownst to Ahmad, Marie is now living with Samir (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim) and his young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Once again we begin with a separation, and once again events twist and turn. There is nothing so simple as a winner in Farhadi’s films. We spoke with the director at the Waldorf Astoria. Farhadi speaks English, but prefers to use an interpreter (Sheida Dayani). Turns out he is as painstaking and precise a talker as he is a filmmaker.
How did you come up with the idea for The Past?
I heard a story about a man who was going back to a woman after many years, to live under the same roof in order to get a divorce. It stayed with me and I finally realized that in order to get rid of it, I’d have to make it into a film. [Laughs.] From there, I have to ask myself why he left four years ago, what is going to happen here? The process of writing is like creating a game of dominoes: The first domino creates the second incident, and so forth until the end.
Your films, though not traditional thrillers, are as gripping as the work of Alfred Hitchcock. I’m wondering if you’re a fan of his work?
Very much, and especially when I was a teenager. The reason I like him is because the audience becomes a partner in what’s going on; I can un-solve the puzzle like the director.
Doubt was a major theme in his work and yours; it’s almost another character in The Past. What about uncertainty captures your imagination?
I think it’s because we constantly deal with doubt in our lives and we devote so much energy to it. Even the things we are certain about are only an illusion. We are born with a female side and a male side, and these two sides are always fighting and challenging each other. This is why anything we want to do, we have the other side of telling us not to do it, to be careful about it. As we grow older, these two characters expand and become more characters. The goal in some types of yoga is to try and reconcile all the characters within a person, and, in fact, the word yoga comes from the word union. This is what you can see in Ahmad and Samir and Marie — they are all trying to reconcile these different characters and are constantly in doubt about everything.
Did you have Bejo, Rahim, and Mosaffa in mind when you were writing their characters?
No. I try not to think of a particular actor as I write. There are two important factors when I cast: I’ve never written a negative character in my my films; all of them are partially right, and I want the audience to connect with and like all of them. So I try to choose actors that, when you see his or her face, you feel sympathetic towards them. And then because these characters are multifaceted, I need intelligent actors to bring out all of these layers.
Bejo — who won Best Actress at Cannes for the part of Marie — said that when she auditioned, you put cotton in her cheeks and dark makeup on her forehead. What was that about?
Her face was very strong and determined, and I wanted to break that, to see when doubt comes to her eyes. To me, round faces have more doubt in them than an oval faces like Berenice’s, so I tried to make her face more round by putting some makeup on makeup on her forehead and cheeks. This was very strange to her.
That’s what I call attention to detail. How did you maintain Bejo’s look of doubt when you were shooting? I didn’t see cotton in her mouth — though how very Brando that would have been!
[Laughs.] We didn’t use the cotton, but the makeup artist applied makeup in a way that would resemble the look we created at the audition.
For some reason, Ahmad’s character touched me the most. It’s true that he abandoned Marie and her girls, for reasons that are never spelled out — depression is suggested — but he’s trying so hard to fix everything, to make everyone feel better, which, of course, is impossible.
Even though we are from the same country, Ahmad was the most difficult character to write. Marie has a key thing she says to him: “When you play the good guy and try to teach us something, I really hate you.” And I thought she was right. He’s acting like the good guy even though he had a role in creating the mess they are in. He treats the children well, he cooks and he shows kindness, but he never says why, four years ago, he left the same children and family to return to Iran. I think the reason he’s showing so much kindness is out of guilt, because he thinks he owes something to this family.
Okay, I take it back: Ahmad is a complete jerk!
[Laughs.] There are a lot of reasons for us to like Ahmad. Usually people who are less known to us are more attractive to us. Ahmad’s outlook on the world is more precise and philosophical; he’s not as emotional as Marie. That’s why we sort of empathize with him. He’s like the characters in Western movies; he’s coming from somewhere we don’t know, he’s going back to somewhere we don’t know. They’re not really attached to anyone, and that loneliness and solitude is appealing.
You’ve said that you think men are more burdened by the past. Can you elaborate on that?
In most cultures, men represent tradition and women represent change and future. Women, because of their ability to give birth, are more connected to future. Men tend to keep the status quo. In A Separation, the man wanted to stay in Iran, the current status, and the woman wanted to move to America, to make changes for her daughter’s future. In The Past, Ahmad is the character who goes back to his country. Marie is the character who [becomes involved with] another man and thinks of the future.
Samir and Marie’s relationship is the most unexplained. Clearly they are in a relationship, but where a Western director might have added a flashback to establish their affection, you confine their intimacy to very small gestures, like Marie covering Samir’s hand as he is driving.
I think one of the malaise of today’s cinema is over explaining, so that there is nothing left for the audience to do — they are just receiving and consuming data. But I gradually realized that the enjoyment for the viewer is discovering what is being unsaid. Some filmmakers are afraid of this. They think that if they don’t give too much information the viewer will be lost and unable to follow the story. To me it’s the opposite. What is important to me is that you give information in minute details. If you want to show the relationship between a man and a woman, one way is to put them in bed having sex. Another way is to show this is in subtle, indirect, and implicit ways — for instance, Marie putting eye drops in Samir’s eyes.
You never use music in your films, and it’s funny how you don’t miss it at all. In a strange way, the lack of it actually heightens the drama.
I try to avoid using music as much as I can and generally only use it for the credits. But I think that the sounds that are present operate like music. Those sounds are both real — so you don’t feel that something has been imposed from outside — and altered, to create an atmosphere. For example, there’s a scene where Marie has just left Samir’s apartment. She’s standing on the staircase, and you hear a baby cry. When she hears that, she turns around and goes back to his apartment.
So you’re saying that you added the baby’s cry to the soundtrack? It wasn’t just something that occurred while you were shooting the scene?
We add it, yes. We will design sounds that we add in post-production. So I would tell my sound man, for instance, that I want to see this woman hear something that in her mind makes her go back up the stairs. It could be the sound of the neighbor’s baby crying, or it could be something she’s imagining that makes her go back.
It reminds me of something I’ve read about your directing style: That you know exactly what you want, and by the time you get on set, it’s almost a choreographed piece.
Of course I design everything in my head in advance, but what they say about me working as a choreographer, I actually try not to bring this out because I don’t want the actors to see what I have in mind. Even if the director is sure about what he is going to do, it’s best that he lets the actors and crew think that they are improvising, or that their meaningful comments are being listened to. They want to believe that they have a part in making this film. [Laughs.] If you don’t do this, the crew then starts acting out. [Laughs.]
Your films are not political, but many of them hint at the challenges facing modern Iran. Is that less true of The Past, which takes place in France?
A heated debate in Iran these days is whether you can keep the past, or if, as some believe, progress means wiping it clean. But the past and traditions have always been a challenging theme in my work. What really bothers me is that there are so few people outside of Iran who understand my country’s culture or history. All they know are the political incidents of the past 40 or so years. They know nothing of our culture before that.
And as good as Argo is, it didn’t help with that. As you pointed out when that film came out, all of the Iranians are presented as cartoonishly evil.
A lot of American friends who have visited Iran tell me that we are very similar emotionally to you. I saw that in the classic American films I watched growing up — the ones that I continue to like most now: Elia Kazan’s work and Kubrick’s, Martin Scorsese’s first films, and Coppola’s Godfather films. This is the reason a lot of Iranians migrated to the United States instead of other countries. Of course, in the past few years, the Iranian people have lost the normal status that they had; they’ve changed from what I used to know. But if we put away the Iranians of the past few years and compare them throughout history, they are emotionally very close to Americans.