Two years ago, A Separation took Asghar Farhadi from being an acclaimed filmmaker in his native Iran, to a renowned figure in global cinema. The film won dozens of awards worldwide, including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, in addition to Farhadi being nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Farhadi’s latest film, The Past, came roaring out of the gate at Cannes this year where it won two awards. It recently received Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Past begins with Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returning from Iran to Paris to finalize his divorce from his wife Marie (Oscar-nominee Berenice Bejo). He must confront her, her children, and her new love Samir (Tahar Rahim), whose wife is in a coma following her failed suicide attempt. Although the film begins with the promise of moving forward, the members of this fractured and reconstructed family must confront the well-kept and not-so-well-kept secrets of a painful past.
Sony Pictures Classics is releasing The Past in limited release on Friday, December 20th. In anticipation, I had the pleasure of interviewing Farhadi again, two years after our last conversation about A Separation. Here’s what Farhadi shared with me about constructing the narrative of this family, working in a language he didn’t speak, and crafting The Past.
Jackson Truax: The praise that your last film A Separation received was so remarkable, including winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and you were nominated for Best Original Screenplay. What impact did the success of that film have on your life or career?
Asghar Farhadi: It had no affect on my private life. My relationship with my family, with my children, with my wife, remains the same as it was before all of this. What it did change for me, is that there were many more viewers for my films, worldwide. Many went and found my previous films and watched them. And many are curious to see what I will work on in the future. This is very valuable to me. But I try not to allow this to impact my path or make me into a different kind of filmmaker.
JT: When I interviewed you for A Separation, you said that making a film in Iran in similar to making a film elsewhere, except there are certain laws you have to follow and certain parameters. Was that why you wanted to film The Past in Paris? Did you find it more liberating than shooting in Iran?
Farhadi: No. It was not for a specific reason that I decided I’m going to go abroad and make a film. I actually, at one point, thought, “I will always make all my films in Iran.” But this story that had come into my mind needed to be made abroad. I was not able to make that into a story that took place in Iran. In Iran, in spite of any difficulties or limitations there may be, filmmaking for someone like me is much easier.
JT: You’ve already talked a lot about the kind of Paris you wanted to show and didn’t want to show, and wanting to film in the suburbs of that city. But how did you end up wanting to film in Paris initially?
Farhadi: I knew that I had to pick a kind of city that, given the subject of the film was the past, a city…where you could sense the past. This film, I could not have made in a modern city, like, I don’t know, Dubai or Hong Kong. But, let’s say in Rome, or Paris, in cities like that I could have made it. But I was also having to be careful not to fall into a tourist space. That could be a trap.
JT: You’ve talked about how you had ideas for two separate stories, a man returning to get a divorce, and a father taking a care of his son after a mother’s suicide, and you then decided to marry the two. What was the process of bringing the two stories together, and how did you figure out in what ways the two stories would relate to each other?
Farhadi: It’s perhaps better to say that I did not have two fully independent stories to marry. I had a story that had branches. And one of those branches was the story of the man whose wife is in a coma. The structure I had imagined resembled a dominoes game. So that the pieces were in a row, one behind the other. I was starting the story with the domino pieces that were Marie and Ahmad. And then moving forward, until we reached the pieces that were Samir and his wife. The manner of connecting these two stories was the way in which those two domino pieces get connected.
JT: In our last interview we talked about your casting process. And you said casting “Is the most doubt-filled stage of the work I do.” Was casting The Past any easier? How did you settle on this cast?
Farhadi: It was the same here, too. I can’t say that it was harder, or that it was easier. It was just it’s own thing. Regarding some of the characters, I quickly reached a conclusion as to who it was that would play the part. But with some of them, it took a much longer time. But when one is casting, there is always this question in one’s mind, “Is this person who’s playing the part the best possible person in the world to play it?”
JT: Berenice Bejo gives such a compelling and emotional performance. What do you think she brought to the role that no other actress could have?
Farhadi: She added something to the part that had we had another actor play it, they might not have… Because she has roots in Latin America, when I was creating her character…I tried to bring shadings of that into her characterization. And this results in all the characters in the film being somehow non-French, other than the woman in the coma. Then, I thought, “What a great theme. The fact that none of the people actually belong here.” As though everyone is an outsider, here in this atmosphere, this space. As though all of them have been uprooted from their past. It was when I selected Berenice with that particular background of her own that his theme came to the film.
JT: You also talked about how once you’ve cast a film and given a script to the actors, you try and take behavior and details the actors bring and inject them into the screenplay. Did you do any of that on The Past?
Farhadi: In The Past I did not do this… I gave the screenplay to the actors… Here, I was working with actors whose language I did not know… Possibly, if I were to work in Persian, I would continue that method. But when I’m working in a language I don’t know, I would have to give a screenplay to the actors the way it is.
JT: How were you able to give direction, or even gauge if a performance was working, if it was in a language you don’t know?
Farhadi: I had a team of translators on set. They assisted me. Over the long period of time that we were working together, they had grasped how to interpret what I said to best convey what I needed. In terms of how I appraised the acting, I judged with my heart. And it came out right. Many of the members of the team who were French, when they observed me either criticizing something or praising it, were surprised. Because that was also their take.
JT: Just as the film is about the spaces between the future, present, and past, the film feels like it’s about the space between strangers and family, with step-family and half-siblings occupying that space. What made you want to look at interpersonal relationships through this unique familial lens?
Farhadi: These are restructured families. Reconstructed families provide one with the possibility of creating tumult in a film. Because each of the members of the family has a past with a separate family that they have cut from. And they are now in this new family. Reconstructed families share a much fainter common past. And this somehow connected to the theme of the film and complemented it.
JT: You don’t offer any exposition or explanation in the film as to how this family is constructed. The audience has to spend the first third of the film almost feeling it out for themselves. How did you arrive at that approach?
Farhadi: In my previous films, also, I’ve often employed this… This is not a style where I’m hiding things on purpose, or deciding to hide things. I actually think that I am saying things. I don’t, however, offer the information in one package at one point in the film. What I do is, I place delicate signposts throughout the film, allowing the viewer to gradually infer and gain this information and put it together. For instance, when and how Marie came to know Samir, this is something that the story clearly comes to indicate.
JT: In America, filmmakers often aren’t encouraged or even allowed to think that their audience is observant or smart. You seem to think that your audience is smart. Is this an Iranian approach? Or a French approach? Or a personal approach?
Farhadi: This is a personal method. I believe that there are a far greater number of intelligent viewers in the world than there are intelligent filmmakers. Filmmakers that don’t assume their audiences to be intelligent are themselves not very intelligent.
JT: As a result of this family, you have young actors and kids giving intense and powerful performances. Given the nature of the material and what they had to do, what were the challenges of directing the two child actors?
Farhadi: One of the difficulties in this film were the two kids. Because the parts they played were really…not very simple… They had to exhibit a different sentiment in each scene. And there’s a transformation that occurs from the beginning to the end of the film in regard to these children. As we proceed through the film, they start to taste the bitterness around them more and more. I worked with the children in a different way, depending on the child. All I can say is that it took a great deal of time. Sometimes I would get very weary. But there was no option of not continuing. I would just go on. But most often, the way that their performances were so extraordinary, it really encouraged me and made me want to have them in front of the camera more and more. With children, I don’t, in general, tell them directly what I want from them in terms of acting. I try to obtain the acting from them indirectly.
JT: The film has some very definite markers of time, a separation that took place four years ago, and a suicide attempt that took place eight months ago. How did you decide exactly how far back in the past each of those events would have taken place in relation to the narrative?
Farhadi: These are aspects that may mean more to an Iranian than to a non-Iranian. We state a date in the film. The judge in the court pronounces what the date is on that day. After which, they keep saying, “Four years ago, four years ago.” If we take that date, and work our way back four years, and are familiar with Iranian matters, we would understand why he went back at that point.
JT: The Past has already been celebrated all over the world as it’s played at festivals throughout the year. If you were to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay or Best Director, what would that mean to you, personally and professionally?
Farhadi: I would be very happy. More than anything, I consider myself a writer. Whenever I’ve been given any kind of prize as a writer, it always delights me. When I’m writing, the kind of serenity I feel, I like myself more when I’m writing than at any other time. I would be very happy. But more than that, what it would mean is that in taking that step of making a film outside of my country for the first time, that I succeeded in establishing a relationship with the audience.