When Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman screened in Cannes earlier this year it was an instant sensation. Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini star as theater performers involved in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, as the young couple become intertwined in a tale of love, revenge and ultimately forgiveness. Adding to the complications, the authorities are interfering, trying to censor the play. This is Iran after all. Alidoosti’s character Rana is attacked one night and Hossenini’s Ebad channels all his energy into seeking revenge.
The film is Iran’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. I caught up with Farhadi while he was in LA recently to talk about the social divisions in his country and the new Iranian middle class he explores in his films. We also talk Death of a Salesman and how it influenced his approach to writing the film as well as occupying a central role in the film itself, with fascinating parallels between the stage and the screen stories.
Awards Daily: I liked that you explored the dark side of revenge in this film, and I also like the way you show the social divisions within Tehran. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Asghar Farhadi: Like every society, there are two very different classes. The middle class is the largest section of society, and that’s a good thing. This middle class that we see is also a young class. Historically, we’ve never had the middle class, and as such it’s a young phenomenon in our society. When I say middle class, I mean it’s a class that’s familiar with modernity who is grappling with creating harmony between tradition and modernity.
You’ll see it’s a class I’ve been focusing on in my last few films. I can’t divide society that clearly as they meld, but I can speak about the middle class.
AD: As the play is being staged, we see the police trying to censor it.
AF: What you see is the police telling them certain things they need to cut. In Iran, Death of A Salesman has been performed numerous times, and naturally, they’ve had to perform it with censorship.
The scenes where Willy goes to the hotel room with a woman, they have to perform it with a hijab. That’s why also in the film, we point this out.
I’ve never referred to these issues directly in my films. I’m not trying to make allusions to the system’s rules, but here the reference to the censorship is blended into the theme of the film itself. One aspect of the censorship is the claim they have that they want to maintain the society’s morals. In the story we can see, notwithstanding these limitations, moral turbulence exists. It would seem these limitations haven’t been very effective and they might have made things worse.
AD: How did you find your lead actors?
AF: I’ve worked with them before in my previous films. Once I started writing, I knew who I wanted as my lead actors. I knew their abilities well, and I knew they had it in them to play a different part to anything I had made them do before.
In my films, I always combine new actors who I’ve never worked with and old actors, but these two are two in whom I can place my trust, and at this point, we totally speak each other’s language. There are things they wouldn’t do as they know exactly what I’m looking for.
Once I had the summary, around three pages in, I knew who I wanted, so as I’m writing, I had spoken to them about wanting them to be involved, and also I wrote with them in mind.
AD: When you’re writing these rich characters, did you have a backstory for them or do you let the actors come up with something?
AF: I have one in mind for each of the characters you see. The actors go and build their own backstory, sometimes we end up discussing them, and sometimes they’re quite different. Where those differences don’t affect the character in any major way, I let that stand. Anywhere where it does change the character in any major way, I’ll ask them to change it.
I remember when I was talking to Taraneh Alidoosti, she asked, “Why doesn’t she live with her family?” In the story that I had in mind for her, this girl’s family lived in a different city. When I told her this, Taraneh said, “Now, I have to go and work differently on this character because she’s from the provinces.”
AD: I really loved what the cinematographer and the production designer achieved, for example, the window panes we see in the apartment.
AF: I had worked previously with both of them on several films. The thing that they watch out for after all this time is one real important thing, and that is to work in such a way is that they are invisible. What that means is that it shouldn’t appear that someone did the production design. That it should appear that it was just like this. The same goes for the cinematography, that it shouldn’t look like it had been worked at for hours.
Even when I’m writing the dialogue, I don’t want it to look like dialogue, that I want it to look like they were improvising.
AD: Which is what I was going to ask, was there much room for that?
AF: Actually, no. They improvised very little, sticking to the script. The most important thing was to make it look like they were improvising. Sometimes, they’d speak and I’d say, “This is not how it should be spoken.” They’d tell me it was what I had written, but my retort to that would be that they would have to say it as if I hadn’t written it.
They’d have to erase anything they had in mind about the dialogue and speak as if I hadn’t written it. I’d also ask them not to think about the meaning behind the lines, not to think about the plot, or the themes, and to just speak as if they were in daily life.
AD: One scene that stands out, is the assault scene that you juxtapose with the play. Deconstruct what we’re seeing.
AF: First, I had written this summary, and I understood that my two main characters were theater actors, and then I wondered what play they were working on. I read a lot of plays. I had gone back and re-read them and then I got to Death of A Salesman, and I felt it mirrored my story in a way. The themes were so similar, humiliation was central in both the play and my film. Towards the end of the film, we had this man and woman enter the story, and to me, that felt like Willy Loman and his wife.
Their relationship was almost the same as Willy and Linda, and they too had lived together for 35 years. The old man at the end seemed paternal, and this is true of Willy Loman in the play.
All of the conflict between Willy and his son is that his son has seen him at the hotel once. All through the story, the boy is trying to prove that his mother that his father has cheated. In our film too, Emad is trying to tell the wife of the old man that her husband has betrayed her.
AD: It actually made me want to revisit Death of A Salesman. Like you, I had read it in school.
AF: What really was attractive to me was that this man was playing Willy Loman on stage every night and attempting to make him understandable, and get an audience to empathize with him. In real life, he encounters this real life Willy Loman.
AD: Do you like to be ambiguous with the endings of your film?
AF: I feel that it’s more a case of another story beginning. I feel this is a film with one ending and two beginnings. A beginning at the start, and a beginning at the end of the film. It seems ambiguous because we have to build the rest in our own imagination.
AD: That’s why it sticks with you because long after it’s ended, you’re wondering about it.
AF: It’s as though the case remains open and helps you to think about the film.
AD: Have you started work on your next film?
AF: I’m working on it, and if it turns out well, I’ll be in Spain.
AD: Why Spain this time?
AF: The story would take us there, to that space and that space and environment are very close to our culture.