Discussions of “Rosewater,” the film-directing debut of “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, bring to mind Dustin Hoffman’s famous line about “Ishtar.”
“A baby isn’t born knowing how rich his parents are.”
Not that “Rosewater,” earning respectful and generous reviews from critics at home and abroad, is anything like “Ishtar,” a famous big-budget flop. But the sometimes controversial comic and political scold Stewart threatens to overshadow his film about an Iranian Newsweek journalist imprisoned for his coverage of Iran’s abortive “Green Revolution.”
If “Rosewater” “had been made by an unknown director, it would pass in the night with only scant notice,” Todd McCarthy sniped in The Hollywood Reporter.
Perhaps, but it stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo. And as Stewart admits, of all the parts of the movie business he knew little about, marketing a film tops out as that which he knows the least.
“I’m not even sure how you come to find out how you will get people to come see the movie,” he says. “The hope is that it connects with people and the word spreads.”
More than a few reviewers have suggested, as Entertainment Weekly’s Joe McGovern did, that the reason Stewart made the film is that Maziar Bahari, the reporter, was arrested after doing a seemingly harmless comic-interview about the Iranian election, from Iran, on “The Daily Show.”
“Stewart felt pangs of guilt over Bahari’s Kafkaesque plight” and made the film, McGovern opined.
“Unfortunately, our colleagues in the press take the poetic license that Jon is doing this out of a sense of guilt,” Bahari says. “‘The Daily Show’ and Jon Stewart did not play any part in my arrest and imprisonment. …We press people simplify a story to make it more compelling.”
Stewart, 51, befriended Bahari, 47, after the Iranian was released from prison, and says the film “came organically from my friendship with Maziar. After he got out of prison, we used to have breakfast in New York and talk about life, family and politics. He was writing this memoir and he asked if I could help turn it into a movie.”
Stewart has 25 acting credits in films (“The Faculty,” “Death to Smoochy,” “Big Daddy”) and TV. That’s enough experience to justify stepping behind the camera to make a prison torture drama, set in Iran and filmed in Jordan.
“I leaned, most heavily, on my experiences making ‘Half Baked,’” Stewart cracks. “I paid a great deal of attention to the mechanics of filmmaking during that time. And applied that. Yes.”
Since taking over “The Daily Show” anchor duties in 1999, he’s interviewed the powerful, the famous, the funny and a lot of people from film. Stewart had access to a lot of advice.
“I went into it knowing that I didn’t know what I didn’t know, not to sound too like Rumsfeld there. It really was a situation where I just made sure that I hired a team that knew their stuff. … I just had to surround myself with people experienced enough to be able to raise flags when I was going off the rails.”
The film he and Bahari came up with focuses not on the sort of torture depicted in films such as “Syriana” or TV shows like “24.” It’s psychological, sensory deprivation-based and unhurried. And it’s much more common in the world than we like to think, Bahari says.
“What I went through and what Jon portrays in the film is what happens to the majority of people in prison in Iran, in China, North Korea,” says Bahari, now an activist and facilitator for journalists wanting stories out of Iran. “Of course, some people are more brutalized physically than I was. When you see ISIS beheading prisoners, those are anomalies. … What Jon showed in the film is a systematic, institutionalized form of interrogation and torture. These governments – Iran, Russia, China – they have created a regime based on this sort of system of imprisonment and interrogation.”
Stewart says that aside from wanting to help his friend, to tell a story of a war of wills between an interrogator nicknamed for his cologne, and a prisoner (Bahari, played by Bernal) willing to sign anything just to escape his isolation, a big reason for filming “Rosewater” was to show Americans that our idea of torture is out of date.
“Our narrative vision of torture from the movies and TV create an expectation about it that may not match the reality,” Stewart says. The cattle prods, electric shocks, water boarding and physical abuse (a little of that is depicted in “Rosewater”) may go on. “It’s more cinematic to show beatings, and ‘Tell me vat you know, American dummkopf!’ That kind of thing. But it’s unsustainable and doesn’t get the results. It’s not really the way it is in most countries which torture today.
“There is a bureaucratic institutionalized form of torture in the countries where this goes on where prisoners are removed from society, removed from stimulation by seeing or hearing things, people, which truly drives them crazy,” he says. “I just hope the film makes us evaluate what it means to keep someone in solitary confinement.”