Earlier this month, Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi's seventh directorial feature, The Salesman, made a brief but significant appearance at Indian multiplexes. The release of the Oscar-winning film was an important milestone in the battle to secure limited releases for world cinema in India. Having said that, there is a lot of work to be done to fertilise the landscape that nurtures and enables indie projects.
Farhadi, one of the strongest cinematic voices in the world, was a mentor at Doha Film Institute's film event Qumra last month. He couldn't attend the event (he is in Madrid prepping for his next feature which is based in Spain with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem), but he gave a Masterclass to the delegates and an interview to select film journalists via Skype.
I was fortunate to be present for this. Not only did I get to attend his riveting Masterclass, I also got to be part of the group interview with Farhadi. Incidentally, this was the first time the auteur was addressing the press after his momentous Oscar win this February.
Events like Qumra are priceless for folks like me and budding filmmakers who are fascinated by the process of creation and creators. How does an idea evolve into a story? How does a story take flight and turn into a screenplay? How is one creator's gaze different from another's? So to get the opportunity to have these questions answered by the director who had just won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and taken a brave political stand was a gift, and a gift that needed to be shared.
Here are excerpts from Asghar Farhadi's Masterclass in conversation with Richard Pena Professor at Columbia University School of the Arts.
Richard Pena: At Columbia University where I teach, and which is known to have a good programme for screenwriting, your film A Separation is a kind of sacred text. It's a film that people study, professors use it to talk about screenwriting. I think it is an absolutely magnificent screenplay. What is the process of your writing?
Asghar Farhadi: To make it brief, I would say that there are two parts in the process of my writing. There is one unconscious part and one conscious part. I think we all have a great capital inside us, and this bank, this database we have is unconscious. The only thing we need is the password to access it. This password is just a sparkle – it's just one image, one word that triggers access to your unconscious.
For A Separation, I remember exactly how it all started. It was one day when my brother was telling me a story and describing a scene. My grandfather had Alzheimer's and my brother was taking care of him.
He was telling me about this moment when he brought him to the bathroom and started washing him. And because of the tragedy of the moment, because of how sorry he felt for him, he hugged my grandfather and cried.
The image of this moment between these two men was really what triggered the whole script for me. So I just started with this image, thinking if this is one shot of my film – this man washing his father – then I have to imagine where they come from, how come he's washing his father, who is his wife, where is she, and who are his children? That's how it all starts, like a cluster. They all came from my unconscious, and I finally came up with the whole script.
So there is a kind of magnetism I would say. You have one first idea, one sparkle, and then all the other bits and pieces in my memory come and stick to this first part. I always give this advice to my students – to value their own unconscious, to let it grow and trust it. It's only once I have the structure, this general idea coming from the unconscious, that my conscious parts really elaborate more on it one scene after the other.
RP: Do you ever during that process have line readings or moments where you bring in friends or actors who actually read part of the script so you can hear what it might sound like?
AF: I did it for some films, but I generally do it once I have a treatment that is complete. I give it to some friends who I trust, or some colleagues, and then I really listen very carefully to their feedback. Rather than having them read it, what I like to do is to tell them the story orally. It is by observing very closely their reactions to the story that I really get the energy to go and change my story.
When I see that they feel sad, or feel empathy for what I say, or where they seem to lose interest, it helps me restructure my story. It's impossible for any writer to be locked in a room and to come out of it with a good script. You need other people to interact with.
Now I'm working on my Spanish project and the treatment is ready. I'm already talking about it with my actors and people around me.
RP – Another aspect of your film that really fascinates me is your treatment of what we can call class. Social class, economic class, cultural class. It really seems to be touched on in every film. Can you talk about that class and differences that you emphasise on that exist in our modern day society and what role does it have in creation of your stories?
AF – From my third film, all my movies deal with middle class people. That is mostly because in my country most people belong to this class. It is also because that is how I was brought up and I feel closer to that.
It also depends if we're talking about the economic aspect or cultural aspect. In many countries there is an overlap between these two different criteria.
For instance, in France when you talk about class, there is some economical and cultural level associated to it. In other countries like mine, these two aspects are somewhere related. You may go to the house of a very rich person and there is no richness or interest in the type of things you will find on the wall. So the middle class on whom I am focusing on are the cultural middle class in my country.
RP – Another theme that comes across from your films is the couple. Among the filmmakers, I don't know of anyone who focuses so intensely on the modern couple. Could you talk about that as an interest in your films?
AF – The couple relationship is an infinite ocean. You can dive into it as many times as you want and there is still more to discover. This is the oldest kind of human relationship. But its hardships are also brand new every day.
No couple can use the experience of another couple to have a better life. And no couple is similar to another couple. Their relationship has many dimensions. So the couple and the family for me is a very good way of having access to most of society and the relationships of society is something I can work on.
In classical theatre and in plays it's also the same. Family and the couple is the base of the truth of society. It is also the case in the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.
RP – In The Salesman you come back to, if I may say, your theatrical roots. As you developed the film, at what point did the idea behind including the scenes of the performed play, and specifically the death of the salesman come into the picture?
AF – It's been almost 2 years since I have left theatre for films and all the way through I had this desire of going back to theatre. Unfortunately I could not find one year to give dedicatedly to plays. This has been kind of frustrating for me. So I thought the good way to fulfill this desire is to take theatre to the films.
For years I have had the story of this couple whose house in a way is violated by an intruder. But this was kind of an unfinished plot for me and I wasn't absolutely fine with it because there was something missing.
I couldn't figure what their occupation was. They could do anything and it wasn't very satisfying for me. Then I came up with the idea of making them actors. I thought acting is just not an occupation but it is also the ability to put yourself in other people's shoes and feel empathy for others. I thought my plot was complete.
By making my protagonists actors, the act of them going on stage every day, learning another character and trying to attract the viewer's empathy for those characters, it will be very interesting to see when they in their everyday life hurt somebody else but are unable to show any empathy towards that person.
So I had to choose a play for them. I started re-reading Iranian and other foreign plays and I came up with Death of a Salesman. It was a blessing when I came up with this because I already had this in my story. At the end of the film there is an old salesman who had made the mistake of going into somebody's private space and hurting them. And then I realised this is a perfect replica of Willy Loman.
And another very strong link between the two fictions from the play and my film was the theme of humiliation. And again I have a very strong resonance between the stories where I had the character of a prostitute, the woman for whom this man actually enters the flat. In Death of a Salesman also, there is a woman whom he spends the night with at a hotel in Boston and his son finds him. This was something very interesting from a viewer's point of view.
RP – Going back to your process, did you know as you were writing the screenplay, at which point you will inject the scenes from Death of a Salesman or did the placement only happen during the editing?
AF – From the beginning of the film, I showed certain parts of the play because I knew I will use that in my screenplay in order to underline the relationship between the two pieces. For instance, the scene when the woman is in the room and then goes to the bathroom and his son comes in, I knew that I was going to use it.
Or the scene which we just saw where he expresses the discontent that he feels from his colleagues and people around him. Or the opening of the play in which we see the house in which Linda is sleeping downstairs and the children upstairs.
Such scenes are always going to make the feeling of the script more explicit. Like Emad first had the feeling of powerlessness and humiliation, and then comes Loman who expresses it in a more explicit way.
My greatest cinematic challenge in this film was to make any limits between theatre and life disappear. So we see these characters going on stage and acting but there is an unsaid expression. In the final sequence with the family, in a moment with everyone together, the scene is very similar to a theatre. Even the lighting – like you light different parts of the stage, here in the flat they have the same kind of game with the lighting.
RP – Seeing Shahab Hosseini in The Salesman and A Separation may we wonder if you are starting to form a repertory company with a group of actors who you work with again and again in different roles. It kind of reminds me of Ingmar Bergman in the 60s and 70s where he had a small number of actors that he worked with, and you would see them in alternate roles. Is it something that you can see yourself doing?
AF – Well, yes. This is something that has happened and I also just noticed it. I work two-three times with same actor. I feel when you work together, there is some kind of cinematic language of a face that you develop. My test on the sets is rather than telling the actors what to do is to tell them what to avoid doing. The more you work with them, the more they know you and the less you need to tell them what not to do.
And when I work with the new actor, I spend the first day telling them what to do and what not to do. And very often, they don't take it very nicely.