For fifteen years, Jon Stewart has been "America's Most Trusted Newsman" as host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, even as he'd be the first to tell you he's not an actual newsman. When it came time to branch out from his Daily Show desk two summers ago Stewart instead chose to get behind the camera, writing and directing Rosewater, the screen adaptation of journalist Maziar Bahari's harrowing memoir Then They Came for Me, chronicling his 118 days in an Iranian prison in 2009.
That prison stay was at least tangentially tied to an appearance Bahari made on The Daily Show , the video of which was used as evidence against Bahari as "proof" he was a spy. Given that connection, I wondered how responsible Stewart felt for what Bahari went through, and when the two came to San Francisco to talk up the film, that was what I led with. Read on for the answer, as well as more highlights from our roundtable conversation:
Jon, in the press notes you mention that you felt a certain amount of guilt as a motivating factor in doing this story. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that, and maybe talk about what was going through your mind when you found out what had happened to Maziar.
Jon Stewart: We joke about that to some extent. You know, it's not that...it was more concern than guilt. Obviously, and I hate to spoiler alert this but generally, we're not actually in the places we say we are at The Daily Show. It's usually a picture that we're standing in front of, and I probably shouldn't be giving that away. Generally, we are not actually traveling to these war zones.
So, this was one of the first times that we'd ever done that, and to have all the individuals that we had interviewed be arrested, obviously within the context though of a much larger authoritarian crackdown in a culture. So, it's not that we were unaware. We did not think, "Oh my God, three people that we interviewed are arrested and no one else, so this is correlation equals causation." We didn't feel that.
We felt a concern that something that we might be doing would be damaging to helping them get out. Or was there something on the flip-side that we could do that could help them get out? And we were actually, probably more in touch with another gentleman, Ebrahim Yazdi's family, who had also been arrested, his family.
His son lived in New Jersey, so he came on the program to talk about his father's case, and they were urging, and all the people that were working on Maziar's behalf were urging us to continue talking about what had happened during that time, and to keep trying to bring attention to it. And that's sort of, I think, one of the reasons Maziar was so keen on getting the story out is there are so many people now who are in this same situation, and you want to get that, you want to publicize their plight more than bury it.
Your original vision for this film was a little bit harsher...
Stewart: I don't know if it was harsher. It was more, I think originally, when we spoke of it, I thought, you know, there was sort of this idea of it being in Farsi. Certainly not darker, but having a different tint to it, and Maziar's thought, which I thought was a really good point, was, "Don't you want people to see it?" And so, that ended up pushing us in a different direction.
How delicate of a line did you have to walk to figure out, "This is what I want to do," versus, "This is what would be more commercially acceptable," so to speak?
Stewart: It's not so much that it was commercially acceptable, it's that the best way to tell the story with integrity. The truth is, and you may not know this, I am not fluent in that language. So, to direct a film in that language would be the height of presumption and hubris. There are great Irani filmmakers who could make that film. This was going to be sort of a reflection of the source material, which was Maziar's book, and this was just the best iteration of telling that story that I could accomplish.
For both of you, I'm curious what you guys think social media does in these political movements. Is it a benefit or is it a burden?
Bahari: It's definitely not a burden. I mean, I cannot imagine it to be a burden. Some people had some issues with Facebook and Twitter and...Google Plus was not around unfortunately at that time, that law enforcement agencies can get people's information through Facebook or Twitter. But that's not a big issue. People, they can do it through other means as well.
But I think social media -- Twitter, Facebook -- they are expediting ways, movement, this social movement, these non-violent resistance movements all around the world, not only in Iran. It actually started maybe in Iran. For the first time, social media played a role in a movement but since then we have seen it in Arab Spring, in different countries, Tunisia, Egypt, and also Syria and Libya. We saw it in Hong Kong, we saw it in Ukraine because social media is about information. It's about sharing information, sharing data.
And sharing information and sharing data is a democratizing factor. And for these authoritarian states or these dictatorships, it's a scary phenomena. So, they are scared of information. They are scared of free flow of information. So, social media, I think, we just see the beginning of it. I'm not sure what's going to happen in 10 years, 20 years time, but I'm sure because of social media this pace of change will be expedited.
Stewart: I think it's also important to try and view it through its strengths and its limitations. It's an excellent way for people to organize, to gather, to spread information. That being said, it's limited in its efficacy in terms of building the types of lasting civic institutions and structures that you need to be in place for those information technologies to be effective. It's not just about getting people onto the street. Then you have to have something that's going to fill that power vacuum or whatever it is that you want to use as your reform.
Bahari: It's a medium. You cannot expect social media to bring you electricity and pick up your garbage, do the policing. It's just a medium.
But you'd rather live in a world with it than without it.
Stewart: Oh, sure. But it's like saying you'd rather live in a world without phones. I mean, it's one of those ways in which -- and people always say this about television -- you know, all these different platforms, and you're like, "Yeah, but the important thing is always going to be content." And the reason why social media, I think, is effective within authoritarian regimes is they're built to stop more conventional means. So, what social media allowed for was agility.
It allowed for a spontaneity and agility that the regimes could not catch up to, and that allowed for...it leveled the playing field to some extent from the powerful to those that were seeking to get out on the street. As it grows, as it becomes more sophisticated, people will understand how to utilize it better but in general, I view it all as, you know, you always have to gather information actively and not passively, and it's another tool that allows you to further shade the information that you are aggregating, and that you are gathering, and that you are consuming.
It's like anything else. Have a healthy diet. Get a good amount of social media, good amount of more maybe long-form journalism, throw in a little bit of TV. Oh, you want a little dessert? I think The Voice is on. You know, something like that. But all I'm saying is I think it has become a part of the daily routine but it also has to be filtered through whatever prism that you're putting all your other information in.
Bahari: And I'm a very active user of both Twitter and Facebook. I don't use it for personal information since it came out because of, you know, security reasons and because I'm just a very private person. I don't like to put personal information on Facebook or Twitter, so you don't expect my pet or, you know, my food to be on Facebook or Twitter.
Stewart: He's just a big Foursquare...what's the thing where you can become mayor of the place you go to?
Stewart: Foursquare, that's what it is. It's like talking to a Luddite. I got nothing. I like this MySpace!
MySpace is like the abandoned amusement park of the Internet.
Stewart: Sure. Well, you see also the pace of change. These kingdoms are built and destroyed in a matter of a couple of years in a way that's, the turnover's incredible.
When it comes to comedy, pretty much every night I see, from my perspective, you have Seinfeld, Allen, Bruce, all kind of blending into your influences there. And I'm interested, directing, this is your first time. Were you looking at someone? Are you influenced by someone in particular?
Stewart: I mean, the truth is, I was most influenced by Maziar and his story. I mean, the source material there, as far as the visualizations of it, the intention was to create a palette that the story could live in without the palette itself drawing your eye. So, the question was to kind of create a quiet, obviously, inauthenticity, because we weren't in Iran, we were in Jordan.
But so that it, environmentally and accent-wise and all those other things, lived in a world that wasn't discordant so that you could focus on the narrative of it. So, in other words, the prison was not to be a dungeon even though I think the expectation from many Westerners about, you know, he's been held in a Middle Eastern prison -- oh, that must be underground, there must be no lights, and rats are running around.
Certainly no dancing.
No dancing, but Evin Prison is not that. It's a bureaucratic institution, much like hospitals. They clean the floors. You know, it's not, you don't view it as Dante's Inferno. It's a bureaucracy.
Bahari: The food is much better than most airlines. That's not saying much, but...
Stewart: Yeah, and you have to keep your seat, obviously, in the upright and locked position.
Well, hitting on that, I mean, you've obviously been interviewing filmmakers and celebrities for years now. Subconsciously, did you want to step behind the camera or did it just happen, and if so, how did you tackle things on set as a first-time director?
Stewart: It was a relatively organic process that grew out of our collaboration early on from the book and trying to produce the film, and not knowing our way, necessarily, around that process. And not being so aware of how glacial it is, and wanting this film to be seen in this century as opposed to...you know, obviously we didn't have any money, and the writers -- we had this great list of people that had won many awards but who were apparently busy being paid for other shit.
So, this was a question of, I think, ultimately, feeling like this is a very relevant and urgent issue, and wanting it to be made. And then wanting to maintain a certain amount of creative control over the process because I think we both felt very strongly about the aspects of it, and we didn't want to relent that to a larger entity that may have a very different take on it. Like, what if Maziar was actually a lesbian and wasn't in a prison, was actually in a rodeo? You know, try and make it more commercial.
Bahari: But I think it came out of a mutual trust because from the beginning, I mean, of course I was a fan of The Daily Show so I trusted that image of Jon and, you know, his political point of view, but then, you know, when we got to know each other better, I think it was mutual trust working on the script together. So, I think eventually Jon had a lot of emotional and time investment in the material so we did not want to hand it to someone else who would ruin it. The process of writing it was organic and then out of that grew the directing.
Is there one question you wish would go away? Something that maybe keeps constantly being asked
Stewart: I've found that in general, people are very well versed in the subject matter. They seem invested in the story. I haven't felt, you know, if there's something that keeps coming up, something that maybe was reductive or crass or something else.
Bahari: One thing is that, why there are no Iranian actors, if someone insists on that. But it's not annoying, really.
Stewart: Yeah, that is -- but it's a reasonable question, you know.
Many thanks to Jon Stewart and Maziar Bahari for their time. Rosewater is now playing at a theater near you. To hear the audio from this conversation, check out the latest episode of the Diffused Congruence podcast via the embed below: