First-time film director Jon Stewart had to adjust and improvise making “Rosewater,” even after 16 years of running “The Daily Show.”
“Working at the television show,” said Stewart, appearing with the film’s subject Maziar Bahari at a San Francisco news conference, “we have sanded off pretty much every rough edge in production. Being out at the film shoot, you're encountering a new set, a new experience, a new setup at every moment – it's much more improvisational. There is a tremendous amount of limitations in terms of money, in terms of time.”
Filming the movie in Jordan, he says he started with a plan to use 5,000 people to recreate Tehran street protests after the re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But after realizing it would cost $75 per person, and he could only afford about 75 people, he changed gears. He says, “Ultimately, we just put out a call on Facebook and ended up with some 500 people volunteering to participate without pay.”
Stewart wrote the script with input from Bahari, an Iranian-born Western journalist imprisoned on trumped-up charges while covering the disputed elections in the Islamic republic and tortured during a 118-day captivity. Charges against him included an appearance on “The Daily Show” in which he joked about spies. His captors took the comedy sketch as evidence.
This indirect, and absurd, responsibility was one reason driving Stewart to make the film, even after Bahari already told the story in his memoir, which forms the basis of “Rosewater.” The title comes from the name Bahari gave his interrogator, who wore distinctly scented cologne. Often blindfolded in prison, Bahari used his nose to identify who entered his cell.
Excerpts from a video Bahari shot shot for the BBC of the turmoil in Iran are incorporated into “Rosewater,” giving the story additional authenticity (and saving on extras). Asked about the film's portrayal of Iranian jailers as conflicted, bungling and clownish, not simply evil, Bahari said totalitarian regimes don't mind being feared and regarded as monsters because it “conveys a sense of invincibility, that they cannot be defeated.”
He elaborates, “The torturers have children, aspirations, they go on vacation, they eat, get horny. You have to regard them as human beings, and try to exploit their weaknesses in order to deal with the situation, to stay alive.”