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Jon Stewart on 'Rosewater' and his 'Nice job, Spielberg' moment

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Rosewater 2
Laith Al-Majali

For Jon Stewart, last night’s screening of his directorial debut, Rosewater, was a glorious homecoming of sorts. After all, he filmed Death to Smoochy in Toronto. But last night’s standing-room-only showing at the Toronto Film Festival was a true celebration, and before the screening, Stewart joked that Canada’s earnest warm reception felt like sarcasm to a cynical New Yorker like himself. Afterwards, the audience responded with a standing ovation, as much for the real Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was imprisoned and accused of being a spy by Iranian authorities, as the cast and their first-time director.

The Daily Show host took three months off from his day job last summer to direct Bahari’s story, which had strangely pulled Stewart into its orbit because the Iranians used footage of Bahari’s appearance on The Daily Show as serious evidence of his espionage activities. Of course, the Iranians now also accuse Stewart of being a “CIA Zionist spy,” adding another surreal layer to the ridiculousness. The movie, which stars Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari and Danish actor Kim Bodnia as his impatient Iranian interrogator, might seem like an unlikely debut for a comedian, but anyone who knows Stewart’s passion for politics, media, and how the two often mix to create a theater for the absurd, will recognize his fingerprints on the cinematic adaptation of Bahari’s memoir.

Hours after the Toronto debut, Stewart spoke to EW about his unlikely route to directing a film in Jordan and the things he would do over again if he could. (Hint: not much.)

EW: Congratulations on the screening last night. In my three years of coming to Toronto for the festival, that was the longest line I had to stand in for a movie.

JON STEWART: We told them Springsteen was going to be there.

You’ve seen the movie with an audience before, but this setting may have been different. How do you think it went?

Yeah, we’d seen it with an audience a couple of time—once at incredible high altitude, so I’m not sure what we saw when we went to Telluride. But last night was the first time we’ve seen it with a large audience at sea level, where people were going to have full oxygen. And it was very special to have Maziar, [his wife] Paola, and Gael there, and it was the first time I had my crew together from Jordan and from here, so to have everyone together and see it together was really nice. Then Maziar had to go thank his wife up on stage, and everybody got weepy, and the whole thing fell apart. But we were doing very well up until this point.

Rewind a bit to when this all started. Once you decided to direct it and take three months off from the Daily Show, tell me about how you broke that news to your bosses—

[Laughs]

—who obviously value what you do for them.

We were in the middle of talking about extending [my contract with Comedy Central] and things like that. And I said to them that there was this one thing that I really wanted to do, and that I felt like I couldn’t go in [and extend] if I, you know—I just had to do it. Obviously, it was a negotiation, as it were. They wanted me to do the film in one week, and I thought maybe I could have a couple more. It was a back and forth. Ultimately, for them to give me the opportunity to do it was very gracious, so I certainly appreciated it.

And your other boss, the one at home, your wife? I’m in Toronto for just a week, and the pull from home is unbearable. I can only imagine three months in Jordan.

Honestly, for me, out of all the challenges of it, that was the most difficult. That part of it was horrible. But it’s incredible what FaceTime can do for a person, given certain scenarios. But you have this incredible time differential. And the kids would call, all fired up in the middle of the day, and I’d be lying in bed at 1 o’clock in the morning. So it’s pitch black around me, and I’m just this ominous, glowing figure in a little FaceTime thing. But it’s tough on my wife, because she had to handle a lot of stuff.

At first, you weren’t going to write or direct; you were just trying to get Maziar’s story in front of the right Hollywood people. Then, things change, so at some point, you turn to Maziar and you say, [gives Stewart double thumbs-up gesture] “Good news, man, I’m going to write and direct your life story.” What was his reaction?

I’m not sure his thumbs were up. I think it was more like, “What are we going to do? How do we do this and still get it [done] within the 2000s?” I think the concern was just that the pace of getting commitments and things was so glacial, and obviously not for no reason. It wasn’t that they were being standoffish or weren’t interested in the book. The people that we would talk to were busy. I work in daily television, so patience is never our strong suit. So those two combinations, I think, pushed it in that direction. I felt it was a story that there’s a relevance to it that we wanted it as current history, not reflective history.

For a first-time director, it’s a pretty high-degree-of-difficulty project. Was there a What the Eff Was I Thinking Moment once you got to Jordan?

I had a lot of confidence in the people that I had hired and I think probably not having done it before was beneficial, because if I had, I would’ve known what a s–tshow I had gotten myself into, how hard it was going to be. But there were certainly those moments, like we had to recreate that green-mile march, or at least try to give some approximation of it. We found this one overpass in downtown Amman that we could film that demonstration, and we found a particular part of the street, that if I took a certain angle, rather than 10,000 people, I could probably get away with 1,200 maybe, if we had a green-screen behind them. So we were all there, and I had set up green-screens that were maybe 15×20 up on the overpass, and there were no moorings to it so we had to have people holding it up while Gael was standing in front of the overpass. The crowd was walking past and it was beautiful, and then, who would’ve thought that it might get windy. So as the wind started coming in and as the green-screens turned into human kites, there was a gentleman who had been working with us the whole time, very quiet—I assumed that he didn’t speak English—and he turns to me and said, “Nice job, Spielberg.”

So the production wasn’t operating under the radar. You didn’t have to have any Blue Harvest fake titles to hide your intentions?

Oh, no, no. The city was very aware of us, very hospitable, very open. That part of it was lovely. We were invited into peoples’ homes for Iftar, which is the breaking of the [Ramadan] fast.

Not to be confused with Ishtar.

Yes, which is the breaking of the budget.

Jordan is a relatively moderate and modern Middle Eastern country, but as a “CIA Zionist spy,” were there necessary precautions for filming so out in the open in that part of the world?

Obviously, you don’t approach those things in a cavalier manner, so I was always wrapped in bubble-wrap and Kevlar and just rolled into places. We took the best precautions you can take, as everyone unfortunately has to do over there, and tried not to think too hard about it.

Over the years on the Daily Show, you’ve made light of your own acting career—

I think others have also joined in the fun. Rightfully so.

With that in mind, was it easy to convey your notes or preferences to Gael or Kim, and did directing come easy for you?

Turns out it’s a lot easier to tell people what to do than to do it yourself. I think I found my niche now. “You should cry here. I’m not sure how you pull something like that off. But I assume you’ve been trained.” Their ability level is at such a point so for me, it was a question of choreography more than it was anything else. It’s funny—trying to bring the intention and the [right] emotion and the [right] energy—it always worked on the third take. It was a question of bringing Kim down a hair, bringing Gael up a hair, and bringing [cinematographer] Bobby Bukowski into it where he began to feel the dance. And then letting them run.

Early on, you picked the brains of directors like J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard.

I had been talking to them just about, “Is this viable?” Having not done it prior, I wanted somebody who had taken a shooting script and gone out into the world to shoot it. I just wanted them to look at it so that they could go, “You know there’s not a movie, right?” You needed a little bit of that validation, from someone with great experience. But there were a lot of people who were very gracious. Kathryn Bigelow, who had shot there for two films, gave really good advice. She was also very helpful in day-to-day logistics, the mechanics of it having done it in Jordan before, to the point of, “Call this guy.” Names, numbers. She was awfully helpful.

If you could, what tips would Toronto Jon Stewart give pre-Jordan Jon Stewart?

Go easy on the hummus. It’s a little more fattening than you might realize. There’s oils in there, young man. You know, it’s so hard to go back and grant yourself that type of mulligan. It’s going to sound strange but I think inexperience was a helpful tool, because I think it brought a focus that I might not have had if I took some things for granted. If I had done it previously, I might have felt too comfortable. Because I was always incredibly aware of how unaware I was, it helped to have a little bit of vigilance on script, on logistics, on how to render each moment, so I’m not sure I would change my inexperience. I almost found it helpful.

Would you direct again, or is it too soon after the filmmaking labor pains to make that judgment?

I really did enjoy all the aspects of it, even the most difficult ones. The toughest part was always feeling like it might not happen. And once you’re out there executing it, you feel the energy of production, which is always an exciting moment. But I think in some ways because of the show and other things, I’ve never much thought further than a day or so ahead. It’s very difficult for me to plan. I’m just not very good at that. It’s always one of those, “Did we finish that? Okay, what are we doing tomorrow?”

But you’re not opposed to directing again.

Oh, no. It wasn’t like Outward Bound, where I was, like, vomiting, and, “You will never get me out in the woods again! There were bears!” No, I loved the experience.

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