Everybody Has Their Reasons:
An Interview with Asghar Farhadi
By Matthew Eng
No individual in the films of Asghar Farhadi is allowed to go unnoticed in the viewer’s eyes. From the guilt-ridden circle of friends in About Elly to the vulnerable family members and determined interlopers of A Separation and The Past, the characters that Farhadi has crafted across his nearly 15-year film career are at once tightly woven to each other and emotionally isolated, locking horns and taking sides in conflicts they have precipitated. These plots may be driven by a handful of central figures in contained settings (a villa along the Caspian Sea, an apartment in Tehran, a standalone house in Paris), but his ensembles run deep and wide. Farhadi can see the importance of even the most minor characters and allows each to leave distinctive imprints on his protagonists and films.
Farhadi’s latest drama, the Academy Award–nominated The Salesman, is his most wide-ranging work to date, a prismatic psychological study dotted with secondary characters who complicate the lives of contemporary Iranian couple Emad (Shahab Hosseini, in a robust, Cannes-winning performance) and Rana (a devastating Taraneh Alidoosti), part-time regional theater actors. After their apartment complex nearly collapses in the film’s foreboding opening scene, the couple’s fresh start in a new place is brutally disrupted when Rana is attacked one night while home alone. The aftershock of this personal disturbance plays out on two stages: the literal one, where both perform in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman that reflects and refracts their trauma, and the home, where every word and gesture takes on an added weight as the two attempt to move forward. Along the way, neighbors, strangers, landlords, students, fellow actors, children of actors, and several more mysterious figures surface from the margins of the film and are absorbed into the action. As their symbolic purpose and individual complexities come into focus, these characters reveal simple and humbling truths about their creator. Farhadi’s profound interest in people manifests itself with a generosity of spirit that signals a contemporary humanist cinema all its own. The Salesman’s narrative intrigues and subtextual insights into Miller’s canonical work are as fascinatingly thorny as any in Farhadi’s earlier films, but the rotating faces of The Salesman may endure the longest.
I talked to Farhadi about the special challenges of directing supporting actors, his decision to revisit the medium of the stage, and his great, overarching crusade of eliciting the audience’s empathy for all.
Reverse Shot: How did this story take shape? Did you always intend to interweave Arthur Miller’s play with the film’s central drama?
Asghar Farhadi: From the beginning, I knew I had two characters who were theater actors. And I wrote this story as a treatment in three or four pages. And then I asked myself, what type of play are they doing, really? I started to read lots of plays, many of which I had read as a student during my time at university. Some of the plays were close, thematically, to my story. Some of them had a similar character. Some of them were too bold, too on-the-nose if I were to use them. And then I got to Death of a Salesman. And after 20 years, when I read Death of a Salesman again, it seemed like Arthur Miller knew that I was going to write this story and wrote this play for me. It was astonishing to me, how many details were so similar in Death of a Salesman and my story. I tried to give harmony to these connections. I didn’t want it to look like an adaptation, although it is a kind of adaptation. It’s like a mirror in front of my own story. For example, the character of the woman in Death of a Salesman who is in the motel with Willy when Biff sees them together is like the character of the woman who lived in the apartment before my main characters moved in. Or the characters of the old man and woman who come at the end of my story are, for me, the Iranian versions of Willy Loman and his wife, Linda. I started to connect these characters and make them match each other.
RS: You studied theater before making your mark as a filmmaker, which may explain why the stage is depicted with such lived-in wisdom in The Salesman. What inspired you to revisit the medium through this particular lens? What do you think cinema illuminates about theater and vice versa?
AF: The thing that was interesting and beautiful to me—and was a challenge, in this story—was somehow getting rid of the border between real life and theater. For example, these characters walk into their home, but they still have the makeup from the theater on their faces. Or, in real life, they get angry at someone and insult that person on the stage. And gradually, as we get closer to the end of the film, we ask ourselves, are we watching a film, or are we watching a play? The thing that cinema can give us is a closeness to real life. And what theater can give us is subjects that have so many layers. The combination of these two was very exciting to me. We watch theater not because it makes us emotional, but because it makes us think. That’s why the audiences of plays are more intellectual than the audiences of the cinema. When we watch cinema, it often gets us emotional. I like the combination of these two, a movie that has these two [elements] together.
RS: Without giving too much away, The Salesman decisively changes its entire direction in its third-act around a character who emerges as a key figure late in the story. In this film that would be “The Man,” played brilliantly by Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, but other examples include Sabrina Ouazani’s laundress in The Past and Saber Abar’s fiancée in About Elly. What goes into your conception of these characters and how did you work with these actors, particularly Sajjadi Hosseini, to achieve complete characterizations within such limited timeframes?
AF: The characters who come at the end of the film are always very hard [to play]. And I work and rehearse with [those actors] way more. It’s kind of strange for my crew, who will come up and ask me, “You have less scenes with these people, why are you working more with them?” It’s because they have less amount of time for the audience to feel empathy for them. They have to get to a certain point that another actor has, for example, 24 frames to get to, whereas they have maybe ten frames. And they need to really knock it out of the park in that small amount of time that they have. It’s like a soccer game when a coach substitutes a new player and asks him to score during the last ten minutes. What I do is just give those actors who come late in the film the feeling that they are [playing] the most important character in the film and it’s very important for them to do the best that they can.
RS: In The Salesman, you continue to dissect the domestic situations of modern men and women through stories that feel specific to these characters but also offer larger statements on the societies that surround them. Are you consciously writing from a political vantage or are these commentaries more often byproducts of the narrative concerns?
AF: The fact is that I, as a person, have some ideas and things in my head that are like a filter. And whatever I write passes through that filter, for sure. The thing that is important to me is that whatever I write has a good connection with the reality of the society that the story is happening in. I’m not saying, okay, these people are nothing to society, they’re on their own. I always put something [in my stories] so I can see their relationship to society. There are always characters, like neighbors, who often appear in my stories. For example, in About Elly, that kid who shows them the villa and his family have a very small society. When you try to make your movie as close as possible to real life, you give the audience the opportunity to watch it from different aspects. For example, if social issues are important to you, you can watch it with [those] in mind. If you’re the kind of person who is interested in morality, you can watch it with a morality lens and judge the characters’ morals, and so on.
RS: Going off of that point about morality, there are a few characters in The Salesman who, in any other film, might be completely vilified or else deprived of the detail and humanity that other characters are afforded. How important is it to you that we feel empathy even for the characters who do despicable things in your movies?
AF: This is the most important goal that I have in my films. I was talking with my friends and I told them, “If you want to write something on my grave, it should be ‘empathy.’” I’m always working towards empathy, even with the characters who do wrong. Audiences usually put themselves in the shoes of the good characters. They never put themselves in the shoes of the person who has done something wrong. And there is no challenge when you put yourselves in the shoes of the good people. The films where characters are heroic and do lots of great things are satisfying and comfortable to audiences. But I want audiences to put themselves in the shoes of characters who have done something wrong. In order to do that, I have to create empathy for the character. And [the audience] can then ask themselves, if I were in his shoes would I do the same thing or not? And if I were to do that, what decisions would I make after that? This is kind of an excuse for the audience to make self-realizations. For example, in About Elly, the audience has to ask themselves, If I was one of those people who went on the trip, would I lie to the fiancé as well and say we didn’t know [Elly] had a fiancé? Could I lie like them or not?
RS: What is your fascination with the home that makes it such a central space in so many of your films?
AF: It’s very interesting because even in my personal life, when I’m walking down the street, I’m always looking at people’s houses. I always wonder about what stories are going on behind these walls. And people are closer to themselves in their homes. When they’re at work or outside their home, it seems like they’re kind of far away from the reality of themselves. Home, for me, is not just a place that these characters live in. It’s a place where they hope to achieve peace, now or in the future. In Death of a Salesman, there is a lot about Willy Loman’s home. The story of his home actually stretches until the end of the play. He’s worried that this home is becoming destructive. Home is our real world. And we are always worried about the steadiness of that place.
RS: You delayed the film you’re about to work on to make The Salesman. What can you reveal about that film?
AF: I’m never sure that I’m going to make a film until the night before production. I change my mind many times. But now that there’s almost a year until the production of the next movie, I can say that my next project is set in Spain—so far. It’s going to be in Spanish with Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz.
RS: How did that collaboration come about?
AF: When I was about to make The Past in France, I was looking for actors and I was thinking about [Cruz]. But she was pregnant at the time and we didn’t get to work together. And then in L.A., I got the chance to meet Javier Bardem. We met each other a couple of times and we became very good friends.
RS: Looking back on your own filmography, which of your works do you feel most completely represents your filmmaking sensibility?
AF: I think of About Elly and The Salesman next to each other, both of them together. The Salesman, as far as the production, is more close to me. And About Elly is very close to me, emotionally. Maybe it’s because I’m a person who loves traveling and going out of the city and just exploring nature. And About Elly is far away from the city. But it also has some kind of mystery in it. It’s about real, everyday life, but also the mystery of everyday life.