Exclusive Interview: Asghar Farhadi on The Past
Asghar Farhadi is a name all film lovers should know, whether you make them or just like sitting on a couch while images fly past you at rapid speed. The writer/director of the Oscar-winning drama A Separation makes some of the most involving mysteries you have ever seen, hidden (just barely) beneath absolutely human dramas that we all could recognize. His latest, The Past, stars Ali Mosaffa as Ahmad, an Iranian man returning to his old home in France to sign his wife's divorce papers. But his wife, played by Bérénice Bejo, has secrets. So does her fiancé. So does her daughter. Gradually we discover that there's more to this family – and indeed, possibly everyone – that meets the eye.
It was with great pleasure that I had an opportunity to sit down with Asghar Farhadi, and his interpreter, to talk about his remarkable new drama and the way he develops stories, which – speaking as someone with a degree in screenwriting – is not typically the approach taught in schools. So much for Save the Cat.
Fair warning though, in talking about his latest screenplay, we do discuss certain details of the story and the film's final shot, but there are many mysteries in The Past that still go unexplored. SPOILER WARNING either way.
CraveOnline: Sir, thank you for the interview. A Separation is one of my favorite movies from the last ten years, so I’m very pleased.
Asghar Farhadi: Thank you.
An observation I’ve made about your work is that you tend to – or you have in the past – examined a family, but through the storytelling tropes of a mystery. In The Past, in some ways this is more directly like a detective story. Was that an intentional choice on your part?
In my previous films this aspect of a detective story was also present, but it is stronger in The Past. What exists here that did not exist in the previous films is that not only do the viewers act as a detective trying to discover things, but the Iranian man’s character is also trying to find out what the truth is. He’s like a detective looking for a criminal, but the more he moves forward, the more he discovers he himself is the criminal… or he himself plays a part in the crime.
When you started work on the film, was that approach part of the appeal, or do you start from the characters and work your way into the plot?
I always begin with story. I never decide “this is what I’m [going] to say,” or “this is the method I’m going to use to say it.” I give it time to see what the story is. Once that story takes shape, it dictates how I should tell it. It’s in the next stage that the characters take shape. When I say “story,” what I mean more is “a moment of crisis.” For instance, in The Past, when a man who has been separated from his wife for many years returns, and once again they’re with each other for a period, that to me seems to me like a point of crisis. So then that’s the moment that tells me how these characters should be, or how these people should be, and how I should treat them.
And yet in The Past, there is a crisis on top of a crisis on top of another crisis, and there are secrets about those crises. How do you spin one off out of the other? Are there alternate versions of this where the ultimate mystery was very different, for example?
Its geometric shape for me was like a set of dominos. When the first one falls, one by one the rest of them are dropped. Another thing that I try to obey was to create a situation or condition for us to keep moving around it, so that each time we’re able to look at a situation from a new angle. This is what allows the story to have several layers.
You said that characters come from plot, and now I’m starting to think about character traits. For example, Bérénice Bejo, her character is very quick to anger. You might describe it as a flaw. But if she wasn’t quick to anger then her daughter might not have kept a secret from her in the first place, and you wouldn’t have that domino. Is that what you’re saying?
Yes, exactly, because it’s the story that tells me how these characters were, or describes them to me in such a way that we ended up in this moment of crisis. For instance, when a man returns after many years to a house where he was [living], I can think he is probably thinking a great deal about the past there, and so I can see him as a sign of the manifestation of the past, and use that in the way that I develop his character. Or, if I see that the woman is pregnant and is intending to set up a new home with another person, I can think that this is a character who is looking towards the future. And then I can try to elaborate in the details. For instance, a character or person who is so involved in the past has a greater capacity or potential [for] depression. A person whose gaze is attached to the future all the time has a greater likelihood of being restless and anxious. And as a result these two characters have these particularities throughout the film.
It’s really interesting to hear you talk about screenwriting as a form of math. But my question is, is there a point while you’re setting up these patterns, in this linear way of thinking, is there a point where that breaks down, where at some point you’ve over-thought it and it somehow feels false to you?
That happens very often, and that makes things very difficult. The other thing that makes it very difficult is that one doesn’t want it to appear mathematical; rather, that it’s like day-to-day life. Hiding these things beneath the story is what’s difficult.
Your performances are so naturalistic. I imagine that helps create this veil.
One of the greatest ways in which the naturalism contributes is that it covers my tracks as the writer in the film.