Jon Stewart on Politically Charged Directorial Debut: 'I Wanted to Lift the Blindfold'

'The Daily Show' host opens up about torture porn, taking on oppressive regimes and the making of 'Rosewater'

Jon Stewart Credit: Richard Lautens/ Getty Images

When Jon Stewart walked out Monday night to introduce the gala screening of his directorial debut Rosewater at the Toronto International Film Festival, the rapturous applause seemed to energize the Daily Show host; he practically skipped over to the microphone to say a few words. Two hours later, when he returned to the Princess of Wales Theater's stage to a long standing ovation, the 51-year-old comedian seemed to be walking on air. His adaptation of Maziar Bahari's 2011 memoir, in which the Canadian-Iranian journalist recounts being imprisoned in Tehran for 118 days as a "Western spy" (part of the government's evidence: he appeared in a Daily Show segment), had garnered the kind of reaction that a first-time filmmaker dreams of. The movie's star, Gael García Bernal, and Bahari stood beside Stewart, their arms around each other, as the Toronto crowd cheered. The smile on the satirist's face could not have been wider.

Come early Tuesday morning, however, Stewart's grin might best be described as bliss-fatigued. "Oh, I'm doing just great," he says sarcastically, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes; there was a party last night after the premiere, and it went late, and well, the city's rush hour hasn't even started yet, so... . "Does this hotel lobby seem a little bright to you?" he jokes, before settling in to talk about adapting his friend's memoir as a first-timer, the delicate art of filming torture, and what he hopes the film will ultimately accomplish.

You had a direct connection with this story from the start….
Because of the Jason Jones field segment piece, right.

…But what was it about Maziar's story that made you think, I need to make a movie about this.
Well, I really needed a DGA [Directors Guild of America] card…their health plan is great [laughs]. It was a strangely organic process, actually. After Maziar was released and came on the show and we became friends, whenever he'd come to New York, we'd get together for breakfast. He'd ask if there was any way I could help him make this movie, either as a producer or as someone who knew a few screenwriters. Having never done anything like that before, I immediately went "Sure, of course I'll produce this, how hard could it be?" Which, as I'm sure you know, the answer is: impossibly hard.

The intention was never to write it or direct it, though. That was more a product of my impatience with the glacial process of moviemaking that put me in that position. You know, you'd find a screenwriter who was brilliant, had a thorough understanding of Persian culture, had lived in Iran for 20 years — and then it turns out that other people want him to write their movie, and those people have gobs of money. So after a year of this and not making very much headway, it finally came down to if we wanted this to be relevant — and I felt it needed to be told as current events, rather than reflected history — something had to change. There needed to be movement. Having felt like I understood Maziar really well and having loved the book, I thought, I'm just going to do this.

In the book, there's…
You've read the book?

I have.
Please don't tell me how it ends, I'm almost done with it.

I'll give you a hint: it involves sassy Southern belles opening up a hair salon.
Great, there's the sequel!

In the book, there's a parallel storyline involving Maziar's wife trying to get him released. Did you realize pretty early on in the process that you wanted to just stick with his side of things, and keep viewers in that tiny cell?
Yeah, I knew that I didn't want this to be that sort of story that jumped back and forth, in the same way that I didn't want this to be a story about the visceral experience of being tortured. The goal was always to land in the more quiet, banal area of extreme isolation — that's a form of torture that's ubiquitous all around the world. I think we have this idea that it has to be loud and violent and sadistic; say the word torture and you immediately think of waterboarding. But there's an institutionalized, bureaucratic form of torture that is utilized by governments, and while Maziar certainly suffered physically, the isolation seemed to be the hardest part. It just psychologically breaks you down.

So in order to put that across, I figured out we needed to just stick with his story and not overly focus on the beatings. You know, no torture porn here. I don't want to sound flippant by saying this, but I wanted the violence in the film to be like the shark in Jaws. You constantly felt its presence, it loomed malevolently, and when it does appear, you really feel the effect of it that much more. It was a conscious choice, in terms of letting the audience feel the discomfort and manipulation this man went through.

You've said that it wasn't until it was about 10 days into the shoot that you felt you had an actual movie here. What was the turning point?
It was the scene where Maziar got to call his wife, where his interrogator hands him the phone. I mean, it's a pivotal moment, and I knew I wanted to stay tight on it, that I wanted to not cut away.  I wanted to capture it realistically. And I knew that it would be a challenging moment for Gael, as he'd have to go from the incredible thrill of "I get to call my wife" to the incredible catharsis he goes through to being hit to laughing hysterically. So when we managed to do that scene and have it work, it made me feel like, Okay, this is going to work. I can handle this. Now I just have to make sure I don't totally fuck it up along the way.

That scene is a good example of how you use humor in the film as well.
Right. The interrogator has to tell him to dial "nine" to reach an outside line.

Because you're a satirist, a lot of people who might not know what the film is about would think you'd be making a chuckle-a-minute comedy for your first film.
I should let readers know that it's more like a chuckle every seven-and-a-half minutes. Sometimes every 10 minutes [laughs]. No, look, there's such an inherent absurdity to these regimes and the idea that there's an absolute truth, the people in power are the only ones who know it, and because some citizens can't get on board with this, we have to set up an enormous apparatus in order to make sure that nobody sees them. I mean, it's just ridiculous.

I wanted the violence in the film to be like the shark in jaws.



The "dial nine" scene is key, because you are reminded that yes, this man is dominating this other man, he's breaking his spirit, Maziar is suffering through the experience of imprisonment — and this is still an office, and the same protocol of other offices apply here. I will admit that I played around with the idea of having Kim's character go into a spiel about how to call long-distance, but I couldn't make it work. We just stuck with that. [Pause] I remember when we shot that, I turned to Maziar and said "So did you really have to dial nine to get an outside line?" And he said [in Maziar's voice] "I don't know, Mr. Funnyman, I never got a chance to dial out."

How hands-on was he during the production?
Maziar was on set about 80 percent of the time, and was always giving us logistical tips: This is how they'd enter the room, this is how they'd bring me into the cell, this is how they'd put the blindfold on, this is what the men would call each other. If you're a filmmaker who wants to make this story as authentic as possible, those kind of details are priceless.

Did you ever feel like you people were keeping tabs on you while you were filming in Jordan?
You mean in terms of the Iranian government? There was never a sense of "Who are those two guys in the sunglasses standing over there?" I mean, they knew we were there. They knew the story we were telling. We were approved to shoot in Jordan; it wasn't like we snuck in. At the time, the Syrian conflict was just getting going. There were 400,000 refugees streaming over the border, so people in the region had other things on their mind than The Daily Show host making his little movie.

You may find yourself campaigning for this film during the awards season, and thus having to make the sort of stops that actors and directors have to make when they come on your program.
Do you think I can get a booking on that show, by the way? I've heard it's very difficult.

I know a few people who know people, let me make some calls.
[Laughs] I appreciate you helping a guy out.


Is that going to be weird, experiencing that from the other side of the desk?
I've done promotional stuff before, like when we did the books and I had some stand-up specials. I was on Crossfire once, if you may recall.

I seem to remember that not going very well, actually…
You could say that, yes [laughs]. It will certainly be more intense, these promotional rounds and they can test you, but you want the most amount of people to see it and let the film get a wide audience. If that means doing the rounds, I'm more than happy to do it. I really don't want to take for granted the process of letting people know about the film. I want folks to see it.

If, say, some of the folks who did this to Maziar, or who underwrote this happening to him, or some other folks in other regimes who've surpressed journalists, activists and citizens….
So you mean all regimes, then? I think the word you're looking for is "everybody" [laughs].

Except the U.S., of course. "America does not torture."
I recall hearing that, yeah. I must have been thinking of another country in that regard. Probably France.

Let's say they saw this film, one way or another. What would you hope that they get out of this story?
[Long pause] For me, it all comes down to the blindfold. People assume the blindfold is for the victim, to disorient him or make him feel scared and vulnerable — and it does do that. But really, the blindfold is for the torturer. Because no matter how hardened that person might be or how dehumanized their subject might be, nobody wants to look into another person's eyes while they are beating the shit out of them. So I think, if those people were to see this film, my hope is that they'd recognize the need to look into the eyes of the people they're doing this to and realize that everyone is being damaged here. It's a dehumanization process all around, where you're the ones perpetrating the violence, receiving the violence or protecting a structure that allows that violence to happen. So, in my own humble way, I wanted to lift the blindfold up just a little bit.