Some of the most compelling dramas are the ones where you see your allegiances shift back and forth between characters. You understand where each character is coming from, what their perspectives are, and your empathy is pulled in all directions as the film spins a morally complex situation out of a simple premise.
Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi continues this remarkable trend with his newest film A Hero, a stressful, at-times suffocating experience that begins with our protagonist Rahim (Amir Jadidi) stumbling on a bag of gold coins and returning it to its rightful owner. Within a short amount of time, Rahim skyrockets to the status of hero in the local news. But just as quickly, social media starts to work its “magic,” and the rumors start, and A Hero descends into a spinning wheel of hell, full of unclear answers and contradictory interpretations.
Such a story and screenplay, takes an incredible amount of time for the ideas and situations to simmer and take shape. I had the honor to speak with Asghar Farhadi and his translator Rayan Farzad, about the complexities of writing A Hero, which won the Grand Prize at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, and his philosophy as a storyteller and filmmaker.
Kevin L. Lee: Mr. Farhadi, thank you so much for being here. It’s such an absolute honor to speak to you today, and congratulations on A Hero. It’s a stunning film.
Asghar Farhadi: Thank you.
KL: So, in a good way, your film is very frustrating and stressful to watch.
KL: In your film, it’s so difficult for people to just believe that Rahim is a flawed but good man who did a good deed. And I felt like it’s such a relevant problem that we seem to be facing right now. So, I want to start by asking, what motivated you to explore this topic?
AF: There was a lot of stuff around that made me sit down and write this story. The challenge for me in this film was, is it possible to make a movie that doesn’t have a gun, or doesn’t have a murder, or anything like that, but make a story that is very gripping? And the audience is always at the top of their seats and can’t speak in the movie. And this is a very simple story and it’s very familiar to everyone.
Something that will raise the risk of making this story was that if I can make a drama out of it, the drama that is happening with the very everyday material, a very simple everyday material. The other thing that was interesting to me was that after the audience watches the film, what is their judgment? And how are they going to see Rahim’s character? Are they going to see him as somebody who’s guilty? Or are they going to see him as somebody who’s innocent? And there is a line in the film that somebody tells Rahim that, “You’re either a very smart man, or you’re a very simple man.” And they actually divide the audience into sides; one side says he’s a very simple man, and on the other side they say he’s actually very smart.
KL: I really appreciate that you use the word “simple” because I feel like when you describe the film to someone, when you’re introducing it or recommending it to someone, it sounds like a very simple story, but then you look a little deeper. It’s so detailed. It’s so thematically rich, there’s so many complicated ideas. Can you describe a little bit of your creative process, and how you find that balance between simplicity and complexity?
AF: Basically, this is a story of a very simple man who by making a very small mistake falls into a very complicated situation. The complexion of this situation comes from the POV of every single character who is watching this situation from different angles. And the audience is facing different angles of looking at the simple situation that is in front of them. And then when we see a simple story that is told with a different narrative, then it becomes complicated.
And what makes this situation more complicated is that this is not something that happens with a big twist or big moves in the film. It’s just, everything’s happening in everyday lives. The process of making this situation in the story complex is that I’m not trying to make the situation complex on my own or by myself. The complexity should come out of the heart of the story itself.
KL: That’s so beautiful. During this creative process, what would you say is the most difficult part? The most challenging part?
AF: The biggest challenge is that I don’t want to divide the characters into good or villain. Before the audience starts to make their own judgment, I don’t want to bring my own judgment to the film. The fact that the writer takes his own bias and takes his own judgment out of the writing process… it’s a very hard thing to do. Basically, to tell the situation in a way as if there is nobody there to tell the situation. And when the audience is looking at that film, they feel like this story is happening and there is nobody telling this story, but a specific POV.
KL: That’s amazing. Which leads me to, in my opinion, why I think you are one of the greatest filmmakers working today.
AF: Thank you.
KL: I think you have such a remarkable gift in giving every single character attention and empathy, and it doesn’t matter how minor their role is in the script. You have Rahim who’s the protagonist, but surrounding him is this large cast of smaller characters and they all get their own moment to be heard and to be understood. It’s almost as if you let every single character have a chance at being the protagonist. I’m just so fascinated by how much time it takes you to develop those minor characters? And how much of that is found in the writing process? And how much of that is from collaborating with the actors?
AF: A big part of that happens in the writing. Actually, I can say the whole thing happens in the writing and it happens during the rewrite of different drafts. Basically, we have the characters that if you look at each one of them, you understand why he’s doing what he’s doing.
There are many films where you see the main character is the character who has all the good character traits and the person in front of that person has all the bad traits and they don’t give that bad person or villain enough time to explain himself or herself. Basically, the writer has decided before the movie even starts. They have decided who is the good person, and who is the bad person. I always think that if they give five minutes or ten minutes to the villain of the film, then they would turn into somebody that’ll actually be liked. Sometimes even more than the protagonist.
KL: I remember in past interviews you’ve mentioned backstory, having to create backstory for each character. I can imagine that it must be a very long process that might not actually end up in the film, but it creates that sophistication and that nuance in the performance or in the scene.
AF: Something that I learned from my teacher when I was a student in university, is that he told me that the thing that makes a work become rich is how much time you put in that work. It’s like making wine. The biggest factor of making a quality wine is how much time you give that wine to develop. Therefore, I can’t ever imagine writing a script in a short amount of time.
It’s possible the process of putting the paper in front of you and writing this script just takes a couple of months. But this is a subject that you have to think about for many months before in your head.
KL: During this time, when you’re developing a story, how much time do you separate yourself from the story and not write anything, but let the story live in your mind to really see if it’s resonating? There’s got to be a little bit of time where you take a break from writing. How much time do you give yourself for that?
AF: Usually before I sit down and start writing this story, I had that story in my mind for two or three years. And sometimes I love it, and sometimes I really don’t want to work on it. And these are the days, like if you are falling in love with somebody and the next day you hate that person, this is a love and hate situation going on.
AF: And then after all this, you have a date with that person. You ask them, “Okay, let’s go out and have a coffee.” And then you sit down and tell her that you love her. Therefore, you don’t fall in love overnight. It’s a process that you go through and then you gradually fall in love with someone. The love that happens over one night is exactly the same thing: it will disappear very fast as well. [Laughs]
KL: That’s amazing. I just want to say, I still remember the first time seeing your film, A Separation, and that film changed my life. It really shaped my outlook on storytelling and filmmaking and it remains one of my biggest inspirations. So, I’m curious to know which writer, director, or film has inspired you, whether it’s in the beginning of your career or right now.
AF: There’s always these movies and these people who are influencing you constantly. The most important person during my childhood who interested me into storytelling was my grandfather. He wasn’t an artist, but he had this ability to tell a story in a way that everybody who would allow him would just sit down and listen to him.
And then by watching some of the works of Iranian filmmakers, I started loving cinema. And that happened when I was very, very young. In that day and age, those were the films that I was watching and I liked and gradually I got to see Italian neorealism cinema. And then that was the moment that I found out this is the kind of cinema that I like to work on. The three people that really influenced me were [Vittorio] De Sica, Billy Wilder, and [Federico] Fellini. And then other people start to add up, like [Ingmar] Bergman and [Akira] Kurosawa.
KL: I was at the event where you screened A Hero at Columbia University.
KL: So thank you very much for being there. I just want to end this with more of a lighter, big picture question. There’s so many young aspiring filmmakers who have stories that they want to tell and they want to put their name out there and make something and tell a story. I would like to know, what advice would you give to young aspiring filmmakers, whether they’re writers, directors, or producers?
AF: I always escape from giving advice, but what I can tell you is my experience. This is not advice. The biggest investment that you have is your heart and your subconscious. I think anyone who wants to work in cinema, they bring their heart into their work. It’s something that everybody can understand and everybody would like. I think the most important thing that an artist has is their subconscious that is shaped during their childhood.
KL: Well, thank you so much, Asghar Farhadi and Rayan Farzad.
AF: You’re welcome.
KL: I really appreciate it. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to speak to you. Thank you for your time.
AF: Thank you. Have a nice day.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity