Asghar Farhadi Talks About His Oscar-Nominated ‘The Salesman’ and Taking Arthur Miller to Tehran

Much of Asghar Farhadi’s work can, in its tensely intimate, unhurried depictions of domestic Iranian life, feel strikingly theatrical. None as much as his latest film, the as-of-today Oscar nominated The Salesman – whose name (“Forushande” in Persian) is a riff on Arthur Miller’s play about the ways America deludes its middle class with notions of “greatness.”

The plot of Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman begins with an uncharacteristically groundbreaking portrait of the stakes of rapid urban development. The film opens as the apartment of 30-something actor-couple Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) begins quaking; a construction crew in an adjacent lot in a quickly developing neighborhood of Tehran has just, in the dead of night, bulldozed into their building, leaving irreparable cracks in its foundation and sending its residents packing. (It’s eerily resonant, given today’s news of Tehran’s first modern skyscraper collapsing in a fire, and the numerous deaths therein — something CNN writer Shahrzad Elghanayan notes people are saying happened because “instead of preserving the edifice, the building’s new owners allowed what had once been a bright, shining tower of Tehran’s skyline to turn into a ramshackle space, dwarfed and supplanted by thousands of new skyscrapers.”)

In the midst of being uprooted, Rana and Emad also happen to be performing nightly in a nearby, neon-lit vision of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman — aging themselves into the American dream-exhausted leads of Willy and Linda Loman, enacting these characters’ lives in front of old (projected American) notions of shoddily crafted modernity, with glowing signs that read, “Bowling” and “Casino.” The classic play is similarly set against a backdrop of hasty development, with Willy and Linda discussing apartments enclosing their Brooklyn home during the post-WWII housing boom.

A collaborator in their acting troupe offers them a provisional apartment to stay in, and from there the couple enters into the loop of what the Farhadi suggests is a culture of rapid obsolescence and replacement, not dissimilar to the image of a young, childless couple donning age makeup and suddenly portraying a crumbling nuclear family. It’s an urban pattern, he emphasizes, enacted so quickly and incompletely as to leave the detritus of past inhabitants’ personal lives in every domestic space.

Themselves displaced, the couple now occupies the apartment of someone they never knew, but whose sexual exploits they begin to hear rumors about. That tenant’s own past will soon collide with theirs, after Rana has a traumatic experience (the details of which are blurry for both her and the viewer, but blatantly suggest sexual assault) with a visitor looking for the former tenant. And through this incident we’re introduced to the film’s nearest parallel to the Loman character — a wheezy elderly clothing vendor played by Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, meekly grasping to hold together the illusion of being the sturdy, moral patriarch of his large family, an illusion that proves hard to maintain given the activities that have led him into the actor couples’ lives. And so too does Emad and Rama’s own personal drama — in an extended third-act scene within the theatrical setting of the drawing room of their now hollowed, cracking apartment — start emulating the structure and look of a play as well as the themes of Miller’s classic work.  

The Oscar-winning director, 44 (whose former works include A Separation and About Elly), received his Master’s degree from Tarbiat Modares University (in Tehran) not for film, but for theater directing. I sat down with Farhadi and a translator, and spoke about going back to his own artistic past for The Salesman to incorporate themes (and an actual vision of a production of) Death of a Salesman into his own, famously granular, socially and morally analytic filmmaking.

Flavorwire: I wanted to talk about the theatricality of your movie itself, in relationship to its depiction of a troupe of actors in Tehran putting on Death of a Salesman

Asghar Farhadi: Volker Schlöndorff did an adaptation of Death of a Salesman, but he used the theatrical script of the play in the film as well. I didn’t want to have an adaptation that felt like we’re watching a play rather than cinema. I really think Death of a Salesman is a play you have to watch onstage. But something that’s very dear to me is how close it is to the quality of film I like to make. I really try to have this quality of theater blend into real life, and slowly the border between reality and theater vanishes. And at the end you ask yourself, “Is this real life or theater that we’re watching?” That’s why at the end of the film, there’s a shot of an empty house, and everything looks like a theater stage. It was a challenge for me, and maybe was the most exciting and encouraging thing about making this film.

I have noticed a theatricality to all of your films; they’re very much about telling bigger moral stories through intimate character-driven ones — from the inside out — rather than relying on sweeping cinematic aesthetics. When you decided to transition from being a theater director to being a professional filmmaker, did you feel as though it was a drastic change, or were you taking the same artistic goals and just changing mediums? 

I was making short films actually [prior to school], but then got accepted in theater. I didn’t get accepted for cinema! And it was actually one of the luckiest things in my life. When I went into theater, it opened up a huge world for me. If you have a graph depicting theatrical narrative, it’s like a circle with other rings surrounding it. And if you want to do a graph of cinema, it’s a line with ups and downs that runs horizontally. For example, when you are approaching Chekhov or Ibsen, it’s one situation, and they just add more layers and layers and layers to that situation, like a Matryoshka.

And I think that’s the nature of your films as well. 

Usually in cinema, it just goes forward — it doesn’t stop in one situation and make us understand what that situation is. When I talk about “cinema,” I’m talking about ordinary films, not masterpieces. I try to get that beauty of theater and use it in cinema. Although my films seem documentarian in style, and close to real life, underneath, I try to give the drama these more theatrical layers.

I wanted to know how heavily you wanted to draw attention to the connection between this famous work of theater that your characters are performing and their own lives. How much did you want to note the interplay of this document of postwar American ego and whatever you might be thinking about in contemporary Iranian culture? 

The similarity between my story and Death of a Salesman is they’re happening in cities that are expanding and changing at a very fast pace. Willy Loman is thinking about his future, and where it exists in a city that’s changing so quickly. And he has the hope and wish that his children are going to have a good future in that place. The main character in my film, for example, says that he wishes he could just “demolish this whole city and rebuild it again.” I feel like we are watching cities that are similar. In Death of a Salesman, there’s a political aspect, a more socialist critique of capitalism, which isn’t really present in my story. But what it does share is the warning alarm about this fast-paced change.

The film’s climax involves one long scene, where two families come together. One family — the central couple — we’ve come to know very well, but you have this whole other family rushing into the film all at once. Clearly, each actor has such an intricate idea of their relationships yet these actors are only ever “family” for this one scene. I’d love to hear how you built those relationships with them. 

The most amount of time we spent in shooting on the film was in that scene. Same for rehearsing. It doesn’t matter how many days we were supposed to be shooting it — it wouldn’t end. And towards the end, the crew actually got very confused about what was going on, because it was just me who knew — it was like theater for me. I really went through that scene very sequentially, piece by piece. And that really helped the audience understand emotionally where they’re standing in the story at any given moment. I tried to choreograph the entire part of the film — the movement of the actors — before the shoot. And the rehearsals were like theater, but with even more of a focus on inner emotions than in a play rehearsal. It was one of the most complex scenes I’ve ever filmed, also because it’s mostly silence and expressions.

There’s a focus on characters in confined domestic spaces in your films, and always an overarching notion of location that’s felt more in small social cues than in cinematic panorama. I know your upcoming film takes place in Spain, and I was wondering why you saw Spain as the place that was right for this narrative.

I would actually have preferred to make this next story in Iran. It’s a story with a very complex morality, and I’m pretty sure I can’t make it there, because it goes beyond the red line of censorship in Iran. When I knew that limitation, I hoped to find the culture that was closest to Iranian culture.

What was the parallel you saw in Spanish culture? 

There are many emotional similarities in the societies. Though, it looks like our past, more than anything. (Spanish people, though, are way happier than Iranian people.) As you know, there’s a foundation of Islamic culture in Southern Spain, and I can feel that. It’s something emotional — when I go there, I don’t feel somewhere foreign, I feel at home.

And the film stars Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz; this will be the first time you’re working with international megastars; have you been at all concerned with what their celebrity will change in the way your films are taken in? Do you anticipate a different kind of attention?

I’m not worried about that — these actors are very smart, and they know the kind of films they’re getting into. They were very open to the fact that they could show a new aspect of themselves here. The challenge of working with these actors, and trying to get close-to-life acting out of them was very intriguing for me.

Are you using a different rehearsal process with them? 

No, it’s the same method I’ve used in my other films —  a lot of rehearsals. I’m happy because they liked this way of working.

You’ve gotten to travel pretty much everywhere for talks like these. I wonder if from place to place, you notice a difference in terms of what people project from their own cultures onto your movies, what they want to see in them? 

There are two kinds of audiences and interviewers. There are some — not many, but they do exist — they treat my films like a Wikipedia page — that they want to get some information about my country by watching my film. They are not there to watch cinema. When they interview, for example, it’s as though they didn’t watch the film but rather that I’m Google and they’re searching Iran through me  — they simply go ahead and ask, “are all of the men in Iran like this?” “are all of the women in Iran like this?” They feel like with one film they can understand a whole culture. But there are other audiences that for 5-10 minutes of the film, they feel that it’s an Iranian film, that it’s come from another country, but gradually they forget about that aspect, and feel this is a work they’re involved in as well. It’s not foreign; they’re a part of it. I like this group of audience more. And even if they ask about my country, I like it. But the first group sit there in that bubble, and watch the film from within it.

The Salesman is out in U.S. theaters on January 27.