Helmer talks Juliette Binoche and the hurdles of Iranian filmmaking

Abbas Kiarostami is in the Cannes competition with “Certified Copy,” a sometimes comic meditation on marriage shot in Tuscany and billed as the first film shot outside Iran by the revered Iranian auteur.

Kiarostami spoke to Variety’s Rome bureau chief Nick Vivarelli about the challenges posed by this project.

Q: While very profound, this film is also amusing and exudes a sense that it was fun to make. Was it?

A: Gilles Jacob told me that you should never say that you had fun shooting a movie. You should say that you’ve been suffering, that it was hard work, otherwise people will think that the film is not worth seeing. If you havent’ suffered they should not have to pay a ticket to go see it. I guess he knows better than I do, but I still have to confess that we did have a great time shooting it, and this film was among the most pleasant experiences in my life.

But I can’t neglect to take Mr. Jacob’s piece of advice, so I’ll tell you one very hard experience that we had: There is one sequence in which Juliette (Binoche) is driving. She has two quite big cameras in front of her so she could not see the road at all. There were six of us shooting in the car, it was extremely hot that day, and we could not use the air-conditioning because of the sun. I could tell that she couldn’t see the road at all, but she was still keeping her control, amazingly. I just don’t know how she could drive, and act, and say all her lines. I was so worried that we would end up having an accident. But we didn’t. She was perfect.

Q: She was amazing throughout the film. Did you write the film for her? How did your collaboration come about?

A: Yes, the script was written for her. That’s how it all started. When she won the Oscar for “The English Patient,” a journalist friend asked her, ‘Now that you’ve won this award are you going to become a Hollywood actress?’ And she said, ‘Well, no. The director I really want to work with is Abbas Kiarostami. I was so surprised to hear something like this from her and I happened to meet her a few months later. That was 12 years ago, and I spent more or less 12 years wondering what kind of project I would be able to come up with that she would feel related to.

A couple of years ago she came to Iran to visit me, and very casually — not at all in the perspective of a film — I told her this story. The reaction that came on her face and the enthusiasm that she had when she heard this story just gave me the structure of the film. The very process of telling the story gave me the structure of the film. The film started to build according to the story that I was telling, but also according to my knowledge of her as a woman with her vulnerability, with her sensitivity, with what I knew about her soul, about her relationship with her children. This is how it all started.

Q: This is being billed as the first film you shot outside Iran.

A: It’s not. All the journalists who have been interviewing me, none of them take notice of the other two films that I made out of Iran, “ABC Africa” and “Tickets,” but it is my first feature film shot outside of Iran.

Q: Especially since I am a native Florentine I was intrigued that you chose to shoot it in Tuscany.

A: This film would not have existed without Florence. The writer (who is the male protagonist) says that the idea for his book (which is titled “Certified Copy,” just like movie) emerged in Florence, and I can tell you that the idea for the film also emerged in Florence. It is more or less based on a true story that happened there.

Q: Getting back to the actors, I found it very interesting that you have two non-professional actors in the film, one being William Shimell, who is an opera singer. The other is Angelo Barbagallo, one of your producers, who has a cameo.

A: Initially I though it would be risky, to have a non-pro play opposite a star like Juliette Binoche. But then in the summer of 2008 I was directing an opera and as soon as I saw William Shimell I saw how close he was to my character. This was the first reason I thought he would be right for the part. Another aspect I thought it would be worth taking the risk. I wanted it to be someone non-famous because It would make the film more credible. I wanted him to bring his authenticity to the film rather than an actual performance. In hindsight, there is a third aspect, which is that in a way maybe I intended to push Juliette to cast aside her professional acting. In front of a person who is not an actor maybe she would tend to do the same. But we were all quite surprised because William actually happened to be such a great performer that Juliette also used all her professional skills and at the same give the spectator this full impression that she is a true person.

Also with Angelo Barbagallo it was love at first sight, and even though he initially resisted, he finally did accept and I’m absolutely amazed by his acting, especially this glance that he gives Juliette’s son which is absolutely perfect.

Q: At a time when you were making your first feature film outside Iran, there have been terrible things happening in Iran, including the incarceration of fellow director Jafar Panahi. What are your feelings about what is going on in your country?

A: Yes, actually the uprising in Iran happened right when we were shooting which put us in quite a difficult situation. We had one eye on our country and the crisis it’s going through and the other on the film because of our commitment and our love of cinema. This is what we had to through.

As for Jafar, what happened was more recent. As you know I have protested by writing a letter and there have been plenty of protests inside and outside Iran, from artists and politicians. But so far it hasn’t had any effect, the government doesn’t even feel it has to give any explanation about what it’s accused of. They have even said it wasn’t even about his films and what he’s accused of is something different and they don’t say what. As far as we know he was arrested when he was about to make a film; he hadn’t even made it, so how is it possible to judge and to summon someone about something that hasn’t even been done yet?

But this is all I know. I don’t have any more information. I cannot be more optimistic. Unfortunately these days nobody has more direct information and direct link with the state, nobody knows exactly what is going on.

Q: Where are you living these days?

A: I live in Teheran. I left the country for two months to shoot the film. Now I’m here at the festival but then I go back home.

Q: And what will you be working on next?

A: My next film will be the one I wanted to do before this one. It had been postponed. The working title is “Father and Son.” I should start shooting in Iran in September with a professional Iranian actor Hahmed Behdad (“Nobody Knows About Persian Cats”).

It’s quite hard to say what it’s about because it doesn’t have a narrative structure, so I think it’s going to be more of an experimental work, but from an idea that has been with me for several years now. I think MK2 will be handling it internationally.

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