Directors on Their Teams: Asghar Farhadi on ‘The Past’

After winning multiple awards (including the foreign-language Oscar) for the 2011 “A Separation,” Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi made an abrupt change with “The Past,” set in Paris and filmed in French. The circumstances of filming were totally different, but the film contains his trademarks, including complex characters who are both right and wrong, a plot that’s simple yet with multiple surprises, and below-the-line contributions that make the film look spontaneous and genuine. When the film (distributed by Sony Pictures Classics in the U.S.) debuted at Cannes, Berenice Bejo won the fest’s best actress prize.

Production Design: Claude Lenoir

This is what I like: A lot of work went into the production design but when someone sees the film, they might think there has not been a production designer. Claude Lenoir had worked with Krzysztof Kieslowski and I was mesmerized by what he’d done in “Red.” He was engaged in the project seven or eight months. He was at times so completely immersed in the work that it was almost a cause for concern. Since my films are always about family, the homes are very important. The shape of a house unlocks certain layers of the story. I wanted a house between a street and railway tracks. We were unable to find such a house. I was beginning to give up, but he said “Let me look by myself” and he found the house. The exterior was perfect, a house where one sensed a smell of the past. He did a lot of work on the exterior and the yard, but you wouldn’t know. Our problem was the interior. Houses in Paris are very small, so he suggestest we construct the interior as a set. I’ve always been reticent to work on sets, but he said “We can mix the two.” He did this seamlessly. The complexity of the relationships of the characters is visible in the architecture of the house.

Cinematography: Mahmoud Kalari

The cinematographer team’s work was very difficult. One aspect is the color palette. All the colors are warm, and the dominant color is yellow. To me, that color conveys doubt and instability. In Samir’s house, the laundry, in Marie’s house and the way we lit things. Yellow is difficult to light and get a natural feeling in film. In my culture, yellow means doubt — both a sense of warmth and a sense of doubt. Also, I didn’t want the actors to feel the sets were artificial. I wanted the dimensions and proportions to remain as if they were in a real house. If you walked on the set, you could have opened the faucets where the water ran, where you could take a shower. Some shots required mobility and movement. That was very difficult for the cinematographers.

Editor: Juliette Welfling

She edited based on the screenplay. She had worked with Jacques Audiard, though a very different editing style. This was a new experience for me. The editing process took a long time. She began when we began shooting and I think she was editing five or six months. If another editor had not been as sharp and intelligent (as she is), they might have made the rhythm much more accelerated. But we kept thinking it’s about the past; it’s important for the rhythm to be more expansive. In “A Separation,” everything is happening before our eyes, so the rhythms were much faster. With this film, I feel the texture of time becomes tangible. She also did something invaluable. I’m not familiar with the French language, so in the editing, she would highlight the delivery of a certain line and the emotion with which an actor had said it.

Producer: Alexander Mallet Guy

He had distributed my prior films in France. He proposed we worked together. I sent him a script set in Berlin. He said “We have to work on this together.” I said “OK but I have to live in Berlin to see the people and absorb the atmosphere.” But something was moving me away from that screenplay. I thought maybe it’s the city, so I moved to Paris. After several months in Paris, I still felt very distanced from that screenplay. I couldn’t figure it out. One day we were sitting in a cafe in Paris and I said “Listen, I want to tell you a new story.” And I told him the story of “The Past,” and we immediately started working on that. I had a great sense of freedom. Anything I needed was made ready very quickly. He’s very young and he truly loves cinema. All that mattered to him is an excellent film.

Writer: Asghar Farhadi

Writing isn’t limited to the time putting pen to paper. There is a period of thinking that occurs before, which is very important. The writing took about a year in all, but it wasn’t continuous. I was traveling a lot for “A Separation.” Between the time I finished the first draft and we began shooting, I did several rewrites. I work on details and arrange a series of details. Among these details, a certain harmony begins to emerge where we find the actual themes. Some examples: The fact that the house’s walls are in the process of being painted, that was something I added in rewrites. When Ahmad gets paint on his clothes, when the kids spill paint on the floor, and in the title sequence where the windshield wipers try to wipe the past clean, that was something I came up with in the rewrite: There is always something that people want to wipe clean.

Actor: Ali Mosaffa

In France, he’s received lots of attention, but in the States, much less. What he did was quite incredible. When I cast him, he didn’t speak French, so he and his family moved there to learn the language. I said, “When the audience looks at your face, something needs to convey the past.” This is something we can feel with the serentity and equanimity in his face. One feels there is much that’s left unsaid in his mind and heart.

Directors on Their Teams runs on weekdays. Coming Thursday: Nicole Holofcener on “Enough Said.”

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