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Jon Stewart on ‘Rosewater’ Artisans: Great Work in ‘Bananas’ Conditions

Jon Stewart makes his bigscreen writing and directing debut on Open Road’s “Rosewater,” which was shot for $5 million in Jordan. The results are great, and Stewart is quick to credit his artisan collaborators: “They not only were the safety net; they BUILT the net.”

“When we were planning the film, we identified people we’d love to collaborate with. The hope was always: If I can get them to connect with the material, they will bring in their expertise and say ‘I know how to take this up 10%. Let me bring in some nuance here.’ Everybody added flavor to this thing in a way that blended nicely.

“We settled on a style book as we worked together. One of the key elements was not being ostentatious, in the cinematography, production design, costume design — Phaedra Dahdaleh from Jordan. It was all meant to create authenticity and simplicity but not be flamboyant in any way.

The whole thing was seat-of-the-pants because of the limitations of my schedule. Also Lila Jacob and Will Waski were phenomenal as on-the-ground producers, getting things done, including a crowd of 500 extras when we had no budget for it.”

Cinematography, Bobby Bukowski
“The color in the early scenes had a lot of warmth. For the prison scenes, we removed all that so it becomes much more steely and gray, but not stylized — more antiseptic. The thing I didn’t want was darkness. The early part of the film had to be filled with color and light, vitality and life — so that when we remove those things, the audience would feel it. But we didn’t want the audience to be aware of the camera, like when a shaky camera means ‘The director is telling you this is urgent!’ Bobby was shooting it himself on an EZ Rig, in 100-degree heat; he was remarkable. As the actors found the scene, Bobby found it with them, so by the third take, everybody was in harmony. For those unusually tight scenes — Gael (Garcia Bernal) calling his wife or dancing in the cell — it’s always the third take, that’s when everybody understood what everybody else was trying to do.”

Production design, Gerald Sullivan
“The idea was to create a beautiful simplicity that allowed the story to remain center stage. That’s not easy to do. It’s always fun to show off, and the hardest thing is restraint and simplicity. And that’s what I think these guys did. Gerry executed it so well that Maziar (Bahari) said, ‘Wow. I could believe we’re in Eben prison.’ Gerry and Bobby were not able to bring their crews. So they were flying blind, with crews who are not so fluent in English, certainly not in the standard American vocabulary for filmmaking. Bobby and Gerry had to take a lot of the burden of their departments on their backs in a way they probably hadn’t done since they were youngsters — and deliver. It was a burden. But I think they’re proud of it because of how hands-on they had to be. They have ownership of the look of the film in enormous ways. Also, please understand they were compensating for someone who wasn’t much help (i.e., a first-time director). Maybe because they knew I needed the help, they were on the toes, maybe more than working with someone they felt less responsible for.”

Editing, Jay Rabinowitz
“I refer to him as the maestro. It was tough, because of the other priorities and other responsibilities I have with the show (“The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”). I had to set Jay up in a tiny studio in our building. It was bananas. We’d meet in the morning and go over the day’s work, then I would disappear for two hours, then back, then I’d disappear again. It was only on weeks when the show was dark or weekends that we could really sit together and spend hours being more meticulous. He was amazing in being able to execute it. Generally, we would sit down and discuss intention (of the scenes). Early on, we had to establish a style. He was not with us in Jordan. So we’re shipping him things under bananas conditions. He wouldn’t get files until three or four days later. The physical setup made it difficult. We have five Avid edit suites for the show; all the field segments are done there. That was the one area where I had more experience than any other. Obviously the complexity is very different, but we do a lot of editing on those three-four minute segments. You become accustomed to not being precious with the material; the job is to make something work, not to fall in love with a moment that will distract you from what the goal is.”

Music score, Howard Shore
(enthusiastically) Oh! That guy! We sat and talked about themes, of home and isolation. Howard would take elements of those and apply them in different areas. We found a way to take the inverse of the home theme (and use it) when he’s in isolation. There are certain themes in isolation that link directly. In that long walk (Gael in prison), Howard took the three-note progression from the earlier home theme, and just stripped it of anything, warmth, anything, it was dark. Just simple notes. When he first laid it on there I thought Baaow! His ability to turn things around really blew me away. Again, this was a guy who was working with much less than he’s used to: Time, orchestra, money, everything. Everybody was working with less. Everything was kinda stacked against us, and it was a first-tim

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