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Separating fact and fiction with “A Separation” director Asghar Farhadi

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As I was packing up my briefcase after our interview, director Asghar Farhadi made one request through his interpreter, Sheida Dayani: quote his words precisely. He’d been misquoted before, he told me, and he didn’t want it to happen again.

This struck me as an interesting request, since Farhadi’s superb film, the Spirit Award and Golden Globe nominated “A Separation,” is all about misinterpretation. It begins with an Iranian couple, Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), as they try to get a divorce, then follows their family as they deal with that decision’s fallout. Without his wife at home, Nader is forced to hire a caretaker to look after his bedridden father; later, the caretaker leaves the father unattended, and there is an accident. The case ultimately goes to court, where it becomes a matter of he-said, she-said. Both sides present wildly different interpretations of the events. It’s up to a judge to determine who is right and wrong; from the perspective of the audience, it’s already clear the answer isn’t so black and white.

That’s exactly how Farhadi wants it. “You can make a film in a way that when the audience leaves the theater they leave with certain answers in their head,” he told me. “But when you leave them with answers you interrupt the process of thinking. If instead you raise questions about the themes and the story, this means that the audience is on its way to start thinking. I like that better.”

Hopefully this interview, about Farhadi’s process, his love of writing, and even his initial dissatisfaction with his film’s English language title, will give you plenty to think about as well. Hopefully I’ve transcribed his words correctly, too.

When you’re writing, what comes to you first: the characters or the story?

The two are really inseparable. They move together, both story and character. For me, character comes from a specific condition or situation. I cannot really define a character outside that situation.

How has the reception of the film in Iran compared to its reception abroad?

The responses have been very similar inside and outside Iran. I don’t mean that everyone has the same reaction; but the diversity of questions that are raised outside Iran and the diversity of questions that are raised inside Iran are very similar.

Your daughter plays Nader and Simin’s daughter in the film. Was that your idea or her idea?

[laughs] She wanted to act, and I also wanted to make a film that she could act in. So it was both.

Did you like directing her?

I liked it a lot but there were also times that were difficult. Because she was my daughter, I allowed myself to be tougher on her. Sometimes there were people who said that I was really being tough on her. But with all the complications, we’re both satisfied with the collaboration.

Does she want to be an actress when she grows up? And would you encourage her to pursue acting as a career? I guess you’ve already been pretty encouraging.

I think she would like to continue acting but she’d also like to try writing as well. She played her first film when she was three years old. This is her fourth film.

Many of the early scenes in the film — casual conversations or small bits of information — seem unimportant, but they come up again in later scenes, and we’re left trying to remember them. How did you approach these key moments? They need to be simultaneously memorable and unmemorable.

We have the wrong impression of life. We think the very big incidents of our lives are consequences of huge dilemmas or major decisions. If we paid attention, we’d realize that the determining incidents in our lives are ordinary things. When I write or I shoot these details, I do so in a way that makes them seem very simple, like ordinary details of everyday life. I don’t want the audience to think they’re watching an “important” scene and to try to remember it as a result. This whole game of making the audience go back and remember these simple little details makes them more engaged in the film.

How difficult was it to place all of these “ordinary details” into the screenplay — and to balance things so that all of the characters are equally conflicted and compromised?

It’s a very difficult thing. What I needed to be aware of was the timing; this kind of film cannot work at a fast pace. These details are like part of a crossword puzzle — every corner is related to the other corner.

At this point in your career, what’s the most challenging part about shooting a film in Iran?

This is very difficult for me to answer because I was born there, I grew up there, and I became part of the system, so when I’m working, I’m not consciously thinking about what is more or less difficult. Perhaps if a filmmaker came from the United States and started making films in Iran, they would be more aware of the obstacles. But for me, someone who’s part of the system, it’s not very clear.

I’m sure when you travel with the film, people want to talk to you about the ending. When they ask about it, how do you answer?

I have never given a clear answer to the question; I always try to be evasive about it. I try to let it pass with some humor, or to give some non-specific answers. That’s true not just about the ending, but about all questions raised in interviews. I try not to be very specific about anything in the film. It’s wrong for a director to reveal all the things he was trying to hide in the film. That’s why I’ve always said that giving interviews about the film is usually more difficult than making the film.

[laughs] I’m sorry about that.

No, no. That’s our job.

You’ve received several awards and nominations already. What do you make of the whole Oscar race?

It makes me very happy that regular people are getting to see the film. But I’m also aware that success can bring danger. The success of one film may convince the filmmaker to try repeat his successes and get into a competition with himself. One cannot dwell on periodic successes. You have to look at it as a temporary, passing thing.

Do you have your next film already planned? Based on what you’re saying, it sounds like you’re going to make something very different from “A Separation.”


Yeah. One way to get away from all this hype is to start concentrating on my next film right away. My mind is more involved with my next project than what’s happening with this film.

Do you have a favorite part of the filmmaking process? Obviously not the interviews — we’ve established that.

Writing. For me nothing is more enjoyable thank thinking about a creating a story. Writing is like being in a world where everything belongs to you. You have full power over the characters to create whatever you want.

Does the actual shooting of the film ever get frustrating when it doesn’t quite live up to your imagination for some reason?

Sometimes it happens. When you’re writing, you have full control over everything. But when you try to bring that to action, you run into certain constraints. Not everything comes out the way you imagined.

The original title of the film was “Jodaeiye Nader az Simin.” Nader and Simin are the characters — what does the word “jodaeiye” mean? Is that “separation?”

It’s not just “separation.” It kind of gets lost in translation. You can look at it as “divorce” or as “detachment” or “chasm.”

So how do you like the English language title, then?

At first, I didn’t really like it. It seemed to me that the original title had been distorted somehow, and I wasn’t happy about that. But experience has proven that it’s a good title.

“A Separation” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. For a full list of playdates, go to SonyClassics.com.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.