The world's finest provider of fake news, Jon Stewart, came to the Toronto International Film Festival to present his first movie as a writer and director. Stewart took a three-month hiatus from the anchor's desk to move into the director's chair last year, and the result is Rosewater, a sharp and moving political drama. (Another more indirect result is John Oliver's current HBO show, but we'll get to that in a moment.)
Stewart spoke at one of TIFF's “Mavericks Conversations” alongside Maziar Bahari, the Iranian-Canadian journalist who was jailed and tortured for months partially due to his involvement in a “Daily Show” interview segment. Bahari is played by Gael Garcia Bernal in the movie, which will be out in theaters in November.
Despite the serious subject matter, Stewart still injected his self-deprecating humor and quick zings. Surprisingly, only one was at the expense of Toronto mayor Rob Ford.
Here are 7 things we learned about the making of Rosewater:
1. How Fake News Became Real News
Stewart and his writers wanted to send correspondents to Iran as far back as George W. Bush's “Axis of Evil” speech. But his requests were denied by the Iranian government. Apparently saying “we'd like to do a four-part report on how evil you are” doesn't get you credentialed.
But with the 2009 Iranian election and much ballyhooed liberalization, they were granted some access. Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones held a number of satirical interviews dressed as an over-the-top cliché spy. Documentarian and journalist Maziar Bahari was later arrested and held for 118 days, and one of the pretenses given was this “interview with a spy.”
At the Q&A, Stewart was asked if he felt culpable for Bahari's incarceration. “I'm an American,” Stewart joked to the Canadian crowd. “I just assume everything is because of us.”
2. Why He Had to Direct This Movie. . .
Jon Stewart offered a suggestion to totalitarian regimes. “Don't capture journalists. They remember sh*t!”
Once he was freed, Bahari wrote a series of articles and a book about his experience. He met with Jon Stewart to see if he'd be interested in adapting for a film. Trying to get other screenwriters and directors on board was a time consuming process. Stewart felt it was important to get the story out quickly, so he decided to get back into the filmmaking game himself.
While it was the first time he directed a feature film, he did reminisce about his period as an actor. “We shot 'Death to Smoochy' here in Toronto!”
3. On Taking Time Off and Hobbits. . .
“I was the guy making donuts for 16 years,” he said of his non-stop work at The Daily Show. “I was thrilled to get a chance to make a pizza.”
He also joked about the ephemeral nature of some of The Daily Show's satire. “Topical humor is the egg salad of entertainment. No matter how good it is, after three days you say 'what the fu*k is that?!?' Film, for better or worse, is more lasting.”
His hiatus led to John Oliver's stint as The Daily Show's host, who has now moved on to his own similar show on HBO. Stewart knew that once Oliver was out in front, he'd lose him as a correspondent when the gig was over. “Once you've held on to the ring, it's hard to go back to being an ordinary Hobbit.”
4. How “Rosewater” Isn't That Different. . .
While “Rosewater” features some absurdist humor based on reality – like dialing '9' to get an outside line, even at a torture facility – it is far different from what people may expect from Jon Stewart. However, he doesn't see it as that different from the satire of The Daily Show.
“Satire helps idiots like me cope,” he mused about the seriousness of his work. “When your country invades another country for no reason, we make jokes to deal with the shame. This film was just another way to be serious.”
5. Fact, Fiction and "Quiet Inauthenticity". . .
In “Rosewater,” Maziar Bahari is played by Gael Garcia Bernal. While all on stage joked at how handsome Bernal is – and, boy, is he ever – there is the question of casting a Hollywood-approved Mexican in the role of a Persian.
Originally Stewart wanted to be as completely hardcore as possible, even shooting the film in Farsi. (He joked, “I wanted the torturers to be actual torturers!”) He then recognized that his goal was to get this story to as many people as possible, and to be somewhat accommodating.
“I am not a great Iranian filmmaker,” Stewart confessed. “Did we get the South Teheran accent down?” He answered his own question with a shrug. He referred to his film as having “quiet inauthenticity.” The changes to the script and composite characters are “simplistic and reductive, but not insulting.”
6. His Message to Critics
Stewart points out that the most charismatic and sympathetic side character in the film is a person of devout Islamic faith. When asked if he's worried about seeming too much of a cozy liberal, he was adamant. “How do you get dogmatic people not to give you sh*t? You don't. I am open to criticism, but if you give me dogma as truth, go fu*k yourself!”
7. Who Are His Producing Partners/Conspirators?
The Q&A moderator read a statement that the Iranian government has accused Rosewater of being a product of “the Zionist lobby and the CIA.” Stewart, red-faced and chuckling, peeled back the curtain on how shooting went.
“Yes, the Zionists said 'we'd like that to be green' but the CIA said, 'no, no, we want it blue.' It was tough!”
Rosewater will be out in theaters on November 7th.