Payman Maadi on the Small But Powerful "Camp X-Ray"
Playing in Theaters Payman Maadi on the Small But Powerful Camp X-Ray
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 10/16/14)
By Danny Peary
Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi in “Camp X-Ray.”
Camp X-Ray fits my category “Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.” This Friday Peter Sattler’s beautifully acted, troubling, touching, and important debut feature–which makes it clear why America must close Guantanamo–opens theatrically in New York City and on VOD. The synopsis in the press notes: “A young woman (Kristen Stewart, giving her most mature performance, excels as Amy Cole) joins the military to be part of something bigger than herself and her small town roots, but ends up as a rookie guard at Guantanamo Bay. Her mission is far from black and white, as she is surrounded by hostile jihadists and aggressive male squad mates. When she strikes up an unusual friendship with one of the detainees (Iranian actor Payman Maadi, who follows the Oscar-winning A Separationwith another extraordinary performance), both of their worlds are forever shifted. Written and directed by Peter Sattler, Camp X-Ray is a deeply human story of two people, on opposite sides of war, trapped and struggling to find a way to live together.” I met Payman Maadi when I interviewed him and director Asghar Farhadi about the terrific About Elly several years ago. We have stayed in touch and last week I spoke to him in the city about his first American film. As we were having breakfast at Sarabeth’s, a couple passing by recognized the budding international star.
Danny Peary: Do you get recognized a lot in America?
Payman Maadi: Yes, from A Separation. In Los Angeles more than New York. Each time it happens, it surprises me.
DP: Is there a community of Iranian actors and filmmakers in America?
PM: Yes. Actors, filmmakers, artists, singers. If I don’t know them personally, I do know who they are. Most of those I know are banned from working in or going back to Iran because they did or said something against the government. Which is not me. I now live with my wife and daughter in L.A. and in Iran. I’d like to manage my career where I can go back and forth.
DP: Which you couldn’t do if you criticized the government there. So do you get support from the Iranian government when you make movies in Iran?
Payman Maadi. Photo by Danny Peary.
PM: I don’t do anything for or against the government. I’ve tried not to ask for its financial support, even when I directed my film Snow in the Pines two years ago in Iran and had no money.
DP: Did you direct Snow in the Pines before or after A Separation?
PM: I was ready to direct my own movie but I got the script for A Separation and it was brilliant, so Istopped and made the film with Asghar Farhadi. We had worked together before on About Elly.
DP: Of course, it won an Oscar in America., but was A Separation received differently outside of Iran than in Iran?
PM: Asghar told me, “I doubt if it will have the success of About Elly.”
DP: About Elly had Hitchcockian elements so you two recognized it had universal appeal.
PM: Right, it could have taken place in Denmark or Mexico, anywhere. But A Separation wasn’t like that and we weren’t sure it would be liked outside of Iran. We thought it was more an Iranian film that was very much about society there. It turned out that it was really well received first by the Iranian people and then out of the country. What we learned is that if you make films outside of America and want to get known internationally, you must first become successful locally. The people of your own country must agree with you that it’s a true, authentic portrait of your country. Asghar did a great job and I owe him a lot. It was successful because people everywhere left the theater thinking about their wives or husbands, their daughters, their relationships, their marriages. What we learned from showing the film in New York, Los Angeles, Germany, China, France, Abu dhabi is that we’re not that different.
DP: In interviews you’ve said you want the films you act in or write or direct to show that people are alike everywhere.
Payman Maadi and Kristen Stewart in “Camp X-Ray.”
PM: To be honest with you, this belief came to me only after I experienced watching A Separation with people from around the world. It wasn’t before that. As Asghar says, it’s to the benefit of the media to show differences between nations not similarities. They profit from that. But when you have a character like mine in A Separation whose father is suffering from Alzheimer’s, it’s the same for everybody around the world who has that experience. Whether you’re Iranian or an American, it’s sad watching your father deteriorate like that or watching a couple with a child separating.
DP: Was A Separation instrumental in your getting cast in Camp X-Ray?
PM: Peter Sattler was a big fan of A Separation and it was a big reason I got this film.
I was in Iran making Melbourne when my agent sent me the script. When I read a script, the first thing I focus on is the story. Maybe it’s the writer in the me, but it’s the experience I have had since A Separation. The film must be a good film. If the only award a movie gets at a film festival is Best Actor, it doesn’t matter, no one will see me. If it gets a Best Picture award it will seen by a wider audience and will open more doors for the actors. So for me the story must be good, then the character must be good, and the third thing is the director. I didn’t know Peter at the time. This was his first movie. I liked his script right away. But I had to read it again. The second time I went through it I focused on the characters. English isn’t my first language so I had to focus on every word. Then Peter called me. He wanted to see me so we spoke for about ten minutes on Skype.
DP: It seems so odd to me that someone in Hollywood can Skype with an actor in Iran about being in his film.
PM: There are a lot of things that are filtered in Iran but not Skype. The Internet can be slow and you often get disconnected but it’s not something that can be controlled by the government. A lot of my friends are in America and they Skype or Face Time with their families back in Iran. I did that when I was here and my wife and daughter were there.
DP: In the press notes it says Peter was reluctant to contact you because he wasn’t sure you were right for the part. Did he tell you that?
PM: After he confirmed that I was in the film and we became really close friends he told me, “I loved A Separationand I loved your performance but I felt I needed somebody louder, who expressed himself and didn’t keep things inside.” He wanted somebody who would shout and laugh loudly…
DP: But in A Separation you weren’t particularly quiet or withdrawn. There was anger and shouting.
PM: I know. But what happened was very funny. When Peter Skyped me, I don’t know what kind of mood I was in that day but I had a very loud greeting, “Hello, Peter!” I later told him, “Peter, don’t worry about the loudness because I am very loud. In fact, whenever I’m talking to my wife in public, she has to tell me to lower my voice.”
Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi promoting “Camp X-Ray. Photo courtesy of Payman Maadi.
DP: Also in the press notes, he says he cast you because he saw the chemistry between you and Kristen Stewart when the two of you Skyped.
PM: The next night the three of us met on Skype for about forty-five minutes because Kristen wanted to meet me. Then she said she wanted to see A Separation. She got a DVD and watched it and said she loved it.
DP: So she hadn’t seen your films yet?
PM: No, but to be honest, I had never seen Twilight or any of her movies before, either. So I had no prejudgments about her. I saw her the first time at Peter’s home in Los Angeles and she was more than friendly. She came to me and said, “I’m very happy to work with you.” I asked Peter if Cole’s hair color will be blond or dark because in the movie, Ali always calls her “Blondie.” He said dark, like Kristen’s natural color. He asked me what I thought about that. I said I loved it. To Ali, all American girls are “Blondie.” That’s funny
DP: What’s great is that Cole accepts being called “Blondie.” You and Kristen come from two different parts of the world, you have made different kinds of movies, her acting is very low-key while you are expressive and verbal. I do think it paid off for creating two different characters that you were so different as actors.
PM: Kristen said, “Let’s rehearse and talk. Tell me about your style of working or let’s create something together.” People come to me and ask, “How is she on the set? Is she friendly at all?” And she is. She was very thoughtful, very hard-working, full of energy, very eager to do something great. She was never satisfied with whatever she did, she was always asking for another take, saying “Let’s do it the other way.” I liked that very much. It was very, very important to me because most of my performance was dependent on my partner. It was all dialogue between Kristen and me, it was like ping pong. I couldn’t be a good actor unless I had a good partner in this film. So I was glad we rehearsed a lot trying different versions.
DP: Did you talk to Kristen about what her character’s reactions were supposed to be in response to Ali’s imprisonment at Guantanamo and all the different ways he communicates with Cole?
PM: I asked her what she was thinking about. She was thinking a lot about these issues and about her character every day and she would tell Peter and me if she thought her character should react differently from what we had planned. And Peter would say, “That’s true.” And I’d say, “Kristen, can you do it for me because I need to know what I must do if you change your reaction like that.” I’d say, “If you change something here, then we have to also change that other action.” Peter would say, “Payman is a screenwriter and he remembers everything.”
DP: So was Peter accepting changes from each of you?
PM: More than other directors I’ve worked with here, he’s like Ashar Farhadi in that he leaves you to do whatever you want to do, minimize it or maximize it, and observes you to see what worked and what didn’t work. He didn’t talk to us and say for us to do this or that, which happens a lot in America. For him, performance comes first, then the camera.
DP: Did you rehearse in the same place you shot the film?
PM: We rehearsed and filmed at a former juvenile detention center [in Whittier, Ca.] that looked almost exactly like Guantanamo. We did this because sometimes you get surprised when you move from one location to another. At the prison we rehearsed for two or three days with closed doors. We wanted to determine what we could hear if the doors were closed between us. I didn’t have much space and Kristen didn’t have much space so there weren’t so many things we could do.
DP: Even during, I imagine you sat close to each other?
PM: We found some rooms and we tried to stay very close, to get used to the small space. I wanted to watch Kristen very closely to make sure nothing was exaggerated. When you are close, you use your eyes to see all parts of a face. There’s big meaning in how the eyes go up or down or to the sides. We asked Peter to watch these things through the camera lens during the final days of rehearsal.
DP: Were you told you would watch dailies?
PM: I never developed the habit of seeing dailies, but for this film we had to do it because of the close shots. We needed to see when we moved our eyes how big the movement was. When I made my own film I didn’t let any of the actors watch dailies. And the result was good. But after this experience, when I make another film I will definitely show some dailies and rushes to my actors.
DP: What were those last days of preproduction like?
PM: In the mornings we rehearsed or did a table reading and then we were through as actors. Peter was going to the set to make sure everything was ready and I would go with him whenever I had a chance. He was working on other things and I had nothing else to do, so I asked him, “Can I stay in the prison by myself.” One cell was ready and I decided to go inside and stay there for hours. He said, “Yes, but do you want me to leave the door open?’ I said, “No, close the door.” Peter said, “We’ll be working over there, so whenever you want to come out let us know.” I stayed in there over a few days and it was very helpful. Peter also asked Kristen to walk around the hallway outside the cells and she would do it for hours, as Cole would. It helped me a lot, knowing she was outside. I was in a very small room, all Ali has in this world. There were no other tools I had as an actor, but no matter how small the room was you find a variety of things around you.
There was just a small window looking out into the hall, so if I moved my head to the left or right while filming, I was out of the frame. So I’m in there thinking, what can I do? If I go to the back of the cell and shout it sounds low but if I walk toward the door shouting it’s totally different.
DP: But while you were trying to get into Ali’s character are you thinking always that he’s someone who can’t leave?Are you asking how does he exist? and how does he not go crazy other than by refusing to do so? And are you also thinking how heartbreaking his life is?
PM: Yes, yes! I was thinking of that and many other things. Ali is surely thinking, Where is my country? Where is my family? Where are my friends? He’s thinking of his mom: they grabbed me and took me away and she hasn’t heard of her son for eight years. They’re probably searching for me. What is in the news about me? Does everyone in my neighborhood now think I’m a terrorist? Sometimes you get suspicious about yourself–what if I was a terrorist and did something I don’t remember?If I admit I did something and said, “I did it, hang me please,” it would be end of story. Those are things I thought he’d be thinking.
DP: Ali tells Cole he is from Germany.
PM: Ali is Tunisian, but was raised in Germany.
DP: In the opening, Ali is taken prisoner in his apartment. He had just emptied a bag of what looks to be cellphones, not weapons.
PM: That’s what they are. Perhaps he was regarded as suspicious because of that. I read how Americans pay money for leads to terrorists, so that means somebody can accuse anyone of being a terrorist and the Americans will pay him $5,000. So the situation is risky when you are, for example, buying cellphones.
DP: This movie makes us think that it doesn’t matter if he did anything or not, but that he should receive due process and be treated humanely.
PM: Exactly. We are not saying whether he’s guilty or not. There are guilty people in Guantanomo who were caught doing terrorist acts and they deserve punishment–but punish them already, don’t just keep them there without judgment or being subject to the Geneva Convention [just because they're called detainees, rather than prisoners]. Give them life in prison, even hang them but keeping them there is bad for not just the “detainees” but for the US government. The people of America don’t want this! They just can’t close it.
DP: It will surprise many people to see Kristen Stewart starring in a low-budget film against the inhumane treatment of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay. Do you think it is important that Cole is a female, to contrast her even more with Ali?
PM: It makes it more interesting. I think it separates them more. Cole could be a male and I think Peter wrote that character as a male. I like that it’s a female and man and their relationship isn’t sexual. It’s not about opposites attracting. Before we were shooting we received a book two-inches thick, DVDs, photos, and links for Internet research. I saw documentaries on Guatanamo and trials with lawyers talking about the prison and the issues. I spent hours doing research and saw that the movie is very precise and correct about everything. Everything in the movie is similar to how it really is in Guantanamo Bay. And there are female guards.
DP: A lot of this film has to do with how Americans, the guards in this case, are naive about politics and who the detainees really are. All these soldiers are young and Ali is more educated than any of them. The danger Peter surely wanted to avoid was having it seem to viewers that Cole is just a naive prison guard who is attracted to a smarter, more worldly prisoner, whether it’s in Guantanamo or any prison, and he manipulates her. But we don’t think that because Cole gets closer to Ali as she becomes less naive about the situation. There’s a learning process with her, while none of the other soldiers want to learn anything and stay naive about the detainees.
PM: We are watching only American soldiers, not American citizens. They are young and maybe that’s why they are so naive. They aren’t interested in books. Soldiers have a lot of things to do so maybe they don’t have time to read. Ali has nothing to do but read. He says, “Each time the new guards arrive, they treat us like bad guys.” She says a good thing to him, that the other guards “will learn.” Like she has. That is not a small thing for him. Earlier he asked her, “What did you learn?”
DP: When he says that to her he’s skeptical that she’s learned anything.
PM: Very skeptical. He asks her what she learned from such things as the hunger strikes?
DP: She does learn and opens up to him. I would think you shot this film chronologically because of how they both change and their relationship evolves.
PM: We had to. It was very helpful for Ali and Cole to gradually become connected to each other. Indoor and outdoor scenes could be filmed chronologically because everything was shot at the juvenile facility. The outdoor shower scene and the scene where I kick the soccer ball were dependent on how the weather was. Doing it chronologically was very beneficial.
DP: Do you think your two characters start reacting positively toward each other at the same time?
PM: I can’t say that. From the beginning, Ali is studying her. I don’t know when exactly he realizes she is not a bad person. After she says, “I’ll try,” and he says, “I’ll try, too,” he tries not to be bad toward her. In the first days Peter and I were talking about my character, and he said that what is very important for you to understand is that this guy can be the nicest character on the earth, with a soft voice, and ten seconds later he can be acting like an animal. They treat him like an animal there, making him act like a mad man. They want to dehumanize him. In some scenes, you can see that he’s trying to make a connection to Cole and tries to be nice but when she doesn’t respond, he starts shouting and cursing.
DP: Is he really that mad at her or is he just trying to get a reaction from her?
PM: No, he’s not trying to get a reaction. He is disappointed that she is the same as the other guards, like the other Americans. He is mad at her. He says, “You think we’re the terrorists but you are the bad people. You are trying to show yourself to the world as good people by putting us here, torturing us, and doing all these things to us. But you know what? You are the bad people.”
DP: In such scenes Ali is extremely frustrated and angry, and Cole is trying not to lose him and trying to make him understand, without saying it, that she cares and is listening. They seem like hard scenes to play.
PM: Again, Peter cared about our performances and trusted us completely but he knew what he didn’t want. He’d explain to us what wasn’t right because of this or that. He’d say, “Don’t use that word,” or “Don’t shout when you want to say this.” I remember his reluctance when we filmed a very intense scene in which Ali says that the detainees are being treated like animals. I started shouting and making sounds of tigers and dogs. Peter came to me the second day and said, “You know what? Do it a little bit lower.” I thought back to when we first Skyped and said, “I told you I’m loud!”
DP: Ali shouts a lot in the film, but some of the moments that have the most impact are when he isn’t talking at all.
PM: The first thing that caught my attention when I read the script is that Ali has a second layer to him where he just observes and says everything he needs to say with his eyes. I would later ask Peter to please let me use silence as a tool between my lines. So I may say a line and then stop and watch her, then say something else. I said if everyone stops speaking it will be terrifying.
DP: When I think about that now, it’s not so much his loudness that is important, it’s that Ali is university educated and verbal and he is in a situation where he can’t talk to anybody. That’s the shame.
PM: Yes, yes, what you say is totally true. He’s very talkative and nobody will talk back to him. He always tries to engage new guards in conversation. He isn’t manipulating them, he just wants so much to communicate with someone else. What he needs is someone to listen to him. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t express a political opinion; he’d be happy just to talk about Harry Potter or Nebraska or Alfred Hitchcock or Hannibal Lechter. It doesn’t matter. Whatever comes up, it’s a conversation. Did you know it’s actually true that Harry Potter is the most popular book in Guantanamo Bay? They have different translations for it.
DP: Why do you think that’s true?
PM: It’s magical, it’s entertaining.
DP: Also it’s escape. And it’s long, the same length as the Koran.
PM: It’s not a short story, each book takes a long time to read. And as you say it takes people beyond reality.
DP: Does Ali read the Koran?
PM: He has read it a thousand times. I think he becomes a little doubtful to everything, he’s losing his beliefs because he thinks too much. He’s not getting in the prayer lines with other detainees. The worst part is you don’t know what to hang on to when you’re suspicious of everything around you. That’s what happens to a lot of prisoners who don’t have anything to do. They doubt everything. But I think that after this Ali will go back to normal and go back to believing what he did. The best thing for him is to become more stable.
DP: In movies set in American prisons, the hero often spends his time studying law books, trying to figure out a legal way to get out. But those imprisoned at Guantanamo have no due process.
PM: Yeah, they have no legal rights.
DP: I think it’s important when Ali explains why detainees shouldn’t follow the rules because that would mean the rules are legitimate.
PM: That’s one of his principles. He doesn’t believe in a lot of things, but that he believes in strongly. If he was a terrorist he wouldn’t say something like that. I think. As a terrorist, you understand why they would have rules saying you can’t do certain things. But if you’re not a terrorist, you don’t see it like that. I’m not a terrorist so you don’t have the right to tell me what to do and treat me like a terrorist. It is not something trivial that he is saying. It is coming from the inside. If they say, “Do this and that or you can’t watch TV,” he says, ”Fuck TV, I don’t need permission from you to watch TV. I haven’t done anything.” I think the rules line is very important.
DP: Ali is less belligerent than the large detainee who follows no rules, but they’re both being treated badly. It’s much more likely that he was a terrorist, but the film asks that they both to be treated humanely and released.
PM: I don’t know if the others are real terrorists and Ali doesn’t know either. He knows he’s not guilty of being a terrorist but not of the others’ guilt or innocence. When she asks Ali why the big detainee doesn’t use the elliptical machine that they demanded, Ali says that it might be because he’s an asshole. It’s assumed that the detainees are all together and that they’re all brothers, but it’s not like that. Still none of the detainees deserve to stay at Guantanamo, guilty or not, and be treated like that. That is a theme of the movie.
DP: Talk about the emotions you were having as filming was coming to an end.
PM: The ending scenes were the last scenes we shot. It was very hard and very dependent on the situation that they prepared for us on the set. I was very happy with the situation but I asked something from Peter as well. I asked for two minutes before every scene was shot, to just be by myself. When they said, “We’re ready,” I needed two or three minutes in total silence in the cell to focus. I even told Peter before one or two scenes not to ask me if I was ready but to see through the lens if I looked ready. The circumstances on the set were very important for such emotional scenes.
DP: Did you or Kristen cry during the making of this movie?
PM: A lot. That’s a good thing that you ask. The final days I cried for 48 hours. In every take I was crying. Kristen was standing behind the camera and she was crying every time. That’s why I can tell you that she was a lovely partner. She was helping me a lot. Whenever I was standing behind the camera watching her, I was crying for her, too.
DP: Were you both crying for the same reasons?
PM: Yes. We didn’t talk about it with each other. When the shot was done, each of us found our corners. We didn’t go to each other say, “That was good, that was great.” Never.
DP: That’s interesting because I would have thought that when playing roles that take such a toll on you that you’d want your costar to come over and comfort you.
PM: No, no, we didn’t do that at all. Sometimes I’d see Peter from afar and his facial expressions told me his reaction. Sometimes I want to see reactions, but I usually don’t want to watch people after takes, I don’t want to see the reaction of the crew. I don’t want to see the camera, I don’t want to see anybody. I just want to be the lone person on the planet. If you want to play a detainee at Guantanamo you have to delete everyone else around from your mind. You can’t go to anyone and ask, “How was it? How did I do?” Kristen was like that too.
DP: At one point, Cole starts being punished by her superiors for associating with Ali, just as Ali is being punished by them as well for being insubordinate. Did you, Kristen, and Peter talk about the parallels?
PM: We were aware what was happening but we didn’t talk about it that much. Kristen and I tried to stay as close as we could to the characters we were playing and they don’t speak to each other about such issues. Amy Cole and Ali don’t talk about what is happening with Amy. She doesn’t tell him. We tried to avoid talking about what was happening in the scenes we weren’t in. I do remember asking Kristen, “How did it go yesterday when you shot the scene with Cole’s superior officer?” She told me that John Carroll Lynch was brilliant in that scene. That’s about the level we went to, talking about those scenes. We didn’t go through them and discuss their meanings. We didn’t have to.
DP: There are usually not a lot of words being said between Cole and Ali, so was there telepathy?
PM: What comes to mind is when he says, “I just want to know how all these things end,” and she asks, “The book?” And he says, “Yes, the book.” Then he says, “You know what I mean.” They were definitely talking about something else. In the rehearsal, we did a lot of improvisations for some scenes. And for that scene we talked for about five minutes about the book, but both Kristen and I, like our characters, were talking about something else. It would be impossible for Ali to say all that is in his mind, so there are metaphors.
DP: In an interview about Melbourne, you were asked about what happens after the movie ends. And you answered that you didn’t think about what happens, that you wanted to play in the moment. But in Camp X-Ray, your character wants to know how things will end. Is it healthy for your character to think about endings, or does he have to go day by day so he won’t go crazy?
PM: No, he doesn’t. All these years he has been going day by day but also thinking what’s going to happen at the end. That’s very logical and reasonable thing for a detainee there.
DP: He even wants to know the ending of the last Harry Potter book, which he can’t get a copy of.
PM: That’s a beautiful metaphor for that. It’s funny and meaningful. I say funny because the whole situation is funny. It’s not only that he reads the final book and knows how it ends, it’s also that he becomes hopeful for his future. He sees the light at the end of the tunnel, I think. He’s now happy to know that there are good people in this world, not all Americans are bad guys and they don’t consider them bad guys. The best thing in the world for him is what she says, not the freedom. She’s an American and probably the last person on the planet who would say that he’s a good guy. But she says, “You’re a good guy.”
DP: You may not have thought of this but the reason he wants to read the end of the book is to find out if Snape is a good guy or bad guy.
PM: Yeah, the twist of the character. I didn’t see any of the “Harry Potter” movies but I was told that Snape turns from a bad guy to a good guy.
DP: Your character and Snape are seen wrongly until the end. Peter snuck in that clever idea.
PM: I believe that. One reason Peter and I get along and communicate so well is that we are both film buffs. I’m sure he has seen all the Harry Potter movies.
DP: I get teary-eyed thinking about when he opens the newly-arrived library book, the final Harry Potter book that he has waited two years to read, and there is an inscription from Cole ending with “Love, Blondie.” The shot of the book is an insert, but when you looked at that in your hand, what was your reaction?
PM: I cried. When I saw Camp X-Ray at Sundance I expected to see me crying. Because we did about ten shots and in eight of them I was crying. Each time we did that scene, it was like a emotional faucet being turned on and off. If there were twenty more takes it would have been the same, crying at the very same moment. But I like the version Peter used.
DP: When you first read the script, did you have a big reaction to reading, “Love, Blondie?”
PM: Yes, I did. I was surprised. That was one of those moments when I thought I’d like to share the movie with people. That was a very lovely thing. She tells him her real first name but still signs the book that way. “I don’t know if Snape is a good guy, but I know you are. Love, Blondie.” Amazing.
DP: It’s a movie moment I won’t forget. I get choked up talking about it.
PM: The same here. Peter is very kind, thoughtful, giving, supportive, and emotional. He cares a lot about these issues, he loves people, he cares about the relationships between people. A line like that would have to come out of a person such as Peter.
DP: Another huge scene late in the movie is when Ali considers suicide. In the conversations you had with Peter and Kristen, I would think you had to convince yourself that Ali shouldn’t kill himself.
PM: Yeah. We knew about it from the script but we didn’t talk about the suicide scene more than a day before we shot it. We did a lot of rehearsing for the movie but we didn’t rehearse that scene and did it in the moment. We didn’t want to be self-conscious of what we were doing, we wanted it to be natural. There’s a scene in A Separation, when my character is showering his father who has Alzheimer’s and he starts crying. We didn’t rehearse or talk about that scene either. We were filming another scene but lost the light so we figured out what scene we could without light. The shower scene. Everyone expected me to say hell no because I didn’t have any preparation. I said to give it a try. And we did it on the first take.
DP: So you think it was a good idea not to prepare for the suicide scene?
PM: Very much. I told Peter, “Just tell me what you want and where the camera will be.” We did several takes and each time we changed something. We didn’t rehearse or talk about the way he’d do it that much. The first time I saw the tool was when they gave it to me during the scene. The knife came out of the Koran and I said, “Oh, my god.”
DP: He’s been in Guantanamo for eight years. Do you think he’d done this before?
PM: Trying to kill himself, no. I don’t think so. There was a line in the script that isn’t in the film. I’m happy it’s not in the film but it was very interesting. He tells Cole that if she calls the medics with her radio it will take them three minutes to arrive. Because he went to the university and is smart, he can calculate that it will take him two minutes to die. So don’t even think of making the call. That’s why she puts the radio down. That was logical.
DP: Talk about when she puts her hand through the window in his door, takes the blade, and touches his arm. It’s not just two people touching. It’s an American woman touching a Muslim from the Mideast. It’s a major thing for Ali to allow himself to be touched by her.
PM: We did it in totally different ways. Peter, who is a very talented director, decided to do something minimal, not showing my face or Kristen’s face that much. I’m not in the shot. Only my hand is in the shot, and I love that shot. He didn’t want to do it this way but this was a shot that was supposed to be mixed with other shots. But he looked at dailies and just used that. That’s the magic of movies.
DP: Were you staying in character?
PM: Very much.
DP: What was Ali thinking of at that moment?
PM: Trust. That’s extreme trust. She puts her hand through the hole in the door and the knife is in his hand, it’s a really big thing. He puts the tool in her hand, then she grabs his hand. It’s a really beautiful scene and it’s the ultimate way of showing that two people can connect and trust each other by communicating and listening to each other.
DP: That’s the reason for the movie.
PM: That’s true.
DP: You shot that scene a long time ago, but when you think of it now, do you get watery-eyed?
PM: I do. Everything starts with throwing out prejudgments that this is a bad guy and Americans are bad guys and that Americans and Middle Easterners have nothing in common to talk about. When you start talking you see that you’re that different and can learn from each other. That’s what happens at the end of the movie. It’s very beautiful when she brings up the story of her seeing a lion in the zoo. The result was that she thought the zoo people must let the lion decide whether to stay or be let loose in the unfamiliar wild. If you want to kill yourself I will give you the space to do it. At the beginning of the film, the chief guard tells the new guards that they are not there to prevent the detainees from living, the walls do that. They are there to prevent the detainees from dying because that would cause a big scandal. So they want to prevent them from killing themselves. When she leaves, she gives the right to Ali to decide to kill himself or not.
DP: I agree with that. But is there something more? Because he talks about how no country will take him if he were released.
PM: Yes, because he was in Guantanamo as a terrorist.
DP: I’m thinking that she is saying release Ali even if he doesn’t have ideal options on the outside.
PM: I don’t know. In her own way, she tries to stop him. She proves she isn’t naive when she asks him he wants to kill himself to become a martyr and go to heaven. She asks smart questions. She hopes she has had enough impact on him that he won’t kill himself. And she did.
DP: The reason that it is better that he doesn’t kill himself is that she truly believes things will change and he’ll get out. If she believed that he’d forever be imprisoned I’m not sure she’d be so motivated to keep him alive.
PM: That’s true. When you think about it, that makes sense.
END SPOILER ALERT
DP: So the shooting ends, the movie wraps, and it’s all over.
PM: Those last few days were very tough and amazing. Then Peter spent a couple of days on extra shots without the actors. And two or three days after the crew had finished, there was a wrap party. I came shaved and in a suit. I wasn’t aware that I looked different because that was myself. Every person was, “Oh, my good, look at you. You don’t look like a detainee anymore!” I surprised everyone.
DP: You filmed this a year ago, so what’s it like getting together with everyone now to promote the film?
PM: Great, butI avoid talking about the film. I believe that whatever I wanted to say I said in the film. And the worst part, especially for a director, is to attach explanation to what you did. If fans ask for explanations I don’t get irritated because we made the film for an audience. Once the film is done, it’s not in your hands anymore.
DP: I know you want people to ask you, as I ask you, Do you still think of Ali sitting in that cell?
PM: Nobody has asked that yet. As the credits run at the end of the film, you see the guards walking in the small hall between the cells for about five minutes. It’s telling you that the prisoners are still there and life goes on there.
DP: In the production notes, Peter Sattler says, “It’s not a political film; it’s a deeply human one.” I don’t agree. Often filmmakers will say their very political films aren’t political because they don’t want to scare away American moviegoers. But if we look at the human element and we start identifying with the people who are imprisoned at Guantanamo, then we start asking what can be done for them, including closing the facility–and at that point it becomes political.
PM: That’s 100% true. That’s good to hear. I agree with you. You cannot say it’s not a political film. When you say “Guantanamo Bay,” you’re talking about politics. When you say “terrorist” or “suspected terrorist,” you’re talking about politics. The focus is not on the political issues and that’s what Peter was trying to get across. But we can’t escape from the fact that there are political things in the movie and after you leave the theater you will think about the situation in the United States that has kept Guantanamo from closing.
DP: Tell me about other projects that are out there already?
PM: Melbourne was at the Venice and Zurich Film Festivals and it will be at the Cairo and Tokyo Film Festivals. I’ll try go but it depends on the schedule for the Criminal Justice series I’m doing for HBO. It hasn’t been on the air yet because James Galdofini was in it, and he died. We were in limbo for two years and now John Turturro is in it. He’s absolutely great.
DP: The premise of Melbourne is A census taker arrives at the home of a middle-class couple as they are about to go to Melbourne and things change.
PM: That’s all you need to know. The other film I’ve done that’s out is Tales, which I made with a great director, Rakhshan Bani-E’temad, the “First Lady of Iranian Filmmaking.” It’s a beautiful film that won the Best Screenplay award at Venice a month ago.
DP: How often do you go back and forth between Iran and America?
PM: It depends. We just moved actually, to Los Angeles. There’s no law about my having to return to Iran, so I could stay here for ten years if I wanted. I’m still observing the situation, and finding out if it’s possible to make films in both America and Iran. I’ll see what happens. I’m trying to do this because I love to work in Iran, too. A Separation was made in Iran, About Elly was made in Iran. I made my own film, Snow in the Pines, in Iran. I’m here in New York until mid-February, in an apartment on the upper East Side. I’m writing seven or eight hours a day and am very productive. I’ve finished one screenplay after two years, and am working on three others. All have parts for me. There’s one set in Los Angeles that I’ll direct. There is a dramedy set in New York. The other two will be made in Iran, including one I’m writing with Rakhshan Bani-E’temad that she’ll direct. I can’t make those kinds of films, my films, in the United States.
DP: Were you surprised that in the United States you could make Camp X-Ray?
PM: I was surprised. You couldn’t make such a film in Iran. I’m very happy to see that’s it’s possible to make films like Camp X-Ray today.
DP: Finally, for fans of A Separation, please talk about the ending.
PM: People always ask me about the end of A Separation, about whether the daughter will choose to live with her father or mother when the judge asks her.
DP: Do you know?
PM: Yes, we talked about it a lot. But we talked about something else–more important than which parent she chooses is which way of living she chooses. There are two different ways of thinking. She is living in a country where there is something wrong. She has the choice of leaving with her mother to live in a better place, or to stay with her father to fix it. His wife tells him that he can’t even manage the house issues without her there “but you want to fix the country?” He says, “You want to leave, go. I’m not like you that when there’s something wrong with the country, I just leave.”
DP: From what you just said, I would think the daughter would make the more difficult choice and stay with her father, who needs her help more than her mother does. But I don’t want to know what she does!
PM: Me, neither! That’s the beauty of the film. We can change it in our minds every time we see it.
DP: The one thing we know is that she, like the slightly older Cole in Camp X-Ray, is smart enough and knows enough to make the right decision.