Jon Stewart's Debut Film Shows 'Humor Survives' In The Bleakest Conditions

Nov 13, 2014
Originally published on November 13, 2014 3:00 pm

When asked about how he reacted to learning that one of his Daily Show satires was used as evidence to torture a journalist in Iran, Jon Stewart says, "I might have uttered the phrase: 'Are you — with some profane adjective — are you kidding me?' "

"It's so surreal and it's so absurd that it's hard to imagine it as not farce," Stewart tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

That discovery led to Stewart making his first film, Rosewater, adapted from a memoir by journalist Maziar Bahari.

Bahari was born and raised in Iran. In 2009, he was back in Iran covering the presidential election and the subsequent protests challenging the results that kept President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power. After Bahari shot news video of the protests, he was arrested. During his 118 days in solitary confinement, he was beaten, tortured and accused of being a spy.

The evidence Bahari's torturer presented to prove he was a spy included a satirical report about Iran that Bahari had appeared in on the Daily Show. In the clip, Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones went to Iran to ask Iranians what makes them so evil. Jones was dressed like a spy in a B movie when he interviewed Bahari in a cafe.

"I always assumed that somewhere one of our bits would be used like that — I just didn't think it would be this one," Stewart says. "I think it just affirms that sense that you always have that you cannot outsmart crazy. You can't ever imagine how someone might weaponize idiocy."


Interview Highlights

On Bahari telling his story

I think [he] feels that part of the process of transforming his ordeal into something more positive is reclaiming his freedom and reclaiming expression. [The interrogators] also told him, "When you get out, you say nothing. You will tell nobody. You will tell nothing about it."

And I think, literally, on the plane as he was flying back to London, he was composing the article he was going to write for Newsweek and part of his memoir. ... He's a brave dude!

On how humor sustained Bahari when he was in solitary confinement

Humor survives in the bleakest of conditions. ... I think the idea that under these incredibly harsh conditions, not only did [Bahari's] humor survive, his humor sustained him. And I found that incredibly empowering. ...

People always say, "Is that an appropriate joke? Is it appropriate to joke about that subject?" And [I] always want to say, "Not only is it appropriate to joke about that subject, but I think it's essential to joke about it." ...

I've always had this experience at funerals or in a time of great worry [that] a joke can kind of re-energize or reconfigure a room or bring people back to life to some extent. [Bahari's] ability to do that for himself in the absence of audience I thought was remarkable.

On whether what happened to Bahari makes Stewart worry about how his satires might be used

You can't censor yourself for someone else's ignorance. There's no way to understand. What they utilized was innocuous and they weaponized it. ...

It was just pretense. If it wasn't that, they would've used something else and they did! They used his Facebook page against him. The idea that he was on an Anton Chekhov fan page, they used against him. You know Anton Chekhov, the famed Zionist.

On making comedy versus making drama

I think the process of drama is not particularly different from the process of comedy. ... I think there's always the sense when you're a comic that, "Hey, you know what would go well in this scene? A banana peel. Why don't we stick that right on the floor?"

So there was maybe exercising a certain amount of restraint more than it was completely operating in an alien environment or an alien medium. The process of breaking a story, deconstructing the narrative — of creating that narrative arc — is not so different from what we do on a daily basis at the show.

On filming in a functional prison in Jordan

From what I understand, Jordan has a new — it's nascent but flourishing — film industry, so it's not as though they had never had somebody from a film crew come in and say, "Hey, we're doing a film." Jordan generally stands in for films that deal with this type of subject matter.

I think they would've been more surprised if I came over and said, "Hey, can we use Jordan to shoot a rom-com? I've got Sandra Bullock and I've got Ryan Reynolds, and here's what I want them to do: I want them to meet-cute outside a hummus cafe." I think if we had done that, they would've been more surprised.

On the beard Stewart grew on set in Jordan

Let me tell you something. Here's what that was: Fifteen years of having to go on the air and wear a suit and shave, it really did feel like one of those things like, "Hey, man, I'm [Man vs. Wild's] Bear Grylls; I'm naked and out in the desert, man. I'm gonna let my freak flag fly."

I was unaware — since it had been so long — I was unaware of just how I had gone from sort of having a Timothy Busfield beard to just going flat-out Moses.

I went flat out — it's just gray and long, and I just felt like, "Wow, I should study at some point." I really felt like I could walk into a rabbinical college and they would just automatically grant me a doctorate, just sort of out of pure and utter biblical looking-ness.

On whether the camera can be a weapon of its own

Bearing witness has its limitations as activism as well — that doesn't mean that if you have the opportunity to do it, you don't do it. Satire, or what we do on the show, certainly has its limitations, but I think we try to utilize it to the best of our ability. ...

I don't see it as a weapon as much as I see it as a conversation ... against dogma. ... I see all of these shows as in some ways a weapon against complacency. ... It's an awfully complex ecosystem and it doesn't exist on its own.

I think when you have a moment that is as focused as the one Maziar faced, then it really crystallizes what it is that your art form does. ... We live in a country where satire is settled law — so we're not fighting against the kinds of censorship and parameters that somebody like Maziar or somebody like my friend Bassem Youssef in Egypt would've been fighting against. That takes away one level of urgency from what you're doing.

On doing a daily show versus a long-term project, like filmmaking

What's so seductive, I think, about doing a daily show is ... that sense of accomplishment at the end of the day where you sort of get the sense that, "Man, we did it!" It is that rhythm of completion that I think is very seductive and very rewarding within that.

I think part of the issue with the film is I didn't realize at each turn how much further I had to go. I think sometimes it's sort of that sense of, you know, when you're lost on a highway and you feel like you're in this strange limbo land until you get back to that exit that you knew? ... So until you get back to that tent post, you feel as though you're in kind of a strange limbo of: time is not passing, distance is not passing, because I'm lost. There was a little bit of that. When I finished the script I felt like, "I'm done!" And obviously then you have to cast it. When I finished shooting I thought, "I'm done!" and [I'm] not done, never done. It's a constant process of revision and revisiting, but the rewarding aspect of that is I felt like at each turn there were opportunities to improve it. ... That's the seductive part of filmmaking.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Jon Stewart. The movie that he made over the summer last year during his leave of absence from "The Daily Show" opens in theaters tomorrow. It's called "Rosewater," and it marks his debut as a screenwriter and film director. He doesn't appear in the film, but he's part of the story. The movie is adapted from a memoir by journalist Maziar Bahari, who was born and raised in Iran. In 2009, while Bahari was living in England, he went back to Iran to cover the presidential election and the subsequent protests challenging the results that kept President Ahmadinejad in power.

After Bahari shot news video of the protests, he was arrested. During his 118 days in solitary confinement, he was beaten and tortured, accused of being a spy. One of the pieces of evidence his torturer used to prove he was a spy was the satirical report Bahari appeared in on "The Daily Show," recorded just days before his imprisonment. The piece was intended to satirize the stereotypes so many Americans have of Iranians as being part of the axis of evil. "Daily Show" correspondent Jason Jones went to Iran where he spoke to several Iranians, including Bahari. Here's an excerpt of that 2009 piece. Jones is dressed like a spy in a B-movie, and he's interviewing Bahari in a cafe.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

JASON JONES: The one thing I could understand was that this entire country is evil.

MAZIAR BAHARI: The first thing to know about Iran is that it's not evil. Iranians and Americans, they have much more in common than they have differences.

JONES: What do I have in common with you?

BAHARI: Who is number one enemy of the United States?

JONES: Al-Qaida.

BAHARI: Al-Qaida is also the number one enemy of Iran. According to al-Qaida members, any Shia - any Iranian - has to be killed. And if you kill an Iranian, you will go to heaven and you will have 72 virgins.

JONES: Enough of his Western-educated Newsweek doublespeak.

GROSS: So that's a clip from "The Daily Show." Jon Stewart actually re-created some of that report in his new film "Rosewater." Let's hear the scene in which Maziar Bahari's interrogator uses "The Daily Show" report as evidence that Bahari is a spy. The scene starts with Bahari, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, denying that he is a spy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROSEWATER")

GAEL GARCIA BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) Sir, you're making a big mistake. I am a journalist. That's it. Nothing more.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Just a journalist.

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) As a spy, I'm just trying to figure out why your country is so terrifying.

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) The first thing to know about Iran is that it is not evil. Americans and Iranians have a lot of things in common, more than they have differences.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What do I have in common with you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) So can you tell me why just a journalist meet up with this American spy and the evil unrest?

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) He's not a spy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) He's not a spy?

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) No. It's a show.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) It's a show?

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) A comedy show. It's stupid.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) It's very stupid, yes.

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) He's a comedian pretending to be a spy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) So can you tell me why American pretended to be a spy had chosen to interview you?

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) And why would a real spy have a TV show?

GROSS: Jon Stewart, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on the film. It's great to talk with you again. So did you ever think that one of your segments from "The Daily Show" could be used as evidence by an interrogator - evidence that a political prisoner had been spying?

JON STEWART: I always assumed that somewhere, one of our bits would be used like that - just didn't think it would be this one. I think it just reaffirms that sense that you always have that you cannot outsmart crazy. You can't ever imagine how someone might weaponize idiocy. The idea that Jason Jones in a kafia, wearing sunglasses, sitting in a cafe in Tehran saying, you know, I'm an American spy. And as a spy, I'd like to know why your country is so terrifying. I think the difficult factor there is to wonder, do they truly believe it's evidence or is it kind of a cynical manipulator?

GROSS: Yes. Exactly. Right.

STEWART: Right. You're just never quite sure because the idea that an individual could look at that and think, now, I know it's probably unusual for a spy to have his own television show and to announce he's a spy on the show. Jeez, that's awfully damning evidence. So, yeah. It's very difficult to wrap your head around that type of thing.

GROSS: Well, not only didn't the interrogator seem to realize that this was satire, he also didn't comprehend that the point of the piece was Iranians aren't evil. Like, Iranian people are like us.

STEWART: Well, I think that - you know, oddly enough, I think that is what was infuriating to them about the piece, I think, was not the spying issue, but that Maziar stated in it that Americans and Iranians have things in common. And I think the idea that America - that you could somehow find common cause with the great Satan - was the most problematic part of the piece, that the idea that Iranians and Americans are, you know, similar on the scale of humanity.

GROSS: That's interesting. It's like, oh, we have so much in common with Satan (laughter).

STEWART: That's exactly right. So imagine you've got this country that spends an awful lot of time burning our flags. It's in fact, I think, their number two fuel source.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEWART: But they do all those things and then to have someone - basically, the whole idea of those pieces that we did in Iran were - it was after the irresistible lure of when George W. Bush had called Iran the axis of evil. And we thought, man, if we could get a film crew into a country that's evil, you know, it'd be, like, you know, first person witnessing of Sauron. We could get in there and film orcs. And it'd be exciting, but with the idea obviously that you would go there and find out that they're just people. They have - it's not a monolith. It's a complex and nuanced society. There's many different aspects to it that I think we'd find incredibly appealing - artistic, educated, vibrant. The youth of the country really open to new ideas. And that was really the whole purpose of going there.

GROSS: So how did you first hear that Maziar was in prison?

STEWART: So there were three individuals that we also interviewed. There was a Maziar, Ebrahim Yazdi and there was a cleric, sort of a moderate cleric, I think by the name of Abdi. So Jason and Tim got back from Iran, edited the pieces. We're getting ready, I think, to air the first piece - or we might've already aired the first piece when we found out not just Maziar, but that all three had been arrested, but obviously, within the context of a much larger sweep of the country. It wasn't as though it appeared that Iran had cracked down on the three individuals who talked with our show. There was a much broader crackdown on reformist elements after the 2009 election. So we always viewed it in that context. We never thought, my God, the government of Iran has targeted "Daily Show" participants. It was clearly a much broader picture than that.

GROSS: How did you first hear that your segment on "The Daily Show" was used as evidence that Maziar Bahari was a spy?

STEWART: Maziar told us that one (laughter).

GROSS: So you...

STEWART: That was one that we didn't - we didn't find that out until much later when Maziar had been released, and then he wrote an article about it and came on the program. That's when we first found out about that.

GROSS: So what was your reaction when you first heard?

STEWART: I believe I might have uttered the phrase, are you - and with some profane adjective - are you kidding me? You know, again, it's so surreal, and it's so absurd that it's hard to imagine it as not farce. It's hard. And that was actually one of the difficulties with the film was not creating any sort of element around it, any sort of heightened absurdity, any sort of caricatured portrayals that might remove for the audience the sense of how truly absurd it was in reality. I think if we had created in that environment sort of characters for black comedy, it could have really detracted from just how truly bizarre it was in reality.

GROSS: So did this whole experience make you more paranoid about...

STEWART: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Unintended devious uses of your satirical material?

STEWART: No. No, you know, and it's a phrase I think I've used before - you can't censor yourself for someone else's ignorance. There is no way to understand - what they utilized was innocuous, and they used it. They weaponized it. So in the sense that how could you possibly conduct your life in a way that would not allow them - it was just pretense. If it wasn't that, they would have use something else. And they did. They used his Facebook pages against him. The idea that he was on an Anton Chekhov fan page, they used against him. You know Anton Chekhov, the famed Zionist...

GROSS: Yes.

STEWART: ...Who was a spy.

GROSS: Isn't Anton Chekhov Jewish? Yeah.

STEWART: Right. Is Anton Chekhov Jewish? Is he a Zionist? You know, you could say, well, jeez, they used it against him. Does that make you more cautious? It doesn't in the same way that they used against him completely innocuous dinner parties that he went to and accused him of spying because of that. Does that mean you don't go to dinner parties anymore?

GROSS: While we're on the subject of Jews, one of the things (laughter)...

STEWART: (Laughter) Maybe the best segue in Terry Gross history. That is a FRESH AIR - if that doesn't go on the Christmas party reel, I don't know what will. While we're on the subject of Jews...

GROSS: (Laughter) One of the things that the interrogator accused Maziar Bahari of doing was receiving orders from foreigners and Zionists. He was accused of being in contact with Jews and Israelis.

STEWART: Yes.

GROSS: Do you think they knew that Jon Stewart is Jewish?

STEWART: Yes. They did. They have, I think, a pretty full list. I don't know if they got it from Adam Sandler's "Chanukah Song."

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEWART: Wherever they got it from, I think they have a pretty extensive list of who is of the Hebraic faith and who is not. That being said, you know, that is their - you know, again, to slightly humanize the situation, this is a gentleman who was been taught for many, many years that these two groups are his enemy.

GROSS: You mean the interrogator talking. You're talking about the interrogator.

STEWART: Exactly. We tried to draw line, you know, of what's evil and what's ignorance. And I think evil is a pretty rare quality. And I imagine at the very top of that food chain is the hint of something more nefarious. But underneath it is ignorance. And the ignorance can go pretty well distributed on both sides in the sense that, you know, we are coming from a place where we refer to them as an axis of evil. And they're coming from a place where they refer to us as the great Satan. So clearly, the conversation is taking place on a relatively one- dimensional caricatured level. And within that is how these types of ignorant misstatements metastasize.

You know, look, they are not without precedent to think that Western elements would use journalists and saboteurs to try and overthrow their government. We actually did do that in 1953. And not that planting that seed is what caused Maziar to be arrested, but certainly giving them that pretense doesn't help.

GROSS: So, you know - I'm not sure how to ask this, so I'll just put it this way.

STEWART: Sure.

GROSS: Did Maziar play on any guilt to get you to write and direct the movie?

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: Listen. As a Jew, I am immune.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEWART: I am immune to people being able to use guilt against me. There is no way that he could ever match my mother.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEWART: You know, generally if I am going to be a prey to guilt, it's merely just to come visit. It's not to spend that much time writing and directing. Originally, you know, when we met, we used to meet for breakfast and just became friendly after he was released. And he'd be passing through New York, and we'd just sort of hang out and talk just family and politics and culture and what was happening in the world. And he'd been writing this memoir. And originally, I was going to just try and help him get it made into a movie, maybe produce it. And it was more a function - it was not guilt as much as impatience that I think, you know - for about a year we were sending it to various writers that - you know, we had put together these lists of writers that we really admire and writers that we would love to take a crack at it and maybe some directors that might. But it turns out those people are loved and admired by many people and many people with money who already have them working on a lot of other projects. So given that I thought this story was so relevant and should be told as a current event and not as an artifact of history, it really became - my impatience with sort of the glacial process that drove me into writing it.

GROSS: My guest is Jon Stewart. His new film "Rosewater" opens tomorrow. Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us - my guest is Jon Stewart, and he wrote and directed the new film "Rosewater," which opens tomorrow. It's interesting that you decided to do, you know, a serious film as opposed to a comedy as your directorial debut because you always describe yourself as a comic. Like, people like me say, no, you're really a journalist, too, and you go, no, I'm really, (laughter) really a comic.

STEWART: Right.

GROSS: But, you know, this is - there's a lot of, like, absurd elements in the story, you know...

STEWART: Yes.

GROSS: ...Absurdities that are inherent in the story. But the film is by no means a comedy. So did you feel like you were drawing on, like, different muscles and different sections of your brain to do the film?

STEWART: That's interesting, you know. It's not so much different sections of the brain because I think the process of drama is not particularly different from the process of comedy, you know, in terms of - you know, there were times I think I had to restrain myself, you know. I think there's always the sense, when you're a comic, you know, hey you know what would go well in this scene? A banana peel - why don't we stick that right on the floor, you know? And so trying - there was maybe exercising a certain amount of restraint more than it was completely operating in an alien environment or an alien medium because the process of breaking a story, of deconstructing the narrative, of creating that narrative arc is not so different from what we do on a daily basis at the show and the collaborative nature of the production. You know, obviously, it's not ephemeral in the way that topical comedy might be but it's certainly - I never felt like, so this is what it's like to be serious.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEWART: You know, it always - you know, there's underpinning satire is always a sense that you have a visceral reaction to something or that you truly care about an issue that you're trying to satirize.

GROSS: And on your show, there's often a lot at stake. I mean, usually somebody isn't put in prison as a result of one of your sketches, but you're dealing with real people and real issues that are very important, so.

STEWART: Right, right. And in the sense that people would say like, you know, the fake news man becomes a real director - like...

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEWART: ...We're not - we're making jokes about - we don't - we're not creating false news. We're making jokes about things that are actually happening.

GROSS: I think you're a great team with Maziar Bahari because you're a comedian who's deeply immersed in journalism, and he's a journalist who happens to be very funny.

STEWART: Very funny. And has a great sense of humor and a great cultural reference point, and I always feel culturally illiterate whenever I'm near him because no matter who we're talking to - I think we were - there was a journalist we were speaking to who I think was Hungarian and had been there. He left, and he said, well, you know, I came to America from Hungary. Obviously, Maziar immediately jumped into it - it was probably 1956? Did you know Kessler? You know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEWART: And they all started talking about Hungarian films. And I'm just sitting there like, has anybody seen "Police Academy Four"?

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEWART: Anybody want to throw a Guttenberg reference in here because then I'll - then I can join the conversation.

GROSS: You shot the movie in Jordan because you couldn't very well go to Iran. They would've probably put you in jail (laughter).

STEWART: Yes.

GROSS: Probably, right? So...

STEWART: It's so hard to say, but they definitely would not have granted us a permit to film.

GROSS: Yes. So how did Jordan become the place to shoot?

STEWART: Well, there was, you know, the real consideration there is, how do you find a place that can stand in for the variety of exteriors that you're going to need? And those exteriors range from, you know, Maziar's mother's neighborhood, which is sort of a middle-class neighborhood in Tehran, and Robat Karim, which is a lower-class neighborhood in Tehran, and then some of the campaign headquarters and just some of the general cafes and things like that. And then you have the practical considerations, which are - we don't have any money. So it's not as though we can re-create any of it. It's not as though we could shoot a few exteriors in Jordan and then come back to New York and shoot the rest in New York.

GROSS: When Maziar Bahari was in Evin Prison in Iran when they were holding him as a political prisoner, the interrogator told him, we can find you anywhere - we can put you in a bag no matter where in the world you are - no one can escape from us. And Maziar says that the interrogator's parting words to him when Maziar was getting out of prison was, remember the bag. So was...

STEWART: Yeah. They actually asked him out to coffee, if you can imagine. You know, they - after he was released from prison, before he actually left the country - so this is in sort of the three- or four-day period that he was still there. His interrogator and Haj Agha, who was the boss, took him out for tea and cake. And they sat in the cafe and had tea and cake. It's absurd.

GROSS: Yeah.

STEWART: And said to him, by the way, just to let you know, we can always bring you back in a bag and, you know, enjoy the sponge cake. So it's a truly terrifying situation that he found himself in.

GROSS: So was he on the set with you in Amman, or was Amman, Jordan, too close to Iran for him to feel safe?

STEWART: No, no, no. Maziar was there the entire - the only time that he was gone - there were certain scenes. Some of the scenes that we did, you know, that involved his sister. He was very close to his sister, and I think those were still emotionally - I think if there was anything that was too close, it was the emotional feeling he still had surrounding his sister and his feelings in that regard, and so he wasn't on set for those scenes. And then he was back in London, I think, for a couple of days on some business matters - some personal matters. But for the most part, he was there the entire time. And he does not restrict his travel. He's relentless, and I think feels that part of the process of transforming his ordeal into something more positive is reclaiming his freedom and reclaiming expression. And, you know, they also told him, you know, when you get out, you say nothing. You know? I think literally on the plane as he was flying back to London, he was composing the article he was going to write for Newsweek and part of his memoir.

GROSS: I really admire him.

STEWART: He's a brave dude.

GROSS: Yeah. What kind of security did you have on the set in Amman, Jordan?

STEWART: Mostly Maziar.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEWART: He's also a very tough dude. Nobody knows, you know. Nobody has that thick a head of black hair and can't handle himself in a street fight. I mean, I think generally, most sets have, I guess, security or people watching the stuff so nobody takes your camera - that sort of thing but nothing out of the ordinary. You know, conditions on the ground in Jordan are not in any way volatile. They were not, you know - the Syrian Civil War was about 50 miles away and - but the general tenor of Amman is very calm. And when we were in the Jordanian prison, when we were in the actual prison, there were prison guards around.

GROSS: Jon Stewart will be back in the second half of the show. His new film "Rosewater" opens tomorrow. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jon Stewart. The film that he shot last year during his leave from "The Daily Show" opens in theaters tomorrow. It's called "Rosewater" and it marks his debut as a screenwriter and film director. It's adapted from a memoir by journalist Maziar Bahari, who was born and grew up in Iran. When he returned to Iran to cover the 2009 election and the subsequent protests against the government, he was arrested, imprisoned for 118 days, beaten and accused of spying. One of the things presented as evidence that he was a spy was his appearance in a satirical report on "The Daily Show." Jon Stewart shot his film "Rosewater" in Amman, Jordan. You shot in a functioning prison.

STEWART: Yes.

GROSS: That's...

STEWART: That was...

GROSS: That's weird, right? I mean, there were actual prisoners in prison where you were shooting?

STEWART: Yes. Yeah, so it's not like shooting on the street where people come up and go hey, what are you guys filming? Like, you don't get - there's not, you know, you don't have prisoners coming up like hey, is this a commercial? It looks awesome. Who's in it? Am I in it? Am I in solitary, what did I do? Did I kill somebody? What - what's going on? Do you need extras? You don't get any of that. They're more just looking at you like, really? You're shooting a film here about prison? Great, that's great.

GROSS: What kind of prison is it?

STEWART: It's very - it was more modern. You know, you kind of had your choice. We did our requies, you know. We had our choice of where there were sort of the more the darkened dungeon, the older prisons where you got the sense, you know, kind of the ghost of the anguished cries of people that had been held there. And there were sort of the more modern, more antiseptic prisons. And Maziar was very clear that Evin was more along the lines of this bureaucratic, institutionalized prisons and much less of that kind of "Midnight Express" vibe.

GROSS: Who did you have to convince in Jordan to allow you to shoot in the prison?

STEWART: That's an excellent question. And from what I understand, you know, Jordan has a sort of a new - it's nascent, but a flourishing film industry. So it's not as though they had never had somebody from a film crew come in and say hey, we're doing a film. Jordan generally stands in for films that deal with this type of subject matter. So they're, you know, I think they would've been more surprised if I came over and said hey, can we use Jordan to shoot a rom-com? I've got Sandra Bullock and I've got Ryan Reynolds and here's what I want them to do - I want them to meet cute outside a hummus cafe. And, you know, I think if we had done that, they would've been more surprised. But for an American crew to go over there - hey, do you have a prison we could borrow? I think they were pretty accustomed to that.

GROSS: So you shot during Ramadan, right?

STEWART: Yes, I wanted to make sure that every challenging thing that could happen to us - I wanted to make sure it was summer; I wanted to make sure it was really hot, and I wanted to make sure that the crew was fasting. And during Ramadan, you know, in a Sunni country, they pray five times a day. And in a Sunni country, generally the mosques are, you know, 250 yards apart. You know, if we had shot in Iran, they pray - in the Shia country they would pray three times a day and there really are not that many, you know, mosques with loudspeakers and all that. So we also had the call to prayer. And within that there were usually special, different prayers that they would do during Ramadan; like the one for the iftar, which is the break of the fast at night, would be a little bit longer. And we had our sound man, Falah, was very devout. And so we could always turn to him and say what do we got here Fallah? And he would say, this first prayer is two minutes. Then you would wait a minute. Then there will be 15 minutes. You know, so we would always have to judge our production schedule based on that.

GROSS: When you were filming - or at least part of when you were filming when you were working in Jordan - you grew a beard. And I always wondered whether that was because, like, there's no time to shave or whether it was a way of, like, fitting in, you know?

STEWART: (Laughter) I was that busy, Terry. I did not have the two and a half minutes that it might take to ground down - it - let me tell you something...

GROSS: Yes?

STEWART: Here's what that was.

GROSS: Yes?

STEWART: Fifteen years of having to go on the air and where a suit and shave, it really did feel like, you know, one of those things like hey man, I'm Bear Grylls. I'm naked and out in the desert, man. I'm going to let my freak flag fly. I was unaware, you know, since it had been so long, I had - I was unaware of just how I had gone from sort of, you know, having a Timothy Busfield beard to just going flat out Moses. Like, I went flat out in just gray and long. And I just felt like wow, I should study at some point. I really felt like I could walk into a rabbinical college and they would just automatically grant me a doctorate, just sort of out of pure and utter biblical lookingness.

GROSS: You know, one of the things I always ask myself when I see a movie or read a memoir about somebody who is imprisoned for political reasons and is tortured, it's like, could I possibly withstand that?

STEWART: Right.

GROSS: And I'm sure that's a question you had to ask yourself. While working closely...

STEWART: Yes.

GROSS: ...With Maziar, who I think has probably become a very close friend of yours as well as, like, a working partner. And then...

STEWART: Yes.

GROSS: ...You know, as the writer and director, you had to put yourself in his shoes, that's part of your job. So when you asked yourself if you were literally in his shoes if you could've withstood that, what did it make you think about? And do you think you could have?

STEWART: In that scenario - in that hypothesis, and I have replayed it many times, I tend not to fare that well. I tend not to be the hero of that story. I tend to break relatively quickly as I imagine it going through. But I also think that it's very difficult to place yourself under that type of circumstance and duress through pure imagination and true hypothesis. I think Maziar's ability to retain his sense of humor - he - in some ways he was the canary in the coal mine of something that I thought for a long time, which is that humor survives in the bleakest of conditions. And in some ways not only survives in the bleakest of conditions, but, you know, how there's the old laughter is the best medicine. And I always think, yes, except for, of course, medicine. Medicine's really...

GROSS: Yeah.

STEWART: ...A very good medicine. I think the idea that under these incredibly harsh conditions not only did his humor survive, his humor sustained him. And I found that incredibly empowering to an extent in that I always felt that, you know, people always say, you know, is that an appropriate joke? Is it appropriate to joke about that subject? And I always want to say not only is it appropriate to joke about that subject, but I think it's essential to joke about it because, you know, I always have the sense that even in the darkest of times - you know, I've always had the experience at funerals or in times of great worry, a joke you can kind of reenergize or reconfigure a room or bring people back to life to some extent. And his ability to do that for himself in the absence of audience, I thought was remarkable. I think that humor played a really important role for Maziar in sustaining himself throughout that kind of ordeal, and I found that gratifying.

GROSS: Well, you know, you said that humor sustaining him even in the absence of an audience. But that's really interesting in the sense that comedy is something that works best when it's shared with somebody. It doesn't to be an audience. It could just be a friend or a stranger who you're sharing an observation with. But...

STEWART: Right.

GROSS: ...How sustaining is humor when it's just you all alone? And...

STEWART: Right.

GROSS: ...Certainly the interrogator isn't in on the joke (laughter). That's not going...

STEWART: But that is...

GROSS: ...To be helpful.

STEWART: That's the dissociative nature of solitary confinement. And that is the challenge of solitary confinement...

GROSS: Yeah.

STEWART: ...Because Maziar had to create the entire ecosystem with which he could survive in. And so the way that he did it - you know, one of the things that's also interesting about it is humor is the antidote to dogma and to this kind of certainty of truth that an interrogator would have...

GROSS: You're describing all the reasons why, you know, we all love your show so...

STEWART: Oh, I don't know. This is under a very separate circumstances and very real circumstances...

GROSS: No, no, I understand. I understand.

STEWART: But so within that, he's now falling back on all of these things that kind of create his humanity - his love of culture, his love of his family. His ability to know that if they were there, these are the things that he would be sharing with them. It was sort of that idea of creating kind of a rich tapestry of all those memories and then beginning to interact with those memories in a way that you would if they were there. So it's sort of a magic trick. It's a conjuring of sorts.

GROSS: My guest is Jon Stewart. His new film "Rosewater" opens tomorrow. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jon Stewart. He wrote and directed the new film "Rosewater," which opens tomorrow.

There's a scene in which his driver, who is somewhat of an activist against the authoritarian government and he's part of the green movement, the opposition movement?

STEWART: Yes, Davood.

GROSS: Yeah, Davood. So he says - Davood says to Maziar - who's not only a print journalist, Maziar was also filming things for, I guess it was the BBC?

STEWART: Right.

GROSS: Davood says to him, pointing to the camera, you have a real weapon and you choose not to use that.

STEWART: Right.

GROSS: Was that something that somebody actually said to Maziar? Or is that something you wrote for him to say?

STEWART: No. That is a construct that I - you know, when you talk about, you know, his memoir is an impression of his time in prison and then this film is sort of an impression of that impression so it’s already twice removed. You know, one of the things that I did do, you know - and I talked about it at length with Maziar was I made him a more passive character in the beginning of the film, you know, to give him some agency. So because for narrative emphasis, you know, I wanted so much of the film and the subtext of it to be the idea, the act of bearing witness and to create that as an active choice so although Maziar had been working there for 12 years, he had been doing documentary films. He had been teaching young activists how to shoot, how to be journalists. By creating him as a slightly more passive character, we could create that moment. So that moment, that narrative moment of standing by the wall saying you have a real weapon and you choose not to use it is more, I think, addressed to the audience than to Maziar because the reality of Maziar is not that, but in that moment he stands in for the audience.

GROSS: If somebody said that to you, that you have a weapon, you have a TV show, you have a microphone, you have cameras, you have a podium to speak to the nation, it's a weapon - use it as such. What would you say?

STEWART: I think I use it as best I can. I think I use it in the best iteration that I know how. Bearing witness has its limitations as activism as well. That doesn't mean that if you have the opportunity to do it, you don't do it. That being said, with the understanding that it will be unsatisfying to some people either that we don't use it to enough of an activist role, or that we do it in too ham-handed a way or that we concentrate too much on the humor and not enough on the reality...

GROSS: Well, if you do sometimes see the show as a weapon, a weapon against what?

STEWART: I don't see it as a weapon as much as I see it as a conversation. A conversation - a weapon against dogma, if you want to look at it in that regard, but I see all these shows as, you know, in some ways a weapon against complacency or, you know - and some could argue that it actually increases the complacency. So it's an awfully complex ecosystem and it doesn't exist, you know, on its own. It's very difficult, you know, we don't ever view ourselves on the ramparts. You know, we live in a country where satire is settled law so we're not fighting against the kinds of censorship and parameters that somebody like Maziar or somebody like my friend Bassem Youssef in Egypt would've been fighting against. That takes away one level of urgency from what you're doing.

GROSS: I'm glad you brought up Bassem Youssef. Bassem Youssef has been called Egypt's Jon Stewart.

STEWART: I've actually been called America's Bassem Youssef.

GROSS: (Laughter). His show is often compared to "The Daily Show." I think he's called you his model right? Hasn't he?

STEWART: You know, I think he watched our show and began to function off of it that way.

GROSS: Yeah. So while you were in the Middle East shooting your film you went to Cairo to be a guest on Bassem Youssef's show.

STEWART: Correct.

GROSS: And this was just days before Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by the military. Bassem no longer has his show. He's been pulled from the air.

STEWART: Correct.

GROSS: Is he in prison now or anything?

STEWART: He is not in prison. He was arrested during that time, but he is not in prison...

GROSS: Good.

STEWART: ...And he can still travel and he goes and he does, but they have effectively silenced him and not just from his show but from op-eds. You know, there is a very strong state media now that is in place that will really attack in vicious and relentless ways anybody who speaks out against what they might see as an authoritarian regime and so he has, I think, suffered greatly under that and it's really a shame because again, his voice was revolutionary there. His voice really did contain a way of thinking about - and a way of critical thinking about something through humor that had not been seen there before and I think it's why it was so popular and so galvanizing at the time and that's why my admiration for him and for Maziar is so great. They do what I do, but they do it with real consequence.

GROSS: You visited a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, as well. Why did you want to go to the Syrian refugee camp?

STEWART: You know, I think when I felt a responsibility to - you know I'd just done a film about, you know, the responsibility of bearing witness and I felt that I couldn't be that close to something that outrageous and not see it and not see the effects of the chaos that in some ways, you know, our country had a hand in unleashing in that area. But the sense you have in people's ability to endure - and especially within the camp, at Zaatari in Syria - these were accountants and businessmen and shop keepers who had just been displaced in a moment's notice because of this violent civil war and find themselves in corrugated tin sheds in the middle of a desert in Jordan and you know, you could turn to despair or you could go, all right, how am I going to get electricity?

GROSS: One of the big shifts of doing a movie I would imagine is switching from a daily show to a long-term project like film.

STEWART: Right.

GROSS: Was it a long period of overlap between the two when you were writing the film and still doing "The Daily Show," but for the shoot, you know, you were able to take a leave?

STEWART: Right.

GROSS: But, you know, just from my experiences doing a daily show there's a certain amount of delusion involved, like at the end of the show you go, yay - it's done.

STEWART: (Laughter). Do you really? I would like to see Terry Gross say yay at the end of the show.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But then there's this voice in the back of your head saying like, are you kidding - there's another show tomorrow and you'd better start working on it.

STEWART: Yeah man, no saver. You get no saver.

GROSS: But there's that moment of delusion where go, oh, it's done - and you never get that, I imagine, making a film so that's also probably like recalibration, where you have to get into this mindset of like, it's going to be a real, real long time before this is done.

What was that like for you, taking on a long-term project?

STEWART: Right. What's so seductive, I think, about doing a daily show is exactly that - that sense of accomplishment at the end of the day where you sort of get the sense that man, we did it. It is that rhythm of completion that I think is very seductive and very rewarding within that. I think part of the issue with the film is, I didn't realize at each turn how much further I had to go and I think sometimes it's sort of that sense of - do you know when you're lost on a highway and you feel like you're in this strange limbo-land until you get back to that exit that you knew, now you're back on track?

GROSS: The familiar thing.

STEWART: That's exactly right so until you get back to that tent post, you feel as though you're in kind of a strange limbo of time is not passing, distance is not passing because I'm lost. When you're lost - and there was a little bit of that, you know? When I finished the script, I felt like, I'm done. And obviously, then you have to cast it and it's a constant process of revision and revisiting, but the rewarding aspect of that is I felt like at each turn there were opportunities to improve it.

GROSS: My guest is Jon Stewart. His new film "Rosewater" opens tomorrow.

Let's take a short break then we'll talk more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jon Stewart. And he wrote and directed the new movie "Rosewater," which opens tomorrow. So your contract with "The Daily Show" was up, I think, at the end of next year, and everybody is wondering if you're going to renew or not. I'm not going to ask you. You probably - you might not know. And even if you did, I wouldn't expect you to tell us. But I'm just thinking of the difficult spot that you're in because, you know, maybe you want to try something else, especially after having done this film. Maybe you're a little, you know, restless. On the other hand, you're so darn good at doing "The Daily Show."

STEWART: (Laughter) That's kind of you.

GROSS: And it's like people like me, I mean, I feel so conflicted. I want you to be happy.

STEWART: Oh, thank you, Terry. How kind of you.

GROSS: I want you to do whatever - wherever your heart takes you, Jon Stewart.

STEWART: Thank you, Terry Gross.

GROSS: I want you to go.

STEWART: You're very kind.

GROSS: But at the same time, I really - I like, really, don't want you to leave.

STEWART: Well, that's very kind of you, and it's nice to hear. It's much better than I would like you to leave. That would be a lot worse to hear.

GROSS: You know, so you've got that pull. But you've got that pull. You've got fans like me, like, you know, wanting to keep you in place. And then also, like, you must know someplace in your mind that, like, you're so darn good at it. Like, you created this thing that has so caught on - that has kind of changed the nature of political satire in America. There's all these offshoots of it now on television, including "John Oliver Show," "The Colbert Report" - and I know that's about to end. "Larry Wilmore Show"...

STEWART: Right.

GROSS: You're an executive producer of that. So, anyways, I'm just wondering about the conflict that maybe you'd be feeling about knowing how special this thing is that you've created and yet perhaps wanting to do something else.

STEWART: I think that's, you know - it's always difficult. I do feel like I don't know that there will ever be anything that I will ever be as well-suited for as this show. That being said, I think there are moments when you realize that that's not enough anymore or that maybe it's time for some discomfort. And sometimes, the comfort of that, you know, I'll never - I'm certainly convinced that I'll never find the type of people that I've been able to work with in that environment and be able to have that feeling of utilizing sort of every part of something that I think I can do. I felt like I utilized to full capacity on that show. And I'm still really proud.

I think there's a tendency when something's been on the air for really long time to dismiss it only because of its familiarity. And it's hard to retain that first blush of love that you have when you first find something that takes you, whether it be, you know, artistic material or music or other things. But I'm still really proud of the work we do day in and day out and hold up some of the bits that we've done recently to anything that we've done in the history of the program.

And so that is the difficulty, is when do you decide that even though it's this place of great comfort and you feel like you're plugged into it like you've never been plugged into anything else that you've ever done, you know, is there also a part of you that, you know - there are other considerations of family or even in the sense of just not wanting to be on television all the time. You know, there are - you can't just stay in the same place because it feels like you've built a nice house there. And that's really the thing that I struggle with.

I will - the minute I say I'm not going to do it anymore, I will miss it like crazy. And I will consider that to be a terrible mistake that I have just made. And I will want to grab it back. That being said, you know, the moment I sign on for more, I might feel as though - it's sort of like that scene - you know, you ever see with George Costanza - not to go back to "Seinfeld," but I'm going to go back to "Seinfeld."

GROSS: Yeah.

STEWART: George Costanza - do you remember he went out with Susan?

GROSS: Yeah.

STEWART: And they broke up. And then he decided he was going to ask her to get back together, and he was going to marry her. And he was all excited, and he did it. And she took him back. And there's that scene of him walking up the stairs with her to the apartment. And the minute he starts walking up the stairs, he goes what have I done? This is the worst thing I've ever done. I've to get out of this relationship.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEWART: That's what you're trying to balance with.

GROSS: Right.

STEWART: But that being said, you know - you said earlier - you're in this sort of unfortunate position. I would say that I'm in the most fortunate position. I cannot tell you how fortunate I have been in this business to have worked with people like Stephen and John Oliver and Larry Wilmore and the writers and producers that we have at the show and all the opportunities that I have. And I consider it gravy, everything. You know, I hate to even get maudlin or weepy about it, but it's been - it's so far exceed my expectations of what this business would be like for me.

GROSS: Jon Stewart wrote and directed the new film "Rosewater." I have some good news. We recorded more than we had time for in today's broadcast. So we plan on playing part two of my interview with Jon Stewart next week, probably Wednesday. In that part, we talk more about "The Daily Show."

Jon Stewart's new film "Rosewater" opens in theaters tomorrow. There's a special "Rosewater" live event tonight. In select movie theaters, there will be a screening of the film followed by a live theater cast of Jon Stewart talking about the film with Stephen Colbert and special guest Maziar Bahari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.