Asghar Farhadi on How COVID Left a Mark on His Oscar Contender ‘A Hero’

TheWrap magazine: The Iranian director was able to erase physical signs of the pandemic, but the delays gave him months more in the rehearsal time he loves

A Hero

A version of this story about Asghar Farhadi and “A Hero” first appeared in the International issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Iran has won two awards in the last decade in the Oscars Best International Feature Film category, and both came from director Asghar Farhadi: “A Separation” in 2011 and “The Salesman” in 2016. So it’s no surprise that the country submitted Farhadi’s new drama, “A Hero,” to this year’s race.

The film, which premiered in Cannes and was picked up by Amazon, deals with a man who’s been sent to prison for an unpaid bill. He finds a bag of gold coins in Farhadi’s understated drama, but a subsequent act of altruism only complicates matters. As usual for the director, the simple story conceals a complex morality play. Farhadi sat down with TheWrap to discuss the new project.

After shooting “Everybody Knows” in Spain, you’ve returned to Iran for “A Hero.” Was that a deliberate choice?
Yes. I was completely sure that I would go from that movie to come back to Iran. I like to make my movies more in Iran, to be honest. I was born there, and I feel like I have more control and understanding of the situation. When I work outside Iran, I am looking at it as an experiment.

Have you had this story in mind for long?
I had the concept years ago. But two or three years ago, I started thinking about actually making the film, right after “Everybody Knows” came out. And because of the pandemic, writing and making it took a long time. We went into preproduction a couple of times but stopped it.

And maybe that helped, because it gave us more time in rehearsal and writing. But during production, the pandemic was very dangerous, and I was very stressed out about what was going to happen with the crew. And when the movie was over and I was looking at the backgrounds, everybody was wearing masks. We erased 350 people with masks in the background. In the movie there is no sign of corona anymore.

And you shot scenes in very crowded markets and public places.
I thought it would be impossible to do, really. But we had such a great crew that they made it happen. We were all in a hotel and we were not in touch with anybody outside, and on the set we were very cautious as well.

Did the story change much during the writing and rehearsal period?
In the rehearsal it didn’t change as much, but while we were working on it, the story changed over and over. It was a very simple story. It wasn’t like “A Separation” or “The Salesman,” which have a very high tension. And with such a simple story, I had to work on it to make the drama in it bolder.

Also, it’s a simple story, but it gets more complex as it goes, as we learn more and more. And what also makes it very tough is that there is a rule that this kind of filmmaking should be realism — but I wanted this to be exactly like life, which is harder than realism.

Asghar Farhadi (Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia for TheWrap)

What are the biggest challenges when you’re trying to make a movie exactly like life?
The biggest challenge is you put yourself in a situation that you call it the rule of life. Which means that you have to do a lot, but it should not be shown. It should all be invisible. It shouldn’t feel that the dialogue is written, it should feel that the actors are improvising the lines. And the construction of the film, the structure, should be very hidden. It’s very hard. If you want to make a movie that is not like real life, it’s easy to do. It’s the main character of the film that really reveals to you the kind of film it is. When the character is very simple, your narrative should be simple as well. But at the same time, I didn’t want the narrative to be lean, I wanted it to have layers.

Was social media a prominent part of the initial idea, as it is in the finished film?
When I started writing, I didn’t think that social media would be one of the themes of the film. It was the story of this guy who would do a good deed and it would be known in the region he was living in, and then problems would happen and there would be fallout. But in these days, even if somebody is known in a very small area, social media plays a huge role. And that’s how social media came into this. But I didn’t want to make social media the main subject of the film, because the movie doesn’t have enough time to really open up such a complex issue.

And the other problem was that I didn’t want to show social media directly in the film. I wanted to be in the corner somewhere in the film, and we just see the reflection.

You typically rehearse for a long time.

Was rehearsal on this film longer than usual?
In this film, I had rehearsal more than any other film. We were thinking about doing two months of rehearsal, but because of the pandemic we were delayed and it turned out to be 10 months. But in rehearsal we were not working on the script itself. We mostly worked on the backstories of the characters. We rehearsed everything that had happened before the movie starts. And when we got to shooting the film, the actors knew everything about their background already.

So the actors collaborated on the backstories?
Yes. Maybe one of the reasons they were so eager to be in this film was the rehearsal part, because it was exciting and fresh for them. They were very collaborative. If you would open the door and come to the place we were rehearsing, you would think we were doing a theater play. Nobody had a paper in their hand. Sometimes I would say to the actors, “OK, now you be Bahram and you be Rahim.” That way they would understand each other.

Does it get you to the point where you all think, “OK, we’re ready now?”
(Laughs) You never think that. When we had finished the rehearsal and we were ready to go to the city to shoot the film, some of the actors asked me, “Are you sure you’re ready?”

Like a kid, I love the process of rehearsing. When I rehearse, I really don’t follow the time anymore. My joy in filmmaking is not after the film is over and it’s out for people to see. When there are 40 or 50 people all around me and they’re trying to make something happen correctly, that’s the biggest happiness I get in my life.

Read more from the International Issue here.

Hand of God Wrap magazine cover
Photograph by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap