Jon Stewart Talks ‘Rosewater’ and the ‘Chickensh-t’ Democrats' Midterm Massacre

The host of The Daily Show sat down with Marlow Stern to discuss his directorial debut, U.S. diplomatic relations with Iran, and the Democrats’ midterm massacre.

Rick Kern/Getty Images for Comedy Central

As it turns out, the world’s preeminent “fake newsman” is also a pretty talented filmmaker. On June 10, 2013, Jon Stewart took a 12-week hiatus from hosting The Daily Show to direct his first feature film, Rosewater, which was adapted from former Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari’s autobiographical tome Then They Came for Me.

Stewart and Bahari have an interesting history. The Iranian-born journalist was in Iran in 2009 covering the 2009 presidential election for Newsweek magazine (The Daily Beast’s foreign editor, Christopher Dickey, was Bahari’s editor at the time). He was arrested on June 21st at his mother’s home in Tehran where he was staying, and shipped to a tiny cell in Evin Prison. There, he’s accused of being an agent for four intelligence agencies: CIA, MI6, Mossad, and (yes) Newsweek, and one of the pieces of evidence presented against him was a sketch Bahari did on The Daily Show where correspondent Jason Jones (jokingly) asks him repeatedly if he’s a spy.

Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) is beaten daily by his tormentor (Kim Bodnia), who he refers to as “Rosewater” for his fragrance, and who tells him he’ll “put your bones in a bag and throw it at your mother’s doorstep!” Other times, his tormentor is kind to him, offering him coffee and grilling him about the great state of New Jersey. After 118 days of imprisonment, due to mounting pressure by Newsweek, Bahari’s pregnant fiancée, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as his empty promise of spying for the Iranian government, Bahari was released.

The Daily Beast sat down with Stewart to discuss the film, the midterms—or what he refers to as “The Red Wedding,” and much more.

Iran’s been in the news again recently because of the letter Obama sent to the Supreme Leader of Iran about coordinating with one-another to help take down ISIS. And he’s been ripped by the right for it.

Wait… people are ripping Obama? That seems weird. Usually, he’s treated with such deference and respect. Let me guess: John McCain was one of them? And I’m sure he thought it projected “weakness,” right? Unlike his plan, which is of course, “Why don’t we bomb that area?” That always works out for us! It makes sense because in this country, the political is the reality, and that’s all some people can comprehend.

You mentioned ripping Obama, and Letterman had a bit the other night that went, “Take a look at this: gas under $3 a gallon—under $3 a gallon. Unemployment under 6%, whoever thought? Stock market breaking records every day. No wonder [Obama] is so unpopular.” It seems like, since we live in the sound bite era, grabby headlines like “EBOLA” and “ISIS” tend to drown out those numbers.

Obama! Well, look: We live in an era where campaigning trumps governance at every turn, so within that cycle, what’s more effective? Utilizing fear, or taking a reasoned approach to gradual, incremental change? We like shitting our pants—unless it’s things that really kill us, then we don’t do anything about it. Guns and the flu? We’re not gonna deal with that. Ebola? Let’s lock Africa in the closet and not let it out.

We are just coming off the midterm elections, too, where the Democrats got slaughtered. I believe you used the term “chickenshit” to describe the Dems, and “Red Wedding” to describe the midterms.

I think “chickenshit” is appropriate in this environment. As they say, “They took the beatin’.” You’re sort of baffled by it. They had a very distinct strategy which was: “We’re not going to make any decisions six months out so that we don’t put any pressure on our vulnerable senators from the red states.” So they were basically saying, “We’re not going to try to provoke people that already hate us anyway and are motivated to come out,” so their strategy was a defensive one of, “Let’s go in a crouch and hope they don’t kick us too hard in the face,” rather than going on the offensive and trying to motivate people who would actually care about them and vote for them.

With Rosewater, what was your reaction when you first heard Maziar Bahari was imprisoned, and that his Daily Show interview was being used as evidence against him?

Well, that we didn’t know. We knew he’d been jailed, and we knew that other people we’d interviewed in Iran had been jailed, but it’s not like they jailed three people. It was a street-sweep, and violence had broken out, and the government was cracking down. We never viewed it in the context of, “Oh, they’re finding people who did The Daily Show.” We viewed it in the context of, “Anybody who would talk to us is more than likely in the reformist movement in Iran, and more than likely in this type of protest, the government is going to round up reformist elements.” Our real concern was, “Is there something we could do? Should we keep talking about it, or not keeping talking about? Should we keep doing the pieces?” We were in touch with the team that was trying to get Maziar out and the team that was trying to get this gentlemen, Ebrahim Yazdi, out—we had Ebrahim Yazdi’s son on the show. We decided to continue to talk about it, continue to publicize it, and see if that puts any amount of pressure on the government.

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Was there any guilt, though? That you had played any type of role in Bahari’s imprisonment?

The real responsibility that I felt was not as a “make-good,” but I have such respect for Maziar and his memoir was so beautifully done. The fear was that I would let him down, not do a good job, and not tell his story with the integrity it deserves.

What was it like filming in Jordan? It’s not easy for American Jews to travel around the Middle East these days.

It was a hummus extravaganza! Garlic, mushroom, any kind of hummus you could ask for. It was incredible and there was great hospitality there, but at the same time, you’re 50 miles away from the Syrian border where a civil war had started, and there was great strategy going on there. Refugees were pouring over the border, and a lot of the people we were hiring as extras were Syrian and Iraqi refugees that were looking to get some work. You’re confronted by a reality and instability that you’re not accustomed to being witness to.

And you visited the refugee camps?

Yes. The Zaatari camp, but not all the camps. We flew into there and met the people and spoke with them. It’s an exercise in resilience and resourcefulness, because these were accountants and salespeople who’d been uprooted, and now found themselves living in corrugated sheds in the middle of the desert in Jordan. How do you survive that—mentally, physically, and emotionally? It was an incredible experience.

What were the biggest hiccups while directing your first feature?

Well, we walked in the first day and we’re shooting in a working Jordanian prison. There were still inmates there, and the last thing inmates in a prison want to see is somebody doing a dramatization of inmates in a prison. I don’t think they’re necessarily thrilled to have a crew in there going, “So, we’re going to reenact the shit you have to go through every single day!” It’s also a reminder that these are real people in hard situations.

I’m picturing a small guy in a Jordanian prison directing with a beret and megaphone.

Always, man. Gotta have the beret and megaphone if I want people to take me seriously!

How many takes are we talking here? Are you a 100-take guy, like Fincher?

No time no money, man! We had five weeks and it was a 30-day shoot, and we were shooting six days a week. It was a modest, $5 million budget, so it wasn’t easy. I was very fortunate that the actors, DP, and set designer I had were top-level. You’ve got someone like Shohreh Aghdashloo, an Academy Award nominated actress, who’s like, “Sure, I’ll come out to the desert in 100-degree weather during Ramadan for no money to be a part of this.” Everyone was very generous with their time, and their availability.

And after the film premiered in Telluride, you were accused by Iran State Media of being a “Zionist” CIA spy.

They’d already produced a pretty long, 60 Minutes-style piece that said I was a CIA and Mossad agent, and that we were producing this with our masters in the CIA, and that I could have an aircraft carrier if I wanted.

Mossad, eh? How’s your Krav Maga?

I just love the fact that they believe me to be enough of a physical specimen to be a part of those organizations! I always thought there was a bone density test or something to be able to get in.

Tone is very tough to manage. How did you balance the humor and the human drama? Because the film is surprisingly funny.

It’s always all going to be subjective, but I wanted the humor in it to be organic and not imposed and not a contrivance, so it’s all based in the reality of the absurd conditions that Maziar found himself. I didn’t want to add farcical elements or hyperbole in the way we do on the show because I thought it would distract from the reality of just how absurd things really were. I didn’t want people to be able to dismiss it and say, “Was that a real thing, or a thing that they just added?”

There’s a great joke in the film where the interrogator grills Bahari about New Jersey bathhouses. Now, I’m from New York so I’ve never had the distinct pleasure of visiting one of these fine establishments.

Oh baby, you are missin’ out! It’s a paradise. But I’ll tell you where it came from: New Jersey looms very large in the imagination of Iranians. If you work for the diplomatic mission here, whether the security apparatus or the diplomatic apparatus, the United States has a law that you can’t live further than 20 miles away, and 20 miles away is New Jersey, so for a lot of Iranians, their only knowledge of America is New Jersey; the New Jersey experience is “American.” So for people who haven’t been there, it looms as this touchstone of America and all the love and hate that goes along with it. Baby we were born to run!

Was it tough to leave The Daily Show for three months to shoot Rosewater? Any separation anxiety?

Let me think…. No! I’ve got a great group of people there, and I knew John [Oliver] would be flawless—his show is so great now, too—so I was never left with any trepidation about it of “Oh no, what will happen?” I knew. So, more or less, it was a gift that they gave.

Did you catch the filmmaking bug now? Are we going to see more Jon Stewart joints?

Well, I just view it as filmmaking, and not a separate profession from what I do on The Daily Show. I just hope I’ll continue to do work that lights a fire underneath me a little bit and gets me excited.

I understand your Daily Show contract is up in 2015. Are you going to stay, and what would make you continue to host the show?

It’s so hard to think about it in the crucible of finishing the movie up and everything else. It would be like making a decision about whether or not to keep exercising at mile 24 of a marathon. So, I’m gonna try and gain some distance and perspective so that when I make the decision, it’s not when my calves are cramping.