One on One with Jon Stewart: Taking the jump from ‘The Daily Show’ to ‘Rosewater’

TELLURIDE – Mr. Stewart, if you read this article I believe the first few paragraphs may make you chuckle. Now, it's not because I'm a master wordsmith or unheralded comedic voice waiting to be discovered. No, after saying goodbye after our memorable interview on the patio of a Telluride restaurant Sunday afternoon, I turned and walked toward the street with my iPhone in hand. I'd stopped the recording of our chat and two choices appeared before me: delete or save. And, perhaps like a crazy person, I hit delete.

Then I realized I hit delete.

At that point, it was a mad dash back to my accommodations to jot down as much as I remembered from our conversation. Granted, this is something that has happened to the best reporters and journalists out there. Many times readers will read stories online or in print without realizing the content came from immediate memory. But, when you've made a movie about a journalist who spent 118 days in an Iranian jail being tortured for reporting the truth?  Well, not revealing that beforehand isn't gonna fly.

And, again, this might make you smile before you and your “Daily Show” staff try and try to find laughs in Israel's land grab in the West Bank for your next show.

As for our discussion on your new movie “Rosewater”…


There is a reason filmmakers such as Ken Burns, Alexander Payne and Alejandro González Iñárritu have returned to Telluride year after year, even when they have no films to screen. It's one of the rare film festivals in the world where the talent actually has time to see the other movies playing. That has not been the case for “Rosewater” director and screenwriter Jon Stewart.

The Emmy and Peabody Award winning host of “The Daily Show” made his first visit to Telluride this year, but has been so busy doing Q&As and interviews for his new movie he's had no time for fun. During an interview Sunday afternoon, I asked him if he was in “trouble” because of it and with a sheepish look that viewers around the world have seen for 15 years he replied, “Yes.”  You see, Stewart's former “Daily Show” colleague Steve Carell is also making his first sojourn to the annual Labor Day festival in honor of his own film, “Foxcatcher,” and he'd already seen Stewart's “Rosewater.” Ouch.

To be frank, Stewart didn't need to jump into filmmaking as a career move. He's a television and political icon for his work on “The Daily Show,” he's hosted the Academy Awards twice and he's a best-selling author. He's the first to admit that directing a movie was not on his bucket list.  

As much as Stewart realizes he is a content creator, a “Daily Show” book is much easier than considering a “Daily Show” movie. It's clear he's thought about it, but “how do you make it work?” More bluntly, he also made the analogy that the worlds of television and film are like different countries at EPCOT Center. “Japan doesn't necessarily know what's going on in Germany,” he said. That all changed when Maziar Bahari's memoir “The Came for Me” was being written.

Bahari, a noted journalist and documentary filmmaker, had been a guest on “The Daily Show” before being arrested in Tehran in 2009. The Iranian government accused him of being a spy for the CIA, MI6, Mossad and — no joke — Newsweek.  During his three-month incarceration, Bahari was psychologically and physically tortured by an interrogator he nicknamed “Rosewater,” since he seemed to douse himself with it as cologne. Eventually, political and media pressure from around the world and the realization they could only play mind games with him for so long led to Bahari's release.  

At first, Bahari passed along early galleys of his novel, which led Stewart's production company to option the movie rights. But, unlike television, it wasn't a fast process. Stewart says they came up with 23 writers to potentially adapt the book. One wasn't available, “because, well, he was good.”  Another had other projects they were working on. Finally, Stewart just decided to jump in and adapt it himself. Eventually, that found him unexpectedly sitting in the director's chair.

“Rosewater,” the movie, finds Gael García Bernal playing Bahari and is as faithful as a movie can be with one notable exception. Stewart made the choice to focus more on the mind games Rosewater attempted than the physical torture. The latter is certainly present, but Stewart believes by focusing on the psychological he was able to avoid the cliche “movie torture” scenes and was better versed in making the institutionalization more prevalent. When you watch “Rosewater,” the torture rooms are clean and almost seem like professional doctors' offices at a clinic. Rosewater himself is just a cog in Iranian's political machine doing his job. Stewart does not justify his actions in the film, but makes it clear he wasn't a robot because Bahari saw him partially as bureaucrat as well.

[During the middle of our chat, Bahari comes by with a paper bag for Stewart. We both think it's a sandwich for lunch, but instead turns out to be two Telluride snow globes as presents for Stewart's kids.]

Many filmmakers have the luxury of taking six months or even a year for pre-production on a movie. Stewart did not, but says he thinks there was a benefit from having to prep the movie while also still hosting, writing and producing “The Daily Show.” It may have actually allowed him to focus more once he got on set.

Asked whether he's been bitten by the “directing bug,” Stewart said he has nothing in the works, but is certainly open to it. “I honestly don't know what I'm doing on Monday,” he joked.

Lastly, because of the film's political and historical perspective, I asked him the age old question: “What do you want people to come away with after seeing the movie?” Often, this is a lazy thing to ask a filmmaker or actor, but it seemed appropriate in this case.

Stewart seemed genuinely puzzled as I appear to have been the first person to ask. He replied that he had spent so much time thinking about “Rosewater's” thematic structure that this wasn't something he'd thought about. Eventually, he said he hopes audiences will take from Bazhir's story that this treatment of the press isn't just happening in Iran, but all over the world.

At that point our time was over and so were Stewart's media commitments for the day. Was he able to see both “Birdman” and “Foxcatcher” later that night? Let's hope so, because he's in for quite a culture shock when he heads to his second film festival, Toronto, next week. That's where the red carpets of screaming fans and paparazzi begin.

“Rosewater” opens in limited release on Nov. 7.