Jon Stewart, first-time filmmaker, is no joke

AP, Sunday 7 Sep 2014

Jon Stewart
This image released by Open Road Films shows from left, Gael Garcia Bernal, First Assistant Cameraman Michael Burke, and Jon Stewart on the set of "Rosewater." (Photo: AP)

On "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart has frequently made a punchline out of his movie career.

When movie stars come on the show, Stewart often happily mocks his own film credentials, the ones largely from his days before becoming a revered late-night host: "Half Baked," ''Big Daddy," etcetera.

That may need to change. This fall, Stewart is releasing his directorial debut, "Rosewater," a film that he also wrote about an Iranian journalist for Newsweek who was imprisoned in Iran after reporting on the 2009 elections there.

"The key is to not be in it," says Stewart. "As long as I'm not in it, I think everything works out OK."

And "Rosewater" is more than OK. Even those consistently blown away by Stewart's comedic talent will be surprised at the sturdiness of his unexpected transition into moviemaking. "Rosewater," which stars Gael Garcia Bernal as Maziar Bahari, was made largely with an adept naturalist feel despite Stewart's inexperience.

"This was not on my radar," said Stewart in an interview ahead of the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film, first screened earlier in the week at the Telluride Film Festival, has already been received warmly by critics and festivalgoers.

Stewart had an unlikely connection to Bahari's story. When "The Daily Show" sent correspondent Jason Jones to do to a piece out of Iran in 2009, all three of the people they talked to — including Bahari — were arrested. The footage from the show was used — laughably but also terrifyingly — as evidence of Bahari being a spy for the West.

"We were in very uncharted territory," says Stewart. "There are sometimes real world consequences to putting out satire. I think (Bassem Youssef, who hosts a "Daily Show"-like program in Egypt), my friend in Egypt, helped open my eyes to that. So when that happened, we were really rocked."

Bahari was released after 118 days in prison and went on to write a memoir about it, "Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity and Survival."

Stewart, who became friends with Bahari, sought to find a screenwriter to adapt it. After not finding anyone in four months, an impatient Stewart decided to write it, himself.

"It wasn't just happenstance. I really believed in the story," says Stewart. "The source material was so beautifully done that that was a large part of the passion for it. I was very taken by the material, whether or not I had had this strange, tertiary role in the story."

Stewart shot the film last summer on an extended break from "The Daily Show," during which John Oliver filled in. He credits his international cast, which also included Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo (Bahari's mother) and Danish actor Kim Bodnia (Bahari's interrogator), with making things easier for him.

"We didn't have much time," he says. "We didn't have much money. It was 95 degrees. It was Ramadan. I had never done it before."

The film, produced by Hollywood heavyweight Scott Rudin, will be released Nov. 7 by Open Road Films.

"Hopefully, it's just an evolution of your ability to work, to complete things that you hadn't tried before," Stewart says of his unplanned career deviation. "Stand-up is sort of the single atomic building block of everything else that we try to do. You hopefully progress and learn from enough talented people around you to get better. As you get better, you see if you can weave things in that are a little more complex and less ephemeral."

Does Stewart think he'll make another movie?

"It depends," he says, "on who else I can get arrested."

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