A door opens, a crime is committed, honor is transgressed, and the conflicts in a literary classic intertwine with a husband’s thirst for vengeance in bustling Tehran.

That’s how one of the most subtle-yet-audacious masters of cinema, Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi, pieces together a confrontation between traditionalism and mankind’s perpetually imperfect state in The Salesman.

Uninterested in rigid resolutions that could clearly categorize any of his characters as evildoers or saints, Farhadi prefers to tantalize audiences with nearly unbearable tension in order to showcase the motivations of all parties involved, which are never easy to judge or justify.

For The Salesman, which won the Best Actor and Best Screenplay awards at Cannes in 2016 and is now nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, Arthur Miller’s classic play acts as an indirect reflection of what Farhadi’s protagonists, two married theater actors, experience when their relationship is tested by an intruder in their new home. As fear paralyzes Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), the victim, her devoted partner, Emad (Shahab Hosseini), obsesses over finding a cure for her distress – even if the only satisfying answer seems to be destructive. Peeling off each layer of his characters’ psyche with perfectly measured force, the Iranian auteur elicits knockout performances from everyone involved and constructs a final act that is as electrifying as few other conclusions in recent memory.

Asghar Farhadi, photographed in Toronto by Fabrice Dall’Anese

Inevitably, with such an awe-inspiring career and the ability to create riveting drama from commonplace obstacles, the standards to which Asghar Farhadi’s work is held are unbelievably high, yet once again he demonstrates that his storytelling brilliance is still in its prime. Marriage, and the tribulations that come from such close interactions between two people who are meant to share everything and become a unit, has been his focus, and most of Farhadi’s films exist in that volatile flux between passionate affection and hateful disagreements.

Late last year, MovieMaker sat down with the director to discuss his battle with the blank page at the beginning of a new project and the strangeness of romantic love.

Asghar Farhadi (R) directs Shahab Hosseini (L) on the set of The Salesman. Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Walk us through your writing process, from the moment you sit down in front of the blank page. How do the complex stories in your films evolve and take shape?

Asghar Farhadi (AF): Always, before I sit down before the blank page, there’s a bunch of scattered things in my mind. They are unrelated to one another, but I somehow want them to all be in the film. And then, I begin establishing the links between these things. I never say what it is I’m going to be making a film about, what it is I’m going to try to say. I just attempt to start a multi-dimensional story when I sit down to write a treatment. I step back a little after writing, and then when I come back, I read it again to try to see what is this story talking about. Then, based on what I believe, I begin to rewrite and emphasize certain things to be bolder.

MM: The theater plays a significant role in the lives of your characters. You juxtapose Arthur Miller’s play with your narrative. Why was this necessary?

AF: One of my dreams, which seems to be at its height at the moment, has always been to work in the theater. Theater for me is like getting a check-up. Every so often you have to go and see where your strengths are and where you have problems. I haven’t had the time over the last few years, I haven’t been able to, but in this film, I had the opportunity to establish an indirect connection to it.

MM: Talk about the concept of secrets or the unknown about people that are so central to your films. You often avoid blatantly disclosing information about the story and the characters.

AF: I give all the information. I don’t give it directly. I leave clues. It’s like a path you want to take. You have a destination and a path to take, and there are signposts along the way that lead you to your destination. And that is why I feel that the information is a little bit hidden. For instance, if I had to say what the character of the prostitute is: We don’t see her the first time we go to her house, at the beginning of the film. We see that there is a kitten outside, and then later we see other clues in the middle of her things. This can, in an indirect way, be a clue to the fact that the character of the prostitute had a good relationship with animals, as in, “Once she left, the animals were waiting.” So I have been talking about that character, but not in a direct way. I think that pleasure of making these discoveries is really great for the viewer.

MM: In that sense, do you think that if everything is there, there are no secrets in the film?

AF: I think that the secrets of the film are taken away gradually. Everything in your life could be full of secrets. If something happens all of a sudden, imagine if, here we are seated, and I leave and I drop dead, and everything here, everything I’ve said, will suddenly take on a different meaning for you. Since I was wearing a white shirt, that must have been a signal of something. All of these small details take on a whole different dimension.

MM: Another central element of several of your films is marriage. What are your thoughts and ideas on marriage within the context of your work?

AF: Every screenplay that I have written or started to write, I notice afterwards is about family. To a certain point this is unconscious. Some of the best films I’ve seen have been about relationships among people. A family, in my opinion, is like an ocean, where you can dive and find very complex set of relationships. That a man and woman live together for such a long period of time in a place and share everything, that seems very mysterious and strange to me.

Taraneh Alidoosti in The Salesman

MM: During the final act of The Salesman my heart was beating out of my chest. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film before that made me so tense and was that physically affecting. 

AF: You know why this happened? Because in that place, you’re no longer a spectator. You have a sense of responsibility. You constantly want to speak, and say who is in the right. You are like a person seated in court while the judge, the accused, and the lawyers are arguing. You know all the facts, and there are some things that go through your mind and you want to say them, but you’re not allowed to. You look at the judge and you look at the accused. You’re constantly putting yourself in each person’s place. You become one of the characters in the story, and you suffer just as much as the characters.

MM: How do you achieve that without music?

AF: I actually think the music defuses the tension. There’s no music at a trial. This is a film, it’s not real life. But when there’s no music, it’s reality that’s putting that pressure on you.

MM: How does Death of a Salesman, the play, fit into the context of Iranian society? How can a play be translated into that context?

AF: I was looking for a play for this story. I read a bunch of plays, and I had to find a play with a subject that matched the story of my film. When I read Death of a Salesman, I realized that on top of the subject, there was something else that wasn’t in the other ones, and that was what really got me excited and surprised. My characters were in the play Death of a Salesman. The salesman, the old man that comes at the end, is the same as Willy Loman, and his wife, Linda, is the same as the woman with the child, the wife that comes at the end. The previous tenant, the prostitute, could be the prostitute that Willy Loman sleeps with in the play. It was so strange to me how part of the life of these characters was in this play.

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in The Salesman

MM: And at the same time, Shahab and Taraneh are also playing those characters. Does it become more complex because of this?

AF: You’re acting the parts of two characters that you end up coming across in real life on stage, and this is what makes judgment so much harder. You try and play these parts on stage in such a way that makes the public empathize with them. Now, here you are confronted with them, and you yourself hate them. It’s as though these parts you’ve been playing come to life, and appear in their own life, and you, as Emad and Rana, become the spectator, a house becomes the theater, and they become the actors.

MM: How did you work rehearse with your actors?

AF: I had the same rehearsals as I had with my other films here as well. The aim of all rehearsals is for them to believe that they are these characters, to believe in the situation. Everything is constructed and set up so that they don’t think these are just stories.