Before I went to Spain to make my new film Everybody Knows—a thriller which follows the tumultuous events that ensue when Laura (Penélope Cruz) returns to her hometown near Madrid with her daughter Irene (Carla Campra) to celebrate a wedding—I felt the experience shooting there would be different than when I made films in Iran or France. But once I arrived on set, I discovered that my method of working is always the same.

Of course in Spain and France, I felt freer than I did in Iran, since I didn’t have to worry about dealing with censorship restrictions. At the same time, if you make a film in a foreign country, you’re faced with another restriction: You cannot just come up with any story idea. While your approach to directing and relating to your cast and crew may be no different, there are regional differences that you have to respect during the writing process.

Up Close and Personal

As I went scouting in Spain, it occurred to me that, in stark contrast to my previous films, Everybody Knows must be set in a village. Whereas most of my films tend to take place in apartments in metropolises and often depict the complexities of urban life, the events that unfold in the village locale of Everybody Knows are surrounded by nature. The film’s characters are simple people who happen to be thrust into a complex crisis, and they have to confront this crisis with their simplicity. Choosing a setting like this allows you to write characters who are aware of each other’s pasts, because they live right next to one another, as opposed to compartmentalized big city dwellers, who seldom know each other. Building a world in which characters hold knowledge of each other’s personal histories can also help you focus your narrative on the passage of time—and in my case, that was one of our film’s central themes.

Penélope Cruz (L) as Laura and Javier Bardem (R) as Paco in a scene from Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows. Photograph by Teresa Isasi, courtesy of Focus Features

Layered Wedding Take

When preparing to shoot our big opening sequence, in which Laura and Irene attend the wedding, I went to several weddings in the south of Spain to conduct research. I quickly realized that these celebrations resembled my own memories of weddings I had been to as a child in Iran, and I knew that I would have to reproduce that beautiful atmosphere I’d experienced in my youth in my opening shots.

Underneath the surface of this scene, which gives the impression of a joyful occasion, we sought to subtly integrate details and clues that would allow for multiple interpretations of its unfolding events. Our shoot was long, and demanded multiple sessions. When you’re working with as many characters as were involved in this scene, it’s crucial that you remain as faithful as possible to your storyboards while shooting. The sequence would only be special, we surmised, if we could design it so that audiences who see it for the first time would take the performances and other elements for granted, assuming that they’re normal details of a wedding—but upon a second viewing, they would discover additional layers of the story.

Thunder and Lighting

During the wedding sequence, Irene is kidnapped by a group who covets Laura and husband Alejandro’s (Ricardo Darín) fortune. To pull off their crime, the kidnappers cut the power in the building as a storm rages outside, which meant our crew was left to work only with candlelight, moonlight, car headlights, and the light from characters’ cell phone screens. Luckily, our cinematographer, José Luis Alcaine, specializes in light sources reminiscent of classical paintings, and was able to draw from this area of expertise by using those small sources to accent some important details, cutting through rainy weather and almost total darkness.

In other scenes, José lit Everybody Knows to convey an atmosphere that’s almost Christlike, to signify characters’ arc of redemption. At the end of the film, as Laura’s former lover Paco (Javier Bardem) lays on a bed after selling off his lands to raise Irene’s ransom, he’s cast in bright lighting that suggests he, and the village in which he lives, is now at peace.

Minimal Takes = Maximum Effect

Actors tend to give what you need after just a few takes. We didn’t shoot many takes for any scene in Everybody Knows, except if there was an accident on set, or when we were working with children. When our lead actors had to perform scenes that were emotionally charged, I would limit them to two takes, with three or four being the usual maximum, and never exceed seven.

As a director, your criteria for knowing when you have the right take should be whether you’re touched by your actors’ expressions, and their sensitivity to the moment. Having your actors endlessly repeat the scene may help them reach some of the DP’s technical requirements, but it could also make them lose the feeling of the scene.

Multiple scenes in Everybody Knows involve several characters interacting at once. Keeping these moments organic required that we work from a precise and comprehensive script, in which every beat was choreographed for the actors. That didn’t mean, however, that the actors were constrained or without creative freedom. Before we rolled camera, I encouraged them to offer comments on the material, so we could reach an understanding in advance. Your job when working with actors is to move in the same direction as they do leading up to each take.

Bárbara Lennie as Bea (L) and Javier Bardem as Paco (R) in a scene from Everybody Knows. Photograph by Teresa Isasi, courtesy of Focus Features

Watching Your Language

To direct actors who don’t share your native language, you have to rely on the mutual trust you build with your translation team. Sometimes, when you attempt to speak another person’s language, you may spend too much time introducing an idea, which can be misleading for an actor who’s waiting to take direction. So, instead, whenever I wanted to convey an idea to a Spanish-speaking actor, I would do so through gestures and body language. Eventually, the language barrier became not so much an obstacle as a positive challenge—an asset that pushed me to find new ways to coax strong performances from my cast.

Words to Live By

The trust between my team and me isn’t just about translating: I also go to live in the country where I’ll be telling my story, so that when my translator does the adaptation, she’s in tune with my sensibility, and knows what my expectations for the script will be. That’s what allows us to reach a version that is ready to give to the actors. Sometimes, when our actors changed words in their lines, I would immediately catch it, and they were surprised… they thought maybe I had hidden from them that I spoke Spanish! But really, the year I had spent living in Spain was all I needed to stay on top of those problems.

If you’re an outsider working in a new country, your task is to tap into subject matter that’s both emotionally and culturally close to your background and resonant with the audiences native to that country. Go out and live in the world you wish to depict. Capture the specificity, music, and tone of its language. Only then can you write and direct a story that transcends borders. MM

—As Told to Carlos Aguilar

Everybody Knows opens in theaters February 8, 2019, courtesy of Focus Features. Featured image: Citizen of the World: To overcome the language barrier on the set of Everybody Knows, writer-director Asghar Farhadi (L) at times directed stars Ricardo Darín, (Far L) Penélope Cruz, (R) and Javier Bardem (Far R) with non-verbal gestures. Photograph by Teresa Isasi, courtesy of Focus Features. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue.