Interview: Cyrus Nowrasteh, director of The Stoning of Soraya M.

Ah, controversy. Is there any faster way into the public consciousness? Of course, being at the center of a storm can have its perils. Ask director Cyrus Nowrasteh, who made a name for himself with the incendiary documentary The Path to 9/11 (which was criticised by liberals) and the TV movie The Day Reagan was Shot (which was criticised by conservatives). You can’t please everyone it seems.

The Colorado-born writer/director has a new film, and a new target. The Stoning of Soraya M. (now playing in limited release across Australia) is based on the true story of an Iranian woman who was stoned to death after being falsely accused of adultery. The picture ties in journalist Freidoune Sahebjam’s attempt to bring the story to light (his 1994 book of the same name acts as the film’s main source of inspiration). Nowrasteh’s picture was named runner up of the Audience Choice Award at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, losing to Slumdog Millionaire.

Boasting the same producer as The Passion of the Christ, The Stoning of Soraya M. similarly ends with a climax of almost-unbearable brutality. Despite the film’s occasional heavy-handedness, the power of the final sequence is undeniable, as is Nowrasteh’s passion towards exposing the truth of the subject at hand.

Due to some scheduling difficulties (which may or may not have involved an impromptu foot operation on my side), I was unable to speak to Cyrus directly. He was kind enough however to answer some questions via email. I won’t trick you into thinking we had a back-and-forth conversation, so see both my questions and his answers below.

Mozhan Marnò as the doomed Soraya M.

Q: Can you please tell me what led you to work in film? Which filmmakers/films inspired you?

I love movies and grew up enthralled by “behind-the-scenes” featurettes. My first truly favorite movie was David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA which combined my fascination with history and true events and movies that convey these. I also developed an admiration for the work of Sam Peckinpah (THE WILD BUNCH, STRAW DOGS), Sidney Lumet (NETWORK, PRINCE OF THE CITY, DOG DAY AFTERNOON), and Elia Kazan (VIVA ZAPATA, ONE THE WATERFRONT). The last two, especially for their work with actors and the psychological complexity of the performances in their movies. Lean and Peckinpah also served the “inner” character, but in a broader canvas. Magnificently. Australians I admire include Bruce Beresford (BREAKER MORANT is a classic) and Peter Weir (I love MOSQUITO COAST), I also like Roger Donaldson’s THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN.

Q: What drew you to the story of Soraya M?

My wife, also a screenwriter, and I read the book in the mid-90s. It affected us very powerfully and it screamed movie to us. I was originally drawn to reading it due to my Iranian background, but Betsy was drawn to it as a woman. She wouldn’t let it go. So about ten years later, our careers were at a different place, where we thought we might be able to get this up and running. Thanks to Prime Meridian and MPOWER pictures we were able to pull it off. It’s really a miracle this movie got made and I’m thrilled that it’s being seen in Australia, thanks to the people at Accent Film Entertainment.

Q: Can you tell me what the process of writing the screenplay with your wife Betsy was like?

Well we talked it through incessantly, and together sort of outlined how we would adapt it. You can’t keep everything from the book, so there was a lot of discussion. We put together a treatment and then she sat down and did the first draft in her office at one end of the house, then I’d pick up from there and do the next draft in my office at the other end of the house. We’d bat it back-n-forth like that until we felt it was good enough to show. The decision to have Betsy go at it first was due to the simple fact she’s a woman — and these women in the story, their point-of-view, the emotional depth of their suffering — needed to be part of the inner journey of the film. She conveyed that beautifully.

Shohreh Aghdashloo as Zahra, the woman charged with remembering Soraya’s tale.

Q: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has placed The Stoning of Soraya M. on a list of films for which Iran deserves an apology, alongside The Wrestler, 300 and Body of Lies. Were you in any way contacted by the Iranian government during production of the film, or after its release?

I have not been contacted by anyone on behalf of the Iranian government. Most Iranians, and most Muslims for that matter, have communicated nothing but support for the film and its message. I find this ban interesting, in light of the fact that it’s come out that Iranians are watching the film underground via bootleg DVDs, all over Iran — in open defiance of the regime’s objections. God bless them.

Q: You are obviously no stranger to controversy thanks to some of your earlier projects, and now The Stoning of Soraya M (which also deals with some fairly incendiary events). Can you tell us how you interpret your role as a filmmaker? For instance, do you consider yourself an activist with a movie camera, or is your primary concern storytelling?

First and foremost, I want to tell great stories. Part of what makes a story great is the subject and themes behind the work. If it’s socially or politically relevant, all the better. If it’s psychologically relevant, fantastic. I want whatever I’m working on to matter, to make a point, to have an impact. I do not pick an issue, and then say to myself: “Maybe we can come up with a story that says X or supports Y…” That’s not me. It’s about the story and characters first and foremost. Subconsciously there may be something at play that attracts me to certain material or points-of-view, but I try to let it breathe naturally and not push too hard. More than anything else, when we go to movies, we want to know what happens next…it simply has to sustain our interest…so, at bottom, I don’t want to be boring.

Jim Caviezel stars as Freidoune Sahebjam.

Q: Do you wear controversy as a badge of honour, as in “if my film can generate discussion, then it has succeeded”? Or, is there an alternative goal you have in mind for your projects?

If people are talking about your film, or getting angry, or inspired, by it — great. That’s what you want. You’ve succeeded. The worst thing is to make a film and nobody notices or cares. I have no problem with controversy. Oliver Stone, who made it possible for me to direct THE DAY REAGAN WAS SHOT for Showtime Cable, is certainly drawn to controversy — and it hasn’t hurt him. The key is to not shy away from it, not to pull back because you might upset somebody. That I want to avoid. For me it’s “full speed ahead and damn the consequences…”

Q: Can you tell me what you are working on next?

Chris Columbus and Reliance Ent. are producing a project that I will write and direct from a book entitled THE LAST CAMPAIGN. It is the true story of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 82-day run for the President until he was shot in Los Angeles. It’s an amazing story of self-redemption, and a fascinating slice of history. I can’t wait….

The Stoning of Soraya M. is currently screening in limited release across Australia. You can look forward to more interviews with writers, directors and actors (ones where we actually speak to one another) in the very near future.

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