Jon Stewart picked real-life drama for directing debut

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Despite Jon Stewart’s reputation as the comedic powerhouse behind “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, he tackled a real-life drama as his feature film directorial debut. “Rosewater” is based on the memoir written by BBC journalist Maziar Bahari about his 118-day imprisonment in Iran, accused of being a U.S. spy.

Part of the authorities’ “evidence” was the tape of an interview Bahari gave one for Stewart’s faux news broadcast at the time of the Iranian presidential election. In it, Bahari jokingly refers to himself as a spy.

Sadly, the Iranians didn’t get the joke and believed it to be a genuine newscast.

It was that connection to this entire incident that drew Stewart into the project.

Both Stewart and Bahari were in Chicago recently to promote “Rosewater,” based on Bahari’s book “Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival.” Sneak preview screenings Thursday night will be followed by an interview of Stewart by his protege Stephen Colbert, recorded in New York. (For tickets go to

I asked Stewart the obvious first question: Why a drama and not something comedic for his debut as a film director?

” ‘Police Academy’ has already said everything I would want to say,” quipped Stewart. “So I had to take it in a different direction.”

It was his show’s personal connection to the imprisonment and Stewart’s reaction after reading Bahari’s memoir “that I found so compelling. I just became so interested in bringing that story to the fore.”

It was an enthusiasm shared by Chicagoan Gigi Pritzker and her production team at Oddlot Entertainment “that gave us an enormous advantage in getting the financing and helping make it possible for this film to be made,” he said.

As for the biggest challenge in making “Rosewater,” Stewart said it basically came down to the will to persist.

“Anytime you can get something like this done, you’re going to face obstacle after obstacle. Every day is a different set of circumstances and problems that would need to be addressed. … So, at the end of the day, it’s all about being able to maintain your level of persistence and maintain your commitment to the overall project.”

On a lighter note, I asked Bahari if he is as good a dancer as Gael Garcia Bernal, who portrays him in the film. In a key scene, after having been in solitary confinement with no outside news for many months, Bahari finally realizes he has not been forgotten — as his captors had constantly told him — and he goes into a delightful, inspiring and uplifting solo dance to express his joy.

Bahari laughed as he recalled that scene and joked, “I am an excellent dancer, much better than Gael. … That scene was so important. You know when we were casting the film, we auditioned George Clooney to play me. He danced for us. No good. Then Matthew McConaughey did his ‘Magic Mike’ dance. Also no good. Gael was just perfect,” said Bahari, before admitting what he just said was a total joke. “I can’t dance at all, even if my life depended on it. In real life, when I got that news that Hillary Clinton and so many people were out there working for my release, I did a dance — but it was strictly in my head!”

When asked how making “Rosewater” had changed him, Stewart said, “That is the kind of question too soon to answer. I’m still processing things that happened to me in high school. I do know I’ve been incredibly honored and proud to be a part of making this film. It’s sobering at times. It’s hopeful at times. It reminds you of the complexities of the world that we’re trying to navigate — the complexity of countries and systems that we too easily dismiss as one-dimensional.

“Hopefully, people seeing this film will get a better perspective of what’s out there — outside their comfort zone of living in this country.”

Because it was Jon Stewart, and because the long-suffering New York Mets fan was in Chicago — the home of the even-longer-suffering Cubs fans — I had to give him the opportunity to be funny before we closed.

When asked what advice he’d give to the woe-filled denizens of Wrigley Field, Stewart zinged, “The only thing I can thing of is, let’s join forces! There’s got to be ONE good team in there somewhere. Let’s just combine it all and find a winner!”

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