DATE May 3, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Laura Finney talks about her new miniseries and her
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Laura Linney isn't a flashy actress. Maybe that's why it took a while for her
to achieve the recognition she deserves. But this year she received an Oscar
nomination for her leading role in "You Can Count On Me." Earlier, she
co-starred with Clint Eastwood in "Absolute Power," with Jim Carrey in "The
Truman Show" and with Richard Gere and Edward Norton in "Primal Fear." Now
she's returning to a role she originated eight years ago in the series "Tales
of the City," the TV adaptation of Armistead Maupin's stories about the loves
and adventures of a group of gay and straight friends in San Francisco in the
mid-'70s, who form a kind of family with each other.
The third cycle, "Further Tales of the City," premieres on Showtime Sunday
night. In "Further Tales," the year is 1981. Linney's character, Mary Ann
Singleton, has a job on a local TV station hosting the afternoon movie called
the Bargain Matinee, for which she has to wear an usherette uniform and say
inane things. In this scene, she tells her boss that she wants to move to the
(Soundbite of "Further Tales of the City")
Ms. LAURA LINNEY (Actress): Larry, Larry...
"LARRY": All right, you want to have a little talk. I think we can do that
here, just to save us both the time.
Ms. LINNEY: Well, it would only take a...
LARRY: The truth is, Mary Ann, you're a daytime face. Now there's nothing
wrong with that, but the public doesn't want to see a daytime face on the 6:00
news. It's just that simple. I'm sorry. That's the truth.
Ms. LINNEY: What about Bambi Kanetaka?
LARRY: Man: Well, what about her?
Ms. LINNEY: Well, she had a daytime show and then you let her do the...
LARRY: Bambi's GSRs went through the roof.
Ms. LINNEY: Well, test me then.
LARRY: We have tested you. Frankly, your GSRs sucked. No one even broke a
Ms. "BAMBI KANETAKA": Hi, people!
Ms. LINNEY: Hi, Bambi.
Ms. KANETAKA: Hey, just got your promo. That was so cool. Can't wait to go
make those macaroni mirrors.
Ms. LINNEY: You're in awfully early, aren't you?
Ms. KANETAKA: Larry found some woman who used to date the Trail Side
Killer(ph). Clever man. So I've got to do an interview. You know how it is.
Ms. LINNEY: Right. Will you at least think about it?
LARRY: I believe I already have.
GROSS: Laura Linney, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Ms. LINNEY: Thank you so much.
GROSS: How has your character, Mary Ann Singleton, changed from the first
episodes of "Tales of the City" to the current episodes?
Ms. LINNEY: Well, she's changed a lot, which is one of the great, you know,
experiences of playing a role over such a long period of time. As many people
know, "Tales of the City" is the first of six novels, and "Further Tales,"
which is what's going to be airing in May on Showtime, is the third of those
six. We did the second, "More Tales of the City," a few years ago, also on
But Mary Ann, at the beginning of the story, the sort of cannon, if
you--that's sort of what a lot of people call it--of tales, is a very naive
young girl who is from Cleveland and makes her way to San Francisco to start a
new life. And she arrives there in 1976 at the boom of what was then in San
Francisco a very liberated time. And she finds herself in a world that she
never expected, and it takes her a while to get her feet on the ground. She's
very naive, easily embarrassed, gullable.
And then in the second novel, she realizes that she can be comfortable there
and starts to really enjoy it and, most importantly, enjoy herself. And then
in the third novel, it goes one step further. She's more confident. She has
a job that she's ambitious to improve upon. So the changes are radical. And
for an actress to be able to continue a role over--What is it?--almost eight
now is a really rare opportunity, and it's been great fun.
GROSS: I want to ask you about "You Can Count On Me." You were nominated for
an Academy Award for best actress for your role in this. The story is about
two people, you and a character who plays your brother. You're both orphaned
at a young age and have since headed in opposite directions. Your brother has
become a wanderer, moving from town to town, state to state and kind of
irresponsible as well. You've stayed in the small town you grew up in and are
a single mother earning a living by working at the local bank as a lending
officer. And although you seem like the very responsible one, you also do
some pretty irresponsible things that seem inconsistent with your character.
Let me play a scene from the film. In this scene, your brother Terry has just
come back to town for the first time in several years. You've taken him to
lunch at a nice restaurant. You're dressed in a nice skirt and blouse,
everything's well-ironed. He's wearing an old T-shirt and jeans, which are
fraying. Your brother is played by Mark Ruffalo.
(Soundbite of "You Can Count On Me")
Ms. LINNEY: I'm so glad to see you.
Mr. MARK RUFFALO (Actor): Oh, I'm glad to see you too, Sammy. So you're
coming from work?
Ms. LINNEY: No, it's Saturday.
Mr. RUFFALO: Yeah. No, it's just you're dressed so formally.
Ms. LINNEY: Oh, no. You know, I thought I'd--you know, I thought it was a
special occasion, which it is, but...
Mr. RUFFALO: Oh, that's good. No, it's good. Oh, I thought I'd get dressed
Ms. LINNEY: It's OK. You look fine.
Mr. RUFFALO: Oh, yeah, this is the hog cuisine of garments.
Ms. LINNEY: What?
Mr. RUFFALO: Nothing. Nothing. So how are you?
Ms. LINNEY: I'm fine, Terry.
Mr. RUFFALO: So--oh, and how's Rudy?
Ms. LINNEY: We're fine, Terry. How are you?
Mr. RUFFALO: Yeah.
Ms. LINNEY: Where have you been lately, Terry?
Mr. RUFFALO: No, I haven't been...
Ms. LINNEY: I got a postcard from you from Alaska?
Mr. RUFFALO: Yeah, yeah, I was out there for a little while.
Ms. LINNEY: That was in the fall, Terry.
Mr. RUFFALO: Yeah. No, I've been out of touch. I...
Ms. LINNEY: I was a little worried. I mean...
Mr. RUFFALO: Yeah, I've been to a lot of different places, and I--I was down
in Florida for a little while. I was doing some work in Orlando. And, man,
I've been all over the place.
Ms. LINNEY: Well, I--I wish you'd--had just--just let me know you were OK.
GROSS: Laura Linney, there's a lot of really incomplete sentences in this
scene, much like in real conversation. Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and
directed the movie, has explained that he scripts in a lot of `ums' and `ers'
and pauses within his screenplay. Can you talk a little bit about this scene
and using the `ums' and the `ers' and the incomplete sentences and the pauses?
Ms. LINNEY: Sure. This scene originally--Kenny wrote this particular scene,
I think, 10 years ago as a one-act play. So it was really the genesis of the
entire story. And then as the years went by, he just expanded it and it
became the screenplay for "You Can Count On Me." And Kenny's style with
dialogue is extremely specific. It is littered with `ums' and `ers' and `I
mean' and `well' and `I don't know' and stutters and stops and stop gaps and
all of that, which once you learn it and sort of the rhythm of it gets into
your body is very liberating, but it's hard to conquer at first and was
difficult for me in the beginning.
And then once you get it, then it flows very easily, and it makes you better
actually. It makes the character more completed. The rhythm of the scene
moves the way that it's designed to, and that's the mark of a really great
writer--is that they're also an architect. And each scene is structured and
written in a lyric way so that it flows almost like a great piece of music.
So all those `ums' and `ers' and, you know, all those frustrating little
noises that we stammered and started through were very important.
GROSS: Laura Linney is my guest, and she is starring in "Further Tales of the
City," the Armistead Maupin stories. "Further Tales" premieres this Sunday on
Now your father is the playwright Romulus Linney. Although your parents
divorced when you were young, I think you spent a fair amount of time with him
when you were young?
Ms. LINNEY: Yes, not an enormous amount, but certainly an important amount of
time and time that certainly bonded us deeply to each other.
GROSS: Did he take you to the theater a lot?
Ms. LINNEY: Yes, he did. Yes, he did. And it was--you know, one of the
great things about growing up in Manhattan, while, no, you don't have the, you
know, back yards and trees and car pools and all that, what you do have is the
theater and museums and movies. And I was--my parents were wonderful in
exposing me to all of that and really taking advantages of the resources that
Manhattan has to offer. And I used to tag along with my father a lot to
rehearsals of productions of his own things and also would go to the theater a
great deal and loved it, just loved it.
GROSS: Now this might be faulty memory because I think the first time I
interviewed your father it was back in the late '70s, and he had a play in
Philadelphia that had snakes in the title.
Ms. LINNEY: Yes, "Holy Ghosts."
GROSS: "Holy Ghosts," yeah.
Ms. LINNEY: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: And if my memory serves, which it might not, it had to do with a
snake-handling religion and...
Ms. LINNEY: Pentecostal snake handlers, yes.
GROSS: Good. And he had some kind of family connection with that, or at
least geographical connection to it from his youth?
Ms. LINNEY: Well, our family's from the South, and, you know, throughout the
South, there always were Pentecostal snake handlers around. And I think, you
know, deep religion, which is, you know, an extremely passionate thing to
experience for those who do, I think, fascinated my father and faith and
belief and distrust and trust. And I think those are all issues that are
important to him. And I love that play. That's actually one of my favorites
and probably the one that I've seen the most. It's probably one of the ones I
know the best.
GROSS: I'm figuring that you were probably exposed to a lot of theater people
when you were growing up, and a lot of theater people will lead, you know,
reasonably unconventional lives. I'm wondering if anything you were exposed
to as a child, in the lives of your parents' friends, seemed disturbing or
seemed particularly appealing and exciting because they were so
Ms. LINNEY: Well, I actually...
GROSS: Or maybe it all just seemed normal to you.
Ms. LINNEY: Well, I grew up with my mother and would visit my father on
weekends. And when I would visit him, there would be artists who would come
around for dinner or for drinks or cocktail hours they had in those days. And
I just remember, you know, sort of wonderful earrings; women wearing huge,
big, jangly earrings and fantastic--Carolyn Kizer, I remember, came over with
a fantastic belt. And I'll never forget the belt.
GROSS: She's a great poet and translator.
Ms. LINNEY: She's a great poet. And so there were more literary people
around than actual theater people. Not a lot of--a few actors and actresses
every once in a while but, primarily, more artists and poets. My father was
at the McDowell Colony in Yado(ph), which are artists' colonies, excuse me,
and he would spend many summers there. So friends who he would meet there
would come to visit. But it wasn't a deluge of artistic characters that I was
around, though I would have loved to have been. But when I did meet them, I
loved them. They were open and kind and interested in me, you know, which not
all adults are interested in a small child. And so I loved it.
GROSS: Laura Linney is my guest, and she's now starring in "Further Tales of
the City," based on the Armistead Maupin novel. It premieres Sunday on
Showtime. She got an Academy Award nomination for her role in "You Can Count
On Me." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Actress Laura Linney is my guest, and she's starring in "Further Tales
of the City," based on the Armistead Maupin novel, and it premieres Sunday on
Showtime. She got an Academy Award nomination for her starring role in "You
Can Count On Me."
Although you sound so comfortable and always have been so comfortable in the
theater world, I also read that you had stage fright when you were young.
Ms. LINNEY: Mm-hmm. I went...
GROSS: And the two seem--no?
Ms. LINNEY: Yeah, I went through a period of time--I went to Juilliard for
graduate school. My third year there I had a terrible bout of stage fright,
and it was the first time in my life where I was uncomfortable in the theater.
And it was heartbreaking to all of a sudden not feel at home when you were
home. It was very hard. And I contemplated stopping for a while and leaving
school, but was able to work through it. But it was really horrible phase,
just enormous anxiety.
You know, I'd walk off stage and burst into tears and be a--it was awful and
it was humiliating as well. And I was just acutely self-conscience and
horribly uncomfortable. But, fortunately, I worked through it and have
actually spoken with a lot of other actors who have been through a similar
thing. But it was certainly gut wrenching, that's for sure. I bought a lot
of antacid during that period of time.
GROSS: Yeah, I was going to ask you if there's any other medication or
exercise that helped you through the period.
Ms. LINNEY: You know, antacid, you know, and, you know, I had twitches and
acne. And, you know, all of us at Juilliard would go through phases of huge
stress, and, you know, strange things would happen. But I had a professor,
John Stix(ph), who's a terrific teacher, and he had heard that I was really
struggling. Everyone knew I was struggling; it was not a secret. And he
pulled me aside to his office and said, `So, you know, what's all this about?'
And I said, `You know, John, I just don't know what to do, and I'm just having
real doubts about myself and thinking maybe I should stop and maybe I, you
know, shouldn't continue at school.' And, you know, he said, `Don't be
silly.' He said, you know, `This is where you're supposed to fail. This is
where it's safe to fail, and you should fail here.' And that was helpful to
hear, and he was right. You know, it's good to be bad at times, and that's
been a lesson that I've really taken with me.
GROSS: Now I think your first Broadway role was as an understudy in "Six
Degrees of Separation," as the Stockard Channing daughter character, the
daughter of the Stockard Channing character.
Ms. LINNEY: Correct.
GROSS: Is that right?
Ms. LINNEY: Correct. That is right.
GROSS: Well, what are...
Ms. LINNEY: That was my first job.
GROSS: Your first job.
Ms. LINNEY: It was pretty damn good for a first job, I would say.
GROSS: But it always seems like an understudy is both a job and not a job at
the same time because...
Ms. LINNEY: Oh, no, it's very much a job.
Ms. LINNEY: It's a real--it's a very (technical difficulties) difficult. And
I was, you know, the happiest understudy going. I was so thrilled to be a
part of that group of people, to be associated with that play, to work at
Lincoln Center, which was right across the street from school. I was happy as
happy can be. But being an understudy is really difficult. It's a whole
different skill, and I have tremendous respect and huge gratitude for people
who stand by or who understudy because it's difficult and, you know,
GROSS: Well, what's the most difficult and terrifying parts of it?
Ms. LINNEY: Going on. I mean, actually going on because no matter how much
you prepare, you usually don't rehearse with the company, you've never been in
a costume, you've never felt the lights on you. You've rehearsed separately
during the day with your fellow understudies, on a stage with no lights, and
you're wearing your jeans or whatever. So when you actually do go on, it's
terrifying. It's a real leap of faith and takes enormous courage. And the
people who are really good at it, those who understudy those big, huge parts,
I just don't know how they do it.
I made my off-Broadway and my Broadway debut understudying in that show when I
went on, and the first time I went on--and I had been studying the play for
over a year at this point--I completely went up. I stood up to say my one
line, you know, two-thirds into the play, and I was like a deer in headlights.
A light hit me in the eye that I had never felt before, and I had no idea
where I was or who I was or what I was doing. All I knew is that there I was
making my Broadway debut, and I didn't know what to say. So...
GROSS: How'd you get out of that?
Ms. LINNEY: The other actor saved me.
GROSS: By doing what?
Ms. LINNEY: It was John Cameron Mitchell. God bless him, he just jumped
right in and saved me. But I felt terrible.
GROSS: Wait, wait. What did he do to save you?
Ms. LINNEY: He just kept the scene going. You know, he just sort of jumped
in and continued the dialogue so that it made sense. But I will never forget
that. It was horrible. I felt about two inches tall. I was so embarrassed.
I felt like I had let everybody down. But it's just one of those things that
GROSS: Well, what would you do every night when the play was being performed
on the nights that you weren't in it?
Ms. LINNEY: I'd sit in the catwalk...
GROSS: Would you mouth your lines with your character?
Ms. LINNEY: No, no, I'd go up and sit in the catwalk, which is the gridding
system above the audience and the stage, where they hang the lights. I'd go
and sit up there. And because I had, you know, worked technically in the
theater when I was doing summerstock in New Hampshire, I was comfortable up
there. I knew how to walk around those spaces and not be uncomfortable. I
knew what the lights were, and I knew how to be safe up there. So I would
crawl up in the catwalk and watch.
And I never grew tired of watching that play. There's a monologue that John
Cunningham, who's the male lead who's in it--and I would just, every night,
wait for that monologue because I thought it was so beautiful; talking about a
Kandinsky painting and how artists can work so hard and can overwork a great
piece of art to the point where they lose--and the monologue says, `You lose
the painting,' because you work so hard, you have this magnificent thing and
then you push it too far and you don't know when to stop and let go. And you
overwork it, and it sort of falls apart. And I always thought it was such a
beautiful, beautiful monologue.
GROSS: Now you were nominated for an Oscar for best actress for "You Can
Count On Me." So you had to, you know, get the beautiful dress and, you know,
go to the designer...
Ms. LINNEY: Yes.
GROSS: ...and then have clips of you on the Joan Rivers and Melissa show of
you in that beautiful dress. I'm curious what that process is like to know
that you have to go to a designer and choose the dress, and everyone's going
to talk about it, and you might get really dished and you might get really
praised. And it'll all die out soon, but for a while, it's going to make
news. What you wore is going to make news.
Ms. LINNEY: You're fair game.
Ms. LINNEY: Yes, you're fair game. Yeah. And, you know, the fashion end of
all of the awards season is now a very important part of it. It's certainly
not first and foremost on my mind, but the reality is that you are fair game
out there. And I'm learning to enjoy it more, which I think is the most
important thing, but I decided early on that this nomination meant a lot to
me, and I was determined just to have a good time.
GROSS: And how did you decide who to take with you?
Ms. LINNEY: I took Armistead Maupin with me.
GROSS: Oh, did you? Oh, good.
Ms. LINNEY: I did. Armistead was my date. I wore the...
GROSS: Oh, and, again, I'll mention he does "Further Tales of the City,"
which you're going to star in on Showtime.
Ms. LINNEY: Yes. Yeah.
GROSS: OK, go ahead.
Ms. LINNEY: And Armistead and I have been friends since 1993 when we did the
first "Tales" together, and I wanted to take someone who was a permanent
person in my life. I wanted to share the evening with someone who, A, I knew
would have a good time; B, would also not be overwhelmed by the evening
because it is overwhelming, all of the press. And being the date of a nominee
is not easy. It's sort of a job within itself. You have to make sure the
train is OK, and they're sort of there for you for support as well as their
own enjoyment. So I wanted to take someone who I knew would be in my life,
you know, for the rest of my life and who I could share it with. So I wanted
to make sure that it was a very, very, you know, special person. Armistead
was the perfect choice. And what I did throughout the awards season was I
took a special friend or someone who had done an enormous amount for me over
time to each different event.
GROSS: Was it good to take a gay friend because, that way, there's not going
to be rumors in the press about this affair that you're having?
Ms. LINNEY: Oh, that's right, me and my many affairs. Yes, I'm recently
divorced as well, so I took a lot gay men to many of the events. Actually me
and my gay friends. And we had a wonderful time. You know, when in doubt,
take a gay friend.
GROSS: Well, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. I want to thank you so
Ms. LINNEY: Thank you. My pleasure. Nice speaking with you, too.
GROSS: Laura Linney stars in the new miniseries "Further Tales of the City,"
based on the Armistead Maupin novel. It premieres Sunday night on Showtime.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Bahman Farmanara discusses his career in filmmaking
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Iranian film director Bahman Farmanara has made his first movie in 20 years.
Farmanara left Iran in 1980 after the Ayatollah Khomeni took power. After
living in Canada for nine years, he returned home. He tried to make movies
when he returned, but Iranian censors rejected 10 of his screenplays. The one
they finally let him make, "Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine," played
the New York Film Festival and has begun to open theatrically in the US.
Farmanara not only wrote and directed it, he stars in the film, playing a
fictionalized version of himself. His character, a film director who hasn't
made a movie in 20 years, has become preoccupied with death. His wife has
died, and so have several of his filmmaker friends. He decides to make a
movie about his own funeral. I asked Farmanara if he was ever forbidden to
work in his country, whether his screenplays were just rejected one by one.
Mr. BAHMAN FARMANARA (Filmmaker): It's a gradual process. They try to make
you tired. You hand in a script, and it takes about eight to nine months for
them to say no, and it's always on a one-on-one basis when they call you in
and verbally they tell you that the script is not approved. And very rarely
they give any reasons for it, because they don't feel obligated to give any
reasons. And you're let go until next time. And you feel that eight months
of your time has been wasted, and it makes you depressed. And I gave 10
scripts before the 11th one was eventually approved. And I'll be damned if I
could tell you why this last one was approved while the other 10 were refused
because censorship does not follow logic.
GROSS: Have things become more liberal in Iran? Could it be attributed to
Mr. FARMANARA: Yes, I think so. I think since the election of President
Khatemi there has been an opening. We had to have a minister of culture, Dr.
Mohajerani, who was a very courageous man. And he decided, you know, that
some people should go to work and contribute to the society because this
arbitrary banning of writers, directors, painters, poets is just ludicrous.
GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, I'm wondering why after staying away from
Iran for eight or nine years, living in Canada and the United States, why did
you go back, knowing how difficult it would likely be for you to keep making
films in Iran?
Mr. FARMANARA: Well, initially it was for personal reasons because I'm the
only son in the family--we are four brothers--that had never worked with my
father in the family business which is textile. And one of my younger
brothers had a heart attack and my father called me. And for the first time
in my life he asked me for something and said, `Would you go back and help?'
And I thought that this would be for a year, a maximum two years. So I said
yes. And so I went back, but during that two years that dragged on actually
to be three and four and now is 10 years, normally I get involved with that
business. And I've been the CEO of the company also for the last five years,
but at the same time I rediscovered my country at an age that I can't let it
go and most of my creative juices come from that culture and what I know about
it and the people and the affection for the people that about 65 percent of it
is below the age of 25.
GROSS: Right. So does that make you like an old man in their eyes?
Mr. FARMANARA: Actually, I'll tell you an anecdote about I was in a bookstore
and there were two young people, 18 and 19, and they were buying a book about
movies, Iranian movies. And I heard them mention my film "Prince Ehtejab."
And one of them said, `Yeah, he was a very good director, but too bad he
died.' And I was standing there. So because of that, I decided to go back to
work. So when you think, you know, that--because age is quite relative, I'm
sure that I look like an old man in their eyes. But now, you know, I'm going
to hang around and teach them a few things.
GROSS: Let me get back to your new movie, "Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of
Jasmine." You star in the movie. You wrote it, you directed it and you star
in it. Now I understand you didn't initially plan to be the star, but the
actor who was slated to play the leading role couldn't do the movie. What was
the difference between how you envisioned the character looking and your
playing the part?
Mr. FARMANARA: Well, I had chosen, actually, a famous painter because I
didn't want a professional actor to play the part. And we had done some tests
and he was very good, and his name is Ivan Alduschtu(ph). And I also used one
of his most famous paintings in the film. I guess he got scared about a week
before the shoot. He called me one night and said he is not gonna do it. And
because he was not a professional actor, I didn't have any hold on him and I'd
been friends with him for about 30 years. But if I had directed the film a
year before, I probably would have postponed the shoot a couple of months till
I find somebody else. Still, in one week that we were away from the shoot, we
tested about 27, 28 other people, including myself. And eventually, looking
at all of them, the crew and myself came to the conclusion that I had to play
the lead. So it was one of those things that made my work much harder, but it
was not planned on, and I don't plan to play in any of my future films.
GROSS: I think you're very good in this. I'm wondering why you didn't want a
professional actor. What was your problem with professional actors? Why did
Mr. FARMANARA: Well...
GROSS: ...choose a painter instead?
Mr. FARMANARA: Well, the professional actors and the choices that we have in
Iran, the really, really famous ones that could fit the part, they're so
identified with other parts that I think people would not have believed them
in this particular part. And that was the reasoning behind it.
GROSS: Now in the movie you play a film director who, like yourself, hasn't
made a movie in about 20 years and is making one now. And he wants to cast an
old actor friend of his in a part, and this actor friend hasn't worked in many
years. I'm wondering if you had any actor friends who hadn't worked in many
years who you gave parts to in this movie?
Mr. FARMANARA: Unfortunately, no because I had an actor playing the part of
an actor that had not worked for a long time. But, you know, getting
permission to work myself was such a task that I didn't want to jeopardize it
by insisting to have an actor that was banned for also that many years because
each one of us have different battles. I'm hoping to have one of them act in
my next film. But I've requested permission for him to be able to work again.
We're about a month and a half away from the shoot and I still don't have a
reply, officially, that he's allowed to work or not.
GROSS: Boy, listening to you talk, I'm trying to imagine how frustrating and
infuriating it must be to need permission to make a movie or to need
permission to cast the actor or for that actor to need permission to work.
Mr. FARMANARA: Well, it is very frustrating. And when my film was shown at
an Iran film festival and it was awarded so many awards and people were
applauding and so on, I made a speech then and I said that I really missed the
sound of applause and connecting to my own people. And at the same time I was
extremely happy, but I was very furious because people behind closed doors had
forced me not to have this contact and this pleasure of creating work and also
having, you know, give and take with the audience. So it is very frustrating
when you're working in that kind of a situation. But, you know, that's the
way it is, if you want to work in Iran, and each one of us have to fight it at
GROSS: My guest is Iranian film director Bahman Farmanara. His new book is
called "Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine." More after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Iranian film director Bahman Farmanara. His new film,
"Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine," is his first film in 20 years.
Iranian censors rejected 10 of his screenplays before approving this one.
When you were coming up with the idea for your new movie, did you consciously
think, `What kind of film can I make that they might let me make?'
Mr. FARMANARA: Well, the "Smell of Camphor" idea came at the end of the
session that they had set up for refusing the tentative script. And I was so
depressed. I thought they're never going to let me work. And I thought, `OK,
I'll make a film about my own funeral.' And that idea came and went at the
end of that session. And after a couple days of really sleeping off the
depression and trying to put myself together, then I decided, actually, to
submit it as an idea. And lo and behold, it, you know, only took about a
couple of days for them to approve this, which really pushed me to ask them,
`Is really the quickness of approval is because this is stories about my
death?' And they really didn't appreciate the humor, but nevertheless I think
it had something to do with it. And it was so close to me that the person
that was talking to me said, `Has your wife died?' And I said, `No.' He
said, `But in the script, you say that she's died.' I said, `Well, it was a
choice of her dying than sleeping with each other or next to me, and I thought
that she should die is better.' But they really thought it's the story of my
life, and they said `OK, let him make it. Nobody's gonna see it.' And they
didn't think it was going to be successful. And all of those ideas or reasons
were behind what they allowed the film to be made.
GROSS: Well, you raised an interesting point. If the character's wife was
alive in the movie, would she be sleeping in a body veil next to you?
Mr. FARMANARA: Well, yeah, you have to. I mean, that is the law. And...
GROSS: The laws for films?
Mr. FARMANARA: Yes.
GROSS: Or is that the law for...
Mr. FARMANARA: No, no. It is the law for the film.
GROSS: Right. OK. Just checking.
Mr. FARMANARA: Well, obviously, you know...
Mr. FARMANARA: Obviously your wife doesn't sleep with a body veil next to
you. Otherwise no children would be made. But, no, it's the law for the
movies. And even the next film that I'm making, the wife now has left him and
has gone outside of Iran. So I eliminate the women in personal situations
while we have contact with them outside of home, because then again, you
know, their attire is completely according to the laws, you know, we have to
GROSS: Now there's a scene in the movie that I want to ask you about.
There's a scene where a young woman is basically hitchhiking with an infant in
her arms, and your character picks her up. And after she leaves, he finds
that she left the baby, which is actually dead, in the backseat of the car,
wrapped in plastic, with the placenta. It's, needless to say, a very
disturbing experience for him. Is this something that happened to somebody
Mr. FARMANARA: Well, this actually happened to me about 30 years ago. About
eight years before the revolution I was going somewhere very early in the
morning in the winter, and I passed through a street that there is a
children's hospital there. And the woman is standing by the side of the road
and she was carrying a baby. And I gave her a ride. And I asked her, you
know, `Where are you going?' And she said, `To the cemetery.' And I said,
`Why?' She said, `Because the baby's dead.' And I said, `Where is your
husband?' And she said, `With the other six.' And it destroyed my whole day
and it remained in the back of my mind for so many years. And when I was
writing this particular script one night, you know, this woman appeared. And
in my film, really, she represents the young mothers of today because the
children have no future and they are as if they are stillborn. And, you know,
vs. the mother, you know, the woman that plays my mother, which was, you
know, we call it the mother of the country that does not remember us anymore.
GROSS: Oh, 'cause your mother has Alzheimer's in the movie.
Mr. FARMANARA: That's right.
GROSS: No, no. OK. So the way you see this movie, this young woman who your
character picks up, her dead baby represents the lack of a future that
children coming into the world in Iran have today. Do you think the censors
got that point when they were reading your screenplay?
Mr. FARMANARA: I don't think so. I don't think so. And I don't explain it,
GROSS: No, you don't. Yeah.
Mr. FARMANARA: In Iran, the fact of the matter is, that death scene is so
gripping that everybody was surprised why I wasn't going back to it during the
rest of the film. But that's the whole trick. We have an incident that is
very moving, and we just move along to other incidents that happen. And, no,
they didn't pick it up. But the woman, for that four minutes, she got the
best supporting actress award.
Mr. FARMANARA: Yes.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bahman Farmanara, and his new
movie is called "Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine." He's Iranian, and
this movie was made in Iran. It's opening in some theaters in the United
What movies did you grow up with in Iran?
Mr. FARMANARA: Well, in Iran, mostly American films. I left Iran when I was
16 and went to England to acting school and then to USC in Southern California
and went to filming school. But up to the age of 16, what we saw, they were
mostly American films. The things that I remember is "East of Eden" of Elia
Kazan. I remember "On the Waterfront" and, of course, "Gone with the Wind,"
and some Japanese films, but not that many. But mostly they were American
GROSS: Do you get to see many movies in Iran now? What plays there now?
Mr. FARMANARA: Well, foreign films, actually, they don't play there. In the
last 10 years that I've been back to Iran, four American films have been
shown: "The Last Emperor," "Dances with the Wolves," "Seven"...
Mr. FARMANARA: ...and "Fargo."
GROSS: Wait a minute. "Seven" is a really dark, violent movie. It's...
Mr. FARMANARA: Well, because, you know, they'd refer to it...
GROSS: It's about a serial killer.
Mr. FARMANARA: ...as this is a picture of America, you know.
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh. Right.
Mr. FARMANARA: Yeah.
GROSS: So the idea is this is what America's like, a lot of really sick
Mr. FARMANARA: Exactly. Exactly. And I think there was no sense to it, but
that's the four films that they've released.
GROSS: Well, if that's their attitude, there's a whole lot of movies they
could show. I mean, really.
Mr. FARMANARA: Well, you know, they're not that open. But I don't know who
chooses these films. But I understand their reasoning behind it is pretty
much like the Soviet Russia when they used to choose films that showed the
racial problems in the United States. Those were preferred films.
GROSS: Now is it OK for you to talk like this on American media and then go
home back to Iran?
Mr. FARMANARA: Look, I'm 59 years old. I don't have too much time for
GROSS: And is there a difference to what you can say here and what you could
Mr. FARMANARA: Most of the things I've been talking about I've already talked
about in Iran as well. So it's nothing new because I'm considered one of
those few directors that actually does speak his mind. And so be it, you
know. What is going to happen? Another 10 years of not working?
GROSS: Right. Well, I'm sure you wouldn't want that.
Mr. FARMANARA: No, I don't want that and I don't, you know, go after it, but
at the same time, you know, as long as, you know, we can discuss different
matters and criticize and point to some mistakes that are being made. I don't
see any reason to be in communications if you don't want to talk about these
things. Some of my friends, for example, they say my films are not political.
I say, `Well, that comment in itself is political because in a society where
politics rules, everything, when you say my films are not political, you are
making a political statement nevertheless.'
GROSS: Well, thank you for talking with us, and I wish you good luck.
Mr. FARMANARA: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Bahman Farmanara wrote, directed and stars in the new movie "Smell of
Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine." It's already opened in New York, opens in Los
Angeles this weekend, and will open in other cities over the next few weeks.
Coming up, Kevin Whitehead's series, Avant Garde Made Easy, continues with the
music of Cecil Taylor. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Analysis: Cecil Taylor's musical style
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, is playing and discussing the music of a
half dozen modern jazz mavericks. In his series, Avant Garde Made Easy,
today, Part Four, the music of Cecil Taylor.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: When jazz bands think of Cecil Taylor, they often think of music like
that: busy, dissonant and lightning fast. Taylor was one of the founders of
the free jazz movement. He's still active and, 45 years after his debut, is
still sometimes accused of being a musical anarchist. Kevin Whitehead says
Taylor is a virtuoso pianist who can articulate complex runs so quickly his
hands blur before your eyes. But his music has more sides than that.
(Soundbite of music)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
Cecil Taylor, 1998. He doesn't always breathe fire, but from his earliest
relatively conservative records with swinging rhythm sections, he didn't sound
like a typical jazz pianist. On a 1959 version of Cole Porter's "Get Out of
Town," you can hear glimpses of his mature style ahead, obsessive variations
on tiny figures, sudden shifts between loud and soft notes and dense chords
that reflect his youthful admiration for Dave Brubeck.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: By 1963, Taylor led a trio without a bassist, and including a
drummer whose rhythm was as free as his own, Sunny Murray. But Taylor was
still in transition. His left hand might play a simple if fragmented rift
while his right scattered notes like confetti.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Soon after that, Cecil Taylor really came into his own as pianist,
and in terms of developing his material in an individual way. When Taylor
rehearses musicians, he may teach them short themes that he never plays
verbatim on the gig. Instead, he may stud his improvisations with fragments
or suggestions of those themes in any key. You can hear the seeds of that
practice on 1966's "Unit Structure For Septet(ph)." Early on, Taylor plays a
themelet, which alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons immediately paraphrases in a
lower key, by which time Taylor has already moved on.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Later, Taylor plays various near and far permutations of that
figure, which sometimes cue the improvisors to refocus their energy or set off
on a new tangent.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: That brief glimpse only hints at Cecil Taylor's working method.
For the curious, there's a detailed analysis of unit structure in Ekkehard
Jost's fine book, "Free Jazz," which deciphers the musical logic behind the
1960s avant garde.
It can be easier to hear what Taylor is up to on some of his solo recitals.
He begins the 1973 album "Indent" with two almost identical seven-note
phrases, the second answering the first. Such call and response has been a
staple of African-American music since slaves first shouted to each other
across the fields.
Taylor works instant variations on those figures, tinkering with the timing,
displacing a note or extending a phrase and gradually transforming it.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: That's pretty straightforward, by Taylor's standards at least. By
contrast, his group music grew ever more intense, calling for quick thinking
and quick fingers.
Taylor and saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, his musical partner from the early 1960s
until Lyons died in 1986, had an uncanny way of complementing each other's
lines, taking small scraps of melody and running with them. The music sounds
frenetic on the surface, but they stayed focused on the material at hand.
On this slice of a 1981 concert, the bassist is William Parker, another
longtime and reliable collaborator. The drummer is Rashid Bakr.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Granted, Cecil Taylor's music can seem intimidating. It's not
really so hard to follow, but because he makes up his own rules, it does
demand your attention. Some critics dismiss his music as not jazz, as if
stuff that doesn't fit neatly into a category is beneath consideration.
That's foolish reasoning. But even so, this propulsive, improvisational
music, awash in African-American aesthetics, sure sounds like jazz to me.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is currently based in Chicago. This week, Cecil
Taylor is Distinguished Artist in Residence at Johns Hopkins University in
Baltimore. Next week, Kevin continues his series Avant Garde Made Easy with
saxophonist Albert Ayler. The series is produced by Roberta Farach(ph).
I'm Terry Gross. This is NPR, National Public Radio.
On the next FRESH AIR, Ruth Reichl, the editor in chief of Gourmet and former
New York Times restaurant critic. She has a new memoir. Also, Stephen
Greenberg. The documentary about his father, Hank Greenberg, the first Jewish
baseball star, is playing on Cinemax this month.
I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
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