'Rosewater': Jon Stewart and Bobby Bukowski Team for This Tense True Story

Jon Stewart’s directorial debut is on many levels about light versus darkness.
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Jon Stewart’s directorial debut would have been a wonderful project for any cinematographer as it is on many levels about light versus darkness. Based on Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s book about his awful and at times surreal captivity in a Tehran prison, the film stars Gael García Bernal as Bahari. Rosewater follows Bahari as he is imprisoned and brutally interrogated after sending video images of a demonstration during the 2009 Iranian presidential election to worldwide news outlets. Bahari spends a significant amount of the film inside a dark cell, often blindfolded, as his interrogator tries to force him to admit to being a western spy. The interrogator, played by Kim Bodnia, is named for his only distinguishing characteristic, that he smells of rosewater.

Shot in Amman, Jordan, in 23 days on a tight budget, Rosewater has a straightforward immediacy that might surprise fans of Stewart’s irony-laced The Daily Show.

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Kim Bodnia as Rosewater and Gael García Bernal as Maziar Bahari. Photo by Nasser Kalaji/Open Road Films.

Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski brought ARRI Alexa cameras from Camera Service Center in New York to Amman, Jordan, for the job. He recorded imagery to SxS cards in Log C ProRes 4444. A great deal of the film was shot handheld, often with Bukowski operating. The camera was most frequently outfitted with a lightweight Angenieux Optimo 28-76mm zoom.

“A zoom lens is very much a documentary film style conceit,” the DP notes, “and I thought some widening and tightening during shots would be helpful to add punctuation to certain moments.”

While the Alexa is Bukowski’s digital camera of choice, he still likes to fine-tune the “digital look” he finds in all non-film cinematography by adding Tiffen Glimmerglass 1, occasionally with a low-strength Tiffen Black Pro-Mist on top of that, and to shoot mostly at wide apertures (often on the Optimo’s widest aperture of T2.6) to limit depth of field. Obviously, this also required that the cinematographer, who likes to leave the Alexa at its recommended EI 800 setting, pack on a significant amount of ND filtration for Amman day exteriors.

Scenes that take place in Bahari’s cell were going to be shot inside an actual prison cell, but Bukowski encouraged Stewart to rethink this key location. “I said, ‘I’ll show you the four angles with a 16mm lens that we could shoot in here,’” Bukowski recalls. “And that would also severely limit our lighting choices. Jon heard that and said, ‘We don’t want a location to tell us what to do. We have to build the cell.’”

The task would have been simpler if there had been any soundstages in the region. Bukowski recalls the unusual resolution to this dilemma. “A man working in the casting department heard about the situation and told the producers about a school his mother owned that had a huge gymnasium we could work in,” he recalls. “It was happenstance but it worked out. We converted this gymnasium into a soundstage with several sets, about 20 feet apart from one another, which was nice because it gave us time to light one set while shooting another.”

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Gael García Bernal as Maziar Bahari. Photo by Laith Majali/Open Road Films.

Of course, the space was what sound mixers call “live,” as there was no acoustic baffling and the wood floor resounded with a significant echo. Much of the ambient noise was dampened once the crew had placed heavy black fabric throughout the space and in front of the windows, although each day’s calls to prayer, coming from the mosque attached to the school, put a stop to any sync sound shooting during that time.

The production traveled to a real prison outside of Amman for some shots in courtyards, offices and hallways. Production designer Gerald Sullivan worked with Bahari, who acted as a consultant on the production, to find other locations and architectural styles in Jordan that could pass for Iran. Certain details simply had to be added digitally, such as the giant posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini that couldn’t be plastered on buildings in Jordan.

Bukowski, who likes the Alexa’s ability to retain deep shadow detail, pushed the camera further here than he has to date. Much of Bahari’s ordeal occurs in dark cells and interrogation rooms. Sometimes his interrogator sits by a window with a strip of sunlight streaming in, while Bahari is relegated to near darkness.

Bukowski tends to work with a waveform monitor to determine exposure when shooting with the Alexa. “At night I’d be putting the key light at about 10 to 20 IRE,” he says. “I’ve done enough of that where I know that I can boost the images and incur just a bit of digital noise that looks like film grain. I really like the look. And maybe I’d have a highlight in the shot that goes to 35, maybe just a bit higher. In one of my favorite shots in the movie, we see Bahari going toward a door and just his eyeball is lit!”

Bukowski posted Rosewater at Company 3 New York, where colorist Tom Poole helped refine this effect with Power Windows in Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve to more specifically isolate an eye or part of a face. “Among other things, I see the DI as a ‘grip saver,’” Bukowski says. “In the old days we would copiously flag the light, but you can do a lot of that using Windows. Some traditionalists see that as cheating, but I want to use every tool available to get the job done.”

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Photo by Laith Majali/Open Road Films.

The vicissitudes of shooting in Amman with Rosewater’s very limited budget and schedule sometimes forced the cinematographer to push the Alexa’s sensor further than he would have otherwise. In one scene, Bahari visits a group of idealistic young Iranians eager to see the repressive Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated in the upcoming election. They’ve just watched the leader debate his opponent on TV and concluded that their candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was the clear winner. The plan for the scene was for a large crowd also sympathetic to Mousavi to rejoice on the street below and then for Bahari and his hosts to join in.

“It was a night scene and I had put up lights in storefronts and fluorescents on walls, enhancing the kind of light that would really be at that location,” the cinematographer recalls. “But then reports came up to the roof that there were altercations with the people in the crowd and some women on the crew were being harassed. Jon said, ‘We’re not going down there. Let’s just shoot the people watching the demonstration from the roof.’

“He was very flexible and he responded very intelligently and calmly to whatever came up,” Bukowski continues. “But I hadn’t lit the roof at all. The only light on the actors up there came from a 5K I bounced against a white wall half a block away just to give some overall fill to the area. Hardly anything. I knew we didn’t have the luxury of coming back another time so I said I’d shoot it. But I was nervous. I mean, I could see the actors, but that’s about all. They read about 5 IRE,” he laughs. “But it was a great lesson in not overlighting because it actually ended up looking quite authentic.”

Bukowski, admittedly not an avid TV watcher, says he’s glad he was able to see Stewart as a director and collaborator rather than as a celebrity. The cinematographer had been aware of The Daily Show and had seen clips, but he only became a fan after wrapping Rosewater. “On set,” he recalls, “Jon had a quality I love in a director: specificity. On The Daily Show, he shows up in the morning and by the end of the day they have a show. Rosewater was his first film, but he knew from the very start how he wanted to tell this story.

“I think if I’d known more about how good his work on the show is, I might have been in awe of him,” the cinematographer adds. “It was very nice to get to know him as a person and a director rather than as a public figure.”

Jon Stewart Discusses the Film’s Visual Vocabulary

Jon Stewart came to his feature directing debut from well over a decade as a writer and producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, so he was no novice when it came to many facets of his new job. But he knew that there would be some significant differences between directing an indie feature and his work on the Comedy Central show, and it was important that his closest collaborators be able to help him bridge that gap.

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Director/writer Jon Stewart on the set of Rosewater. Photo by Laith Majali/Open Road Films.

“The biggest difference has to do with how ideas ripple all the way through a production,” Stewart reflects. “I made it clear to the cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski, production designer Gerald Sullivan and other department heads that I didn’t know what I didn’t know and they had to raise red flags if there were issues I might not know about.”

He had been impressed with Bukowski’s powerful work on director Oren Moverman’s drama Rampart. And after they met, Stewart was confident he would be an excellent collaborator.

Stewart came prepared with specific ideas about how he wanted to tell the story, but he knew he’d have to rely on his crew to come up with the most efficient ways to execute them. “I always wanted the light to be ‘out of reach’ for Maziar,” the director says of one of the film’s most prominent visual motifs. “If you look at all the scenes in the interrogation room, the light is always out of Maziar’s grasp. Kim Bodnia, who plays the interrogator, could bathe himself in the light. He could sit by the window and enjoy the benefits of the sunlight. But Maziar was always away from light.

“Bobby did a beautiful job of bringing that light very visibly into these scenes,” Stewart adds. “It looks very natural but you clearly feel that light is ‘owned’ by the interrogator. In the prison courtyard, the light starts to disappear and we watch as Maziar tries to maintain his position in the sun as long as he possibly can.

“We play a lot with that idea of having light and having light taken away from you,” adds Stewart, “and Bobby’s lighting is always just right to achieve that effect.”


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