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Jon Stewart: ‘Rosewater’ production lacked ‘baby's-butt smoothness’ of ‘The Daily Show’

(L-R) Actor Gael Garcia Bernal, director-writer Jon Stewart and journalist Maziar Bahari at the
(L-R) Actor Gael Garcia Bernal, director-writer Jon Stewart and journalist Maziar Bahari at the "Rosewater" premiere during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
Angela Weiss/Getty Images for Variety

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Jon Stewart is no stranger to showbiz — from standup routines in dingy bars to the bright lights of "The Daily Show," he's been through a lot in his career.

He hosted a show on MTV that was cancelled within two years, he played Adam Sandler's roommate in 1999's "Big Daddy," and his appearance on Crossfire in 2004 has become legendary. But there's one thing that Stewart hadn't done until recently: direct a movie.

Well, there's another thing to check off the bucket list, as Stewart's directorial debut, "Rosewater," opens on Nov. 14.

We caught up with Stewart at this year's Telluride Film Festival to talk about the soul-sucking process of getting a movie written, the things he learned from working on "The Daily Show," and how important it is to sometimes admit when you have no idea what you're doing.

Interview Highlights:

On getting "Rosewater" made:

We went through what I guess what you would consider a more typical process, where we talked to [Maziar Bahari's] book agent and I spoke with some agents that I knew, and I said, "Help us compile a list of authors and screenwriters that you think could handle this material." And so we got these lists of these incredible writers who, yes, could have done this beautifully, but it turns out a lot of other people think they're great writers, and they've been hired to do other great stories at this very moment. 

And I just got to a point [where] I felt like this was the kind of movie whose relevance was urgent, and I wanted a chance to be able to tell the story sooner rather than later, and so it was born of impatience with the process more than anything else.

On the elements of The Daily Show that made directing easier:

One of the things about the show that I thought ended up being really helpful in the filmmaking process is, the show is very collaborative, and it is very difficult to have any preciousness over any of your material, because of the speed with which we have to accomplish it. So you learn to recognize discordant moments very quickly, and discard them with no preciousness, with no sense of, But I wrote that joke! That joke was born of me! It's a diamond! Recognize it! It's more like, Yeah, f**k that, we can't do that. Can we get a graphic for that? Oh, we can't. Okay, let's do something else. So you learn a sense of necessary improvisation. Bringing that to this process was really important, given the limitations financially, time-wise, and where we were.

On the difficulties involved in directing a movie:

In general, I think it's the vagaries of new locations, and the vagaries of systems that are not well-worn. [laughs] As sad as it sounds, people might say, "Man, working at 'The Daily Show,' that's gotta be a blast. You just sit around and laugh all day." And you're like, "No, we have a meeting at 9, and the 9 meeting has to be over by 9:30, and the scripts have to be in by 11, because if they're not then we miss this deadline." And we have honed that process to baby's-butt smoothness, because we're there every day, we're in the same location with the same people, and we learn to trust each other and to make those adjustments. And so it is a process that is incredibly infrastructure-heavy and honed.

Out in the field it's just two guys that really don't speak English putting two wires into an outlet directly, and that's today's location. Really, the generator blew up? I think it had something to do with that. One day you're in a working Jordanian prison during Ramadan, which has a great deal of cultural sensitivities and parameters of time and place. We were in a refugee camp trying to shoot a street scene when things got a little out of hand ... It's a lot of that.

On admitting when you don't know what you're doing:

That was the first conversation that I had with my [director of photography], Bobby Bukowski, and Jerry Sullivan: "'I need you to be the voice in this that understands when I don't know something, because I don't know what I don't know. So here's what I need you to do: you need to be a lifeguard to some extent, as well as doing your job."

It was a complication that I had to add to their job. Where I work, I know exactly how long it takes for changes that we are making to be executed, so I know when I'm putting somebody in an uncomfortable or even impossible place to get something prepared to the level or sophistication that we need it to be by the time of the taping. In film, I do not, and did not. And so when we were out on the street and I would say, "Oh, you know what would be f**king ballsy? If the motorcycle came down these stairs!" I had to make sure that everybody knew that they could say, in that moment, "There is no f**king way that we are going to be able to do that." And so that process had to start from the very beginning. So, within that regard, I was never shy about that. To me, confidence without ability is insecurity, and I'm not particularly insecure. I've failed at the highest levels of show business. 

"Rosewater" opens in theaters on November 14.

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