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“It’s As If I Made A Suit Starting from the Buttons Instead of the Fabric”: Four Questions for Everybody Knows Writer/Director Asghar Farhadi

Everybody Knows

As in Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (2009), a woman’s disappearance in Everybody Knows (Todos Lo Saben—this is Farhadi’s first film in Spanish) is the inciting incident. This time it is Irene, the daughter of Laura (Penelope Cruz), swept from her bed on the night of her aunt’s wedding—either by her own anarchic free spirit, or a kidnapper, stranger, or kin. Irene’s absence turns up dormant family secrets and suspicions that, perhaps, they all already knew. Bare and exposed, the festered family wounds must be dealt with until new ones emerge to be cast aside.

Everybody Knows is another social realist thriller in the Farhadi vein of big symbols and clearly operating allegories. Even though we can see the characters as the mechanisms propelling Farhadi’s complex morality tale, their function still feels honest and believed. That’s due, in large part, to Farhadi’s approach to realism. In his script writing, details are wrought in the developing stages before they’re attached to a vaster scheme. But, throughout our discussion, Farhadi articulated frequently through metaphor, analogy and example. 

Filmmaker: When people refer to the naturalism or realism of your films, they can depreciate your use of film’s more subjective devices. Your reality can still be heightened, emphatic or de-emphasized. That’s reflected in your use of sound design in Everybody Knows. The blaring windshield wipers in the scene where Paco drives Laura, Maria, and Fernando to search for Irene mimic their anxious pulses, for instance, and certain sounds are heightened or softened in tandem with the mood. The car engine doesn’t sound consistent, it changes from a roar to a soft grumble depending. How do these heightened or accentuated elements relate to the reality of your films?

Farhadi: Well, how do you define reality? Reality is not something factual and objective. You can’t define the term in a definitive way. There is also the mood of your own subjectivity and perception in one’s own definition of reality. If you consider the last boxing scene in Raging Bull, the sound is heightened and excessive. These are not the usual sounds of boxing. But if you consider the shoes and mindset of the person receiving the blows, maybe that’s the perception of sound that you would have. So, in my films, as in others, there is not the temptation of giving an objective perception of reality, but to provide the reality of the characters that I am trying to depict. 

Another aspect that I want to underline in my films is that reality, taken as a way of seeing life, can be per usual and boring. It’s not something you always pay attention to. You take it for granted. For instance, two friends are having coffee in a cafe together, chit-chatting. One tells the other they’re tired, or various instances of conversation that you wouldn’t normally pay attention to, and then the two friends leave the cafe. Later, one of the friends hears that the other died. The other friend will think back to this last conversation with his friend in a very different way. All of these very average conversations that they had will suddenly be interpreted in a different way. Maybe he mentioned a trip he was going on because he was aware of his own death. You start to wonder about those things you took for granted, and what they meant. The very average information that he received will now be perceived as some sign, with meaning added that wouldn’t have been otherwise.

Filmmaker: So do your aesthetic choices fluctuate to suit the reality of a given character at a given time?

Farhadi: With Everybody Knows, although the characters are different and have their own perceptions, they are all undergoing the same crisis and difficulties. This is also part of the process of making their situation believable for the viewers. It’s something viewers can feel empathy for, because it’s realistic and can happen in real life. So, in this trial, even if they’re different and come with their own subjectivity, they’re all undergoing the same experience. This is the experience for which the viewer will feel empathy.

I can give you another example to make my view clearer. If you’re watching a football game, and it’s your country playing another country, it’s not only you rooting for them—it’s everyone around you, your compatriots and supporters. You are hoping your team wins for the whole game, but in the end they lose. Your perception of time is sometimes much faster and other times much slower, according to the level of substance that you feel, and it’s the same for all of the other supporters there experiencing the game with you. This perception might be different in some ways for the people supporting the other team. But there is a common way of feeling time between the two. I describe my films as the same sort of communal experience. I don’t describe two different teams, one good and one bad, one black and one white, only one team of which we have a collective perception which is subjective but still common amidst different people.   

Filmmaker: Can you talk about Everybody Knows’s opening and defining visual, the secrets etched onto the church tower walls and the birds who struggle to break out of the narrow crack in the glass clock? 

Farhadi: It happens to be one of the very first images that I had when I started writing this script. It was an image that was obvious to me. I knew that I would do something with this clock and this church tower. It was for two reasons, I think. One is the themes. When I started thinking about this story and developing it, I knew that the two main themes would be the passing of time and religion, or the relationship between human beings and spirituality. These were two things this clocktower could embody. On one hand, we have this broken bell that time seems to have stopped in a way, and on the other hand it’s in a church. So, it was a perfect metaphor to introduce those themes at the beginning of the film. The birds must have been some image from my childhood. I used to see these cuckoo clocks with birds coming out periodically from within it. I imagined that the clock trapped the bird and that the bird was trying to escape it. It was as if here, after longing for this bird to finally come out, I had went behind the clock to see what the bird was doing and find out why he couldn’t fly away.

Filmmaker: Do your scripts start specific and take on broader ideas or do you start with a broad idea and narrow it down to the details?

Farhadi: I usually start from details. It’s as if I made a suit starting from the buttons instead of the fabric. I have one image, one idea, and then the other images start coming together in a cluster, giving a broader meaning to it all. But it all starts from detail. The story in Everybody Knows is an allegory. It brings me back to a story that is popular in my background and culture, the story of the man who sailed the sea and crossed a storm. He was trying to hang onto a piece of wood, or whatever he could to survive, when he asked God to save him from drowning. A ship came later and tried to rescue him, but the struggling man said “No. God’s going to save me” and so he didn’t accept their help. Eventually, the man drowned and died. After dying he asked God “Why didn’t you save me?” God said  “I sent that ship to save you. You should have gone with him.” It’s the same story that happens to Paco and Alejandro. Paco is another way of rescuing the father. So, it’s a reinterpretation of the same allegorical story.

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