Jon Stewart Speaks About Rosewater and Adapting for the Screen

By Susan Kouguell · November 9, 2014

Adapting for the Screen

Adapting a book into a screenplay can be regarded as all about the choices you make while bringing forth the essence of the story. Translating internal thoughts of a character without overusing voiceover or another device, and/or making choices to fictionalize certain events and restructuring time frames, are just some of the elements that screenwriters must consider when adapting material for the screen. 

Screenplays are generally 120 pages or less, and many novels, for example, are often double or triple that length. Generally speaking, one script page equals one minute of screen time, which means that you must focus on the basic plot points of the material, thus often resulting in cutting subplots and characters. Unlike a novel or memoir, you don’t have the luxury to get inside your characters’ minds with pages and pages of internal thoughts. Characters’ motivations, agendas, goals, and so on, must be conveyed in dialogue and through visual storytelling. Keep in mind the screenwriting adage: Show Don’t Tell. The bottom line: Film is a visual medium.

Jon Stewart Speaks about Rosewater with Janet Maslin at the Jacob Burns Film Center

As part of the Global Watch: Crisis Culture & Human Rights film series (November 6-26) at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York, film critic and JBFC president Janet Maslin interviewed Jon Stewart, following the screening of his directorial debut of Rosewater. Stewart’s screenplay, adapted from Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came For Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, centers on Bahari’s family history and his arrest, torture and 107-day solitary confinement imprisonment, following the 2009 presidential election in Iran.

A few days before his arrest, Bahari, a contributor to Newsweek, appeared on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show in a taped interview with the show’s correspondent Jason Jones. Mr. Bahari does not believe that this interview was responsible for his arrest; he was already being monitored.

Stewart on Rosewater

The title ‘Rosewater’ is inspired from the rosewater scent of Maziar’s interrogator. That’s all Maziar knows (in solitary confinement and blindfolded); that’s how Maziar can identify him.

(Stewart emphasized that what drew him to this material and to direct this film, as opposed to another project, was how Maziar kept both his spirit intact during solitary confinement, and his humanity through his memories of his family. This optimism and sense of hope is what Stewart would like the audience to come away with after seeing this film.)

The Decision to Direct

If I didn’t do anything I wasn’t nervous about I would just sit in a room. I was nervous about directing.

I want my work to be about things I believe in. As a comedian I’m drawn to commentary of events around the world. I’m fascinated by human stupidity. But I’m optimistic, too. We forget that there’s some six million people living in New York City. How is New York not just some Mad Max? It’s kind of incredible.

I like my work to be about context. I want this film to be seen as relevant. Journalists are in a terrible position right now. These people are out on their own. Bloggers and active social media people are being arrested and imprisoned.

The best move I did was hiring the people I did to make this film. I showed the script and film to every director that came on The Daily Show. Paul Thomas Anderson? Sure let’s have him on! Ron Howard read it and thought, this will be a wonderful –play–add visuals if you want to make this a film. I’m thinking: How do you visualize the scenes in solitary confinement with the hallucinations in the cell and make it effective and emotional?

Stewart’s Choices in Adapting the Story to the Screen

I needed to make Maziar more passive and question: who is a journalist and who is a witness? The part in the film where Maziar picks up the camera as a weapon — he was doing that all along in real life. It was a narrative choice to show him doing this in order to dramatize the story. In real life, Maziar was always filming.

Jon Stewart on Writing

Overcoming self-doubt is my writing style. (Stewart pauses) I have no self-doubt– that’s how I live in general. (Stewart laughs)

Trailer Credit

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting at Purchase College and is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and industry executives worldwide. (  Her short films are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and archives, and were included in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial. Kouguell worked with Louis Malle on And the Pursuit of Happiness, was a story analyst and story editor for many studios, wrote voice-over narrations for (Harvey Weinstein) Miramax and over a dozen feature assignments for independent companies. Susan wrote THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises, available at $1.00 off on and using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD.  On Kindle: (discount code does not apply). Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell on Twitter, and read more articles on her blog:

Photo: Tatiana Kouguell-Hoell