Persian Heritage Magazine Interviews Cyrus Nowrasteh

Dr. David A. Yeagley      Spring issue of PERSIAN HERITAGE magazine, cover story —

Dr.Yeagley:  Welcome to Persian Heritage Magazine, Mr. Nowrasteh.   We are honored by your consideration, and we are proud to share your ideas with not only American Iranians, but Iranian-Americans and Americans in general!   We are confident that your words are especially meaningful, and we are grateful for your willingness to share your views with us.

Mr. Nowrasteh: Thank you for having me. 

Dr. Yeagley:  Tell us about your beginnings, your birth and childhood.  What were your first impressions of America, and of Iran?

Mr. Nowrasteh: Though I was born in America, my parents are both Iranian and I lived in Iran for three years as a child – which is why I still speak some Farsi (though not as well as I’d like). There is a color, a dynamism to Iranian culture that is missing in other cultures. Persians laugh, love, and grieve with great passion. There’s also a deep cultural heritage and history. Great pride. And also great food. After many years I went back to Iran in my twenties and what came back to me most powerfully was the food, the smells of Persian dishes, pastries, etc.

Dr. Yeagley:  As an American, I see Iran as an ancient older brother.   I see Persia as the first America, really.   Do you feel such a similarity?  I know a lot got lost in the centuries in between, and it seems Iran is starting all over, in terms of democracy; but most Iranians love America, and find it very easy to be American, once they are here. 

Mr. Nowrasteh: There is a kinship between Iran and America. Historians talk of Ancient Iran as a “melting pot” of different peoples and cultures that merged and became the ancient Persian Empire — much like America was a melting pot that became a great nation. Iranians are very good at seizing opportunities and expanding their horizons — America is the ideal place for such a people. That’s why it doesn’t surprise me when many Iranians tell me that even if things change in Iran they’ll remain in America.

Dr. Yeagley:  How do you fit into the Iranian-American community?   Do you even think in those terms?   What is it that is “Iranian” about you?  What do you think others see in you as “Iranian?”

Obviously, my heritage is Iranian. I’m very proud of it and that heritage is part of what defines a person. Many other factors define a person, but the country-of-origin of one’s parents is key. Because I’m American-born Americans see me as one of them, part of the melting pot, but because I look so Iranian I’m often asked where I’m from. My response: “I’m American of Iranian origin.” As for the Iranian community I have relatives and friends, and fellow film-makers in the Iranian community whose company and friendship I treasure.

 1.  Most Iranians in America are in the sciences.  Most young American Iranians train for engineering, medicine, or law.  How did you get interested in script writing and movie making?   What attracted you to this field?  At what point in your life to you work in this direction?

I was always fascinated by motion pictures and television, I loved going to the movies. I remember watching “behind-the-scenes” programs about how movies were made and being riveted. It was obvious there were many people who worked behind-the-scenes and I started to wonder if perhaps I could be one. As a child I loved MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, the TV show, and one of the directors was Reza Badiyi — obviously  an Iranian. I asked my parents about him and they had met him many years earlier. So  now it was clear that someone my family knew, an Iranian, was working in the American film/tv industry — perhaps I could, too?

Years later, when I arrived in Los Angeles and knew no one, I called Mr. Badiyi. He invited me to lunch on the Universal studio lot. He was filming at the time and was incredibly gracious to me. I will never forget this act of generosity on his part. He is a wonderful man and a great talent.

2.  You are an American Iranian.  How did this affect your professional life in your chosen profession?   Was it an advantage, or a hindrance, or both?   Was it a factor at all in your success?  

Honestly, I think it had nothing to do with it. I was passionate and driven about what I wanted to do — and I pursued it relentlessly. Frank Capra, the famous American director of Italian heritage, felt that the fact that his parents were immigrants and constantly reminded him of the great opportunities before him in this country, made him feel as if success were inevitable. Perhaps that worked to motivate me, too. 

3.  Did you ever have any interest in acting yourself? 

No. I’m much too self-conscious to be an actor. I admire actors very much and believe their job to be very difficult. The good ones are worth their weight in gold. Iranian actors whom I admire include Behrouz Vossoughi and Shohreh Aghdashloo.

4.  With whom have you worked most?   Who are your models?  

I’ve worked on a couple of projects with Oliver Stone (THE DAY REAGAN WAS SHOT, the upcoming JAWBREAKER). I’ve also worked with Steven Spielberg (INTO THE WEST). Both men are impressive and invigorating and it’s immediately clear whey they are such great successes. Actors I’ve worked with include Richard Dreyfuss, Tommy Lee Jones, Harvey Keitel, and many others. I directed Dreyfuss in THE DAY REAGAN WAS SHOT and he was a joy to work with.

5.  Would you encourage other young American Iranians to enter the field of cinema?    What do you thing young American Iranians should be doing with their lives?   How do you see the future for them?   How do you recommend they find their place in America?

Mr. Nowrasteh: I would encourage anyone and everyone to follow their heart. Find your passion and pursue it with every ounce of energy that you have. And don’t worry about what others think — be true to yourself.  

Dr. Yeagley:  Patriotism is a controversial subject in America these days, perhaps more so than in Iran.  Do you consider yourself an American patriot?  Do you also consider yourself a patriot of Iran?   Can you describe for us your feelings about today’s Iran, in terms of your personal attachment?

Mr. Nowrasteh: Yes, I consider myself a patriot because I love America. I think, despite its faults, it’s a great country full of freedom and opportunity. As for Iran, yes I have a patriotic fervor for the pageant of Iranian culture and history, a rich tapestry that we can all be very proud of. As for my feelings about today’s Iran, I haven’t been back since 1978 and am in no position to judge purely on the basis of media reports. Friends and family who have been back tell me that Iran is changing rapidly and they think that is a good thing.

Dr. Yeagley:  Can you tell us what led you to create “The Path to 9-11?”  What were your concerns?   And what did you hope to accomplish by this movie?   Do you think you achieved those purposes?   Please address political concerns, and also artistic concerns. 

Docu-drama is still a fairly new form in media.  Are you on the cutting edge of it now?  

When I took on the assignment to write THE PATH TO 9/11 for ABC I knew it was the most important, and the most sensitive, project that I or any writer/producer could tackle. For that reason, and because of a deeply-felt personal responsibility toward the story and those who died — indeed toward all Americans — I knew the research had to be impeccable. It was. We focussed not only on the failures of two administrations, but also the perpetrators — who are the real villains of the story. Also, we portray the unsung heroes, those who saw what was coming and tried to stop it.

The one thing I did not do in preparing this project was get the approval of politicians. Any politicians. Why? Because if there is one batch of sources with a clear agenda, with clear partisanship, it would be them. 

This project was a privilege from start to finish and I stand by every word of it.

6.  When did you begin thinking of doing a movie on 9-11?   What caused you to want to do this?   What was your purpose in doing this movie?    I am sure you realized it would be controversial.   What did you feel needed to be accomplished by the movie?

This movie, first and foremost, needed to tell the truth and damn the consequences. There was a lot of controversy, and we expected that, but we didn’t anticipate a spin campaign orchestrated by an ex-President of the United States. A campaign that included death threats against me and my family and vicious hate mail. But, I guess that’s what happens when you expose the truth. Obviously, we hit a hot-button.

7.  Were you challenged by others when you undertook the project?   Did people fight against you every step?  Did you find a lot of support? 

There were challenges, but there was plenty of support, too. Especially from ABC Vice-President Quinn Taylor. My task was to back up the script with research, multiple sources, and on-site advisors. All of which I provided. If the backup is there then the network had no choice but to go with it. Once the movie aired in September numerous Washington experts, experts on terrorism, Michael Scheuer (former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit), Steven Emerson (expert on terrorism who has briefed Congress many times), and others came forward and testified to the veracity of the movie.

Unlike the Clinton people who bashed the movie, these experts actually bothered to watch it before commenting on it.

8.  Did making The Path to 9-11 affect your personal life in any way?   Were you concerned about reactions?   Did you have reason to be concerned? 

As I said above, supporters of Mr. Clinton printed my home phone number and address on the Internet with the message: “The gloves are off. Accidents Occur.” It was unsettling and worrisome, but I didn’t believe there was any teeth to these threats. Just nuts on the Internet who have nothing better to do.

9. Docu-drama is still a fairly new form in media.  Are you on the cutting edge of it now?

Mr. Nowrasteh: I may be on the cutting edge, but I don’t know too many networks who will take on the controversy that accumulated around THE PATH TO 9/11. Censorship and intimidation still exist in Hollywood, don’t let anyone tell you different.

Dr. Yeagley:  Are you willing to discuss with us some of the reactions you got, personally?  For better, and for worse, we want very much to know.   Name names if you feel like it. 

Mr. Sandy Berger, former National Security Advisor, went on national television and insisted that ABC “pull” the movie. Senator Harry Reid and five other Democrat senators threatened ABC with revocation of their station licenses if they didn’t pull the movie. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter of New York suggested that my background be “looked into” for doing this movie. These are Stalinist tactics by self-proclaimed freedom-loving liberals.

It turns out that Mr. Berger had a very personal motivation for discrediting the movie and trying to kill it. If you’ll remember, he was arrested in 2003 for trying to steal documents from the national archives. Those documents pertained specificially to the scenes in the movie that they were complaining about and wanted excised. So we had exposed in THE PATH TO 9/11 precisely those actions (or lack of action on their part) that Mr. Berger and Mr. Clinton have been trying to cover up. Unfortunately, very few of their willing accomplices in the media have pointed this out. Regardless, it is some measure of vindication for me.

Very satisfying.

10.  What kind of film are you going to make next?  What are your future plans? 

I’m writing a movie for Oliver Stone and Paramount Pictures about the war in Afghanistan based on a book entitled JAWBREAKER. I have also acquired the rights to an Iranian story, THE STONING OF SORAYA M. and am actively developing it.

11.  You wrote the script for Steven Spielberg’s Into the West.   This involved American Indians, of course.   You were recently (December 19, 2006) interviewed by, the Comanche Indian web site that emphasizes American patriotism.  I find your interest in American Indians to be encouraging.   How did you develop an interest in American Indians?    

Mr. Nowrasteh: From the very first Western I saw I have been fascinated by American Indians. Their nobility, their sacrifice against incredible odds, and their adaptibility while retaining their cultural identity amidst the swirl of history.

Dr. Yeagley:  How are you regarded in Iran, by Iranian people?   Need we ask how the government regards you?  

Mr. Nowrasteh: I have no idea. I hope they like me. Always better to be liked than the alternative.

Dr. Yeagley:  Do you see yourself as having any role or purpose in Iran?  Are you identified with any sector that wishes to see a regime change?   What would you like to see happen in Iran?  

Mr. Nowrasteh: Iran will find its path. I am too far-away, too removed to be a political participant. I make movies and television shows. There are great film-makers working there, making significant contributions to the national discourse. Iranian films have been favorites at festivals for years. It is actually my dream to make an Iranian film. I have acquired the rights to THE STONING OF SORAYA M., a true story about women’s rights in Iran. I don’t know if I can get backing in Hollywood but I’m starting the process. I believe this can be the MIDNIGHT EXPRESS of women’s rights. 

Dr. David Yeagley:  We thank you sincerely, Mr. Nowrasteh, for your revelations.  We know they are valued by many people.  You have behaved in a very humble, unassuming way in your career, yet your work is so out in front, so pace-setting, and so “American,” if I might say.   As an American, I am especially proud of you, and I know Iranian people everywhere are too. 

Mr. Nowrasteh: Thank you. You are very kind.