A man of many talents, Cyrus Nowrasteh has won hearts and ruffled a few feathers over the course of his long and successful career in Hollywood. Having worked with great talents like Oliver Stone, Harvey Keitel, and Richard Dreyfuss, Cyrus has collected many awards and distinctions as a writer, director and producer.
A great tennis player, Cyrus’s career started in 1986 as a writer for CBS’s hit show The Equalizer. He went on to work on other popular shows like Falcon Crest, and La Femme Nikita, which he also wrote the pilot for. Later, he wrote and co-produced the independent American/Brazilian production The Interview.
A handsome and charming individual, Cyrus confesses to having written countless scripts and using his creative writing as an anchor into the film industry. Among other well known films are 10,000 Black Men Named George and The Day Reagan Was Shot. Cyrus received the Pen Literary Award for these two films and was the only writer in history to win the award in the same category two years in a row.
In 2005, Cyrus wrote the Manifest Destiny episode of Steven Spielberg’s Into the West TNT miniseries. Most recently, Cyrus wrote and produced The Path To 9/11, a controversial mini-series on ABC that explored the events leading up to September 11th, based on personal interviews and the 9/11 commission report.
Cyrus was kind enough to discuss his work with us recently:
Shabnam Rezaei: Tell us about yourself.
Cyrus Nowrasteh: I was born in Boulder Colorado and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. Both my parents are Iranian and both finished high school here and met here when they were very young, in the late 1940’s. They eventually went back to Iran and I lived there as a child for about two and a half years. That is where my smatterings of Farsi comes from. I went back in the 1977-78 summers, and by the end of my visits, I was doing quite well (in Farsi). I have to be forced to speak it. When I came to the US, I went to school and was forced to speak English so they stopped speaking Farsi at home. They were over concerned. I have an older brother also.
SR: What is your relationship to your Iranian-ness now?
CN: I am very proud of my heritage and am very aware of it. My wife Betsy is American. Our kids are very aware as well and it’s a mixed blessing. If it hadn’t been for the revolution, I would have gone back a lot. For instance, when I started film, I would have liked to explore my opportunities there.
SR: How did you get into film?
CN: I was fascinated by it when I was in High School. I won a Kodak Young Filmmaker’s contest so my film was on TV. I got some cash and got interviewed and it was all very exciting. I went to college then on a tennis scholarship in New Mexico. Then I applied to University of Southern California and got into the film school. At USC, people from the film industry came and spoke a lot and they kept saying they are looking for screenwriters so I thought if I wanted to be a filmmaker, I would have to know how to write a script. From there, it took me about five years to crack the industry.
Darius Kadivar: You were a Tennis instructor before you got into the film business. With your good looks why did you choose directing over acting?
CN: I get too self conscious in front of the camera. So I thought I could do things behind the scenes and still have an impact.
DK: What were the films and actors you grew up with that continue to feed and shape your imagination as a writer/director?
CN: I grew up admiring directors David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago) and Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) - both of whom I was fortunate enough to meet in the early days of my career. Screenwriters I admire include Robert Bolt (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago & A Man For All Seasons) and Paddy Chayevsky (Network). In recent years directors whose work I admire, and who I believe have had a great impact on my work are Elia Kazan (A Face In The Crowd, Splendor In The Grass, On The Waterfront) and Sydney Lumet (Network, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon).
DK: Woody Allen hates to watch his own films. Steven Spielberg is said to love watching his own films over and over again. As a screenwriter how do you react to your own work?
CN: I like to watch the movies that I have made the way I wanted to make them. In the film industry a lot of people come into the picture and sometimes what you start out with is not what you end up with. Therefore, I like to watch what I am happy with. I don’t watch any of my films that did not come out how I intended and there are plenty of those.
DK: Richard Dreyfuss and Harvey Keitel are amongst the impressive cast of actors you have directed. Who was the most difficult to work with?
CN: I really enjoyed working with Richard Dreyfuss. He was very professional and a great actor. Harvey Keitel, he’s not going to read this, right? Well, I think Harvey has a reputation for being difficult in the industry and that is for a reason. I think he may have had bigger plans and perhaps he thinks he has not become as big as he would like and that is why he has the attitude that he does.
DK: Martin Ritt’s The Spy who came in From the Cold, Costa Gavras’s Z , State of Siege , Missing, and Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, are only a few names that come to mind when mentioning political thrillers. Your filmography seems also greatly influenced by politics or historical political figures. Is Political History something that fascinates you as a director?
CN: Of course, especially what I saw on television. Thirteen Days in October was a 1970s dramatization about the Cuban Missile crisis that had a huge impact on me. I also loved I Claudius on PBS and Reilly: Ace of Spies. These are all great longform television dealing with politics and history. Also, Oliver Stone's work: JFK and Nixon are both great political theater. Oliver Stone has been a great supporter of my career and a great friend to me. I love these kinds of movies, am fascinated by history and politics, and consider them to be the greatest subjects for dramatization -- be it television or the movies.
SR: Speaking of history, did you expect the reactions that you got to ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11?
CN: No. Not at all. I really did not expect these reactions.
DK: Your Persian roots inspired you to write and direct Vield Threat starring Behrouz Vossoughi. You are currently working on the screen adaptation of Iranian Journalist Fereidoune Sahebjam’s The Stoning of Soraya M. Can you tell us more about this story?
CN: The Stoning Of Soraya M. is a simple but incredibly powerful and emotional story about the barbarity of stoning in Iran. My wife, Betsy, who is American, was profoundly moved by it and has urged me to take it on. I've been very busy, and since she is also a professional screenwriter (Under Pressure which starred Charlie Sheen and Mare Winningham) I suggested we adapt it together. So she is helping me and we're making good progress. This is an important story.
DK: What is your opinion on “villains”. Most actors love to portray one. Take Henry Fonda in Sergio Leon’s Once Upon a Time in the West or Shohreh Aghdashloo on 24. Understandably many Iranians complain to be often portrayed only as terrorists on screen, or to be vilified by films like ‘300’ or more recently with the controversy surrounding Wayne Kramer’s Crossing Over where an Iranian character is involved in an honor killing. Do you think the audience is intelligent enough in separating fact from fiction? Particularly when evil behavior is associated to a community as is the case with Muslims today?
CN: First and foremost, I believe in creative freedom and freedom of expression. I would never try to stop a filmmaker from telling his or her story. Yes, there is stereotyping of Middle Easterners on television and in the movies and this is regrettable. However, this stems more from the bad behavior of fringe Islamic terror groups, than from innate American prejudice. I grew up in this country and never heard a bad word said about Iranians or Middle Easterners until the hostages were taken in Iran in 1979.
As for 300 this was a comic book movie and not to be taken seriously. I haven't seen Crossing Over, and will keep my eyes open for it and hope it is not too inflammatory.
In my miniseries, The Path To 9/11, the terrorist hijackers were portrayed, but there were also Islamic heroes in the movie. The most notable being Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan who was assassinated by agents of Al Qaeda on 9/9/01. Many Americans who watched the show said they were very moved by this character and the sacrifices he made in combating Bin Laden. Massoud's family has thanked me for portraying him as a hero to Western audiences. I told them that this was the truth, and that it was an honor for me to write about him.
SR: One final question: when is 9/11 being released on DVD?
CN: As of now, Disney is backing away from a DVD release of The Path to 9/11 due to direct pressure from the Clintons. This is regrettable and cowardly - besides being un-American. But there's little I can do at the moment except point it out.
SR: Cyrus Jan, thanks for your time.
CN: Thanks to you and Darius.