Jon Stewart: a man of the people in Jordan

With Jon Stewart currently at the Toronto International Film Festival screening footage from his feature directorial debut, Rosewater, to potential foreign buyers, member¿s of the film¿s crew reflect on The Daily Show host's first directing gig 

When Alaadin Khasawneh saw his mother hand-feeding Jon Stewart at dinner, he knew there was no question about it: “He was the most personable celebrity I have ever met.”

Khasawneh, 29, spent five weeks on set with The Daily Show host in Jordan, where Stewart made his directorial debut with the independent feature film and political drama Rosewater. Stewart also wrote the screenplay for the movie.

It was Stewart’s first break from his role as the politically charged TV presenter on his Comedy Central satirical news programme in 16 years.

Khasawneh’s company, AK Casting, which he started with his partner Lara Atalla, was in charge of casting the extras and smaller speaking roles for the film, which wrapped production in Jordan’s capital, Amman, last month.

“This movie was an incredible journey,” says Khasawneh. “Especially because it was Jon’s first movie.” The Jordanian-Palestinian-Swedish entrepreneur, who spends his time between Dubai, Jordan and Toronto, has worked on six films in the past few years, including the Oscar-winning Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn Bigelow, which was partly shot in Jordan.

“The amount of things I learnt on such a big production made all the other movies look like a piece of cake. It was very intense,” he says.

“I saw all the colours of the rainbow.”

The experience equipped him enough to be fully prepared for Rosewater, particularly one scene, which required 800 extras to act out a riot in the street.

“We couldn’t afford to pay 800 people, so there was a lot of debate and chaos around what we should do.”

They decided to launch a social media video campaign with Stewart offering hugs in exchange for extras.

“It was a big risk and a gamble, but it worked out. And it just goes to show how much Jon is loved in Jordan.”

According to Khasawneh, Stewart is as funny in person as he is on The Daily Show.

“He was so nice to people – always cracking jokes and laughing with people. He’s unbelievably funny.”

The day Khasawneh invited the team for dinner at his mother’s house, Stewart originally declined, saying he had to appear as a guest on The Daily Show via Skype.

“But the first one to come over from the team was Jon,” says Khasawneh.

As a treat, his mother, Randa Alhasan, hand-fed Stewart a vine leaf stuffed with meat and rice.

“He was totally cool with it. Everyone loved him. He never played the ‘I’m a celebrity’ card.”

Rosewater is a film adaptation of the BBC journalist Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy’s New York Times best-selling memoir Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival, which tells the story of Bahari’s 2009 arrest by the Iranian government while covering an election protest.

He was interrogated and tortured for 118 days, including 107 days spent in solitary confinement.

Bahari had been a guest on The Daily Show before the arrest and his captors used the interview to back their claims that he was a spy.

The drama, which was also produced by Scott Rudin, was shot in Jordan, 50 per cent of which was filmed in Khasawneh’s mother’s school, Modern Montessori.

“He fell in love with the school, so they built four sets in the gym.”

The school had to be closed down during production, but because it was during Ramadan it was “the best time” to shoot a film there, says Khasawneh.

“It was an intense five weeks because people were fasting, so it was a very interesting challenge.”

The Mexican heart-throb Gael García Bernal, who famously played Che Guevara in the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, stars as Bahari in the film. According to Khasawneh, Bernal was “one of the most polite human beings” he had ever met.

“Gael was so polite, to a point where when someone came up to him, he would get shy and say: ‘I’m just like you, I’m just a human.’”

Khasawneh, who also runs a performing arts school in Jordan, Stardust Academy, had a small role in the movie, playing the prison guard who arrests Bahari.

“That was my personal role in it, but I cast three quarters of my friends in this movie, so when it comes out I’ll probably be laughing the whole time from seeing all those familiar faces.”

• Rosewater, written and directed by Stewart, is expected to be released next year