West High grad directs a Middle East ‘kidnapping thriller’

Cyrus Nowrasteh's film 'Infidel' opens nationally on Sept. 18
Infidel Still (2)
A still from the new film "Infidel." (Photo courtesy of Cyrus Nowrasteh)

Cyrus Nowrasteh has a new film coming out next week, which means he is excited, nervous, and ready for battle.

Battle?

“My stuff generally gets a reaction,” Nowrasteh said by phone last week from California.

Nowrasteh, who grew up in Madison and graduated from Madison West High School in 1974 – he was the boys’ city tennis champion that year – is the writer and director of “Infidel,” which he calls a “kidnapping thriller set in the Middle East.”

The film opens nationally on Sept. 18 in 1,500 to 1,700 theaters, including AMC Madison 6 at Hilldale.

“Infidel” stars Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” and more recently starred in the long-running CBS television series “Person of Interest.”

As noted, Nowrasteh’s work has been controversial, and this time around it’s unlikely the Iranian government will receive “Infidel” warmly.

“The guy Jim is playing lives in Virginia, works for a software company, and on the side he’s a Christian blogger,” Nowrasteh says.

Invited to a conference featuring various faiths in Cairo, “he says something he shouldn’t say in a televised interview,” Nowrasteh explains. “It causes a big stir and he ends up disappeared,” i.e. imprisoned in Iran.

Caviezel’s character’s wife, played by Claudia Karvan, travels to Iran to plead for his release.

Nowrasteh researched real life cases of Americans being held in Iran, the best known of which is likely Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007 and whose family announced his probable death earlier this year.

“I fashioned a fictional narrative inspired by these cases,” Nowrasteh says. He shot “Infidel” last year in Jordan.

Cyrus On Infidel Set (1)

Director Cyrus Nowrasteh, right, on the set of “Infidel” with an actor from the film. (Photo courtesy of Cyrus Nowrasteh)

Cyrus and I met 50 years ago at Van Hise Junior High School (now Velma Hamilton Middle School). His parents and brother still live in Madison. Cyrus always wanted to make movies and shot a short film with a handheld camera while we were still at Van Hise.

Our friendship has given me a good seat from which to observe his long career. In the notoriously fickle TV and movie business, longevity is itself an achievement. Nowrasteh started writing for television (“The Equalizer,” “La Femme Nikita”) in the 1980s and ’90s. Then in the late ’90s, he began researching a project at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, not far from where Cyrus lived with his wife, Betsy, and two sons in Camarillo.

That project became “The Day Reagan Was Shot,” which Nowrasteh wrote and directed for Showtime.

It was a triumph. Cyrus called me from Toronto the day after they wrapped shooting in February 2001. He was exhausted but happy. He had a stellar cast: Richard Crenna as Reagan and Richard Dreyfuss as Alexander Haig, who famously declared himself in charge after a deranged John Hinckley fired a bullet into President Reagan.

Nowrasteh also had, as executive producer, Oliver Stone, whose presence guaranteed Nowrasteh’s first brush with controversy. Stone originally hoped to direct Nowrasteh’s script, but his schedule prevented it.

“How can I help?” Stone said.

He could produce, and did, leading to a now two-decade old friendship. But Stone’s involvement caused Reagan loyalists to attack the film even before it was shown.

The film was good history. Nowrasteh hired the late, great Madison presidential historian Stanley Kutler as a consultant. And when it was released in December 2001, it was compelling viewing. People magazine praised Nowrasteh’s “smart script and taut direction.”

The criticism and controversy came from the other side of the political aisle in 2006 when ABC televised “The Path to 9/11,” a mini-series written but not directed by Nowrasteh which asserted Bill Clinton’s administration hadn’t done all it could to stop Osama bin Laden.

Nowrasteh, who is of Iranian descent, followed that with a film that angered the government in Iran. “The Stoning of Soraya M.” was based on a nonfiction book about a woman being stoned to death in a small Iranian village after a false accusation of adultery.

“It was banned in Iran,” Nowrasteh says of the film. “It became a crime to own a copy. Copies of it were smuggled into Iran and it became a bootleg underground hit.”

The film took Nowrasteh to Germany, where he received the Cinema for Peace Award for Justice in conjunction with the Berlin Film Festival.

Now it seems a safe bet that “Infidel” will, as Nowrasteh says, “get a reaction.”

The director wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Making movies is not fun,” he says. “When I speak to film students, they’ll ask if making a film was fun. It’s not summer camp. The places where I make movies are intense. It’s also,” he concludes, “a great experience.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.