Jon Stewart was on his way to introduce the fourth sellout screening of his movie "Rosewater" at the Telluride Film Festival when a fan popped out of the concession line to introduce herself.
"I hate to jump in, but I loved your piece on Ferguson," she said, grabbing his arm. Stewart, casually dressed in T-shirt and khakis, smiled and thanked her before heading backstage at the screening's homespun venue, a middle-school gym.
FOR THE RECORD
The first name of Tom Ortenberg, chief executive of Open Road Films, is misspelled as Tim in this article.
"Rosewater," like Stewart's 10-minute "Daily Show" segment on the police and media response to the shooting of an unarmed black young man in Ferguson, Mo., tackles a deadly serious topic with humor and empathy.
But no one expected Stewart's movie about a journalist imprisoned in Iran to become the feel-good film of Telluride, heading next to the Toronto International Film Festival with a wave of good will before distributor Open Road Films rolls it out theatrically Nov. 7.
"Rosewater" drew some of the longest lines in Telluride's history as moviegoers eager to see the talk show host's writing and directing debut snaked down the Rocky Mountain town's Columbia Avenue.
Momentum built over the course of the Labor Day weekend as word got out that "Rosewater" was not only good but also funny, boasting, in its adaptation of journalist Maziar Bahari's 2011 memoir "Then They Came for Me," no fewer than three jokes about New Jersey.
"That's the way I roll," Stewart said with a shrug when asked about his movie's humor. "But it's also in the book. One of the things that helped Maziar make it through was recognizing the absurdity and being able to entertain himself. That had to be part of him reclaiming his humanity in his imprisonment."
Laughs helped the movie stand out at the serious-minded festival, as audiences leaving intense or grim films tipped off one another that "Rosewater" was a mood booster, leavening the topic of the suppression of speech in the same way that "The Daily Show" tackles hard issues, with a keen-eyed sense of the ludicrousness of the situation.
Variety critic Scott Foundas called "Rosewater" "a darkly funny drama that may occupy the same geographic terrain as 'Argo,'" a reference to the crowd-pleasing political thriller that emerged out of the 2012 Telluride Film Festival to win the Academy Award for best picture.
Stewart's movie seems unlikely to travel as far on the Oscars trail as "Argo" did — as a first-time director, he kept his filmmaking simple and straightforward — but Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, who plays Bahari, may emerge in the lead actor race for his vulnerable performance, particularly a scene where he dances cathartically to a Leonard Cohen song in his jail cell.
"I needed an actor who was able to survive terrible conditions but still retain light in his eyes," Stewart said of García Bernal.
Bahari's book covers his arrest and interrogation over 118 days in connection with reporting he conducted on Iranian election protests in 2009.
In the days leading to his confinement, the Tehran-born reporter had participated in a satirical interview with comedian Jason Jones on "The Daily Show," which his captors ultimately presented as evidence that he was in communication with an American spy.
"He was trying to get his AFTRA card," Stewart joked, of Bahari's appearance on his show.
The rest of the international cast includes Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo as Bahari's mother and Danish actor Kim Bodnia as his sometimes comically inept interrogator, Rosewater.
By Sunday, along with Bahari and García Bernal, Stewart had been at Telluride's high altitude for several days, participating in Q&As about the film, talking with journalists, attending parties and brunches.
"You wake up in the morning and you feel like a Slim Jim," Stewart said of the altitude's drying effect.
But, likely because he's accustomed to the breakneck pace of a daily talk show, he showed no sign of slowing down while waiting backstage to introduce his film, entertaining Open Road Chief Executive Tim Ortenberg, producer Gigi Pritzker and four publicists.
As the short that preceded his movie played, Stewart danced behind a curtain and shared the story of how he proposed to his wife via a crossword puzzle. After his intro, a festival liaison guided Stewart to a car, detouring through a school playground, someone's back yard and an alley.
"Can you imagine this is the view at your school?" Stewart said, sidestepping a pile of Big Wheels and toys in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains.
Telluride was Stewart's first film festival, and he seemed game to having the complete experience, inquiring how he might get tickets to "Foxcatcher," a drama starring friend and former "Daily Show" correspondent Steve Carell, that was screening at Telluride.
"It's crazy, right?" Stewart said of himself and Carell, two comics finding themselves promoting their contemplative movies at one of cinema's most prestigious festivals.
"Somehow, coming from stand-up, you always think you belong performing alone in a basement somewhere... but not here."