|Interview: Ramin Bahrani on "99 Homes."
|by Peter Sobczynski
The acclaimed director of "Man Push Cart," "Chop Shop" and "Goodbye Solo" discusses his latest effort, "99 Homes."
Although it has only been a mere decade since the debut of his first feature film, filmmaker Ramin Bahrani has already received the kind of acclaim for his work that most people in his line of work never manage to achieve no matter how long their careers may last. He burst onto the scene in 2005 with "Man Push Cart," a quiet independently-made drama chronicling a brief period of time in the life of a man who was a rock star in his native Pakistan but who now sells coffee from a pushcart in Manhattan. The film won a number of awards around the world and Bahrani was praised as a real find by no less a figure than Roger Ebert himself. His next two films, "Chop Shop" (2007) and "Goodbye Solo" (2008), followed in the same path by telling quiet and socially conscious dramas that were cast almost entirely with non-professional actors that received enormous acclaim across the board. In 2012, he made his first attempt to step up to the next level with "At Any Price," an overly earnest drama about the crises facing a midwestern farming family that featured a cast of familiar faces (including Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham and Clancy Brown) and a screenplay that lacked both the subtlety and power of his previous films. It wasn't a bad film by any means--just kind of disappointing to fans of his earlier works because they knew he was capable of so much more.
With his latest film, "99 Homes," Bahrani continues on the path that he pursued with "At Any Price" by once again working on a larger scale and with known actors but this time, the end result is one of his best and most powerful works to date. Inspired by the collapse in the housing market, the film tells the story of Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a hard-working Florida construction worker who winds up losing his home to predatory real-estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) and is forced to move with his young son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern) into a shabby motel. Determined to get his house back at any cost, Dennis finds himself actually going to work for Rick and observing first hand how he is able to game the already rigged system and scam the banks and government for enormous sums of money. He soon becomes Rick's right-hand man and begins making real money but the bill comes due when a big new deal requires him to begin evicting families that were in the exact situation that he once found himself in.
This may not sound like the most gripping of films on the surface but one of the brilliant things about "99 Homes" is the way that Bahrani transforms what could have been a plodding position paper into a compulsively watchable film. Taking a page from the old Warner Brothers films of the 30's that took their cues from the headlines of the day, Bahrani has crafted his film more along the lines of a thriller by bringing a sense of tension to every scene, starting with the electrifying extended single-shot opening that establishes the tone of the piece in a startlingly direct manner. There is also a genuine sense of anger coursing through the film as Bahrani takes everyone responsible for the housing crisis--from lax government oversight to predatory lenders to those exploiting the hardships of others for a quick profit--to task for their misdeeds. At the same time, he understands that things are not always black and white and indeed, his depiction of Rick (one of Michael Shannon's best performances to date) is interesting in that he is portrayed not as a monster but as a guy who has suffered hurts in the past and who is a realist who plays the system to ensure that they never happen to him again. In one of the most striking moments of the film, Dennis asks Rick is it was all worth it and his response is a chillingly logical "As opposed to what."
Now playing in theaters across the country, I saw "99 Home" last April when it screened at Ebertfest and the next morning, Bahrani and I sat down to talk about the film, the issues it raises and his career as a whole.
One of the most interesting things about "99 Homes" is that it has the pacing and structure of a thriller. Considering the number of approaches that this particular material could have lent itself it, was that particular form something that you had in mind right from the beginning or did it come later on as you developed the story?
It was pretty early. I do a lot of research and not just reading but and studying on my own. I like to go to the locations and usually on the first trip, it is very informative because you get struck very quickly by things. On the very first trip I made, two things jumped out at me. One was the basic structure of the movie, which was making a deal with the devil--the classic archetypal Faustian story about a man getting evicted from his home and then begins working for the very man who evicted him in order to get his own home back for his own family by evicting other families. That was the first thing that came to me and it was so simple and strong with so much moral and emotional and philosophical complexity to it that it would work even in a setting that we had never really seen in a film. I thought that was already enough to make a film.
Then I started spending time with the people in the foreclosure courts with the real estate brokers, the hedge fund guys and the seedy elements. It seemed like every in Florida carries a gun--it was shocking to see the real estate brokers with guns--and it was shocking to see how corrupt it was. The corruption was just mind-boggling from the big levels such as Washington and the banks to the courts all the way down to the lawyers, real estate brokers to the homeowners sometimes. Everything was corruption and scams and I realized that this thing could have a different pace and tone--it could be a thriller where I could do things that I hadn't done in my other films. I am always trying to find something new that allows me to push myself creatively, so that was exciting. Then I thought that a deal with the devil has danger in it and a thriller has danger in it and that those things seemed to match and that I wasn't just putting one on top of the other--they could actually go together. That seemed to be the way to tell the story so that I could do justice to what I was seeing. This story has affected the entire country and this structure could be seen by the entire country because it was more open in terms of its pace and tension and mood. It all just seemed to make sense.
All of your films have served as social commentary to some extent but with your last two films, "At Any Price" and this one, it has become far more pointed. How did the shift to a more overt form of commentary come about for you?
I agree and I don't agree. There is an aggression to this film. We have screened it in a bunch of places--Venice, Telluride, Sundance and here--and the reaction has tended to be pretty similar. People are very emotional--some people are crying at certain scenes, some are disturbed and some people get very angry. Even last night at the event that we were both at, people were angry about it. Those were things that I hoped that this story would bring. I did want that and that meant a more aggressive style of filmmaking and a very aggressive style of editing. I still think that there is ambiguity in the film because what would you do if you were in the same situation as Andrew. I didn't watch the whole film last night but I came in towards the end and there is the part where Andrew and Michael talking at the dock. Andrew is not really sure that he should be doing this and is baffled by some of the elements in Michael's life and he asks "Is it worth it?" and Michael's character says "As opposed to what?" To me, that was the entire movie--that one comment. What is he supposed to do? I think even Michael's character is someone that I find ambiguous. He is a strong antagonist but I don't think he is as strong as the system that has created him.
That is striking because even though he is the "bad guy," he is more of a realist than anything else and does have his good points.
I think Michael's comments have some truth to them. In terms of the political scope of the film--liberal or conservative or right or left--I think the film is pushing both directions at the same time because Michael's arguments are powerful. The moral decisions that the men make--are they wrong? Many of them are but how can I judge them because what else are they supposed to do? I think that is part of what is creating these feelings of anger--people do not understand what else they are supposed to do in this situation. It doesn't seem correct but there do not seem to be any other choices. That doesn't go very far from why people on the right and the left feel frustrated by the political system. It isn't just that Republicans are upset by the political system or liberals or the Tea Party--everyone thinks that the system doesn't work and that is when you start getting into more extreme solutions. That feeling of anger is across the board--the only people who aren't angry are the ones at the very top of the food chain. If I made the movie now, I guess I would have to call it "99.9% Homes." You aren't talking about one political agenda over another--you are talking about 99% of the population that is not happy about things and 1% shrugging their shoulders and thinking "Hey, the system works for me"--of course it works for you because you rigged it to work for you. That is a systemic thing that has been happening from the Seventies onward, covering both Republican and Democrats.
I was curious about how you approached the visual style for the film. Much of the film, for example, has a documentary-like feel to it that brings an immediacy to the material. On the other hand, the opening scene is a highly charged extended moment that looks as if it must have been an immense undertaking to pull off.
It is a three minute, one-take scene and for me, it was put up or shut up--a three minute shot taking you from the bathroom to the living room to the outside to a car. The movie is a mix of very controlled Steadicam work and dolly/tripod work and handheld and each scene dictated its own requirements. The opening scene is a very long three minute Steadicam take that travels quite a distance with Michael Shannon's character through an eviction where something very horrible has happened and there are a lot of cops and a lot of things happening. I like location work a lot. I like to find a location and think of how I can make it work. I wanted to do it in one long take for many reasons but the main one was that when we did finally cut to another image, it was a very shocking and powerful image and I wanted that cut to have a lot of strength in it. If you don't cut for three minutes and then you cut to what Michael Shannon is looking at and it is something horrific, that is going to have a power to it for the audience. I needed that scene and shot and cut to cast a long shadow over the film that said that something horrible could happen at any moment. Cinematically and creatively, that is why it was set up that way.
There are other scenes, such as when you are going into the mansions and a lot of Michael Shannon's world where there is a lot of very slick dialogue that were shot with a Steadicam and done smoother and slicker. The more intimate scenes with Noah, Andrew and Laura Dern in their home were handheld and more immediate. Even though the spaces are smaller and more cluttered and the camerawork is rougher, it feels warmer somehow --even the motel, which is not a great pace to live, feels warmer than the big mansions. When Noah and Andrew go back to see their house and are horsing around and dreaming about what they might have one day, it was sometimes shot handheld and sometimes done with two cameras to be a little looser so that the actors could have a little more freedom. There were no marks--I would just say "Noah, can you come over to this area?" and they would have the freedom to do that.
Your early films were done largely with non-professional actors but with this film and with "At Any Price," you have begun working with known and proven movie stars. Does the ability to work with well-known actors change your filmmaking approach both as a writer and as a director?
It does change it. When you write a two-minute speech for Michael Shannon, you know that he is going to deliver it like a slot machine rigged to win. He can do it and I am not certain that every non-actor can deliver scenes like that. Some can but not all and most probably can't. You know you can write very complex things--complex characters with challenging and emotional scenes, moral scenes and weird, long monologues--and they can deliver them. It frees you up creatively as a writer because the arcs can be strange and interesting because the actors can do them. In terms of casting, the Dennis Nash character was originally older--mid to late thirties--and then I saw Andrew in "Death of a Salesman" on stage and I was just really impressed by that. I had seen his film work and was impressed by that but he had never really done a role like this with the exception of "Boy A"--there were supporting roles or "Spider Man," where who knows what is happening. "Death of a Salesman" was very impressive--you are on stage for nearly three hours and you have to be good and cannot cut or have another take.
Then we met at a friend's wedding and that friend thought we would get along so he put us together at a table and we did get along. I teach a class and one day he just showed up randomly, sat there for two hours and then left. I asked him if he wanted to meet to talk. I told him about the story--I hadn't given him a script yet--and he thought that it was something that really spoke to him and that he wanted to read it. I spent one month rewriting it for his age and for him and what I thought he could bring to the film. He said yes and then we worked on the script together on questions that he had.
I had known Michael for years and always wanted to work with him because I think that he is one of the greatest actors living, period. I asked him to do it and he said yes. Noah was someone we found in an audition--I saw his tape and thought he was amazing and as soon as he came in the room to do some improvisation, I knew he was exactly the kind of person that I wanted. For the Laura Dern part, it was very important that Andrew had some kind of connection to that person and so we started talking about actors and narrowed it down to a couple. There was a stronger connection with Laura-they had a great chemistry with a young mother and a young son that became part of the family dynamic--Laura had her son when she was young and Andrew had his son when he was young--and helped to make it specific.
As your career has grown over the past decade since you first emerged as a filmmaker, how has that come to affect you? For example, when you first appeared with films like "Man Push Cart" and "Chop Shop," you were an unknown quantity but now, when a film like "99 Homes" plays at someplace like Venice or Sundance, the phrase "A Ramin Bahrani film" now carries weight and expectations to certain moviegoers.
I am fortunate that it is happening. As you said, it has been a decade--"Man Push Cart" premiered in 2005 and now it is 2015. That is five films in ten years and I feel fortunate. I worked hard for it but I also got lucky. Roger supported me and others supported me. It isn't like I am making romantic comedies and the first three films, as you said, were mostly with non-professional casts and had a different pace and style. The fact that that worked was great. The positive of what you are saying is that the actors like Michael and Andrew and Dennis Quaid are coming because they loved films like "Chop Shop" and "Man Push Cart" and the scripts and that they will have some freedom as actors.
At the same time, I remember that while some critics like Roger were open to "At Any Price," others were wondering "well, why isn't he making a film like his first three?" Why don't you eat pizza every night for dinner? Because you want to try something new. I want to challenge myself. Even right now, I am in that same thing as the period between "Goodbye Solo" and "At Any Price" where it was a longer gap because I didn't know what I wanted to do. Roger helped me a lot in that time because I was uncertain as to whether I even wanted to continue. He and I started e-mailing a lot at that time. Now I am in that period again where I want to do something different and challenge myself with something I am unfamiliar with. I think that is part of the creative process.
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originally posted: 10/04/15 12:52:37
last updated: 10/04/15 23:45:56