Ramin Bahrani directed his first feature film in 2005 and has since become a favourite on the festival circuit, with his work selected for Cannes, Berlin and Venice. Chop Shop, his sophomore feature, was dubbed the 6th best film of the 2000s by Roger Ebert, and showed Bahrani’s talent for giving voices to the poor and overlooked. His latest, 99 Homes, playing at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, furthers this, focusing on the brutality of house evictions in the aftermath of the GFC. Bahrani directs with an acute sensitivity to both sides of the story, and speaks with a similar attention to detail with passion for his work.
HS: The film seems to be a blend of genres: drama, thriller, gangster film. What was the process of developing the film from genre to genre?
RB: My previous films have been more humanist, social dramas, and I thought that was what this was going to be. I went down to Florida, and spent couple of months researching there: spending time with foreclosure attorneys, fraud attorneys, and in the foreclosure courts—they call them ‘rocket dockets’, where they decide your fate in 60 seconds flat. The reality’s actually worse than what I portrayed. All the real estate brokers had guns. People were shooting out of their homes. There were so many scams, so much corruption, it was mind boggling. It was only when I got down there that I found the structure of the film—which is a man gets kicked out of his home and begins working for the man who kicked him out, and in order to get his home back he has to evict other people just as it happened to him. That faustian ‘deal-with-the-devil’ structure is so solid, that I knew I had the film. As we were writing it my co-writers were like, ‘do you realise we’re writing a thriller … the structure is starting to look like it’s a gangster movie’. Then we became conscious of it and started to play with it, using it to our advantage.
HS: In your last two films you’ve been working with Hollywood A-list actors, in 99 Homes, you’re working with one actor from Spiderman, one from Superman, and another from Jurassic Park how did this experience differ from working with less acknowledged actors in the past?
RB: In my first three films they weren’t less acknowledged, they just weren’t professional actors. A majority of the players were found in the street, for authenticity, a fresh, new discovery. I wanted to make films quickly, but I wanted to build it my own way, do my own thing, and the size and scope of those films were small enough that I could. But [with big stars] there’s no real difference. It frees you on set when you’re thinking less about them, because they’re so professional I can focus on other things. They bring their own elements, then you’re just twisting things around on set—because I’m not rigid on the set; I don’t have shot lists, or story boards, I like to see the thing happening in a blocking rehearsal with the cast. Like in the eviction scene: our amazing cinematographer Bobby lit from the outside, with only practical lights inside like lamps, or whatever, and our amazing designer worked so that there’s nothing in the house. An actress could go anywhere: there is no equipment, there is no end of the set; the whole house is theirs. Andrew and Laura were so invested that they planted things in the house very personal to their characters, and I’ve hired a real Sheriff who really does evictions to play the role of the Sheriff, and the clean out crew are real clean out crews who do evictions and throw things out of people’s homes for a living. And then the cast has the script, but they know that I’m not beholden to the script, they can get to their lines when they want them, and then you just shoot. Two cameras, and let the actors be alive in the moment.
HS: During Carver’s (Michael Shannon) monologue he explains to Nash (Andrew Garfield) his concept of how the American economy functions: ‘America doesn’t bale out the losers, America was built by baling out winners. By rigging a nation for the winners, by the winners.’ How does this idea align with your experience/understanding of the American economic system?
RB: It’s not my experience, but it is a mirror to what’s happening. The fact that Libor happens and nobody goes to jail—makes no sense. Yet again they’ve discovered that the banks in the states were involved in rigging money—and they’ve been fined $5 billion—yet they still made money. It’s built into their economics ‘well if we get fined 5 billion we can still make a profit’, and again, nobody goes to jail. If you look at—at least in the states— economic and political policies, from WWII onwards, but specifically from 1979 onwards, on both sides of the political spectrum, conservative and liberal, increasingly things have been shifted, politically and economically, so that the people who have, continue to have more and more. What I really enjoyed in seeing the reaction of the film—in Venice, Toronto, Sundance, and I hope here as well—has been that both conservatives and liberals have reacted similarly to the film. They get viscerally moved and angered in a charged way—it’s an emotional train ride. That’s been really exciting because then they start talking, and maybe things start to change. That’s a dream. But even if they talk, I’m happy.
HS: What were your aims in making Carver a less oppressive, commanding ‘devil’ and more a likeable, relatable character?
RB: I think the real enemy is the system, and that’s something people can understand anywhere in the world. This concept of 99% versus 1%; that honest hard work doesn’t get you anywhere; that the people who have immense wealth and power seem to just keep getting more and more while the rest of us have a harder time advancing – that seemed to be the real villain. That structure and that system. Michael’s (Shannon) character is a very strong antagonist; we worked very hard on doing that, but not making him soft.
HS: The protagonist alters his standards of morality in order to survive, does the state of the American economic system call for individuals to adapt in accordance with corruption?
RB: No one likes to get a parking ticket, but somebody’s got to give the parking ticket. It’s always amazing when the people yell at the guy giving you the ticket; that’s his job. The movie is in a soup of moral ambiguity that it’s hard to know what you would do in that situation. We watch this painful eviction that Andrew (Garfield) and Laura (Dern) go through, and later in the movie Andrew is doing this to somebody else. But what would you do to protect your family? What are you prepared to do?
HS: What do you think is the primary function of film festivals? How do they contribute to the film industry?
RB: Each festival is different, as a filmmaker there is a lot of advantages to going to them; you get to interact with other filmmakers, and creative people attending the festival from around the world, and the audience – so now I have an idea of what the audiences are like in each nation, how are they reacting to the film, how are they reacting to other films. That cultural exchange can’t happen in any other way. It’s not going to happen by putting the film out there and sitting at home. When you come to these places you have an interaction with another culture and another world that fuels your imagination and your creativity.