Chris Elena was lucky enough to speak with Ramin Bahrani back in June when he was a guest of the Sydney Film Festival, in town to promote his new film 99 Homes. The film is released in Australian cinemas Thursday 19 November and we highly recommend go out and see it. Some thoughts from Chris on the film and some words from Ramin Bahrani are after the jump – [Ed].
You’ve seen the film about the man in the expensive suit who is cool, rich, ruthless and practically drowning in excess. You’re introduced to him in his own environment reveling in said excess whilst he tells us through voice over narration that he had it all and loved every second of it. We buy it, we buy the lifestyle, we buy the cool, we buy that he may be doing something wrong, but the film, at the very least in these early stages encourages us to join in. His masculinity is on display whilst the women around him are merely objects for desire. Fillmmakers have told us this story from early on and have never stopped.
So, when you see a film like 99 Homes that introduces the rich, cool guy in a suit being questioned by police about the suicide of a man he had come to evict from his family home, you know that the film has no interest in convincing us that he’s cool or even satisfied. We follow him in a one take shot which reveals everything of his character to us. He speaks in Americanism and he reeks of confidence to the point that we fear of exactly what he could ever be capable of to maintain his reputation. In the film’s first three minutes we’re given the task of trying to understanding a character who never stops and never compromises.
The guy in question is played by Michael Shannon and the film is from producer/writer and director, Ramin Bahrani, who has spent an entire career making films about people who try to understand and conquer being a part of an unjust infrastructure of classism. A character from a Bahrani film is either poor or they’re not. There is no in-between and his films are dissections of this through character.
He is not a filmmaker who is afraid to warn his audience of how much worse the world can be for the 99% who can JUST afford a movie ticket. He never pretends that wealth can be fun or even honest. He cuts to the chase, he has a great compassion for his audience.
In the brief time that I had with Ramin Bahrani we talked about the fear films have of revealing characters who are on the verge of homelessness, the poor, and the embodied result of a financial collapse that we’re all still too afraid to address the existence of.
Chris: Where did you begin your research? E.g the real estate agents themselves, the courts, the home owners? Did you begin in Florida?
Ramin: I went down to Florida. I spent time with real-estate brokers. Like in the film, they do carry guns, which I was surprised that. I also learnt the courts were referred to as “rocket dockets” where they would decide your case 60 seconds flat, which also came as a surprise.
I also spent time in motels on the way to Disney World which were filled with middle class working families and prostitutes and gang bangers and you could also see the state of homelessness in those areas, young homeless kids not all that far away from Disney World.
Chris: With all of your films, you really understand the conditions of a low socioeconomic status, all of your characters who are the epitome of the working class or just simply struggle to pay the rent (Like Garfield in the film’s first half). How do you get it right? How do get it to feel so honest? Is it from your experience with non-actors?
Ramin: With Andrew, we had him work with non-actors in the film, especially in the eviction scenes. They had to be real. We had to get genuine reactions out of Andrew and a lot of the film, we tried being in his head, we had to get that urgency of these situations and how that felt for him, as someone who’s had to make a deal with the devil.
Those eviction scenes, when Dennis is taking over the eviction notices, all those doors he knocks on, I wouldn’t tell him if they were actors or not, he didn’t know who was going to answer. The clean-up crew were mostly made up of actual clean-up crew. It gives those scenes and Andrew’s performance more honesty. The people in those eviction scenes own those homes, I discovered them while scouting locations and we developed it from there, but Andrew’s reactions, his delivery, all genuine.
Chris: Regarding Michael Shannon’s performance, there’s an element of fantasy to it, the fantastical ideals of the American dream, which I noticed a lot in your last film, At Any Price which felt like it was all about the fantasy of American living compared to the dreadful and heavy repercussions of classism.
Ramin: Michael Shannon, I have to work with again. He’s one of the greatest working actors alive.
99 Homes is a film that needs to be seen and Ramin Bahrani is a filmmaker more people should know. He finds the truth in films, his compassion for the working class and his love affair with cinema is so practical, so endearing, so inspiring. He is humble, full of spirit and eager to tell us stories. He never indulges being cool for the sake of entertainment, which the opening of 99 Homes reveals to us in one telling, extended shot.
99 Homes is out this Thursday (November 19).
See it, so we can be lucky enough to have more films from this amazing, compassionate and smart filmmaker.