Ramin Bahrani’s third feature film, 2008’s Chop Shop, was declared by Roger Ebert as one of the 10 best films of the aughts.
Going beyond professional admiration, the celebrated critic forged a personal friendship with the young filmmaker that continued until his passing in 2013. What impressed Ebert most about Bahrani’s work was the way he immersed himself in the world of his films, capturing the human-sized drama of American social and economic injustice with an authenticity born of research and respect. Bahrani is a filmmaker who approaches his film projects with a thoroughness that transcends professionalism and crosses into creative empathy. His sense of ethical purpose is matched with a talent for storytelling that has generated a well-respected indie filmography—one that has attracted bigger and bigger named talent to each new project.
Bahrani’s latest film, 99 Homes, is yet another example of his gift for creating compelling drama from social inequity. Bringing together a first-rate cast led by Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield and Laura Dern, the film is a tense examination of American corruption, capturing how Florida’s housing crisis has produced a system of fraud, desperation and violence. Garfield stars as an underemployed construction worker who loses his family’s house to foreclosure. With few options, he ends up going to work for the ruthless real estate broker (Shannon) who profited from his loss.
MovieMaker caught up with Bahrani and Shannon, who shares the filmmaker’s dedication to movies with a social consciousness, at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
Jeff Meyers, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Both of you have shown a particular interest in films that are both human-sized in scope, yet willing to tackle complicated social issues. That’s not really the trend with most films you find at the multiplex. Talk about what the rewards are for you as artists.
Michael Shannon (MS): I’m always wondering why people go to the movies. Even though that probably sounds ridiculous, since that’s what I do for a living. One of the main things people always say to me in response to that question is that it’s because they want to see something they can identify with, something they can relate to. And then I look at the movies and I’m like, “Who’s identifying with this, who’s relating to this?” I don’t understand.
So then I’m like, “Well, if I’m going to make these silly things, I might as well try and make films that people could actually identify with or relate to.” And it would be so sweet to see this movie in an AMC multiplex out in the middle of some Midwestern state, and see that it was just as popular as whatever comic-book movie happened to be there at the same time.
Ramin Bahrani (RB): I like to learn about worlds I don’t know about. In this case I wanted to know what the housing crisis was and what had turned the financial world upside down, across the globe. So I went to Florida and spent a lot of time there. You get into some very human stories. Here, I felt the central human story was the “deal with the devil”—which is so universal, and we can all connect with it because we know it inside ourselves. What are you going to do in your life, how are you going to behave, how are you going to provide for yourself, for your family? That we were able to set it in a social context for me was important, because one thing I didn’t realize when I went down there—and Michael and I talked about this—was how violent it was going to be, that everyone carried a gun, and that there was so much scamming, so much corruption. I looked around and I’m like, “This is like a Scorsese movie or something. This is like a thriller.” Creatively, the challenge—which I had never tackled—was, how do I mix my human interests, my social interests, and my metaphysical or philosophical interests, with the genre of a thriller?
MM: The core of the film is the relationship between Michael and Andrew’s characters—the viewer believing that Dennis would choose to partner, even become friends of a sort, with the man who kicked his family out of his home.
MS: The relationship between Rick and Dennis was very tricky, a very fragile and delicate thing. Any nudge too far in any one direction could make either one of them walk away from the situation, so it was a very delicate dance that Andrew and I had to sort out. There were hard days for sure. I would get frustrated, or Andrew would get frustrated, but—
MM: Frustrated in terms of what?
MS: Even though Ramin and his writers put endless thought into the script beforehand, the truth is… it’s just hard to admit people will do certain things. You want your character to be virtuous.
RB: It’s a very tough relationship between the two characters, Dennis and Rick. Something that I tried to do on this film, more than I had before, was allow for flexibility from scene to scene, for improvisation, for searching around, for different types of takes. With Michael and Andrew’s acting methods, the way they work is different, and I picked up on that at a table reading we did two or three months before the shoot. The writers and I started talking about that, and thinking about how we could revise the characters to touch a little bit more on who Michael and Andrew are in reality.
MM: In the film’s Q&A you talked about how the system these characters exist in can be so corrupting, how the transactional nature of their relationship seemed to be something they wrestled with as they developed a personal connection.
MS: Well, I think it’s inevitable. I think Rick is ultimately a very lonely guy, and he looks at Dennis and he sees a guy who reminds him of himself when he was trying to figure out how he was going to function in the world. He doesn’t have any sons, and seems fairly alienated from his family, which is a very superficial thing. I think like any good story, it ultimately ends up being a relationship story.
RB: I mean, the thing is, if you’re a killer, and you can spawn another killer, it justifies your behavior, right? Like when you look at Gordon Gekko in Wall Street or when you look at Goodfellas.
MM: Yeah, it’s the “bad mentor” trope.
RB: Correct. But the thing that becomes weird is that the thinking develops into, “Maybe what I’m doing is OK.” Rick’s character could think, “Look, this guy is now following what I’m saying; he seems corrupted too.”
MM: You brought up something at the Q&A that I’m intrigued by: You were talking about sitting in a Florida courtroom as part of your research, and how you started to feel your impact on the proceedings because the judge thought you were a reporter, and that if you left people might lose their homes—
RB: They would have lost their homes!
MM: I started realizing how that must be the way war correspondents feel. They have a job to do but there’s someone starving or injured right in front of them. How do you wrestle with that? How do you walk away from that as a human, as an artist?
RB: I’m just an independent filmmaker. I’m not a social activist, I’m not in the trenches the way some people are. I mean, Lynn Szymoniak, the fraud attorney whom I was going to court with, most of the money she got first went to the government. She’s used a lot of the part that she got to keep to establish a nonprofit. But there are people in the trenches doing it on a daily basis, people like Doctors Without Borders. I’m just making what I hope is some type of art that can entertain someone. What I’m happy about is how much we’re talking about the characters, and how the characters are the center of the film and the story, because the movie doesn’t have sermons, doesn’t have speeches, it’s not a political treatise. But at the end of the day if someone wanted to discuss those things, they could. And it is time to continue to reassess where we are, as a country, as a world, because although the movie is set in 2010, this is still happening right now. On a weekly basis I get texts, and videos, and images on my phone from real estate brokers in Florida showing me things as horrific as our movie—and it’s endless.
MM: So let me ask you about the ending of 99 Homes. You look at a character like Rick, who has been consumed by the corruption of the system, and you look at Dennis’ situation: He didn’t have a lot of options but in the end things are probably not going to go well for him. And yet there’s a sense that there are always choices to be made. What do you want your audience to take away from the film?
RB: These are tough places to be in. And how many other ways can the movie end? Extremely dark: suicide, murder again—what am I going to get out of that? The world is so hard to live in. Every day all of us want to do something: We have a dream, we want to be a better person, we want to love instead of hate, we want to give instead of take, and we want to be good, but the world is endlessly telling you, “Don’t do that, be bad, go dark, be corrupt.” It’s just the way it is. You have a dream, the world says “no.” You want to breathe, it says “no.” I don’t want to add to that deafening chorus of “no.” Your whole life is telling you “no.” How many people have a dream, but everyone around them says “No no no no no,” and they become accountants or bankers. I didn’t want to have another “no” in the end. I wanted there to be some chance a person could say, “Maybe I could have the courage and just step in front of a moving train, even if the train flattened me down.”
MM: Let me talk briefly about your relationship with Roger Ebert. I’m interested in your view, because he’s a critic, of critics and their contribution—if any—to the art?
RB: I think it’s important. I can tell you what I don’t like—and by the way, Roger would do this—I don’t like very nasty public criticism, especially when it gets personal for no reason. My last film got mixed reviews; some people loved it, some didn’t. There were some things that I found to be very personal and slightly racist. I don’t see a reason for that in criticism.
But it’s a very important profession because—if you talk about Roger, for example, or other strong critics, like A.O. Scott, or Jonathan Rosenbaum, or Pauline Kael or Scott Foundas—it helps people realize that a movie can be more than just the entertainment that Michael was talking about. And when a critic believes in something, when they see there’s something good in it, they can help encourage audiences to come see a film that may not have a $60 million marketing budget.
Good critics make me think about the world, or a movie, in a way I had never imagined before. Roger had that ability; a lot of strong critics have that ability. But I think critics are in a very delicate place—they can’t cheapen themselves. The ones that are starting should look at the strong critics and say, “That’s great criticism. That’s what I should aspire towards.”
MM: And for you, Michael?
MS: I guess the long and the short of it is that I just want to feel like a critic is putting at least a fraction of the effort into thinking about what we made, what we put into making it. And some of these outlets now—and this isn’t just online, I’ve noticed it in print too—these reviews are getting so short, two or three sentences. It’s like you’re going to take this entire odyssey that we’ve been on, that Ramin has been working on for however many years, and you’re going to reduce it to two or three sentences that aren’t even very well written? That just seems vulgar to me. I can take a bad review, I can take people saying, “You screwed it up,” but I want to be able to tell that the work has been done. Because it’s a job, being a critic is a job, and it’s work. It should be work in the same way that what we do is work. MM
99 Homes opens in theaters on October 9, 2015, courtesy of Broad Green Pictures. Pictures courtesy of Hooman Bahrani and Broad Green Pictures.