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Filmmakers Chat: Ramin Bahrani and the truth that inspired humanistic thriller 99 Homes

September 30, 2015

Film + EntertainmentInterview | by Francesco Cerniglia


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Hailing from North Carolina, Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani has made a name for himself in the festival circuit with his first five films having screened at Venice, Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, Toronto and Telluride. Bahrani has won numerous awards including the “Someone to Watch” Spirit Award (Chop Shop, 2008), the critic’s prize for best film in Venice (Goodbye Solo, 2009), and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among many others. He has been the subject of retrospectives in venues such as the MoMA in New York and in 2010 the late, legendary film critic Roger Ebert proclaimed Bahrani as “the director of the decade.”

With his new film, the timely humanistic thriller 99 Homes he taps into an ageless story of greed, injustice and a man confronting a corrupted system, set in the Florida’s housing market crisis, featuring three electric performances from Academy Award® nominee Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, Revolutionary Road, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), Golden Globe nominee Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man, The Social Network) and Academy Award® nominee Laura Dern (Wild, HBO’s Enlightened).

Shannon plays Rick Carver, a self-made Florida real estate magnate who makes a killing repossessing homes whilst Garfield plays unemployed single dad Dennis Nash who gets evicted by Carver before Nash can even put up a fair fight against a bank that has cheated him. A desperate Nash won’t stop at nothing to get his family’s lifelong home back, and protect his mother (Dern) and son (newcomer Noah Lomax) from the fallout. Pushed to the limit, he is lured by the charismatic Carver – and his knowledge on how to work the very system that has ruined Nash – to enter the lucrative, law-skirting world of gaming the banks, the government and ordinary people in order to make a profit from the foreclosures.

We sat down with the extremely talented, smart and loquacious filmmaker to delve deeper into the truth behind his film, his cinematic influences and the Oscar-worthy work of his cast.

At what stage did Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon get involved? I saw that Andrew also has a producing credit. Had you envisioned his character to be so young from the start or did you tailor it after you managed to cast him? And was there anything in particular that inspired you the idea of a young father as the protagonist?

The actors are all amazing though obviously the crux of the movie is the relationship between Michael and Andrew’s characters, this Faustian story that no one expected. When you say it’s about foreclosures people tend to think it’s going to be this depressing, slow film and it turns out to actually be a thriller with a mentor-apprentice relationship you see in gangster films. That startled people when they first read it and then all of a sudden the financing came through very quickly. How fortunate I was to get those actors!

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I’d met Andrew a few times through one of my producing partners, Kevin Turen, who’d actually known him for a decade, since the beginning of his career, and they’d become friends.

Kevin actually sat us down together at his wedding, claiming that we would click mentally and creatively and in fact we did. I’d seen Andrew’s film work and I liked him but then I went and saw him in Death of a Salesman on stage, starring the great late Philip Seymour Hoffman and directed by the late great Mike Nichols and I was left speechless by his talent.

At that point I’d written a draft of the script with a character that was 10 years older than Andrew and so I started thinking why I hadn’t thought of Andrew for it and what would happen if the character were 10 years younger. Only good things seemed to come out of it, starting with the mentor-apprentice relationship that all of a sudden made more sense with a younger character and then the idea of a single father seemed more fresh.

We’d already written out the wife and made it a mum because again, it’s not a relationship you normally see in a movie. So I talked to Andrew, I told him the story and he was very interested as he had an emotional connection to it and quickly told me what it was. I asked him to give me one month to rewrite the script and once he got it, he said yes.

He actually told me how he had already made up his mind about wanting to make the film by page 30, when he’d reached the eviction scene and didn’t need to read further to accept the role. So for a few months we got to know each other and started to rewrite the script based on conversations and notes and how I came to know him and how he informed the script. I did a lot of research on this film and you can probably tell it’s very authentic.

I’d gone down to Florida a lot and both Andrew and Michael went down to Florida. Michael spent time with real estate brokers. They all carry guns and that’s when the thriller aspect quickly came to me as it’s so violent down there and there’s so much scam and corruption going on. Andrew also spent time with real estate brokers and he lived in the motels that are exactly like in the film.

They are on the side of Highway 142 that leads to Disneyworld. So in the shadow of Disneyworld you have motels with gangbangers, prostitutes, day-labourers and normal middle class families just like in the film. Husbands and wives, mums and dads, not broke but with part-time jobs, living in motels and so many kids pile up there that school buses have to get diverted to take them to school.

Andrew would usually call me at the end of the day to tell me the stories he’d heard and I would change the script accordingly. But I remember one night he told me he’d met a day-labourer in a Home Depot parking lot who practically ended up telling him the story of the film although we’d already written the script.

The man said how he was an out of work construction guy and was so hungry, desperate and tired that he’d started to evict people, until one day he wound up evicting what used to be his best friend. Then months later he couldn’t tolerate it anymore and had to quit but guess what? Months later his friend turns up asking for forgiveness as he’d now started evicting people too after being in the same situation. So that Faustian story was just true and already happening before we wrote it.

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Michael and Andrew have very different acting styles. Andrew’s more loose and improvisational, searching for something from take to take.

Michael is more of a bull, he goes right into what he wants to do and he’s very prepared and sharp and just so good, definitely one of the best 5 actors in the world. This created sparks on set because my job was not to wrangle them into one style but let them be free to be whatever they wanted which created energy with these two actors banging heads against each other.

And because they respected each other so much that experience connected to the film because Rick Carver and Dennis Nash respect each other or they wouldn’t work together. So you basically ended up with this authentic energy on set stemming from different acting styles and deep mutual respect. I’m sitting there watching and thinking, “God this is interesting!” and I started to think about Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in Training Day or Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood so I was like “I need more scenes with these two guys together!” and we did do more just to watch them for two hours smash into each other.

Since you’re mentioning cinematic influences, aside from those two, it’s impossible not to see someone like Scorsese or Michael Mann when it comes to the gangster film traits of the story and the characterization. Do you agree?

All of those were certainly huge in my mind and let’s not forget something like Miami Vice when you look at the setting and Michael Shannon’s suits that add to the seductive devil-like quality of his character. And yet it’s important to remember that despite him being the devil, the actual villain in the movie is the system. Michael’s character is just the child of the system and he’s so charming.

You’ve defined the film as a humanistic thriller and underlined how only whilst writing it, you realized the potential for a thriller quality in it, so I’m wondering if you ever felt pressured to go for something more conventionally marketable in that respect.

I believe the filmmaker can’t impose himself on the story. When I went to Florida I honestly thought I was making a social drama but when I got there, the world of housing in Florida said “No, you’re not. You will make a thriller, you will make this Faustian story with a social heart because that’s what it is. We all carry guns, there’s danger at every corner, every door we knock on has danger, every place we turn to has opportunity for corruption and scams”. That’s just what it said to me. So, when you look at a movie like Goodfellas, which I obviously rewatched in preparation and I love Scorsese’s films, it’s not like he’s making it an exciting movie, he’s just telling you what it was and it’s just that it was something really interesting and very dynamic.

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The same happened to me with this story, it was inherently dynamic with things like the moral tightrope Andrew’s character is on and the seduction of Michael’s character. I didn’t really have to do anything except write it based on what I saw and let the two actors loose. They were like bulls that you open the gate for and they just charge out and it was a muscular movie.

There was a mix of hand-held kind of visceral camera with very slick steady-cam out of Scorsese’s type of films. I’ve made 5 films, 2 of which with no score at all but I knew even in the script stage this was going to have a relentless score, not a sentimental or emotional one, just relentless. I knew the editing was going to be sharp and fast, the blocking was always in movement with people constantly moving. There’s no break, there’s no time to cry or be in pity about anything. You’ve just got to move and that was all happening down in Florida, you’ve got to move otherwise you can’t give your kids the food at night.

People know that feeling right now. The movie takes place in 2010 but it’s about right now. Even Michael’s character references Donald Trump in the movie so I’m not surprised that critics in America are saying he is Donald Trump. We know and love these genres and in all my films I like exploring worlds I don’t know about. I didn’t know this world and we’ve never seen this world in a film. Audiences like being taken to worlds they’ve never been to and that world happens to be important now. Is the housing crisis over? Not really.

The reason the film is relevant is because the 99 homes, the 99% global wealth inequality is happening all around the world. Who went to jai for the housing crisis? Next to no one. And the people who did go to jail were in the small scale. No one in the big levels went to jail. As a society, what does that tell us? It tells us Michael Shannon’s character is correct to do what he’s doing. It’s why you empathize with him in the film. What else is he supposed to do? Live in a motel like Andrew’s character? This is a tough place to be morally. People can feel that, all around the world. We showed the film in Greece, Italy, France, England, and for audiences it’s as if it’s happening to them.

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Speaking of Michael Shannon’s character and his morally questionable yet understandable conduct, did you ever think that the iconic speech he makes to explain his views to Andrew’s character might be a bit too harsh or you weren’t worried because in the end he’s telling the truth?

People seem to talk about a lot of things and thankfully people are reacting positively to the film. It’s exciting to them, it’s visceral, it’s a trill ride but it’s also emotional to them because it’s about something important, so they are responding to that. Almost everyone talks about that speech so clearly it’s tapped a nerve. “Greed is good”: two decades later we still talk about that famous motto from Wall Street. And I showed the film to Oliver (Stone) by the way and thanked him for his films.

Oliver is always an exciting filmmaker to me because he touches onto social issue that are deeply important to the fabric of the world but it makes them so damn exciting and he manages to get these amazing performances like Michael Douglas in Wall Street or Tom Cruise in Born on the 4th of July who is so good in that role. What should be hard movies to watch, Oliver makes them so damn interesting and so thrilling that it’s always inspiring to me. On The Waterfront for instance has that quality too, where you’re so drawn into Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and all those great actors and you’re drawn into such great storytelling that you kind of forget that On The Waterfront is based on reportage. So for me, when you get Andrew, Michael and Laura (Dern) and an amazing supporting cast, you get fortunate because people are going to get drawn into these actors’ work.

Michael’s character is so ruthless and seems impenetrable as he never let his guard down. Have you ever thought of showing a somewhat more relaxed side to him?

I think the character has his guard up because he doesn’t want to get destroyed but I think he’s so human. Look at the opening scene. His dialogue is so cynical, so harsh, but look at Michael’s performance, he’s in pain. All the real estate brokers I’ve met were in pain. Of course they would do it and they would do it without blinking because they can’t get emotionally involved or they would be destroyed.

He doesn’t want to do this for a living, he did not sign up for this. As he says in the big speech, “I’m just a real estate broker, I didn’t sign up to do evictions” but if he doesn’t do it, someone else will and he’s not going to let his family drown. His dad was a construction worker, just like Andrew’s character, and lost everything. He’s not going to let that happen to him. I think that guy has deep pain but he’s not going to be destroyed by that. Even his final line, “Thank you”, you don’t know what it means. Does he really mean it? Or is he just protecting himself because just like all snakes he’s going to get away? I find him to be morally corrupt, what he’s doing is wrong, yet I can empathize with him, I can’t blame him, which is scary. That’s the scary part of the film.

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I found the ending rather powerful especially because it avoided any melodrama or cheesy sentimentalism. Did you ever have that ending in mind?

I didn’t want to see another episode of violence again. I wanted that to end and I wanted the journey for Andrew’s character to come to a moral conclusion. Actually, I don’t like to say moral because I don’t think the film is judging anything, it’s not an agenda film. The film takes no sides, it agrees with both Andrew’s and Michael’s characters and lets them fight it out. What’s happening is very grey and morally ambiguous.

In the end, Andrew’s character makes a decision about what he thinks is the right thing to do. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him. He’s probably got a lot of things he’s going to have to pay for. Is Michael’s character going to get away like every other banker? Maybe. I don’t want to answer all those things because I want the audience to get engaged in that conversation about what’s going to happen. What would you do as a person, what would you do morally, what do you think that final thank you really mean? I’ve seen people argue about it and I loved that because it leads to conversations about who we are as a society.

You’re also a filmmaking professor at Columbia and I’m curious about whether or not you show your films to your students at all and also what’s the most precious advice you give them?

We look at scenes from my films so then we can talk about how I did it since you don’t always know how a filmmaker does something other than what you hear on the DVD commentary, so that’s the only purpose for me. Whereas my advice is “be yourself”. You have to do the things you want to do and follow your own vision. The more you are “YOU”, the better chances you’ll have because people are looking for new visions and for something authentic and true to yourself.

99 Homes is out now in UK cinemas

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor