INTERVIEW: Ramin Bahrani, co-writer and director of “99 Homes”

9 02 2016

Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” has swooped into the public imagination and awards conversation, completely changing the way we think about how movies can portray the Great Recession. Perhaps that film signals a new era of storytelling about this fraught period in American culture. The 2007-2008 financial crisis now makes for period pieces, not current events.

A cinematic history that began with “Up in the Air” gets a bookend in Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” a film that made an immediate impact on me at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival and landed at #4 on my top films of 2015. I have called it a “gripping look into the dark heart of capitalism” as well as an illumination of “the mechanisms through which average citizens are bamboozled into thinking the interests of corporate bigwigs are always aligned with their own.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Bahrani, the film’s co-writer and director, about just how he used a hardened real estate agent, Michael Shannon’s Rick Carver, and a desperate evictee, Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, to show the systems responsible for American middle-class misery. Our conversation clarified how “99 Homes” fits in with many years of films about the recession – but also how it stands apart and alone.

Ramin Bahrani and Andrew Garfield 99 Homes

I see Up in the Air as the first film to really talk about [the recession on screen].  I do think one thing that really sets 99 Homes apart for me is that Up in the Air uses the recession as the setting and not the subject.

Right.

At the end of the day, it’s really a movie about George Clooney’s character finding human connection.  Whereas 99 Homes made the downturn both the setting and the subject.  Was that something you felt was necessary to align?

For me, it was like why go into the situation and bring a story we’ve seen a hundred times before.  Why I referenced Up in the Air is that it surprised people – they thought it was going to be one thing in terms of tone.  And that’s what true here, people think it’s going to be a foreclosure film with a sad story.  But the tone is so different from what people expected.

You’re correct to isolate a major difference because my movie is actually about the foreclosure crisis and what it meant to people as opposed to just making a romantic comedy in a situation that has to do with that.  The story kind of originated from what was happening on the ground there, the entire plot came out of the corruptions that I saw in the housing industry and the foreclosure industry.

Jason Reitman talked a lot about how when he was surveying the people who lost their jobs, it shifted the tone.  It was originally a corporate satire and eventually became more of a heartfelt drama.  Of course, he even used some of those people who had been laid off and gave them a chance to act out their experiences. 

I know that you did a lot of research and went down to Florida to survey the situation for yourself.  Did that change the film in your head when you got on the ground?

I didn’t go down there with the script; I went down there to find the story. I try to stay open to the location and the people I meet to let that inform the story. I was surprised by what I saw. I had no idea real estate brokers carried guns. I had no idea there was so much violence, so many scams. It never occurred to me that there were scams like that on the ground. So that started to inform the script.

Of course, I’m using non-professional actors in the film, but I have a history of doing that. I make features where every single person is a non-professional actor; I made three films like that. So here, I weaved that into the story – we use a real sheriff who actually does evictions. When Andrew [Garfield, who plays protagonist Dennis Nash] knocks on doors, every other one is a real person. Every other one is an actor, but Andrew never knew who was who. He never knew what the people were going to say or do. I didn’t tell him what was going to happen, he just would knock on a door and then something would happen. He would have to deal with it.

99 HOMES

Are there any other post-recessional films that 99 Homes might have been in conversation with or in response to?  At Telluride, you said, “I wanted to make this film because no one else had made it.”  Anything you thought was particularly good (or, up to you, anything bad)? Was there anything 99 Homes needed to issue a corrective to?

I don’t want to say that because I think every filmmaker should make whatever film they want. I just knew this was a story that had never been told. I like stories that have never been told. I like in a world I’ve never been in – I have a history of that.

We know the Faustian story, that is archetypically true and we can connect to it. But we didn’t know the world of foreclosures. I didn’t know that world, and the audiences like going to worlds that they don’t know about.

In terms of films, I was very much looking at movies like The Hustler, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, On the Waterfront, The Grapes of Wrath, All the President’s Men.

Is 99 Homes a continuation of At Any Price at all? I wouldn’t say they are siblings – maybe cousins?

Yeah, I think there’s a sense of that. I was conscious of it. I’m probably going to make the same film over and over and over again in a different setting. Somehow, The Age of Innocence, GoodFellas, and Mean Streets are all still Who’s Knocking at My Door? [Martin Scorsese’s first film].

I’ve found that most movies that tackled economic concerns post-recession tended to focus on upper-middle class white professionals losing their security cushion, but 99 Homes actually shows the people losing their homes and moving into motels. This tone-deaf depiction does not seem to be the case in Europe – the same day I saw 99 Homes in Telluride, I saw the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night, which does a similarly excellent job of distilling the political into the personal.

Why do you think 99 Homes feels like such a rarity in American cinema –  do you think it’s a supply or demand side problem that’s leading to the glut of these movies?  Is it too hard to get movies financed about working class Americans, or is the older, affluent arthouse crowd only interested in seeing movies about people like themselves?

I don’t know, maybe you know more about that. The movie was extremely easy to get financed. I presented the script and the actors to my financiers, and in 24 hours they all said yes because they are desperate for stories that are actually about something AND happen to be really thrilling. The script was a page-turner, and it was about something.

Actors are desperate to be in something that are about real characters and real moral crisis. Exciting stories where they can connect to other actors as human beings. Not as General Zod and Spider-Man. I can tell you, Michael and Andrew don’t want to do this General Zod, Spider-Man thing. They want to be real people in films. I think audiences want to see them.

I can’t tell you why filmmakers don’t make them. I don’t really know. Again, I just think filmmakers should make whatever film they want. I’m sure the thing – this movie is showing a system. The real villain is the system, not Michael. The film industry is also a system, where certain people claim things to be true. Like, “Audiences want such and so thing.” I don’t believe that. But I think some filmmakers feel like they have to write certain things.

But I don’t believe that either. I think artists and filmmakers should make what they want. They want to see stories about real human beings, and actors want to be in stories about real human beings. No one wants to act in front of a green screen. It’s boring as hell; I can tell you that.

Ramin Bahrani & Michael Shannon 99 Homes

A lot of these movies have also used a “bad apples” framework to depict corporate executives, which condemns individuals like Gordon Gekko but not necessarily the system of power that enables them.  But in 99 Homes, it’s not just Rick Carver we should hate – it’s the entire system, which he points out is completely rigged.  How important was it for you to have him shine a light on macro level corruption?

The real heavy in any situation is a system – it’s not just one person. There can only be so many Iagos. Otherwise, you’ve just been begotten by the system you live in.

It’s not like real estate brokers as children told their parents, “I can’t wait to grow up and evict people.” Nobody had that dream. Nobody had the dream to be an executioner in a prison, but we live in a country that has capital punishment. We live in a country that is so rigged that these guys’ jobs became doing these foreclosures.

And if Shannon [who plays real estate agent Rick Carver] didn’t do it, somebody else would. And that would mean he’d be out of a job. Out of a job means no money. No money means no rent. No rent means he and his family move into a motel.

For me, the real villain is the system, and Michael is just a product of it. As they say in the nighttime scene on the dock, my favorite scene, Michael is talking about how he carries a gun even at 5 A.M. He’s looking over his shoulder all the time. Andrew says, “Is it worth it?” And Michael says, “As opposed to what?” And that’s the question of the film. As opposed to what? What else are you supposed to do?

You developed this movie, I presume, in 2012?                  

Yeah, I started working on the research in 2012 and 2013, then we shot in 2014.

You’re pushing it out to the majority of your audience in 2015.  Do you think all that time away from the film’s events has affected the way people respond to the film – I can certainly think of a very prominent real estate mogul who loves separating America into “winners” and “losers” and is keeps Rick Carver all too relevant?

Yeah, I know. In fact, Michael talks about Donald Trump in the film. He calls Andrew “Donald Trump” at one point in the film, and now a bunch of critics and audiences are saying, “My god, he sounds just like Donald Trump!” And it’s true, he talks about winners and losers.

We live in a country where, in elementary school, they plant the flagpole on the playground. At the top of the flag, it says SUCCESS. Winners. And from there on all the way to the bottom, it’s losers. It just doesn’t make much sense.

Characters like Trump, which I hope to God – Donald Trump, if you’re listening, WATCH THIS FILM! That kind of figure starts to get attention from people because they’re hungry. Because things aren’t working, and when things aren’t working, you start to fall into line with language like that. You start to look for people to blame. Extreme wealth inequality is only going to give rise to that kind of vitriolic language.

I hope everyone goes to see this movie, especially Donald Trump.

[chuckles] Put it down, he’ll go see it maybe!

Michael Shannon Andrew Garfield 99 Homes

“99 Homes” is now available to purchase and rent on home video.

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