For those of you that don’t know, Ramin Bahrani has made a fantastic film in Goodbye Solo. Our very own Robert Levin gave the film an A- when he reviewed it back in March, a grade I completely agree with, and now the film is out on DVD. It’s a beautifully crafted, utterly real portrait of two men on the brink of two very large decisions told with the minimalism and simplicity and humor that a seasoned director dreams of.
And this is only Bahrani’s third film.
Soft-spoken but not always serious, Bahrani is in the midst of juggling a million projects including two more features, a short that premieres at Venice, and a television project he’s trying to get going with fellow Carolinians David Gordon Green and Jody Hill. Somewhere in there, he took the time to talk to me to discuss a directorial process not born from film school, what it’s like working with a plastic bag, and the unique nature of film versus all other arts.
What was the most important thing to get right in this movie?
What in particular?
In all my films the ending is of paramount importance to me. It is the summation of the film and of what I think the film is trying to express emotionally and philosophically. So this ending is quite mysterious due to the nature of the landscape of Blowing Rock, the power of the wind and the other-worldly nature of the fog and the colors of the leaves. Within the context of that grandeur there are two men and a very simple yet difficult action one has to take and a horrific one the other one is going to take. This mixture of life and death, this delicate balance had to be tuned correctly.
And still, the tone of the ending leading from the drive out to Blowing Rock is far different from the rest of the film.
Yeah, that was my choice, and I appreciate you recognizing that. The rest of the film, we really withheld on wider shots to the best of our ability. I really did not want nature or the feeling of nature in the urban section of the film which is all of it until the trip to Blowing Rock. And we prayed very vigilantly to get that fog, and thank God we go it.
A little bit of luck.
Yes, and really it’s the moment that the landscape becomes fundamental to the storytelling. Then the critical part is the moment between Solo and William – their silent goodbye. Really, Red West [who plays William] has done something phenomenal there.
I kept wanting him to say something there.
I think a filmmaker with less restraint would have had him say the titular line.
I’m glad he didn’t talk. He’s really great as an actor. I’m extremely proud that this is his first leading role in a feature film. As you know he’s got countless supporting roles with legendary directors like Coppola and Altman and of course his time with Elvis. This is his first time in a lead, and he was so wise about – he talked to me about it, he says, “I can’t give too much in the course of the film or it will ruin this moment.” He was so smart about just barely giving little glimpses of himself and holding back until that moment, and even there it was difficult for him to hold back his tears and his emotions. He just gives you the right amount that you can feel the whole thing, and really he’s a great actor, and I was just lucky to be there.
Not to discredit your writing ability at all, but man, his eyes can do far more in that moment than any writer could.
Well, that’s what film can do anyhow. There are good directors that I tried to learn from like Bergman who understand that filming a person’s face, you can’t do it in literature, you can’t do it in a poem, you can’t do it in theater. You can only do it in film. I tried my hardest to keep learning from people like that.
The tone shift that happens is enormous, and I’ve heard you talk in other interviews about location being important to you, but it seems like the location here sinks into the background completely. You focus completely on the characters so that they naturally exist in the world they’re in – the location speaks for itself. How did you work that balance?
I appreciate that. One way is that I do a lot of the work myself. I look for the locations myself way in advance, and I start to write and rewrite scenes based on real locations. I spent 6 months with a cab driver doing the night shift so a lot of those locations come from their world. That’s really the cab stand – Willard Cab – when Solo is talking to Porkchop through the window. I know you can’t see Porkchop, but I can assure you she’s there. Hes not doing a scene with no one. He’s really doing it with her, and she’s really answering the telephone and talking to other cab drivers while she’s doing the scene. And that helps create that feeling.
The other thing we do is that we do rehearsals on location. So Souleymane actually came down to Winston Salem and lived with me and my brother for 3 months and drove a cab and learned the streets and met a lot of the drivers. Like Mamadou and Roc. Those are real taxi drivers. He met them. He spent time with them. A rehearsal for me is “Solo, call up Roc and go shoot some pool tonight.” That’s a rehearsal and it makes a world of difference. A rehearsal, a legitimate rehearsal is “Let’s go pick up Alex and go have hot dogs at the Tickled Pink.” And me and Solo and the little girl did that.
The last critical thing is Michael Simmonds, my camera man who shot all three of the films. We work very closely together, and he always elevates the films to something that I certainly couldn’t do alone. He’s a great collaborator and great cinematographer.
Seems like having the actors feel at home in their skin with each other was important. Along the same lines, what’s your goal with only allowing actors to know as much as their character does?
This is the first time that, Red West for an example saw a script, and Souleymane saw a script. I’ve not done that before, but you are correct, the other actors who are all not professionally trained, none of them saw a script, and they only knew their scenes. So for examples, the grandson in the movie cinema, he didn’t know why William was talking to him or why Solo was talking to him or interested in him. He never knew until he saw the film. The young girl, Deanna who plays Alex, she never knew what the film was about, and that can create really great stuff. Her energy in the end of the film, she’s so positive – you know, it’s ice cream and how beautiful the place is – because she hasn’t the slightest clue what William’s up to. She really thinks he’s gonna go meet a friend of his. That brings great stuff in rehearsals.
We were doing a rehearsal with Solo and Alex and because Alex is just like the part in real life – Deanna, she’s very smart, very mature, very independent, very charismatic – she pulls me aside so that Solo wouldn’t hear her question which I thought was so intuitive, and she whispered, “Ramin, why is Solo so sad?” This is when they’re doing the quizzing. The scene in the film where she’s quizzing him after the mountain. And I say, “Well, why do you think he’s so sad?” and she thought about it for a little bit, and she said, “I think he’s sad because he failed his exam.” So I said, “Then why don’t you encourage him?” and then so she was like, “Okay, I’ll encourage him,” and she really does. And she encourages the viewer, the spectator, and I don’t think that could have happened like that if she knew what William had just done.
You’ve bought up the myth of Sisyphus before – this idea that we’re pushing endlessly a rock up a hill that will only fall back down. A lot of your characters have to contend with working hard and going nowhere. It’s usually meant as a metaphor of frustration and agony, but do you see some joy in it?
Of course. In fact, my thing about the myth of Sisyphus comes from Camus’s interpretation. He oddly and, I think, correctly uses the myth as a defense against suicide. Meaning – the reason you shouldn’t kill yourself is that you have to accept the world as this way. You will get nowhere, but you should do it anyhow. You can even see that in Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo where the guy doesn’t get anywhere but he’s struggling. No one ever talked about Fitzcarraldo with [my first feature film] Man Push Cart because people have a very narrow lens in terms of insisting that I’m an Iranian or that I like neo-realist film, but I’m actually an American. I was born and raised in Winston-Salem, and my films are all, I think, distinctly American.
I really think the films are optimistic and hopeful, and at the same time they acknowledge that William does not want to live, and he does not want to be helped, and he is going to kill himself. At the same time Solo is going to pursue his dream to become a flight attendant and Alex is going to be there. And maybe Solo is going to go become friends with William’s grandson. I don’t know. But I think that movies that only present the hopeful side like Little miss Sunshine-type films – which I’m not saying they’re good or bad films; it doesn’t matter if I think they’re good or bad – but they’re not acknolwedgeing that the other side of the world exists. The horrific. The despair.
I can’t say that I watch Fitzcarraldo as a pick-me-up…
I think it’s great! It’s like, the guy never gives up his dream no matter what happens. And if you watch Burden of Dreams you get the same feeling, because no matter what horrors happen to Herzog to make the film, he never gave up. Otherwise, what would he be? And usually, it’s required viewing for the crew whenever I want to make a film – to watch Burden of Dreams so that when things get hard, no one can complain to me. My response will always be, “this is nothing compared to the making of Fitzcarraldo, so let’s stop complaining and keep working.”
Not a bad basis to start from as a director. No matter what happens, you’ve got it better than Herzog.
Or maybe you could say Apocalypse Now, but other than that, what are you gonna complain about? We have to work an extra hour tonight? Or one day of shooting was lost? Well, we’ll make it up.
I’d love to interview you in a few years when you decide to go down to South America to shoot a film about dragging a boat up a dry canal…
We’ve been talking about some of the best filmmakers of all time here, but I’m wondering if you ever go out and see mindless films or Summer blockbusters. Do you ever like those kinds of films?
Not really to tell you the truth.
That’s totally allowed obviously, just trying to get a more well-rounded view of who you are as a director.
I haven’t had a functioning television in ten years if that helps.
Do you have a non-functioning one sitting around?
I have one that I can only watch DVDs on. I haven’t watched television in ten years, and that doesn’t mean I think it’s good or bad. In fact, my assumption is that “The Wire” is really, really good. So if I watched it once, I’m obsessive in my things, so it means I’d have to watch all of them, and I just don’t have the time.
You still manage to keep up with current events and the cultural state of the country. Speak of, Ebert called you the “Next great American director.” How do you even respond to something like that?
Well, the first thing you think is, “The next film better be good.”
It’s extremely flattering. I know he’s got a list of directors like Scorsese and, in fact, Herzog and Spike Lee that he’s promoted and helped their visibility. It’s great because Roger has an ability of expressing things to large amounts of people in ways they can understand, and that gets them to see a film they might not otherwise. I’m realy greatful for that.
We have a soft spot for directors who were rejected from film school, but you went to Columbia right?
Yeah, and we should clarify – Columbia undergraduate program is not filmmaking. It’s film theory. I’ve never had a class on how to direct a film or how to direct actors. I’ve never had a class on actors. I’ve never had a class on how to edit a film. I just made a lot of short films, and they were really bad. I accept that they were bad and tried to make the next one a little bit better, and I still do that with features. Even the worst reviews of my films – I don’t think they understand the mistakes of my films the way I understand them.
Because of how intimate those mistakes are?
Because we’re quite honest about the mistakes. Me, my cameraman Michael Simmonds, my co-writer on the last two films Bahareh Azimi. We’re quite critical of our work, and we really just want the next film to be better, to be more engaging to an audience, to be more clear, to be more truthful in its emotion. We’re quite critical, and we want them to get better because we’re that audience. We want to enjoy the films, too.
You’re from North Carolina originally. What do you think a collaboration between you and fellow Carolinians David Gordon Green and Jody Hill would look like?
It’s interesting you say that. I’m trying to get something together that might be very interesting for television… even though I don’t watch it. Something taking place in the South that involves seven southern directors, and these nice gentlemen might be a part of that.
Does it have a name yet?
No, not yet. I’m trying to see if that might happen.
It’s still early on?
Yeah, pretty early on, and I’m trying to do two features next year, and I’m just finishing a short that’s premiering in Venice. And those guys have, like, eight projects at once too. But we’ve been talking to them and a few other directors from the south to try to get some interesting projects about the south going. At the moment it’s tentatively called Southern Tales, but I’m gonna change that title.
No. It’s not a feature film. It’s gonna be seven one-hour episodes as part of an anthology for television.
I’m not sure if I’m from The South. I’m from coastal Texas, and Texas is…
It’s its own country.
In fact, the Pacific Trash vortex is twice the size of Texas.
That giant compendium of trash floating around out there?
That’s part of my new film.
The short that you’re doing. “The Plastic Bag,” right?
I’ve only seen Google images of that trash vortex.
Yes, it’s quite frightening.
But my plastic bag is very excited to go there and be with its own.
What’s it like creating an anthropomorphic plastic bag after working with the characters of Goodbye Solo.
I enjoyed it. It was a great actor. Worked really well. And the bag did whatever it was told. Didn’t ask any questions. Didn’t ask for its motivation which I liked.
It didn’t need an extra big trailer or 1,000 brown M&Ms?
No, it did not need a trailer. It did not ask for craft services, and the bag is going to be given a voice by someone very special. I can’t tell you who it is. It’ll be a surprise to the Venitians. You can find out on September 7th when the film opens the Shorts section at Venice.
Goodbye Solo is out on DVD currently, and you should go buy it. Unless you absolutely have to have explosions in the movies you watch.