“Goodbye Solo” is my third feature film. The story is about Solo, a young, friendly Senegalese taxi driver in Winston-Salem, NC who is hired by an elderly, Southern Caucasian man named William, to take him in two weeks to a mountain top where Solo believes the old man plans to jump to his death. Solo decides to charm his way into this stranger’s life and change his mind before the two weeks are up.
“Goodbye Solo,” from Roadside Attractions, opens March 27th in New York City and Chicago, and expands nationwide throughout April.
The audience learns all of this in the very first scene of the film, which is the clip selected here, a continuous 2:30 minute shot that sets the film in motion. It was a conscious decision from the conception of the film to begin it as abruptly as you see here. No establishing shots, no understanding of who these men are, where they are, or what is going on.
In fact, this beginning was one of three rules established during the writing of the script. This is my second collaboration with co-writer Bahareh Azimi (“Chop Shop”), a longtime friend, engineer and architect living in France. We agreed on three rules to start: 1. Solo would not be saving money in a jar to buy anything (like the leads in my first two films) 2. There would be humor 3. The film would begin as abruptly as my treatment.
My assumption was most audiences read a synopsis before seeing a film, so why bother with the “mystery” of what William wants Solo to do when the audience would know before they even got to the cinema! It would also delay getting to the heart of the film: how Solo’s journey to save a stranger changes Solo and causes him to question the very nature of how we traditionally imagine and represent what it means to love someone.
There is a lot of information compressed into this first scene that Azimi and I wanted to come across through active conflict between the men and not as boring exposition. Solo is already trying to charm William out of his decision while at the same time actually trying to confirm what William’s plans really are. By the end there is no mistaking what William wants to do and thus what Solo feels he must do.
How to shoot the scene? This is my third time working with cinematographer, Michael Simmonds (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop”), a true collaborator in all my films. The scenes in the car comprise only about 15 minutes of the entire film and we planned out the shots based on the relationship of the men at that particular moment. We decided this first scene would be the only continuous two-shot through the front windshield because we wanted audiences to definitively believe that a deal was made between these two real men right from the start. That it really “happened.”
As per our last films, we avoided a wide-lens and shot this scene and a majority of the film with a 50mm. The car was on a process trailer rigged with lights. I was crouched in the passenger front seat; Simmonds was strapped onto the trailer and lying over the hood of the car to hand-hold the camera which was on an apple box and a sandbag. His lighting team was panning carefully timed lights at certain moments in the scene to accentuate the natural play of light and shadow on the actors’ faces, while his excellent gaffer, Mark Koening (also with us for all three films) was on a dimmer board communicating with Simmonds via walkie-talkie and headphones.
For the actors the scene provides a challenge but also a joy of doing a scene in one uninterrupted shot. This scene was done 24 times and what you are seeing is take 22 or 23, I can’t recall which. By the end of the scene the audience has a sense of who these two men are. William is strong, determined and private with the hands, face, clothes, and word choice of a man who has worked a hard life. Solo is charming, friendly and open. His language shifts from urban to a sense of formality (he apologizes to William for cursing in his presence). He is sincerely an optimistic man, but we can also perceive he is a bit of a performer who may change his tone, diction and manner depending on the customer in the back seat.
“Goodbye Solo” also marks my first time working with trained actors in the leading roles. For Souleymane Sy Savane it is his debut and he really knocked it out of the park! I was especially excited to have Hollywood veteran actor (“Rainmaker,” “Cookie’s Fortune,” “Road House”) and former Elvis Presley bodyguard, Red West playing the role of William. For all the cab scenes, especially this opening scene, West and I planned out exactly when he would and would not look at Solo from the back seat in order to emphasize and create another layer of meaning. “Goodbye Solo” is West’s first leading role (an honor for me), and it is my hope and belief that he will now be re-discovered as a great leading man. He is the Robert Mitchum of our time.
My collaborators and I wanted an opening scene that would really grab and charm the audience right from the start and make them want to watch the rest of the film. I hope we got it right — and don’t arrive late to the cinema or you will miss the scene on the big screen