Ramin Niami Gets Stars and Songs for his debut "Somewhere
in the City"
by Dave Ratzlow
Ramin Niami, the enthusiastic forty-two year old director of “Somewhere
in the City,” attracted an impressive cast of indie-bred actors and
international stars for his debut feature with little more than a quirky
script, self-determination and his unpretentious charm. The film, which
follows the overlapping stories of six residents of a New York City
tenement building, also features an equally impressive soundtrack and
production design for such a low-budget film.
Shot on a tight six week schedule, the black comedy features Sandra
Bernhard (“Without You I’m Nothing“), Bai Ling (“The Red Corner“), Peter
Stormare (“Fargo“), Robert John Burke (“Simple Men,” “First Love, Last
Rites“) and a cameo by former New York mayor Ed Koch. Scored by Velvet
Underground co-founder John Cale, the film also includes songs by Yoko
Ono, Ani DiFranco and the performance art/punk band The Voluptuous
Horror of Karen Black.
Niami fled his native Iran soon after the peak of its “cultural
revolution” closed the video store he operated and the film school where
he taught. He bounced around Europe for a few years and eventually
landed in New York City. In the next dozen years, he directed an
Off-Off-Broadway production of “Uncle Vanya,” edited a very bad
low-budget horror film, and produced fellow Iranian director Amir
Naderi’s “Manhattan by Numbers.”
While living in an illegal sublet in the East Village and musing about
his odd assortment of fellow tenement dwellers, Niami got the idea for
“Somewhere in the City.” He soon hooked up with co-writer Patrick
Dillon, and working in tandem with his wife and co-producer Karen
Robson, spent the next year assembling a cast and crew and finding the
Artistic License (“Clockwatchers”) will distribute the film which opens
in New York on September 18th.
indieWIRE: A pretty impressive cast for a first film. How did it all
Ramin Niami: It’s really a dream come true. It was very hard, because,
of course, when you have a low budget film, and I mean low (everybody
was paid minimum Screen Actor’s Guild), the first problem is all the
agents who want to stop you.
Basically, I think the reason that [the actors] participated in the film
was they liked the script, they liked the roles, particularly because
they were playing [characters] different from what they usually play.
This is how you can attract an actor. Peter Stormare, for example, was
playing villains. For Sandra Bernhard, it was appealing to her to play a
vulnerable single woman looking for a husband, something she’d never
done before. It was really a dream cast. I got everybody I wanted.
Although I knew of most of them, I didn’t know any of them personally
except Robert John Burke who I had met once. I really wrote that part
for him because Robert is such a funny person in real life, and in Hal
Hartley’s films, he’s always very cool. I wanted to bring out the other
side of him.
iW: But if you bypassed the agents, how exactly did you get to the
actors and get them interested in the film?
Niami: Now European agents are generally much more sympathetic. They
read scripts. But with the American actors, we basically went through
people who knew them or people [who] recommended us to them. For
example, with Sandra, two people I knew who had read the script
recommended [me] to her manager. Some of the actors, we had to avoid
the agents totally. These agents did everything they could to keep the
actors from participating. But I’m not naming names.
iW: There certainly are a lot of characters. Did it ever become
Niami: The film is really about New York. That’s the central
character. It’s about this building and these people. Of course I was
always worried if people could follow it, but [all the characters] have
certain things in common. They are lonely, they have big dreams, they
feel misplaced. So there is a common thread there. But I didn’t know
if it was going to work. You know, it’s funny. Most of the
characters, besides Bai Ling’s character and Paul Anthony Stewart’s
character, are in their 30’s and early 40’s, but the film appeals very
much to a younger audience. The reason I think is that younger
audiences watch so much MTV and are always channel surfing that they
have no problem with following so many plots and subplots.
iW: How did the soundtrack come together?
Niami: I was very fortunate from day one. Walter Yetnikoff, who used
to be the president of CBS Records, and now has his own label Velvel,
was very supportive from the beginning, before we even shot the film.
But still it was a limited budget. Approaching the bands was exactly
like approaching the cast. I did everything I could to reach the bands
personally. You have to understand that rock stars are like film
stars. They’re artists. They’re not businessmen. If they like
something, that’s how they decide if they want to participate. Sandra
Bernhard sang the opening song. Yoko Ono, we sent a videotape to her
apartment. Ani DiFranco, we sent her a tape. So one by one we got
iW: And you had a similar experience with financing?
Niami: Yes, the thing is, I tried for many years to raise money in
Hollywood. Of course we all know that your first film is very hard. I
sent the script to a couple of people and right away they said, “Why
don’t you have Sandra play a gay woman?” So instead, I did something
different. I approached five hundred people and finally got twenty-five
investors for the film. Also some pre-sales to Europe. We sold Spain,
we got some German money…
iW: Did the European money come after casting Ornela Muti?
Niami: Yes, that was certainly a factor in getting the European
money. That’s when they become interested. She’s a big star over
there. She’s done 64 films. [Being in] this film is very brave of
her… It’s very different than anything she’s ever done, and I admire
her for doing a low-budget film like this in New York. And the role is
so crazy. She has done some American films, and from what I hear, she
wasn’t too happy with the experience. The last thing she did [in
America] was “Oscar” with Sylvester Stallone.
A lot of the actors wanted to know who had editorial control over the
picture. They all came to me with their own horror stories of
production companies who re-cut it, re-shot it and destroyed the film.
The question was, “Who is in charge? Is it just you?” And I said,
“Yeah.” That’s one good thing about having 25 investors, nobody can
tell you what to do.
iW: What did the film cost?
Niami: We shot the film for $350,000 and the total budget was $650,000
including everything. Sixty-four speaking parts, a good crew, good
producing. No re-shoots, not a single line of ADR, and we sent the crew
home a couple of days early. We all worked very hard though. I spent a
year of casting… A lot of time on pre-production. We didn’t have
money to make mistakes.
iW: You particularly got a lot of bang-for-the-buck with the production
design. Why did you decide to do the interiors on sets?
Niami: A number of reasons. I thought because I had six stories, the
sets, the environment, can really say a lot about the character. You’re
spending so little time with each character, so you need to establish
what kind of person they are. The therapist, Sandra Bernhard, has lived
there for a while so she has a lot of junk in her apartment. It’s very
different from Bai Ling, a Chinese student who has just arrived. An
empty apartment. The colors are different. We wanted the colors, and
the sets to say a lot about each character right away.
The second thing is, if you have the right crew and the right stage, the
production goes much faster. Because really, the problem with New York,
I know from my other shoots, is sound. You don’t want to stop the shoot
every time a car alarm goes off. And working with stars you have very
little time. We couldn’t even afford SAG overtime.
One thing about working with stars –see people complain about working
with stars, but I like working with stars, because they are very
experienced– you never have to teach them. You share ideas and lead
them. That’s how it should be. They know everything already. They
aren’t nervous about working on the set. So it all went very fast. It
was a lot of fun. That’s the great thing about doing comedy. I had to
stop the shoot at times, because the crew was laughing so much on the
[Dave Ratzlow is a screenwriter and script reader based in New York.]