As befitting his nuanced, observational approach toward narrative in his films (“Chop Shop”, “Goodbye Solo”), director Ramin Bahrani didn’t force his latest project “99 Homes” away from its path towards genre. “Initially when I went down to Florida [for research into the U.S. housing crisis], I thought I was making something more like my other films—a social drama,” explained Bahrani when we spoke with him recently in Los Angeles. “But Florida told me, ‘No, you’re making a thriller.’ Because every real estate broker carries a gun; because the corruption is so mind-boggling.”
Following the swift eviction of the Nash family led by Dennis (Andrew Garfield), and Dennis’ uneasy partnership with the ruthless broker (Michael Shannon) who profited from it, the film also represents a step up in scale for Bahrani. His last feature “At Any Price” toyed with the combination of his humanist style with recognizable faces (Zac Efron, Dennis Quaid), but here he perfects that groove with Garfield, Shannon, Laura Dern, and others.
At Venice last year we said the topical film “[takes] you by the shoulders and shake the apathy and complacency away,” and the performances certainly contribute to that result. Ever the deep well of cinematic knowledge, Bahrani sat down with us to talk about his actors, the intensive research process that he used previously and on “99 Homes”, and the sci-fi project that he scrapped after “Ex Machina” came out.
Working with predominantly non-actors to great effect, what result did you find from bringing name actors into your projects?
You need a budget to make the thing, and “99 Homes” technically has 99 locations in it. It’s expensive. So you need cast to do that, but also the cast brings things to this kind of movie that a non-actor can’t. I can’t imagine anyone who’s doing what Michael Shannon’s doing — it’s just a next-level kind of performance.
I was thinking about that movie, “Up In The Air,” where the topic says, “Headhunter, people losing their jobs, etc.” That’s a scary subject that you probably don’t want to watch, but then you see George Clooney and you come to realize that movie’s an entertaining film about an interesting and serious subject. But it’s not a dark movie. This has that same sort of thing. You hear the word “foreclosure” but then you go to see the film and realize, “Oh, this is a thriller. It’s a deal-with-the-devil film that has these amazing actors in it.”
The majority of the film features Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon squaring off against one another – how did their acting styles differ?
Andrew’s more loose, more improvisational. He wants to figure his way around, and he can change things at all times. Each take might be a little bit different; sometimes it could be wildly different. Michael, he has a real strong sense of what he’s going to do in a scene—each good, and each different. And he and Andrew had a respect for one another, which was key; otherwise it could’ve been a disaster. You’ve got to allow both acting styles to happen at one moment, which was great for the film because it created a lot of electricity between them. The respect that they had for one another allowed for that element to emerge as a great kind of mentorship into corruption.
You’ve spoken about the great level of detail and research you did into the housing crisis in Florida. Where do you start with that process and how does it evolve?
I have an amazing research assistant for about 4-5 years now, so he’s constantly behind me sending me things. We have a massive tracker – here, I’ll show you an example.
[Bahrani retrieves his laptop, flips it open, and shows me the screen. He’s opened an Excel spreadsheet with “SILICON VALLEY PROJECT” in the title. There are a dozen tabs, and scores of items on every page.]
So there are 377 articles here, then books here — 60 of them. These are videos. And then there’s notes on every article, like a little summary. And then I have another series of Word files, each of which have about 30-40 pages of notes in there. A lot of them are from phone calls, or in-person meetings that I’ve gone to have. My research assistant is also good at scripts too, so he’s good for notes, structure, that sort of thing.
How do you synthesize that mountain of text into a cohesive whole?
Some of it—most of it, really—is going down dead ends. You read 50 articles that are background, and then you finally find a character in a story, and you find 10 more articles about that person. You’re waiting for little gems like that. But think about it if it were Kubrick’s time—this Macbook Air that I have in my hands, you’d have to come to my home and see 500 books to parse through it all.
What was this Silicon Valley Project?
I did a lot of research there but then “Ex Machina” got made—mine had sci-fi elements as well. My world is actually drifting into something more interesting now, as it turns out. It’s something that’s never been done before. A very big film.
Never been done before technically, or narratively?
With the story—it’s never been done before, not even in a book. A huge film, with a big role for the lead actor.
What surprising influences found their way into “99 Homes”?
Well, first off I think it has a lot of comparisons to “Training Day” or “Wall Street,” with that mentor/mentee relationship. In terms of shooting the film, there was a lot of Roman Polanski and “Chinatown” — great Steadicam work with one or two set-ups capturing the whole scene. Great use of wide lenses in that film for key inner moments with Jack Nicholson. So here whenever I wanted to get into Andrew’s head I usually used a 24mm and got really physically close to his face. Sidney Lumet and “Dog Day Afternoon” were very important to me for the end of the film.
What was it about the 24mm?
I just wanted to get into Andrew’s head, and that was a lens we never used with any other actor. But for Andrew, I would always turn to Bobby Bukowski, our DP, in the car on the way to set and be like, “Don’t forget, we should always think—is this a good time for 24mm for Andrew?” I really wanted to make sure we’re constantly in his head.
How trusting have you become of yourself as the editor of your work? When you’re on set filming that opening three-minute-long shot, how devoted are you to that unbroken shot?
Absolutely. I remember my producing partner was like, “Please get coverage on that.” I said no. The different between adult and children filmmakers is one who can do it without a cut. Look at contemporary filmmakers, look at Paul Thomas Anderson, who’s doing these long takes that are endlessly interesting. I’m sure he looked a lot at Max Ophuls, but you should be able to do long takes that are interesting, and not dull. It was surprising how nervous it made the actors, too. I was surprised. Michael and Andrew were so skilled onstage, but they would get nervous when I wouldn’t go for coverage. I just said, “Don’t make me bring my non-actors back from my first films, because they were never nervous.” That made them go back and try again. [laughs]
[SPOILERS] You pair the thriller tone throughout with naturalism, but then you reach the ending, which usually in films breaks the realistic tone for an easy conclusion. How did you come upon yours?
It was very tough to figure out, because you don’t want to go to that ending that’s always there — everyone gets shot, etc.. It has to be satisfying to the audience, first for me as an audience member, and I wanted the film not to take a stand one way or the other, but rather be free for the audience to decipher.
Is Michael going to jail? Well, no one involved in the crisis went to jail. Is he sneaking his way out of here like a snake again? What’s happening to Andrew’s character? He’s confessed to doing something wrong. You don’t know, but you can talk about it at least. And that’s important to me — to allow the audience space to have a conversation. But it was certainly a challenge. How do you have a satisfying ending that isn’t the same cliche one you’ve seen a hundred times? [END SPOILERS]
Is there a reason you’ve stayed away from autobiography in your films?
Well, I’ve noticed that I’m in the films anyway, but I as an audience member have no interest in a guy who reads books and makes movies. It sounds so dull to me. I just wouldn’t want to watch that film. I’m more interested in going into worlds that I don’t know about, and when you look at “99 Homes”, it’s a thriller, but this world is new. It was surprising to me to see this world, people shooting one another over homes and scams, and I don’t think audiences know that world either. So that’s a little bit more interesting to me. If we know the structure of a specific genre, something’s gotta be new.
“99 Homes” opens in theatres September 25th.