Interview: Ramin Bahrani of ‘Goodbye Solo’

Posted on August 25, 2009 at 2:59 pm

In 2009, film critic Roger Ebert declared “Ramin Bahrani is the new great American director.” I’d say he’s a great new American writer as well. I heard him speak at Ebertfest (his second time presenting there) and was moved, enthralled, and inspired. Only 34 years old and with just four feature films, he has already had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and has been awarded a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship. It was a thrill to get a chance to talk to him about his brilliant film, “Goodbye Solo” (rated R for language, drug use, and sexual references and situations as well as some very sad moments) which is released today on DVD. Cinematical says “it may be the best DVD you rent this summer.” NPR’s David Edelstein said:

So much of a movie’s appeal comes down to whether you enjoy staring at the actors’ faces. In Ramin Bahrani’s “Goodbye Solo,” there are two you’ve most likely never seen before — two tantalizing maps to pore over…It’s a film of overflowing humanism, yet it acknowledges, in grief and wonder, that some things can never be reconciled.

It is the story of Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a Senegalese cab driver with a young family and a fare named William (Red West), an old man who once hung out with Elvis and is now alone.

The first thing I want to ask you is how you achieve the extraordinary intimacy of your films, the way we feel we are eavesdropping on real life.

I’ve done the same thing with a plastic bag! My short film opening in Venice has this incredibly expressive bag that I hope you’ll fall in love with.

The most important part of directing is casting. I was deeply involved in casting in all three of my films. Finding the right person for the part, the person you can communicate with, some mysterious qualities that can be articulated in front of the frame — if the performance is not good it doesn’t matter if anything else is good, the camera, the lighting, the music, because the audience will check out immediately. I really like to get to know the actors in advance. We know one another for a few months or at least several weeks before we begin filming. I really like to things not with a lot of cuts, very few cuts; this allows the actors to perform against one other, which they enjoy a lot. It lets them bring their best work.

Then there are little things I like to talk to them about or trick them. Often times the actors don’t really know what the film’s about entirely. For example in “Goodbye Solo,” only William and Solo knew the entire story. Other people only know their scenes.

Is the film completely scripted? It is so natural it feels improvised at times.

It is completely scripted. I oftentimes do not show the actor the script. William and Solo were trained actors but nobody else saw a script. We have rehearsals where they learn what their scene is about. If they want to change certain words because it is easier to say, as long as it is okay with the structure of the film, that is all right. But there is not a lot of improvisation.

Here’s a story. The actress who played the young girl, Alex, had no idea what the movie is about and did not know why they were going to the mountain. When Solo came back alone, she was not at all in anxiety and assumed William had gone home with a friend. As we were rehearsing the final scene, she pulled me aside and said, “Why is he so sad in this moment?” I asked, “Why do you think?” “I think he’s sad because he failed his exam,” she said. I said, “Why don’t you encourage him to pass it?” She was so full of courage for Solo and that enhances his performance and encourages his character and the audience to move beyond what has happened.

What kind of training did you have in film-making?

I never had a class on directing or acting. No one told me how to make film; I just started.

You said you were deeply involved in casting. What do you look for?

People who kind of resemble the part. Souleymane Sy Savane is naturally kind of a friendly, charming guy, also very meditative, very thoughtful. He doesn’t talk that much or that fast or use those terms that Solo does. He talks at a much slower pace. I had to accelerate him so it is really a performance and an amazing one. The first thing is the face, you could just look at those faces for a long time and be engaged. That’s critical. Bergman was very good at finding faces you want to look at for a long time. There’s a mystery to a person’s face that the camera must respect. In literature you can’t look at someone’s face. You can can go into their mind, in theater, poetry, book, music, you see a lot but not the face the way you see it in a movie.

That is why I don’t like to cut when the scene is supposedly technically done. I let it run to see what they are thinking about what just happened, to wait to see what they do. Those are important moments. The people who say “Oh this is slow,” I don’t really believe they think that, I think they’ve just seen too many of the other kind of film.

I remember at Ebertfest you caused a bit of controversy by telling people there not to see some big blockbuster. I think it was “Wolverine.” Do you think people are diminished by watching films like that?

Of course I think that people are diminished by those films. Independent does not mean slow or boring or slow or obtuse or in a museum that no one can understand without a book on semiotics. I think a child could understand and enjoy my films and an adult could enjoy them in a different way.

I was just asked if I want to make a “big film.” I don’t know what it means to make a big film. Someone called “Man Push Cart” a “nice little film.” What does “nice little film” mean? It’s just as big as “Mission Impossible 3.” I actually think MI3 is a microscopic film. It provides nothing to the world or the universe or humanity except an extreme waste of money and talent. It is a massive waste of resources. The reason people think they are big is that they cost a lot of money.

Film is an expensive financial venture, to try to engage the audience in a good story that anyone can understand. Important to keep the budget at a level where you can still do what you want do. If you’re going to spend $80 million you will have to do what they want you to do. You have to ask yourself, “Do I want to be in that position.” I don’t.

So, what do you want to do next?

Of course I want to work with known actors as well as unknown. If Viggo Mortenson wants to play the part, fine, he’s a talented actor. And having him in the film can help get more resources. But these films get caught up in big/small instead of important/important.

“Goodbye Solo” is set in your home town of Winston-Salem. Were you interested in film when you were young?

I was born and raised in North Carolina. I developed an interest in cinema as a teenager. Before that I was painting and drawing, then literature Camus, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Faulkner, then renting “Aguirre, Wrath of God, “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.” Herzog, Buñuel, Fellini, Bergman, Rossellini –“The Flowers of St. Francis” was very influential, I love Ken Loach, Kurasawa, these are the ones I really respond to.

What about performers?

The great American actor is James Stewart. You really see that in the Anthony Mann westerns, and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Not all directors knew how to access what he had to offer, of course Hitchcock did later in “Vertigo,” his qualities of being unnerving and and mysterious and violent. He had the widest range, with all respect to Brando, Newman, Depp. Monica Vitti is in her own category, one of the great female actors.

Now tell me about the plastic bag movie!

It’s premiering at the Venice film festival, a 20 minute film, and it will be online in early 2010. It is about a plastic bag in an existential crisis looking for its maker. It encounters strange creatures, brief love in the sky, and then to be with its own kind it goes to the Pacific trash vortex to try to forget about its maker. I cannot tell you who it is, but the voice of the bag is extremely special. It is not an agenda film, but like “The Red Balloon,” it will make you care about an inanimate object.

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Tribute: John Hughes

Posted on August 7, 2009 at 8:13 am

John Hughes, writer-director of some of the most successful and influential films of the 1980’s and 90’s, died yesterday at age 59. Fellow Chicagoan Roger Ebert has a thoughtful tribute, calling Hughes “the creator of the modern American teenager film.” Ebert said:

He took teenagers seriously, and his films are distinctive for showing them as individuals with real hopes, ambitions, problems and behavior.

“Kids are smart enough to know that most teenage movies are just exploiting them,” he told me on the set of “The Breakfast Club.” “They’ll respond to a film about teenagers as people. movies are about the beauty of just growing up. I think teenage girls are especially ready for this kind of movie, after being grossed out by all the sex and violence in most teenage movies. People forget that when you’re 16, you’re probably more serious than you’ll ever be again. You think seriously about the big questions.”

I would add that he showed teenagers with real abilities and understanding as well, and that was what made his characters so believably multi-dimensional. Whether an exaggerated farce like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or a more realistic love story like Pretty in Pink, his teenage characters were self-aware and capable, often more capable than the adults around them. Even the child in Home Alone managed to take care of himself and outsmart the bad guys. So did the star of the underrated Baby’s Day Out, even though he could not walk or talk.

Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post has an astute assessment of Hughes’ contribution:

Apart from some Depression-era fare, movies for and about young people tended to depict them as cheerful, all-American entertainers (Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the 1940s) or moody, troubled and mumbling (James Dean in the 1950s).

Mr. Hughes struck an entirely new direction when he arrived in Hollywood in the early 1980s after a career that included stints as an advertising writer and a joke writer for National Lampoon. He created films that were distinguished by the very ordinariness in which he captured teenage life: the mini-dramas over class distinctions, peer pressure, serious (and often unrequited) crushes and classroom detention. He set most of his films in suburban Chicago, where he grew up and which he considered “a place of realities” in contrast with the glamour of Los Angeles.

In his films, Mr. Hughes reversed the long-standing view of caring parents and their clueless offspring to create an entirely new caricature of savvy teens and self-involved and hopelessly uncool authority figures, whether parents, principals or receptionists. Mr. Hughes’s young protagonists spoke in perceptive ways peppered with the latest slang, and despite all their differences, they were unified by their need to survive without any help from their elders.

Dana Stevens of Slate has a fine tribute to Hughes but the most touching memories come from Alison Byrne Fields, who wrote to him as a teenage fan of “The Breakfast Club,” and then wrote to him again to object to the form letter response to the first one. They corresponded for two years. He encouraged her and made it clear how important it was to him to hear from exactly the audience he wanted to reach. They spoke by phone once some years later.

John told me about why he left Hollywood just a few years earlier. He was terrified of the impact it was having on his sons; he was scared it was going to cause them to lose perspective on what was important and what happiness meant. And he told me a sad story about how, a big reason behind his decision to give it all up was that “they” (Hollywood) had “killed” his friend, John Candy, by greedily working him too hard.

He also told me he was glad I had gotten in touch and that he was proud of me for what I was doing with my life. He told me, again, how important my letters had been to him all those years ago, how he often used the argument “I’m doing this for Alison” to justify decisions in meetings.

Hughes was gifted as a creator of believable and accessible characters and as a writer of endlessly quotable dialog. And he was a righteous dude.

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and always enjoyed the familiar locations and references in the Hughes movies. “The Breakfast Club” was inspired by detention at my high school (which met not on Saturday but before school, which is how it got its name). I enjoy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and am fond of “Pretty in Pink” (though I still think Andie should end up with Duckie and Iona is my favorite character) and think that Dutch is one of Hughes’ most neglected films. I’d love to hear about your favorite Hughes movies, quotes, and moments.

Submit a question or comment for today’s Washington Post online discussion of Hughes and his films.


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Tribute: Budd Schulberg

Posted on August 6, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Hollywood legend and Oscar-winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg died this week at age 95. His best work documented the anguish and corruption he observed growing up as the son of one of the top executives of MGM at the height of the studio era. The Washington Post’s Adam Bernstein wrote:

Mr. Schulberg was the son of a legendary Hollywood producer whose fortunes rose and fell dramatically. As a result, he once said he was intrigued by “how suddenly go up, and how quickly they go down.”

He used his insider knowledge of Hollywood politics to write his first novel, “What Makes Sammy Run?” in 1941. A grotesque account of vice being rewarded, the book was widely praised (though not in Hollywood) and made him a star author at 27.

Vivid, crackling dialogue was his hallmark in about 10 other books and a handful of riveting films. He wrote the memorable speech that included the line “I coulda been a contender,” spoken by actor Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” (1954)…

Mr. Schulberg’s next project, “A Face in the Crowd” (1957), skewered the television industry and became a lasting favorite of critics and moviemakers. The film, again directed by Kazan, featured Andy Griffith in what many regard as his best role. Griffith played “Lonesome” Rhodes, a cracker-barrel prophet who self-destructs after he lands a national television show. “Face” was an underrated gem, a perceptive look at the future of television and politics.

This scene from “On the Waterfront” is one of the best-remembered in the history of film:

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Interview: Jonathan Levine of ‘The Wackness’

Posted on July 20, 2008 at 12:00 pm



Writer/director Jonathan Levine has been getting great reviews for “The Wackness,” the story of the friendship between a teenage drug dealer (Josh Peck) and his customer/therapist (Ben Kingsley). I spoke to him about what inspires him and about what it feels like to direct an Oscar-winning actor with a “Sir” title.

One thing everyone who sees the movie talks about is the specificity of period detail. It is set in 1994, a time so recent that we don’t really remember how much has changed. It wasn’t that long ago that everyone had to use pagers and pay phones instead of cell phones and Nintendo Game Boys instead of PSP.

It’s a fine line. We didn’t want it to become “I love the 90’s” but to have audiences bring their own nostalgia to it it brings an energy. The nostalgia I put in there interacts with yours — that’s all part of it. As long as you’re aware of it and polling when it gets too much then you’re okay. You can see where it becomes a little too much, and we cut some of it out.

You worked with actors from a wide range of backgrounds and your two leads in particular could not have been more different — one a classically trained Oscar-winner with a very long, distinguished career and one coming from a Nickelodeon sit-com. And then there’s Mary Kate Olson who grew up on television. How do you work with them?

I have to figure out how they like to work. It’s almost akin to throwing a party and you want the right people sitting next to the right people. I have to make sure everyone is as comfortable as possible and working in the mode they like to work in.

With Olivia (Thirlby) and Josh (Peck), they are closer to my age and I can intuit what they’re going to dig. With Sir Ben I had to ask him how he likes to work and he knows. He knows what environment he flourishes in. He said, “You have to tell me when you’ve got it and then we can play around with a few more.” In the movie frequently it’s one of his first two takes and frequently some of the others. He said, “Tell Josh that he’s going to be leading our scenes.” That made everyone comfortable, empowered us in a way, and it mirrors the dynamic the two characters have in the movie. He told Josh that, but then as everyone got more and more comfortable sometimes Sir Ben would take the lead.

Working with smart actors makes everything a lot easier. No matter what your kind of background it works as long as you have a shorthand, and it is much easier to communicate with intelligent people. This group was all very easy communicating, even with Mary Kate.

Take Josh, his show is so broad and big and he’s like this Jackie Gleason character. But he has an acting coach he’s worked with for a while and so he has serious training. I had looked him up on YouTube, too, and saw Mean Creek. He’s not afraid to go where he needs to go. He embraces the entire character, foibles and all. There was nothing that had to be taught or learned. We talked about what of his experiences were relevant. Sometimes I would say, “Bring it back a little bit,” or “Do it again.” All I wanted was the most naturalistic thing possible.

Now I see Drake and Josh all the time, it seems to be on whenever I turn on the television. And he’s into some wacky hijinks! To me the one thing after working with him that may have helped him or informed his work here is that he has an accessibility and vulnerability and ability to empathize, and that is what appealed to me. He is not afraid to be vulnerable, to show all sides of the character good and bad.

I wish I could take credit for his performance, but it’s all him. I can only take credit for casting him.

What were some of the movies or performances that influenced you in thinking about telling this story?

The references I watched during the screenwriting process were looking at May/September buddy movies like Harold and Maude, Rushmore, Wonder Boys, but movies I didn’t watch that were so much a part of who I am and growing up, the ones I tried to capture their spirit, were films by Cameron Crowe and John Hughes. We did watch Almost Famous. I didn’t have to rewatch it because it is so much a part of my memory of growing up. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Hughes’ “Citizen Kane.” The real heart of the movie is Cameron; that’s where the movie’s heart is. The scene in the museum is beautifully done. It is all about these characters and the things they’re going through. Even though what you remember is the music and the clothes, those movies influenced me more than I knew.

I’m sure everyone wants to know about Mary Kate Olson!

We offered her the role and it was a small role and she thought she could have fun with it. I was really impressed with how down to earth she was. I’d be looking for her between takes and find her in craft services, eating grilled cheese with the grips. And she’s got this amazing charisma! Considering that she’s had such a crazy strange life, it has to be so hard for her. Walking down the street in Sundance, we had this strange group of people, everyone noticed the other guys but they were tripping over snowbanks trying to get her picture. I was glad to show her in a new light. I like the fact that in independent cinema you can take people who have preconceived notions about them and show everyone something new.

Was there a moment in this film that was your starting point for thinking about the story?

The first scene in the film is the first one I wrote, the one where everything began. I started with it four years ago in film school. As everything else was rewritten and edited, this therapy session with drugs exchanged for therapy was the center, and we built the layers around that.

How did the actors change or enlarge your ideas of the characters?

Working with Josh and Olivia was incredible because they brought such realism and a natural grounded feeling to their scenes, something the actors of the John Hughes movies had, the bravery, the willingness to embrace going to every place that you need to go to show a three-dimensional character. Olivia’s character — I don’t claim to understand women. It was incumbent upon her to fill in the blanks, to make her sympathetic in spite of the fact that what she was doing was not very nice. She gave me a new empathy for all the girls in my life, and I am very grateful for that.

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Jeffrey Blitz of ‘Rocket Science’

Posted on August 5, 2007 at 10:28 pm

Jeffrey Blitz, director of the award-winning spelling bee documentary Spellbound, was in Washington to talk about his first feature film, the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, “Rocket Science.” He and I had a wonderful talk at the Georgetown Ritz hotel. We got off to a good start when we discovered we were both on our way to Comic-Con.

Most people would say that the lifetime period of greatest anxiety and misery is ages 13-15. What is it about that time of life that interests you so much?

You live an inwardly raw life at that age, you haven’t got an ability to protect yourself from your own emotions and the world. You are ripe –when you fall in love you really fall inlove, when your heart is broken, your heart is really broken, you don’t yet have the inner resoures to protect yourself or be anything less than completely that feeling.

It must be a challenge to ask kids to access and express emotions that are still unfamiliar to them. How do you work with these young actors?

The biggest part of it is casting. When you cast well you are casting someone who can access what needs to be accessed for that part. It was a low budget movie but we put whatever resources it had into casting. The great story about finding Reece is that we had looked for six months and finally HBO, who was financing, gave us a two week grace period, or we’d have to shut down. And then one day someone was walking through the production office with a bunch of tapes that had been sent in unsolicted. Normally, we would not have watched them but we were ready to try anything. Reece’s came from Vancouver and his agent sent it in. It was like when yiou meet someone you want to be friends with or fall in love, you don’t ask why It’s him, he thoroughly inhabits the role.

The big challenge was that in this case, we had a main character who stutters. It’s like learning a very difficult accent. Sometimes a performance suffers because the actor’s brain is working on the mechanical stuff their mouth has to do instead of what they need for the scene. We looked for six months, everywhere, we tried actual stutterers, but this character had a very particular kind of stuttering that is more amenable to the way of comedy, to set-ups and punchlines, it has a rhythm.

Our female lead, Anna Kendrick, came in very early into the process. After her audition, I wrote down Anna Kendrick is Ginny Ryerson, but because it was so early we thought we should keep looking. But she was one of the few girls we auditioned who could grasp everything she was saying, not just rattle off all those serious SAT words.

Boys and girls at that age seem to be from completely different species. How would you describe their differences and how does that affect their ability to communicate with each other?

We tried to get out of the idea that boys and girls are of completely different realms. Everyone in the movie is lost when it comes to love and romantic relationships and that defines them more than any differences. Ginny is very ambitious, not a typical girl role. They’re all kind of gender neutral in a way, all striving.

The adults in the film all seem to be dealing with their own difficulties. Despite the fact that the characters are surrounded by parents and teachers who theoretically have a commitment to concern for the kids, most of them do not seem to be capable of it. What is their role in the story?

We were not trying to make a comment about adults in general or say that adults are useless. If my main character is lost and all he needs to do is turn to his parents, there’s no story. It is so much more interesting if he has to solve things on his own. It’s not about debate, not about who wins; it’s about kids who are trying to grapple with questions that are bigger than they are. You can love but still not feel you understand it. The adults are childlike, all at the mercy of the mystery of love. The Violent Femmes (whose song is played in the movie) are so expressive of the anger of love gone bad. I love the idea that the adults’ idea of therapy is to do a cleaned up, dainty version of the songs that are roiling with such anger.

In a movie about the power of speaking to express oneself, why have a narrator? He seems to be omniscient, not just older and wiser. Who is he and what does he contribute to the movie?

Hal is a character who essentially has no voice and is struggling to find his voice. He has a fantasy of a voice like James Earl Jones. With a narrator, we had one character with no voice and one who is noting but a disembodied voice, a purely articulate voice. It shows the gulf between who Hal is and who he wishes to be. You are given Hal’s dream voice and confronted with his real voice. I love the idea of a torrent of words. When you grow up as a suttterer you are very aware of the power of words.

What do you want to do next?

I’m working on a documentary about lottery winners. It is another low budget scrappy project, just me operating the camera and producer/sound man. It is a great thing to go back and forth between big productions with a crew of 100 people and this little two-person movie. In a bigger production, you speak in a different language to the cinematographer and the production designer and the cast, many different languages all day long, saying the same thing over and over again. On this new film, I just put the camera exactly where I want to put it. I don’t have to say anything to anyone, I just start to shoot. There are two American myths about the lottery. One is the Protestant work ethic, it’s tainted, bad, and you’re cursed if you did not earn the money. The other is that it solves all your problems. The reality is that your sense of scale shifts, your sense of the money that you need or want shifts. If you have more money, you have more financial concerns. And family members and friends expect you to help them out.

Can you give examples of the kinds of movies and directors who have inspired you?

Hal Ashby — I watched his films again and again, the cinematography and production design. He has a masterful blending of absurd comedy and naturalism. His characters do outrageous things that are not of the real world and yet I feel like he’s someone I know. I did not want a Wes Andersen snowglobe artificial world. I wanted characters with real human emotion but exaggerated. I watch a lot of Billy Wilder films, the way he brings intelligence and humanity into whatever genre he was working in. I love the idea of being able to genre-hop the way he did. He brought his stamp to every one of his films, and I would love to be able to do that.

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