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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