The work of Ramin Bahrani returns to the Sydney Film Festival for the first time since 2009, where his film Goodbye Solo had its Australian premiere. His latest film, 99 Homes, is a character-based drama about the American housing crisis in 2008 starring Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield. Imogen Gardam spoke to Bahrani following the Australian premiere of 99 Homes.
I want to start by asking about the genesis of 99 Homes? Where did you start from?
I was curious about the origin of the global financial meltdown, and the housing crisis in the states, and the origins of that, other than in Washington and Wall Street were in four states, in terms of on-the-ground work. And Florida was one of them, and I preferred Florida to the other states so I went down there and was just amazed by what I saw. I spent time with fraud attorneys, I was in foreclosure courts – they’re called the rocket dockets because they decide your case in 60 seconds flat.
So the way it’s represented in the film is how it is in real life?
The reality was actually a little worse than what I showed in the film. I was with real estate brokers, I’ve been on evictions, I was in motels on Highway 142 on the way to Disney where normal middle class families that you think are your sister, your brother, your neighbour, are living in motels and their kids are going to school on school buses from a motel. In the United States. In Florida. And I was shocked by the corruption, it was just mind-boggling. On every level there was corruption, and there was a lot of anger, and everyone had a gun. I never knew real estate brokers who all carried guns. I don’t think they expected it either, because they didn’t expect to be doing this for a living. And I quickly saw the structure – a man gets kicked out of his home, begins to work for the man who kicked him out, to get his home back, and has to evict people to do that. So a deal with the devil, a Faustian story. Unbeknownst to me when I first went down there, it was going to become a thriller, which I never had done before and I never expected but it was there. And every time I turned around it was another piece of corruption, somebody shooting at somebody. So it kind of gave it a speed and a pace that was pretty exciting.
You’ve explored different versions of the American Dream in your films up until now, and I feel like this one is a much less hopeful take. It ends on this note of optimism, but with 99 Homes it’s more of a zero sum game, the truth behind the American Dream – if you’re advancing, it’s at the expense of someone else.
What I hoped would be that people could reassess what’s going on, because what is in some of the other films as well is this concept of doing what you think is the correct thing to do even if there’s no purpose in it, which is a very existential idea that you see in Man Push Cart and Goodbye Solo, where he has to do something that he can’t fully grasp but he feels he has to do. And that is here with the Frank Green character when Andrew (Garfield) makes a turn and he’s like, I just have to do something even if I’m going to lose in the process, because I think it’s the correct thing to do. But I hope there’s a real moral ambiguity in the film where it’s hard to understand what you would do if you were in that situation. I can’t say what I would do if I was in Andrew’s situation. I assume I would have to do those things. The same, by the way, with Michael (Shannon), who is a super strong antagonist in the film but I believe for me, the real villain in the movie is the system. Because even Michael expresses himself a few times and you realise, based on his past, his father and what happened to him, that he’s just not going to let himself be destroyed by the system. So he has to do this. And I can’t blame him either. His arguments make a lot of sense.
Something I found quite interesting is that you have this line for Michael where he says “Everyone’s got a sob story”, and later on you give him his sob story. Was that to make the character more relatable? Or as part of that kind of cyclical experience, “everyone’s part of the same mess”?
I love to learn about the character in that scene, but also it has a dramatic purpose, which is that it pulls Andrew farther in. Andrew starts that scene being horrified that he has to do an eviction with Michael, and by the end of the scene he’s saying “I’m just going to do it on my own, I don’t need you to come with me”. So it drags him farther into it when Andrew realises that Michael is kind of like him, he grew up on a construction site, and what happened to his story, I think it pulls Andrew farther in. And for me as a viewer, or a help for the viewer, it pulls them farther in as well, because you start to realise Michael is not necessarily just a bad guy. He’s a guy surviving, in potentially morally corrupt ways, but he’s surviving in a system that doesn’t seem to offer him a lot of options. As he says in my favourite scene in the film, where the men are talking at the dock, and Andrew asks if it’s worth it, and Michael says “As opposed to what?”.
Michael for me is one of the top five actors in the world, he can do anything, and I dream to have him in every film I make. I told him, whether he wants it or not, you’re in my next movie. When we were going to shoot the scene, he looked at me and said, “Isn’t the whole movie about that?”. And I said, “the whole movie is about that”. The whole film is that one thing, “as opposed to what?”.
You have this central relationship between Andrew and Michael, and that scene is where it pivots, where you realise that despite the fact that they’re relying on each other in a way, they’re never going to be friends. There’s no redemptive friendship.
The scene on the dock? That’s such a weird scene.
Was it weird to shoot?
It was so weird to shoot because the men were so good. Andrew gathered himself for about half an hour, and we didn’t talk any more about that moment, because he needed to do his thing. He came down, I did two takes, and I said “I’m done”. He said “What?”. I said “that’s it”. I did two takes of Michael and that was the whole thing.
How do you manage that relationship where you need that antagonism but it also needs to develop and advance within the narrative?
They do develop, there’s a sense of a father figure in Michael, there’s a sense of friend, they are friendly in certain moments. You feel them connecting on a philosophical and emotional level in some scenes. Yet there’s always a bit of a distance between them. Andrew can’t forget what happened and Michael is just not that emotional. He knows Andrew can and will be replaced with another person one day. But he’s enjoying the ride while it goes and eventually he’ll have to get rid of him and bring on another one. There’s a guy on every street corner.
The film is quite cyclical – when you first see Andrew going along Michael, someone says “This is your new guy”. There’s this sense of ritual within the film – the evictions, the rocket dockets – did you feel like you were structuring it in this kind of circle?
Yes, totally. You know, I don’t think anyone ever mentions this, and I was wondering if people would think it was too clear.
I found it quite sickening, in a way, realising that it’s this thing that turns in and of itself.
The centre of the film and the heartbeat of the film, which everything comes in and goes out of, in the Tanner eviction, where Andrew does his first eviction. That’s where the film folds upon itself, or folds out upon itself. The scenes in the court are the same, that guy is there in the beginning, Andrew has to return to the court in the end for the same process on a different human being. The evictions fold upon themselves. The people shooting guns, at the beginning and ending of the film.
There’s this sort of bookending with those gun scenes
And that was there from the very beginning. I was in Venice with my previous film and my co-writers were with me, and I had already started the research and I remember telling them then, the movie should start with the shooting, end with the shooting, which will have a different conclusion due to the force of the film. And at the centre of it would be when he first evicts someone, in terms of this kind of Faustian deal with the devil in the structure. And then I said, “that’s enough, we’ll figure out the rest as we go along”.
So for you, that conclusion with a different ending to the gun scene, is that Andrew breaking the cycle?
I think it’s him breaking the cycle for himself, which is the same as what Frank is doing for himself. Frank is saying “I refuse to accept what you’re doing and saying”. As he says, “the sun is this way”, and I find that usually in life you understand what’s happening but the world keeps telling you to do and say and behave differently. Despite the fact that you’re natural instinct is saying “it’s daytime”, the world tells you “it’s night”; meaning “don’t follow your dream, don’t do the morally correct thing, don’t treat other people like human beings, do the opposite in order to survive and keep amassing stuff”. I don’t think the system is being broken by these people at all – Michael Shannon will never go to jail, nobody involved in the housing crisis will go to jail, nobody involved in Libor when to jail. Nobody involved in the last bank scandal went to jail. That kind of stuff is not going to end. But you mentioned my other films – even in those films, the characters just do what they think is the right thing to do for themselves. Even if it’s not going to change the world, if it can change them then maybe it will impact someone around them, maybe it’ll impact someone watching the film to think or reassess where we are, and what we would do in that situation. I don’t know what I would do in that situation – I assume I would do what Andrew did, I would start getting into corrupt things, doing whatever I could to survive.
It’s this enormous fiasco that boils down to the experience of one person, which is also what we see in your other films – in At Any Price, it’s the “expand or die” mandate but it becomes the experience of these two men.
In some ways 99 Homes is “expand or die” in a different way.
Absolutely. So when we see them breaking that cycle, it comes back to that intimate experience of one person against this huge machine. That kind of individual struggle and survivalism, is that something you’re drawn t?
Yes, because I have no control over what you or the system is going to do, but I can behave my own way and I find it very challenging to behave in my own way. It’s a struggle I assume everyone goes through which is how difficult it is to be yourself, to do what you want to do, to accomplish the things you want to do and to behave the way you want to behave, which is not always easy and very hard to. So sometimes I make the film because I wish I could behave the way those people behave.
This is your second time working with not just professional actors, but name actors – and you’re saying that you’d like to cast Michael is everything going forward.
I would like to cast Michael just to be around my life all the time.
It’s such a difference from when you started with these neo-realist films and non-actors. Is that where you see your films going in the future, that sort of progression?
I like to challenge myself, I don’t want to continue to do the same thing that I’ve done before – creatively, intellectually, as a writer, as a director. I don’t want to re-tread. Ultimately, artists in any medium tend to be making the same type of thing in different guises. But I’d like to challenge myself in different ways. I’d never done a thriller, I’d never done anything that had any genre elements to it, and when I went down and did a lot of research in Florida, when I went down there, everyone had a gun, it was so mind-bogglingly corrupt, that I was like wow, whether I want it or not, there’s people shooting guns all the time: this is a thriller. And I remember turning to my co-writers, we had already started writing it, and I said, “my god, this stuff is genre”. So we ended up starting to talk about Scorsese gangster films, Wall Street, and other movies that had the gangster structure to it. It just made sense. What Michael’s doing is not that different to what you see in a gangster film. So that was exciting and challenging and creatively pushes you in a new place. And what I’m writing now, what I would like to shoot next year, again is a little different. And I’m constantly trying to push myself. Usually I’m pushing against something I’ve just done and wanting to do something I haven’t done.
So It’s a responsive process?
You’ve created these incredibly immersive milieux in your films, whether that’s in Queens or Manhattan or Florida or Iowa. Is that something you construct as you go or that you discover when you get there?
I love location work, I love research, I love life, I love learning about things I don’t know about. I tend to write about things I don’t know a lot about because I want to immerse myself for two years in it – read, research, meet people, see the locations, be inspired by those real elements. That’s always a big part of the process. For 99 Homes I did a lot of reading and then I went to Florida several times. I spent six weeks down there total. That’s different to reading a Huffington Post article, that’s getting down there and seeing what’s actually happening to someone when they’re being evicted, it’s being on an eviction, a horrific thing. You don’t want to go on an eviction, even if you’re just a witness to it. It’s painful to look at. I was sitting in foreclosure courts so that I understand, how does it work and what are the details of it, so I can recreate it. I love that part of the process, and I think, at least for me as an audience member and I hope for other people, I like to be taken to a world. You know, put into a world I haven’t been in and experience that. And so I try to pick characters or stories or locations, at least one of these things I hope will be something fresh for the audience. We’ve all seen a gangster film, we’ve seen a thriller, the audience knows that thing, but I don’t think they know this world. The world of housing, Florida, foreclosures, evictions – that’s at least going to be new and fresh to an audience and I like that, being able to put audiences into a world they don’t know about.
It sounds like you’re putting yourself into a world you don’t know about and bringing us along.
Yeah, because so many of the things in the film – the structure of it is fictional, the characters are fictional, but these things are real. I can tell you five more scams that aren’t in the film. The sewage house, that’s real, I’ve seen that, when Andrew has to clean out that house. How the evictions happen, that’s for real. The sheriff in the movie doing the evictions is a real sheriff who does evictions. That’s his job actually in real life, so he pushes the actors to be on their toes to see, to see just how to do it. The attorney whose got the big deals going on and is running a foreclosure with fraudulent paperwork, that’s a real guy. Who didn’t go to jail. That guy is a whole other story. I never met him, but I read so much about him. Again, he was someone who they found out what he was doing and he didn’t go to jail. The shootings, those are all real. The suicide, people shooting guns out of their homes, all that stuff is for real. I find life endlessly interesting.
So what world is your next film going to delve into?
I can’t say. But it’s very original. It’s so new.
Is that what drives you as a filmmaker? Discovery?
There’s so many different things – personal reasons, social reasons. But I like it when it’s something that I just don’t know about and I can imagine at least a decent portion of the audience may not have seen or thought or felt or have been through. I like that, for it to be something a little different. Because I think I’m a bit tired of seeing the same thing again and again.