Interview with Goodbye Solo Director Ramin Bahrani

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Yesterday we told you about Goodbye Solo, the latest from Ramin Bahrani — a filmmaker who stands out as one of the true US auteurs under age 40. Now we’re sitting down with him to swap quotes and get the scoop on how this project — the tale of an unlikely friendship between a Senegalese taxi driver and an aging white Southern man — developed. Flavorwire: Solo is a wonderful incarnation — his compassion and certainty that “tomorrow is gonna be better” make him quite unique in today’s cinema. He and your Carveresque filmmaking style — spare yet heavy on humanism — recall one of the writer’s most beautiful quotes: “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.” How did the character of Solo develop?

Ramin Bahrani: I’ll give you a quote first too, from Martin Luther: “If they were to tell you that tomorrow was the last day on earth and then it would be destroyed, what would you do?” And he said, “I would plant an apple tree.”

The character of Solo was a real Senegalese taxi driver in Winston-Salem that I met at a pick-up game of soccer. At that time, I had been out of North Carolina for a while and while my brother and I had always played soccer, there had never been Africans in the game. Suddenly, there were a lot and I also noticed a lot of taxis parked next to the field. One of the drivers was a charming, very friendly guy who knew my brother. I saw him a couple of days later at a gas station where he had a second job as an attendant. That’s when I learned that he was a taxi driver who didn’t own a car and had to hire a taxi, or walk, to get around. In a suburb like Winston-Salem, North Carolina, you don’t really walk — you walk in New York. I thought that was strange, interesting and possibly a subject for a film. So I went back down there after making Man Push Cart and before making Chop Shop to spend time with him and to develop the story from there.

FW: So you were at work on this project for several years.

RB: The initial treatment was written in the winter of 2005 and the first draft before Chop Shop was finished. I had already begun casting the film two or three months before Chop Shop premiered at Cannes.

FW: How did the odd-couple aspect come about?

RB: That was in the initial treatment. When I’m in North Carolina, I stay with my brother and to get to his house, you have to pass two assisted-living or nursing homes. I started to notice an elderly guy hanging around by the side of the road. It’s a suburb, so it’s kind of weird for people to stand by the side of the road. And it wasn’t just weird, it was kind of sad. In Iranian culture, you live with your parents when they’re elderly and you take care of them — family doesn’t go to a nursing home, they stay together. Same thing in Senegalese culture.

I started honking and waving at this old man and he started waving back. I don’t even know if he could see me, or if he just recognized the car. He would get really happy and, of course, I would too. But I would also get sad because he was happy just to see a stranger. So I started thinking to myself that I should put this guy in Solo’s cab and that he wants to kill himself. I wasn’t sure if this was good enough for a film yet. Then, I thought of the ending at Blowing Rock, which is a real location that I’ve been to since I was a kid and is known for it’s incredibly powerful wind. I knew I would set it in the autumn with the full regalia of the autumn colors in the Blue Ridge Parkway — one of the top 5 scenic drives in the country. That ending was enough for me to think that the movie had a chance to be something. And so I started writing the script.

FW: Did you have a different structural or stylistic approach to this film since it steers away from the New York of your first two features?

RB: Shooting in North Carolina has certain things that are easier. Not only are locations pretty easy to come by, people usually love for you to film there. In New York, people are kind of tired of you filming there. Plus, the South is known for its southern hospitality. In North Carolina they’re beyond friendly, which makes shooting really enjoyable.

Look: landscape and location are very important and very specific, but it is not overwhelmingly important the way it is in Chop Shop and Man Push Cart where they are actually major forces in the characters’ lives. In those two films, their environment is smashing them on a daily basis. Here, in the first half, the landscape really shifted to the people’s faces — Solo and William. And thank God they have amazing faces. I’ve always said that it should be a federal offense to touch Red West’s face. You can see that guy has lived — his hands are gnarled, his face worn down. Then Solo’s face is so warm, so inviting, so open. He sees things half full always, but he’s not doing what he wants in his life. He wants to be a flight attendant but there are people who are saying “We love you, don’t do that, do this.” Which is normal — that’s the way a lot of us behave. We have people we love and we try to control them, tell them what to do because we love them. Solo, I think, is unconsciously attracted to William because William does whatever he wants. It’s a big journey for Solo to learn how to love someone unselfishly, to learn to love someone selflessly even if it’s a great pain to himself. It’s an idea that runs contrary to what most of art has told us. Like Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights…this idea of l’amour fou, of love being a destructive force. Which is what a lot of us strive towards: An incredibly passionate love affair that will destroy you and the person you love. This film is saying, What if you love the other person more than yourself?

FW: MoMA described this film as Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry transplanted to Winston-Salem. There’s the bountiful earth and sky, the wind, the debate about life and death, the empathetic kindness and goodness of complete strangers. Can you speak to the influence of that film and Iranian cinema in general on your work?

RB: All of Iranian culture has an impact on me and certainly Kiarostami, who’s a filmmaker I like very much. But living there [for 3 years] also had a big impact on the films I make. We have something in Persian culture and poetry where one poet borrows a line or a verse from another poem and builds a whole other poem from it. In fact, a lot of Kiarostami’s ideas and titles come from the great poet Sohrab Sepehry — Where is the Friend’s House, The Wind Will Carry Us. This is a long-standing practice among artists in Iranian culture. But what is important here are the differences [from Taste of Cherry]. That [Solo] is about the person who wants to save the one who wants to die, not about the person who wants to die. That the film take place over two weeks not the course of a day. That there’s only about fifteen minutes in the taxi and that the majority of the film happens in a lot of locations — bar, café, home, hotel, nature. That the film is actually funny in the first half.

The things to take from Iranian cinema and my experiences in Iran were simplicity and focusing on the kinds of characters we don’t normally see. When I lived in Iran, the secular, religious, poor, rich — all kinds of people were constantly interacting on a daily basis. You don’t get that a lot in America. I’m lucky to live on the edges of South Williamsburg, where you get a collage of people and which reminds me, in a way, of Iran. I’ve tried to focus all three films on these characters we don’t normally see. They’re all immigrants, but what connects them even more is their economic status, which is now really connected to a lot of us. I really wonder what the reaction would be if Chop Shop had come out today.

FW: The idea of transportation — physical and metaphysical — obviously pervades Goodbye Solo. But it also figures prominently in Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, where the respective characters can’t seem to escape their lot. Can you talk about the role of transportation — whether the taxi, airplane, or even a taco truck — in your films?

RB: This is a big part of my films: Fate versus free will. That connects to the myth of Sisyphus, which was obviously paramount in Man Push Cart. It’s also, again, Iranian poetry. Rumi has a poem: “I am the pole of stick, you are the ball. Wherever I hit you, you must go and wherever you go, I must follow.” That’s actually where the title of Man Push Cart comes from. Who’s making the decisions, you or your surroundings? You or your fate? Why are you the way you are? Are you able to change as a person? What does it mean to be a person? This is an anxiety that is in all the films and it’s an anxiety I assume is in most of us.

FW: After working with nonprofessional leads for your first two features, what was it like having two professionals, particularly Red West [Elvis’ bodyguard and buddy]?

RB: It’s actually the first time I’ve shown a script to the two leads. I know all of my films sometimes feel like things just happen, but they’re all incredibly scripted and detailed. Red West was a pleasure. He was able to arrive at the things I needed emotionally quite quickly. I did the least amount of takes with him and I’m notorious for doing lots of takes. So instead of doing 20 or 30, I usually did 7 or 8 with Red.

There were a few things that were new to him, but he was extremely willing and excited to do them. Like when he arrived for his first extended rehearsal, he said, “Are we going to do a table reading?” And my response was, “What’s a table reading?” I really didn’t know. Then I found out and I said, “No, ’cause this is a film, not a book or a play. We’re going to rehearse the scenes with the actors, preferably in the locations with [cinematographer] Michael Simmonds and a camera.” And, at first, he was like “What…” But by day 2 or 3, he told me he had made so many decisions during the rehearsal that when it came time to shoot the real scene, he was already where he wanted to be. And I think it helped his performance.

FW: Generally, how would you describe your relationship with actors? Hands-on like Bresson with his actor-models?

RB: Look: Bresson gives us lots of lessons, one of which is understatement. But the Bressonian actors are not emoting much emotion. My actors are pretty expressive in all three films.

Everyone in Goodbye Solo, other than the two leads, are not professionals. None of them have seen the script and none of them know what the movie is about. They only know their own scenes. So what does that do for me? One, it means that some of their own language can get incorporated into the dialogue. And that’s actually done in rehearsals and script. For example, big dog, big booty — Solo didn’t know what those expressions were. I learned all those expressions from the real drivers. Also, take the rehearsal for the final scene of the film and the little girl doesn’t know what this film’s about. We’re doing the scene where she’s quizzing Solo on his exam and she pulls me aside because she’s just like the character I wrote — smart and mature. She knows she shouldn’t say it in front of Solo: “Ramin, why is Solo so sad?” She has no idea that William’s killed himself — to this day, she doesn’t know, she hasn’t seen the film yet. And I said, “Why do you think he’s so sad?” She said, “I think he’s sad because he failed his exam.” I said, “That’s a really good reason. Why don’t you make him feel good? How are you going to do that?” She said, “I’m going to make him feel good by really encouraging him.” And you see that great performance in the last scene of the film.

FW: You also edit your own films, which gives you almost total control over the final product. Do you have other people, like Michael Simmonds, take a look to avoid a form of tunnel vision?

RB: Michael Simmonds is not just my cinematographer, he’s a real collaborator. He’s there for casting, for my ideas, for reading rough drafts. We even pick the socks that the actors are going to wear. So certainly Michael has a big part in looking at the editing. My co-writer [Bahareh Azimi] also turns up from France, sometimes for two weeks, to look at the editing.

FW: Does she speak English?

RB: Our talking usually happens in Persian. I speak French better than she speaks English, but we’re both more comfortable in Persian, which is strange because it’s our mother tongue, but I was born and raised in America and she’s been living in France since the age of 3. So we have a whole complicated process.

But yeah, I have a few trusted people that I show the film to during editing. Thankfully, I have no affection for my footage. If I shoot, let’s say, 60 hours, it’s not like a Wong Kar-Wai film where you could make 3 other films. I love making a film as short and efficient as possible. I love editing because it’s a chance to really get the ideas of the film as clear as possible.

FW: You had a mini-retrospective MoMA earlier in the month. How does it feel, after three acclaimed films, to be spotlighted at such a prestigious institution?

RB: It’s especially amazing because the first festival I went to, as a college student, was New Directors/New Films. I’ve seen many great films there. The biggest cinematic influence on Solo was The Flowers of St. Francis, my favorite Rossellini film. I had seen it again on the big screen during the retrospective a couple of years ago. Rossellini wanted to make St. Francis at the end of World War II because he thought we needed the spirit of Francis at that time. I was developing Solo at the height of the Iraq War and I thought that the world needed someone like Solo with his kind of love.

FW: It’s funny that you mention Rossellini because browsing your Criterion Top 10 reveals a spate of Italians — Antonioni, De Sica, Fellini, Olmi, Pasolini and, of course, Rossellini. What keeps you going back to their cinema as a touchstone?

RB: I was just reading a great paragraph from Renoir where he talks about how much he loves reality and prefers to create his films out of reality. And how he thinks that in our daily life, not just in our cinema and in our art, we’re constantly creating barriers to the reality. It’s so important to me that we find a way to behave, live, treat one another, accept things as they are in reality and still move forward, still push our rock up that hill. And to still have hope, like at the end of Solo where he is hopeful and sad, accepting of death but so excited about life at one moment. What I learned from the Italians is to dream in reality.