Ramin Bahrani’s films marry a strong social consciousness with a sensitive outsider’s empathy for people and cultures, especially those that have been marginalized. A fan of the neorealist tradition, the first-generation Iranian-American cast his first three features almost entirely with non-professional actors, often basing the characters largely on the people who played them, but his last two star well-known professional actors in the main roles. His latest, 99 Homes, is an intense American horror story. Like the rest, however, it’s a fictional story with its roots deep in the truth of Bahrani’s extensive research—this time on the foreclosure epidemic that’s ravaged the U.S. in recent years. The main characters are Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a stony, semi-legit real estate investor who’s making a killing in foreclosures in Orlando, and Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a single father who goes to work for Rick after his contracting work dries up and he’s evicted from his own home. I spoke to Bahrani about gun-toting real estate agents, the importance of not blaming his characters for the moral dilemmas they find themselves in, and what he learned from Ernst Lubitsch about how to upend an audience’s expectations.
What’s it like to work with professionals versus non-professionals in the starring roles? And are any of the supporting players in the film non-professional actors who came from the world of evictions, either because they were kicked out of their homes or because they were helping to evict others?
There’s a lot of non-professional actors in 99 Homes—a lot of real people. When Dennis is doing the evictions, every person on whose door he knocks was a real person—and that’s really their home. I found them during the location-scouting process and got to know them and conceived [their characters] based on who they were. It’s the same process as in my previous work. I wouldn’t tell Andrew who was an actor and who wasn’t one. He had no idea what was going to happen when he knocked on the door. He just knew what he should say. The sheriff who does the evictions is a real sheriff who’s done evictions for years. He had acted in a couple of films, but never in a role this extensive. He added a real force to those scenes because he knew exactly how to do it. And the cleanup crew, except for one, that’s a real cleanup crew, so they’ve done evictions and they know exactly how to do them.
I think most Americans think of the epidemic of foreclosures as being behind us—part of the recession that started in 2008 and more or less ended in 2010. But they’re still going on at a pretty alarming rate, aren’t they? When did you do your research and what did you find?
I started doing the research in 2012, and it was just as bad as when the recession happened. When I went down to Florida, there were so many scams. All the real estate brokers carried guns. There was so much violence, so much mind-boggling corruption. Home ownership is at a two-decade low. Five million-plus people have gotten evicted. Now everyone is talking about Donald Trump in relationship to Michael Shannon’s speech and the way he talks and thinks—the idea that America is just for the winners and not for the losers. But the real villain in the film is the system that he’s a part of, the system that created him. When the Libor scandal hits and the banks are fined five billion dollars, and they make tenfold billion more and nobody goes to jail, we feel as a country that something’s wrong. And then that leads to someone like Trump taking power. He seems to be like a shadow of Shannon’s character.
It’s hard to argue with someone like Rick. He makes very convincing points that are hard to get around. And that gets into that whole moral tightrope that Andrew is on as a character. If you ask someone, “Would you help evict someone from your home?,” everyone’s going to say, “No, I would never do that.” But how far would you go to protect your family? We’re getting into some very morally treacherous areas, where even if you know what you think is the right thing to do, it’s hard to do it. Sometimes you don’t even know what’s the right thing is.
Your last two films haven’t had anything to do with the immigrant experience. Are you done with that as a topic?
No. It’s just whatever calls at me in the moment. I have, like, 30 ideas in a drawer. I’m currently pitching a project that’s going to take me overseas. That’s something that I really want to do: to shoot in another country. I haven’t had a chance to do that in a long time. It could be almost any other country, because I like to learn about something I don’t know about. The things that connect all [my] films are questions like: What does it mean to be alive? How do we live in this world? Moral questions, economic questions, struggles. How not to judge the characters. I find Michael and Andrew’s characters in 99 Homes to be very human, and I don’t want to judge them. I don’t want to take sides with them. I hope that’s the same as in the other films.
Somebody on IMDb called you “hands down the best Banksy in film direction.” What do you think of that as a description of what you’re doing?
[Laughs] I take it as a compliment, because I think Banksy is so talented. I wish I was as cool. The film I’m writing next is completely different than what I’ve done before. It’s very wild and loose, and normally I try to stay to a very clear structure. But it’s interesting with Banksy, because sometimes he’s putting out very big, tough graphic images, and sometimes he’s going for something much more subtle, but both of them work. And I like that he’s experimenting.
He’s also playing a lot with our expectations, I think.
I like that very much. I tried to take a lesson in that from Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch, artists who know how to turn things upside down. Look at the opening of Trouble in Paradise. How does he show you Venice? He shows you garbage, and then you realize, oh, they’re taking garbage in a gondola, in Venice. I thought about that, and I thought, how can I start this film in a way that would really surprise people, that nobody would expect, and that would turn it upside down? Some people want to pin down artists into one way that they’ve been working, but I want to try things I’ve never done before. I think, at heart, my films are always going to be the same. I think Scorsese is making the same film over and over and over again. But there’s a big difference between Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Goodfellas, you know? And a big difference between them and Age of Innocence. But it’s all the same film, in the end.
You’ve always made a lot of short films, and you still do. You told a writer for RogerEbert.com that you do it partly because they’re cheaper to make and partly because “they help me as a writer and person.” How so?
I made a short documentary recently, and you just learn so much by being with real people. I’m doing another documentary, and I went with Werner Herzog and just started researching. During editing, one subject made me think about Laura Dern’s character in 99 Homes, and how she might think about her son. You just learn about life when you’re lucky enough that people open their doors to you. So it helps you as a person to think about the world. It helps you as a writer when you’re writing.
Speaking of Herzog, I saw him in two of your short films: Lemonade Wars and Plastic Bag. How did that partnership happen?
Roger Ebert knew that I loved Werner, and I emailed Roger and said, “Please, I would love Werner Herzog to be the voice of a piece of plastic.” Roger hadn’t seen the film yet, but he said, “No problem,” and 24 hours later, Herzog emailed me and said, “If Roger said I should do it I’m sure that I should do it.” That’s a testament to how much respect I had, and certainly Herzog and so many people had, for Roger. I said, “Why don’t you watch it and make sure you want to do it?” [Laughs] And then, thank God, he said “yes.” This is someone I’ve been admiring and loving as a filmmaker and a human being since I was a kid. I based a lot of how I work on how he works. I never worked in the industry. I just kind of did it on my own. For me, he’s one of the greatest filmmakers that ever lived, and I’m happy to say he’s now a mentor and a friend. I’ve learned so much and been so inspired by him.
Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share about the role immigration is playing these days in American politics?
It immediately goes right back to Donald Trump again. And it connects to Shannon, who has some quite racist language in the film, saying this guy should get on a lawnmower and go back over the border. That kind of language emerges and gains support for a lot of reasons, and one of them is economic. People are still struggling economically, and that will only continue to get worse. And when that happens, people want someone to blame. There are other reasons, of course. There’s racism, and that’s increasingly coming to light thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement. But I think a lot of that comes down to economics. They’re looking for someone to blame.