Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani talks ’99 Homes’, working with Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield, and how the late Roger Ebert inspired him
Director Ramin Bahrani first debuted 99 Homes at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival. Since then, it has made its rounds at several other international and national festivals, including Sundance, where I had the privilege of seeing the film in January. Finally making its way into select theaters, Bahrani–whose best-known work includes Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo, and Man Push Cart–took some time to speak with me about the film, what his experience has been like working with non-actors and actors, and what he hopes his late friend Roger Ebert would have said about his film.
99 Homes is set in Florida amidst the financial and real estate crisis. With his house foreclosed on and no new contracts with the construction company he’s working for, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) finds himself, along with his son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern) thrown out of their home with nowhere to go. Desperate, Dennis finds himself working with shady real estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), who also happens to be the one who took away his home. In too deep in an underworld of corruption and violence in the real estate world, Dennis must navigate his way through his new life of making money and supporting his family, and his guilty conscience.
You can read the entire interview below and check out my review of the film here.
99 Homes is now playing in select theaters.
A film like this must have involved a lot of research. Where did you start and how did you break down everything to get what you wanted into the film?
I started in New York, just reading articles, probably 400-500 articles. Maybe 20 books. Started talking to people on the phone. The four epicenters of the crash, there were four states and Florida was one of them. So I went down to Florida, started spending time there on the ground and that was really an eye-opener because when I first thought, “Oh, I’ll make a movie about foreclosures,” and I thought, “Ok, I guess it’s going to be a social drama.” But going down to Florida I was surprised. Surprised because it was going to become a thriller and was going to become a deal-with-the-devil. That came out of the research down in Florida. That came out of the speed at which everything… how fast everything was, how corrupt everything was, how many scams there were.
Every real estate broker I met carried a gun. There was violence at these homes. The moral ambiguity of all the people I met, it all announced itself and said, “You’ve got to make the movie this way.” Everything you’re seeing in the film is based on people I met, situations I saw, research I did there on the ground. It was such a rich environment of interesting characters and stories but also, a hope at least to get beyond the statistics that we all read. You know how many people were affected, the millions of people, but what does that actually mean? Because I remember when I would read about it I felt bad, but I didn’t know what it actually meant. And I thought this was a chance to give a voice to those who had none, you know?
The film hits close to home and the scene where they [Andrew Garfield and Laura Dern] are being kicked out of their home was very emotional. But at the end of the film, you opt out of a clean ending to make it more consequential for the characters.
You know, it’s my fifth film, to the excitement of many and to the annoyance of others, I just do not like wrapping up a film because life is not wrapped up. I think it’s important that the character’s journey come to some conclusion, and here the main character, Andrew Garfield, his journey does come to an end. He makes an emotional, moral, and philosophical choice in that moment. And that’s what he had to do. From here on what happens to him or Michael Shannon, or to Frank Green’s character, I cannot say. And if I did say, you wouldn’t talk about the film because I would have answered everything and you’d just go straight to your cell phone and start texting, looking at another television show or whatever and I just prefer people to talk about it. For the film to stay alive in their imagination.
And you used a 24mm lens for some scenes. What influenced that decision?
We shot widescreen. But in terms of lenses, there was a specific lens I would like for Andrew [Garfield], which was often, but not always, but often I had a 24mm lens just for him. I didn’t use that lens for any of the other actors. I would get very close to him on that lens and that was an effort to get more into his head, to get the audience more into his mind and his heart. It’s a very emotional film and I hope the audience is walking that moral tightrope with Andrew because if you ask someone, “Would you kick someone out of their home?” you would say, “No, I would never do that.” And you can see how quickly, when you’re protecting your family and you’re doing something for your son, you realize how far you would go to protect them. And you’re getting into a very morally ambiguous situation.
Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield did a superb job!
They’re amazing! They’re just amazing.
They each had their own acting style. In what ways did you work with them to get the very best out of their performances?
I can go to Michael first. I’ve wanted to work with Michael for so long. I think he’s one of the top actors in the world! When he said yes, I went to visit with him. He was very tan and very handsome and I just thought, “I’d never seen Michael handsome before in a movie, so why not?” [laughs]And he’s an old-school movie star and he’s always playing someone that gets typecast as a crazy person, but he’s not. He’s so smart, so handsome, and he’s got a great sense of humor. So I spent a couple of months rewriting it for this kind of sense of humor that Michael had and to make it a transformation for him.
Andrew we know more of as a child actor, a teenager, or a young man actor. Here was the opportunity for him to be a leading man for the first time and that was an amazing experience. And both actors were willing, and so I asked them both, “Would you please go down to Florida to spend some time? I’ll connect you with people, but I just want you to spend some time down there with real estate brokers, with families, with construction guys.” And they were both dedicated and willing to do that. And they had very different acting styles. Andrew’s very loose, very improvisational. He changes things take to take. Michael no, he’s very focused on what he wants to do. What my job became was to let them both [acting styles]exist on the same set. And so what we ended up getting was two bulls coming at each other in a ring just banging horns and banging heads together. And it was damn exciting to watch!
You’ve worked with non-actors in the past for your films. What’s it been like to transition to working with established ones?
Non-actors bring things to a project that actors can’t and vice versa. The certain things that Michael Shannon does that are just beyond me. He was just, for me, a god among mortals. I would like to say, however, that I did bring non-actors into the film and I tossed them into the ring with the real pros. When Andrew [Garfield] is knocking on the doors of those people, evicting them, every other one is a real person in their real home. And Andrew had no idea who was who. I wouldn’t tell him the dialogue for the script. He wouldn’t know if it was going to be a guy with a gun, a Hispanic family who didn’t speak English, an old man. He had no idea. He had to deal with the situation as a real estate broker would. And that really electrified those scenes. The sheriff in the movie who evicts Andrew Garfield and Laura Dern, that’s a real sheriff. He actually does evictions. He’s done them for years. And that’s a real clean-out crew. The ones who toss the stuff out to the curb, those are real people. One of them is an actor, the rest are real guys who do that for a living. And that just added authenticity to the film and upped the game for the actors. It forced the actors to be on their toes. And they knew my other work, they knew I had worked successfully with non-pros, so they were game to do it.
You credit the late Roger Ebert as a big influence on your film career and you mention wanting every film to live up to his standards. What do you hope he would have said to you about “99 Homes”?
With Roger, it wasn’t that he would say what I would want him to say, it was him saying something that I’d never thought of. The great thing about Roger was that he would expand your vision of the film you’re watching. I’ve said this before, but to me, he was the John Ford of critics because he could write so simply about the most ambiguous and complex films and he would write about them so simply but so deeply, you know? And he always had a way of writing about films, not just my films, but films I also admire and filmmakers that I love because of Roger. Like Scorsese. He would write about them in ways that he would open doors to my mind and I hadn’t thought about it that way, I hadn’t seen it that way. He had a generosity of spirit. I wanted him to see this film. I told him the story, I went to visit him in the hospital and he did give the story a thumbs up. I dedicated the film to him. I owe a lot to him as a filmmaker and a person and you know, Chaz [Ebert, Roger’s wife] saw the film and she liked it. It makes me think maybe he [Roger] would have liked it too. I hope so.