Unafraid of Americans:
An Interview with Ramin Bahrani
by Michael Joshua Rowin
A maddeningly contrived new cinematic category is upon us: “neo-neorealism,” (what’s next, “neo-neo-neorealism?”), coined by A.O. Scott in a recent Sunday New York Times Magazine (over-)think piece that attempts to point out a new trend in low-budget independent American films shot on location and centered on proletariat characters played by nonprofessional actors. I can’t say the evidence isn’t entirely compelling in films like Wendy and Lucy and the upcoming Sugar, but it runs into a complex case with Goodbye Solo, the third and latest film from Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani. Though it features beautiful attention to the local detail of Bahrani’s native North Carolina and a wonderfully compassionate performance by newcomer Souléymane Sy Savané as a concerned and beleaguered cab driver who looks out for an older passenger who plans to kill himself, Solo eventually reaches for the transcendent with an ending that confronts man with the elemental forces of nature in a scene that’s realistic while looking beyond the mortal plane. It’s a stunning example of Bahrani’s allegiance to a cinema of “two truths living at the same time,” this from a cinephile director who has refused the neorealist (or neo-neorealist) label while fully conscious of his debt to the lessons of Rossellini and De Sica.
Reverse Shot: You state in the press notes for Goodbye Solo that “Solo’s compassion towards this elderly man matches his cultural background as it does my parents’ Iranian heritage.” What do you mean by that?
Ramin Bahrani: In Iranian culture there aren’t really assisted living homes or nursing homes per se. Usually your parents or your elderly relatives—depending on what the situation is—will also live at home, and you’ll take care of them. So specifically I was referring to old age and people needing help. And in general, I mean that there’s a certain respect for the elderly. If this were Iran and if someone our age or older came through that door, we would stand up. There’s a certain formal respect paid to someone older than you that is not as common in American culture. In fact, here we tend to have an obsession with youth that is becoming a global one—which Kundera talks about in Immortality—and I think it’s becoming a dangerous one.
Senegalese or African culture is similar in that way. Souléymane said something great when we were doing rehearsals and he was trying to get into his character—that in his culture there’s an aural tradition of history and storytelling, when an elderly person dies it’s like a library burning down. And so it just doesn’t make sense for Solo to stand by and let this happen.
That being said, I think there’s more to Solo’s character than just that. He’s not only a sincerely optimistic and friendly, open guy, but he also needs William even if he doesn’t know it. Unconsciously William’s determination to do what he wants to do is something Solo doesn’t have in his own life, where he’s getting pulled and pushed in all different directions.
RS: Parent-child relationships are a major focus of your films, but the way Solo’s relationship with his stepdaughter Alex echoes William’s with his estranged grandson, and also Solo’s relationship with William, seems especially important and complex.
RB: Yeah, it’s interesting that Solo connects with both William and Alex, and I think that’s because they’re both independent. Alex is the only person in Solo’s life who loves him and doesn’t bother him about it. She never says, “I love you, why don’t you need help, come back right now, you’re selfish,” which everybody else seems to say to him. With William, I think it’s important to clarify his relationship to his grandson, which relates to Solo’s relationship with William and Alex. William’s not a bad guy. He’s not a mean guy. He’s a man who’s smart enough to know he can’t get close to these people before he kills himself. And that’s why he’s often cruel to Solo, because Solo wants to get into William’s life to change his mind, because he needs him to practice for his exam, for many reasons, and William doesn’t want this. Solo’s not making it any easier for him, he’s making it harder. That’s important to understand the shading of this character, and it’s the same as in Solo’s character that he needs William. And it’s this same mentality that allows Solo to tell his wife with his newborn baby, “I love you, and I’m going to take care of you. But you have to let me do what I want to do.”
RS: Your characters have always lived among objects and environments that serve as metaphors for their existence—for example, the cart that Ahmad must constantly drag through the streets in Man Push Cart or Shea Stadium’s looming shadow over Ale in Chop Shop—but Goodbye Solo seems to be your first film to really take that concept to a mystical or transcendent place with the fog enshrouded mountain that Solo and William climb at the end of the film to meet their respective fates.
RB: It’s the reason I decided to make the film. I had Solo’s character, I had William’s character, I had them in a taxi, I had the idea of a suicide, but the movie wasn’t there until I decided the ending would be in Blowing Rock. I had known that location since I had been a kid. I knew I’d shoot in autumn with the explosion of color, and I hoped for the fog that often comes. It wasn’t until I had that location that I knew the film would still have a chance to be something. That ending is critical, the whole film is the ending, that’s what it’s about, and that location—it wouldn’t have worked anywhere else.
The entire emotional build-up of the film culminates in a man looking at a stick. With some trees and some clouds and a bunch of wind sounds. That couldn’t happen in a book or a play. That’s important. It’s important with the stick, with the wind, in regard to airplanes and Solo’s dream of getting on a plane that’s like a stick in the sky, it’s important that he’s been on the ground and trapped by a taxi. And [director of photography] Michael Simmonds’s work doesn’t really open up—by choice—until the end where suddenly there’s a vast landscape. Suddenly the characters feel a little bit more free, where previously they had been trapped.
I got the fog that I dreamed about. There’s something spiritual and atheistic about it in the same moment. It’s like the life Alex brings to the ending even though we know William’s going to die. This combination of life and death was my conception of the film from the beginning, that the film would end with Solo smiling and crying in one moment, leaving the audience feeling extremely hopeful and extremely sad at once. That the audience will have accepted death but enjoyed wanting to live.
I would say that I always wanted the film to end with a close up of his face, but there needed to be one more shot. All three of my films believe utmost in the importance of a person’s actions toward another person. I believe in that more than anything, but I also believe that the landscapes remain before and after. And that’s why the landscape in the end goes on for so long. It’s before and after Solo, William, Alex, no matter how important they think their decisions are, they also have to accept that they’re not important at all. That’s not a contradiction, by the way. They’re two truths living at the same time.
RS: A colleague thought he saw traces of Bergman’s influence in this final scene, especially since he’s a director for whom you’ve expressed great admiration. It got me thinking about films like Winter Light, where environment is so important in shaping and commenting on character.
RB: I can’t say no, because I love Bergman. You hit upon Winter Light, which will probably be more clearly there in a different project I’m working on. If it’s there in Goodbye Solo I wasn’t thinking about it, but I can’t deny it’s an important film for me. Since Man Push Cart Michael Simmonds and I talk less and less about films while we’re working, but The Flowers of St. Francis was very important to this film. That’s my favorite Rossellini film and I remember seeing it at the MoMA retrospective a couple of years ago while I was finishing Chop Shop and writing the script for Solo. I remember walking with Michael Simmonds and telling him Rossellini made Francis because at the end of World War II he felt like the world needed Francis. And we were talking at the height of the Iraq War when there were a lot of Iraq War documentaries and fiction films—they may be good, but I haven’t seen them, so I don’t know—but I thought, “What else do we need?” And I thought we needed Solo, that spirit.
The only other filmmaker we really talked about was Pasolini, specifically related to the ending. When we went to Blowing Rock with the actors who play Solo and Alex to look at it and think about how we were going to shoot it I took a handful of still photos. Michael and I looked at them and I thought the photos reminded me of Pasolini, and I thought they should be shot handheld. The only handheld shot in the film is on the rock.
Other than that the only movies we thought of were driving movies, for technical reasons. They weren’t movies we necessarily liked—not that we necessarily disliked them either, just that they weren’t important to us. American Graffiti isn’t an important movie to me, but it involves a lot of driving. So you look at it and you consider, how did they do it? You look at Taxi Driver, which is an important film to me, and you notice how they shot the taxi scenes. Or Le Samouraï. Collateral—great example of what not to do in a car.
RS: Why’s that?
RB: It’s so complicated for no reason. The camera goes through a steering wheel? Taxi Driver got it right—[gestures] here, here, here, here, these are the places you can put a camera and it makes sense and it’s not distracting.
RS: I was looking at your top ten Criterion Collection list and noticed a disproportionate amount of films by Italian directors—Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini, Rossellini, Olmi, De Sica. What about Italian movies and specifically Italian neorealism are you drawn to?
RB: I like those films because they deal with reality. I’ve always been interested in reality and I’ve always been terrified of escape. I don’t like escape in my personal life or in my art, and I prefer to try to understand how I should behave in this world based on what’s really around me. And I try to do that with my eyes open to the best of whatever knowledge I have, which is finite—I don’t know everything.
I don’t like escape films. I don't like movies that don’t match the world I’m living in at all. Fellini’s films may be all over the place, but the emotional truths in them match what I see in my life. Same with Buñuel. Unfortunately—Jean Renoir talks about this, his idea of reality—in our day-to-day life we keep erasing reality and putting up barricades to it. Not just film, but in conversation, buying food, and art. Why do this? It just fools people. I don’t want to go to a film that people say is optimistic and hopeful when nothing in that movie resembles the world I’m living in. That doesn’t make me optimistic and hopeful, that makes me depressed.
Solo is about a tough subject, but, for one thing, it’s very funny—so I can at least get the audience’s attention—it’s exciting, it’s dramatic. But there’s also something in there that, because Solo is not a famous person, because there’s no tricks in the film—Hollywood twists and turns that don’t make any sense, no music to highlight the emotions, no swooping camera all over the place to distract you, no quick editing—because people walk away thinking this is something real and could really happen, then it makes Solo’s giant act of love on that mountaintop something acceptable to us.
RS: And this is why your films prominently feature nonprofessional actors?
RB: If that taxi driver was Will Smith—who I think is an extremely good actor—I assume he can get through whatever situation, the guy lives in mansion and drives a Lamborghini. When I get on the subway and see the conductor I think he could be Solo.
RS: What about Red West? He’s a minor icon of sorts.
RB: Some people know Red West because he’s a little more famous. But most people think, Do I know that guy? Someone who saw Goodbye Solo said, “That Red West guy is great. He looks just like my uncle in South Carolina.” But if it had been Robert Duvall the character would have been Robert Duvall.
RS: You don’t think actors can merge into their roles?
RB: It depends. Because of our unhealthy obsession with celebrity it becomes difficult for certain actors even if they're extremely talented to do so. At the same, a film like Rocco and His Brothers baffles me. I think Alain Delon’s a great actor and I think he’s great in Rocco. But that movie is a realist opera—I say opera because its structure reminds me of an opera—and Alain Delon is in it! The guy is a superstar, and there’s nothing distracting about him in that film.
RS: Do you write your scripts first and then find actors to play the characters or do you find actors and then write scripts around them?
RB: Unless you’re doing a space movie or something it makes no sense to sit alone in a room and write. You go to the real location—you write. You go the real location—you rewrite. You go to the real location—you reconceive. You meet the real people, you add them into your script, you change them a little for your fictional means. You cast, either from the real location or outside the real location, and based on those people you rewrite again.
This is important as a concept, and more and more people are doing it, working in this style. As opposed to storyboarding—it makes no sense to storyboard for this kind of movie.
RS: Your work contains multiple layers, but it also seems there are two main threads: one is that of metaphor, where someone like Solo is a figure who stands for perseverance and compassion, while the second is that of the particular social, familial, and economic forces that shape this specific character’s identity.
That’s true. I’ve tried to make each film very specific to its characters—the way they talk, what they’re wearing, their props—and that specificity comes from the reality of the situation. I think there are metaphysical ideas here, grand meanings, but those meanings are created out of the specificity of the situation, by the research, the details. I’m a firm believer that those details add up to the meaning. Of course these details are all selections—to pick these characters in all three films and those situations, that’s a big part of the meaning. A Pakistani guy, a couple of Hispanic kids, a Senegalese guy, even William, who feels even more like an outsider in Winston-Salem than Solo—that’s a huge part of the meaning. These are three American films by an American director named, Ramin Bah-what? Starring who? Yeah, these are three American films starring three American people made by an American guy. And if you don’t believe it, look at the last election.