Opening a world, for cinephiles and their moms: An interview with director Ramin Bahrani


After releasing three films in four years, Iranian-American writer/director Ramin Bahrani has found critical adoration, not the least of which comes from Roger Ebert, who recently named him the new great American filmmaker. High praise indeed, but it’s easy to see why the world’s most famous movie critic has fallen so hard for Bahrani. All three of his films are fantastic, beginning with Man Push Cart in 2005, Chop Shop (my personal favorite of the three) in 2007, and now Goodbye Solo, having its area premiere at the Walker Art Center this Friday, April 3 at 7:30 p.m.

Prior to the premiere of the new film, you can catch Bahrani’s two earlier works by seeing Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, both of which will screen—7 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. respectively—at the Walker Art Center (free of charge – how can you beat that?) this Thursday, April 2. Bahrani also will lead a master class on Friday, April 3 at 1 p.m., during which he will discuss the making of Chop Shop in detail.

Through a set of seemingly disenfranchised characters, writer/director Bahrani uncovers the rich lives of those living on the edge in the contemporary United States. By working with non-actors and a small crew, he is able to capture an intense intimacy that borders on documentary. Born and raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (the setting for his most recent film, Goodbye Solo), he spent three years in his parents’ homeland of Iran while working on his thesis film for Columbia University, where he now teaches. His assured direction and original neorealist screenplays earned him accolades such as the “Someone to Watch” Award at the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards.

Erik McClanahan: What can we expect at the Master Class?
Ramin Bahrani: I’ve been teaching for a few years now. I think you can expect honesty. If you’re interested in creative, honest discussion then you should want to be involved in it. I think it will be great. I look forward to discussing the job of a filmmaker, which is to tell simple stories well. And that’s what we’re going to look at. I’m curious what the people in attendance will want to talk about as well, and I like to leave it a little more flexible so I can give the most of what people are wanting to know.

How do you feel about examining your own films?
Sometimes it’s weird. In the case of Chop Shop, I haven’t seen it in a long time—a couple years now. Me and my cinematographer Michael Simmonds and my co-writer [Bahareh Azimi] are pretty critical of our own work and try to find the mistakes: the things that work, the things that didn’t work, things that can be improved upon so that the next film can be a little better. At the same time, one of the things I like about Man Push Cart and Chop Shop is a film student could’ve made them, by which I mean there’s nothing extravagant about them. It just required a lot of hard work and some imagination. It’s within the grasp of somebody trying to make their first film in terms of the scope. Sometimes trying to make a film is quite frightening, and it should be because it’s quite hard, but when you eliminate Screen Actors Guild actors and you eliminate fancy camera moves and explosions—things that cost money. If you can have something simple, that’s very hard to do well, but it’s within reach.

Does your teaching conflict with your filmmaking?
It doesn’t disturb me because I teach only adjunct. So I teach only one day a week, two classes scheduled in the middle of the week, which allows me to travel if I need to. Usually by the end of that teaching day I’m extremely anxious because I know I’ve lost one day of work [laughs]. But at the same time I tend to learn a lot from my own classes. Looking at the students’ work, talking to the students, trying to explain more clearly and more precisely has helped my own work. So I appreciate my students for that.

It’s been a good couple of years for you; making the films, being up for awards, you certainly have a following from a lot of critics, especially Roger Ebert. What do you think of all this, and what is success to you?
It’s very hard to make films that actually get bought and released, not just here but in other countries as well. So I feel quite lucky. Roger Ebert in America has been a huge help in terms of getting more people to see the films. And I’m also fortunate to have Goodbye Solo getting a much wider release then my previous films. You know Roger Ebert told me something very interesting about big and small films, which I really appreciated. With Man Push Cart he told someone in the audience that when he projects it on the big screen it’s as big a film as Mission: Impossible 3. I thought that was a very interesting comment.

Your first two films took place in New York, but with Goodbye Solo you’ve moved the setting to your home town of Winston-Salem in North Carolina. Why the change?
My family still lives there and I still spend a large amount of the year in Winston-Salem. I kind of split my time between there and New York and just traveling in general. The stories and the people I met on the streets were from there. There was a real taxi driver I spent six months with him and I had known him for years. Blowing Rock [National Park], which is very important to the film and the final location in the film, is a real place. It is known for having a wind so powerful it can blow a person back up in to the sky. As I my other films the story evolved from real people and real locations and then became fictionalized stories, but based in real milieus.

Your films are so much about a specific people and places, but yet they still feel universal. Why do you think that is?
I think details are quite important to achieve something grander. You can see how precise details open up a world and hit you emotionally in terms of posing questions that we all feel deep inside us that are sometimes hard to articulate truthfully—as opposed to sentimentally or so explicitly that they can become mundane, which I think you can see in a lot of Hollywood films where they don’t really want to respect the audience. They want to explain everything to them. I think audiences are a lot smarter than that.

Would you say Goodbye Solo is your most accessible film?
I think so. My main collaborators and I have been talking since Man Push Cart about how we can maintain the rigor of cinema that we love as cinephiles so that cinephiles like you will still appreciate the films and we won’t feel like we betrayed anything we believe to be good cinema and art—and at the same time make films that our moms can enjoy, my whole family. What is a film that they will still enjoy, be engaged by, find emotional and moving? What will keep them in their seats so they want to know what happens in the end? There’s a lot of humor in Goodbye Solo. The first half is quite funny despite the serious subjects. This is something that is very important to me, that the films be accessible while at the same time maintaining that rigor.

So you like to be both artful and entertaining?
That’s a tricky balancing act. People who were really great at it, like Robert Altman, you know, audiences loved his films yet there was such an artistic quality to them. There were no compromises made yet he still managed to find an audience. His films were so truthful, so human and moving. This is what we’re trying to do.

I found Goodbye Solo to be balanced in that it deals with some dark, depressing subject matter and themes such as suicide and loss of family—but yet it’s very uplifting, especially at the end. How did you strike that balance?
That was always there from the beginning. From the conception we always knew the movie would see the glass half full—the way Solo does while still acknowledging that life is difficult, there are challenges, there is despair, there are people who have awful thoughts. I don’t like to think about suicide because it’s so awful, but I cannot close my eye to that reality. At the same time I believe that life and joy and hope is happening at the same moment, and this makes the ending more hopeful than a movie which only shows a kind of saccharine, cheesy, Hollywood feel-good ending.

What’s more important to you, plot or character?
I see them as one and the same thing.

I really enjoy how in your films the characters feel as if they are plucked from reality: you get to spend some time with them, and they live on and exist outside of the story. What is it about these people that pull you in to make a film?
Each has its own origin. With Goodbye Solo, it was meeting a real-life cab driver who didn’t own his own cab. He had second job as a gas station attendant. This guy seemed like he could be an interesting character for a movie combined with this elderly man I had seen outside of an assisted living home in Winston-Salem every day standing on the side of the road alone. The movie was conceived at a time of great division in our country, and it seemed like we needed a character like Solo who could be so friendly to a stranger that by choice he is going so far out of his way to help him.

In all your films your main characters are extremely hardworking; they may all be struggling but they’re good at what they do. Is that something you find interesting in a character?
One of the themes that [unites] all three [movies] is that they all [depict] working-class people. They’re working really hard to achieve their very important, if modest, dreams. These are dreams that may or may not happen, but they are struggling to pursue them with dignity, with honesty, with a smile, with a joke. I think that’s the majority of people. I’m sure most people live like this. It is hard living. That doesn’t have to mean a depressing, sad film. The words realism or working-class don’t have to equal boring, dark, depressing. In fact, Goodbye Solo [is] the farthest thing from that. That is very important to me, that not just cinephiles in New York City or in Paris like the film. No, I want people everywhere to like the film.

Is it important to you to show people from different cultures not typically represented in American film?
That is important. I get tired of seeing the same characters over and over again in movies. At the same time I don’t like to exotify them. There’s never been a scene in any of my films of funny-smelling spices, funny clothes, or great African drumming. This is not correct. I will not do that. These characters have a right to exist. Thankfully, our political climate has changed, and that’s not something to be taken lightly. My hope is that my films will get in to that American ideal. These people will become a part of the culture. It’s something I’ve always loved about America.

You typically work with non-actors, yet you wouldn’t know it by the performances. How do you work with your actors to pull such strong performances?
It’s a really long process. We spend months rehearsing on location well in advance before the filming has even begun. They really invest in their characters like some of the greatest professionally-trained actors.

You seem to always avoid the easy, sentimental route in all your films. I’m constantly surprised by where the films go.
I’m happy to hear you say that. Thank you. A few people told me with Goodbye Solo that they were so terrified I would ruin it in the end, and they were so happy that I did not. We worked very hard to really make the films emotionally truthful, that you would feel this is how it should happen; that it should not happen any other way. A lot of the time you see films where you feel like the screenwriter makes things happen to prove his or her point. I don’t want to do that. I want to try my hardest to know enough about life that wherever the film is going it’s something that with my collaborators we’ve uncovered truthfully. I think the job of the filmmaker is to remove himself, not to impose himself. It’s a strange paradox because the films are quite controlled. I’m obsessed with how every detail should be. I know it’s a contradiction, but so is life.

What’s next for you? Any offers from studios to do something bigger?
Many offers came after Man Push Cart and I turned them all down not because I’m opposed to that, but because they just didn’t interest me. I’ve respectfully declined. Not that I don’t want to work on a larger scale or budget, I just don’t want to be compromised. I’m working on a western right now, which is a period film and will require a larger scale and budget. You’ll be seeing probably known actors in order to make it work.

Erik McClanahan is a freelance film journalist and critic in Minneapolis. He is also co-host of KFAI’s Movie Talk.