Ramin Bahrani has returned with the uplifting drama Goodbye Solo and M&C was lucky enough to get a few minutes of the director’s time to discuss his experiences on the film.
Winner of the 2008 Independent Spirit Award’s “Someone to Watch” award Bahrani (Chop Shop) was named “the new great American director” by film critic Roger Ebert and has created a film that was described as “powerful, riveting, inspiring” by the Los Angeles Times.
Along with critical praise, Goodbye Solo also won the International Critics Prize at the 2008 Venice Film Festival and was an Official Selection at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival.
The film’s plot follows Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané) - a cheerful 34-year-old taxi driver from Senegal hoping for a better life in America. When the hard-edged William (Red West), a 70-year-old white Southerner, enters Solo’s cab with an unusual request, this odd couple embarks on a journey that will change them both forever.
Goodbye Solo is now available on DVD from Lions Gate Films for the suggested retail price of $27.98. The DVD comes with the film’s theatrical trailer and commentary from
M&C: Goodbye Solo is a wonderful film, how did the project originate?
Bahrani: The film originated when I encountered two strangers in my hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina: a charming young Senegalese taxi driver and an elderly man standing on the side of the road.
The cab driver did not own his own cab, and so would either hire a taxi or walk to get from his home to his job. The eldery man would stand on the side of the road outside an “assisted living” home that I would drive by everyday. I began to wave at him and soon, he recognized me (or my car) and started happily waving at me, despite the fact that we did not know each other.
I was also happy to wave each time, but this man’s situation also filled me with a profound sense of sorrow about his condition in our society and so the story began to develop.
The final element which held the story together was the location of the film’s climax, Blowing Rock, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I have been visiting these mountains with my family since childhood.
Blowing Rock is known to have a wind so powerful that it could literally blow a person back up into the heavens.. The mystery and beauty of the fog, the changing of the leaves, and this powerful wind seemed to me to contain the elements of an ending. And so I began to write the script.
M&C: Was the film always opened ended as to William's fate? I can be fickle about open ended endings, but I like it when audience's are able to make up their minds. Did you have more freedom with this since the film was more of an indie project? I'd imagine a bigger budget and studio involvement would've demanded a more pat ending.
Bahrani: What is important here is that William never wavers in his decision. Solo must come to learn that if he loves William as a friend, he must let him go, even if he does not understand the reasons why.
This is a very difficult decision on the mountain top. How does Solo come to love William more than himself, and help his friend do something horrific, which brings Solo great pain?
This is a radical and brave decision, which most of us do not have the courage for, including me. We tend to love like Romeo and Juliet- madly and always placing ourselves first. Solo comes to learn to place the other ahead of himself. I admire him for that.
As for open endings. The film ends where it must end emotionally. Acceptance of life and death, of courage and despair, and hope and loss. I believe in the utmost important of one human beings actions towards another. Solo's action for William.
Yet the film ends on landscape and that is because I also believe we are insignificant in the face of that majesty and mystery which we fail to properly respect. The landscape was here before us and will be here after us.
M&C: Casting is everything and Goodbye Solo has a wonderful one. How did you find Souleymane Sy Savane?
Bahrani: The most critical job of a director is casting. We were lucky that Souleymane walked into our office one day for a casting session. I liked him immediately. He was friendly, easy-going and charming. I also learned he had been a flight attendant for two years in real life and that coincidence was too good to be true.
His debut performance in Goodbye Solo has been good enough to land him in an off-Broadway play with a Tony-Award winning director and an upcoming film with Uma Thurman.
M&C: Red West is also not a well known name, but recognizable to some. How did he get cast?
Bahrani: I wanted a real Southerner for the part. Someone who looked, walked, talked, dressed and smoked like the south. We did a casting call to all agents in the South and Red West's manager responded from Memphis. West taped himself doing the first scene of the film, which was all I provided.
I saw 5 seconds of the tape, hi pause, and said "That is the man who has been in my mind for 2 years! That's William!" At that time I did not know Red West had been Elvis' best friend, personal body-guard and stunt man, nor did I know he was a successful Hollywood character actor who had worked with Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone and Robert Altman.
Goodbye Solo is West's first leading role and that is a great honor to me. He knocked it out of the park. His final scene proves what a great actor he is. Watching him tape Charlie Rose was one of the great moments of this film for me.
M&C: Diana Franco Galindo is also wonderful, where did you find her?
Bahrani: We did a casting search in all the local schools, a process I used for the casting of my 2nd feature, CHOP SHOP. Diana came out of that search. She was similar to the part I had written: smart, mature, independent, charming. She has no acting experience or training and in fact I never showed her a script and she did not know what the film was about. She only knew her scenes.
This is true of all the actors in the film except Red West and Souleymane Sy Savane. They are the only trained actors in the film and only they saw a script. While rehearsing the final scene of the film she pulled me aside and asked me "Why is Solo so sad?" I asked her, "Why do you think he is so sad?" She thought for a moment and replied, "Because he failed his exam."
I said, "That makes sense to me; so why don't you encourage him." And she really does encourage him, and the audience, and fills us all with such hope and strength in the end of the film.
M&C: Was this film more a homecoming for you since you set it in Winston-Salem, North Carolina?
Bahrani: I was born and raised in Winston-Salem, NC and it was a pleasure to film there. North Carolina is known for its hospitality and this couldn't be more true. All the locations and locals graciously extended their help to us to make this film, and it would not have been possible otherwise.
M&C: How much of your upbringing/experience in North Carolina found its way into the film?
Bahrani: I was born and raised in an upper/middle class background and the locations and characters in the film were not part of my childhood experience. Upon meeting the taxi driver I was able to learn about another side of my hometown and this is one of the joys of being a filmmaker.
Like journalists, you are able to learn about people and ways of life which are unknown to you, and then you try and tell stories which are accurate to what you have seen. Of course there is fiction, and mystery, and storytelling, and I enjoy these elements very much.
Nevertheless, even in the lies of storytelling, it is critical to remain emotional accurate in order to grab an audience and make them care about the characters on screen. The audience is much smarter and has a much deeper imagination than most film's give them credit for.
M&C: Ever drive a cab?
Bahrani: I spent 6 months in and out of a cab with a real Senegalese cab driver in Winston-Salem doing the night shift from 10pm to 6am. He was as charming and friendly as Solo, and I learned about many of the details, music, atmospheres and characters you see in the film from those experiences.
Some Clips from the film: