Director Ramin Bahrani’s film Man Push Cart about a Pakistani rock star reduced to selling coffee on the streets of New York moved Roger Ebert to call him “the next great American director”. Bahrani followed it with At Any Price, a “farm noir” story of a family of farmers set against the backdrop of genetically modified seed big business.
He tackles another social issue, the real estate bubble of 2008 in 99 Homes, via two agents played by Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon, corrupted by greed when the US government wrongfully evicted millions of homeowners. We spoke with Bahraini from his home in Brooklyn.
You make these great character pieces that are also powerful cautionary tales about ordinary Americans in extraordinary circumstances. 99 Homes looks at a terrible chapter in US economic history when government error caused so much suffering.
Why did the story speak to you?
At first it was just curiosity, how this world is turned upside down by the things that happened leading up to 2008 and after, I did research out of Brooklyn, reading and the focus was always on Wall Street and its economic policies. It made me angry because things were rigged and there was so much corruption. I didn’t want to make the film about rich people in New York getting richer off the misery of others.
It was sexy but not good, I wanted to see what happened to six million evicted and tens of thousands of others deeply impacted by the financial crisis and the people made a lot of money off. By going down there and seeing people the whole story came out. I was surprised that every real estate agent carried a gun and there were the scams and corruption and how mind bogglingly fast things happened.
There were elements of the thriller genre. the Faustian structure announced itself to me on my first trip to Florida.
99 Homes Trailer
You show us how easily people can change from victim to victimiser.
If you ask someone would you evict somebody, everyone would tell you no I would never do such a thing, but you see how quickly it happens. You have a family to support. Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon went to Florida for a week to research.
Andrews met a guy at Home Depot looking for work and he told him his life story. He didn’t have a job, he was a construction worker and he was evicted. Then he started doing evictions for work and had to evict his best friend. Then he just couldn’t do it anymore. One year later his friend showed up and said he forgave him. And he was evicting now.
You’ve given Andrew Garfield a showcase for the great work he is capable of doing.
That was exciting. I’ve seen his film work and he’s always impressive, I saw him onstage in Death of a Salesman in New York directed by Mike Nichols. I knew then I wanted him for the part. He said yes. He’s a dedicated actor and made notes based on what he was thinking and feeling while reading the script, and I was able to tailor it for him.
The character walks an emotional and moral tightrope, because it’s hard to understand what the character is doing. It’s hard to understand Michael Shannon’s character. They cross the line and do what we know as wrong. You can say the system is at fault. It was great to pull Andrew out of the teenaged roles, He and Michael have different acting styles and it’s exciting, they created electricity on the set and they respected one another.
The characters respect each other too.
Did you help Michael with his characterisation?
With Michael Shannon, he’s such a great actor. You just get out of his way. He made sense of the character, he was a real estate broker and when the prices dropped he’d either handle evictions for government or move into the motel with his family. So is it wrong that he’s stealing from the government with all his fraudulent billings?
That big shot attorney in the film? He’s based on a real person who did 40,000 foreclosures and ran a fraudulent paper mill out of his office and made untold hundreds of millions. Then he sold the business to the Chinese and walked away with tonnes and tonnes of money.
He was disbarred but he never went to jail. How many knew what he was doing? Did the banks close their eyes? So was it wrong? I don’t know. He couldn’t let his kids go hungry, that’s the real question. What is right and wrong?
Do you get the sense that you can use this platform to address more problems with American society?
I have so many interests so its hard to say you’re doing to pick up and do a film for 2 or 3 years so it has to be something you want to do with great characters. Garfield said no to every script four years, Michael and Laura Dern don’t often say yes, but they really loved the characters in the script and that it was about something.
You can only show audiences so many films about nothing and it gets tiresome. Hollywood doesn’t make films that are thrilling and about something.
Rogers Ebert called you a “great American director” on seeing Man Push Cart in 2005. How did that change things for you?
I dedicated 99 Homes to Roger who was important to cinema at large. He gave me my education in movies and opened my eyes to filmmakers like Werner Herzog. We became friends later and he supported me. I was important to dedicate the film to him because he gave me confidence to go in the direction I’m going. But it’s hard for me to fully agree.