The director of 99 Homes on his film’s moral tightrope, New Zealand’s current housing bubble, and the trouble with John Key.
Socially conscious in his on-screen depictions, Ramin Bahrani’s oeuvre consists of drawing attention to some of America’s most marginalised (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo). In his most recent venture, 99 Homes, Bahrani tackles a difficult headline issue and this time, reworks it into a stylish, high paced thriller. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a young single father living with his mother and son in their Floridian home. When Dennis struggles to find work following the economic downturn, he falls behind on his mortgage payments and is evicted from his family home. As desperation and opportunity dangerously mix, Dennis soon finds himself working for a real estate broker called Rick Carver (Michael Shannon)—the same man who had ruthlessly evicted him from his own home.
With a moral quandary at the crux of 99 Homes, Bahrani unravels the intricacies surrounding the complex relationship between his two leading men. He also explains why real estate brokers have been thanking him for his film, laments for the future of America’s middle class, both condemns and sympathises with the Rick Carvers of the world, and tells us why having a former Merill Lynch advisor in charge of the country can only lead us to trouble.
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JIHEE JUNN: You’ve described 99 Homes as a thriller, but did you ever consider taking it down a different route?
RAMIN BAHRANI: Initially when I went down there, I thought it was going to be a drama. But when I spent weeks doing research in Florida, everything I saw and everyone I met told me this was going to be a thriller. The speed at which everything happened was so mind-bogglingly fast. There was so much corruption, so many scams, and every real estate broker I met carried a gun. There was violence around every corner and it just became apparent that it was going to take on this form. I really wanted to connect the homeowner who’s getting evicted to somebody on the other side of the economic globe, and the real estate broker was the one that he would most naturally be interacting with. So that created this Faustian set-up which has this thriller element to it. The story itself told me it had to be this way.
JJ: In terms of wider public reaction, have you heard any feedback yet from people who have had to experience eviction in real life? How have they reacted to it?
RB: I’ve heard from a lot of people I actually researched and knew. I’ve also been getting a lot of random emails through my website from both sides of the fence, believe it or not. Everyone is saying thank you for telling the story that no one would believe. A lot of the real estate brokers are grateful that someone is telling the story because the real estate brokers didn’t ask to do this job. They didn’t raise their hand in kindergarten and say, “Teacher, I want to evict somebody one day!” It just became their job.
You have to realise in the film that it’s the system that’s the real villain. They’re just a part of that system. The fraud attorneys, the attorneys on the side of the homeowners, the homeowners themselves were all getting so frustrated because nobody would believe what was happening to them, the speed at which it was happening, and the corruption that was involved. They were tired of just having crazy people or nobody hearing their voice. They’d been relegated for so long now to a statistic or headline in a newspaper we all read. They just felt bad because we didn’t know what it really meant. So they seemed very grateful that their voice was finally being heard.
JJ: What’s striking is how most of the families and individuals affected by this aren’t actually in poverty. They’re just regular middle or working class families.
RB: Yes, I’m so glad you said that because it’s true. I remember in my first couple of films which dealt with immigrant characters on the fringes of the economic world, I’d show them to middle class audiences and they thought it had nothing to do with them. I kept telling them, “This is happening! It’s going to be happening to everyone!” Then the economy crashed and suddenly it became a reality. When I went through motels on Highway 192 which leads to Disneyworld, you had motels populated by middle class families. They always had jobs. The mom and dads had part-time jobs, or if one had a job, the other one was looking for a job. So they weren’t in poverty and hadn’t been living in poverty. They’d been very middle class families.
But you have to understand that when you’re underwater on your house, it’s not a gradual slope. It’s a very sudden and steep slope that you cannot pull yourself out of. That leads Andrew’s character to saying yes to working for the man who evicted him because he’s making money. Initially the money is just by doing manual labour which is his job. He’s good with his hands. It then evolves into scams, corruption, stealing from the government, stealing from the banks, and ultimately cheating other homeowners and evicting them. By then, it becomes very hard to know what’s right and wrong.
JJ: Obviously you would’ve come across a huge trove of information during your research that would have been impossible to all fit into a feature length film. Were there any aspects that you came across that you wish you could have incorporated into the film?
RB: There were probably ten more scams that I learned about on how to cheat people or cheat the government or the banks that I couldn’t fit into the film. Then at a certain point, I couldn’t really bring the film to Washington or Wall Street. I wanted to but I couldn’t understand how Andrew’s character would ever get to that point. And because it’s a global situation, ultimately Canada, China, England, and the whole world who was involved in buying these fumbled up, useless loans. So that top heavy part of the situation wasn’t really what I could gain access to. I feel anyway that Hollywood always wants to go in that direction so I just stayed away from it. People have made that movie before and they’re going to make it again. I’ve seen that a hundred times, so I cut that part out.
JJ: So the larger political and international implications of it?
RB: I think people know that more. But they don’t actually know what the headlines mean when they read six million people were evicted from their homes. When tens of thousands of people can barely make ends meet and are under extreme pressure and tension, that’s what it is. It’s not just a headline anymore. Hopefully you’ll see what it is now.
JJ: Interestingly enough, one of Rick Carver’s quotes is: “America doesn’t bail out the losers, it bails out the winners.” It rings rather Donald Trump-esque, don’t you think?
RB: [Laughs] Yeah, in fact Michael references Donald Trump in the movie and now people are calling Michael’s character a colder Gordon Gekko or Donald Trump. I’d love for Donald Trump to see the movie. In fact, I hope that Donald Trump sees the movie! I hope you see the movie there too because I understand New Zealand is in a housing bubble right now. So I think it’s important that people see this film because this is just about to come your way.
JJ: It’s definitely a topical issue right now.
RB: I don’t need an MBA from Harvard to know this: if you’ve got a guy from Merill Lynch running your country, you’re in a lot of trouble.
JJ: Speaking of U.S. presidential candidates, what are you opinions on people like Bernie Sanders who have condemned the foreclosure crisis? Are you confident that someone like Sanders can actually have traction to make lasting change?
RB: He’s certainly the best guy out there right now. I also appreciate him taking really significant steps towards the Black Lives Matter movement. I’d love for him to have a real shot and I hope he does. But we have to remember that the people responsible for the housing crisis which destroyed the entire economic fabric of the world didn’t go to jail. Instead, a lot of them were moved into “public positions” working for “we the people.” The Secretary of Treasury, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank, were responsible for bailing out the big banks and encouraging this system, this rigged, monstrous, volcanic system of molten lava that burns everything in its path to continue to grow. When the libor scandal hit, the banks were fined five billion dollars. They made tens of billions more. Nobody went to jail. What does that tell you? It tells you: winners and losers. And if you want to be a winner, you should be part of a rigged system and break the backs of 99% of the rest of the world and move on.
JJ: So when Rick Carver talks about how the government and banks helped foster the conditions for financially reckless behaviour, do you think he has a point?
RB: What’s tricky about the film is that it becomes very difficult to argue with Michael Shannon’s character. Michael’s correct to blame lots of people for the situation, for the system that he’s a part of. But at the same time, it’s difficult to argue with Andrew’s position. For Michael, a home is a box. That’s all. For Andrew Garfield and Laura Dern, a home is a place of security, community, reflection, and family. I think they’re both right. But one of the things that’s drawing people into the film is that the film doesn’t answer any of these questions. It just presents them and lets the audience think about them.
JJ: There seems to be a survivalist attitude on both sides. Obviously in Andrew’s character, but in Michael’s character too who’s just trying to navigate through this 1% world that can change at any time. Would you cite survival as one of the key themes of the film?
RB: It’s certainly part of it. The insane thing in the whole movie is that two amazing actors are going toe-to-toe for 12 rounds. That’s ultimately why we watch a movie. I love the conversation we’re having because I don’t have the answers and I want people to talk about stuff. There’s a very complex relationship between the master and the apprentice and this kind of deal with the devil story. A lot of people will see the film and start looking at it like: “Andrew’s the good guy, Michael’s the bad guy.” But by the middle of the film, you don’t know who’s good or bad anymore. The moral choices inclined to survive in this world become very grey. A part of me loved Michael Shannon’s character, part of me loved Andrew’s character. You don’t really know what’s good or bad by the end. That moral tightrope is a very precarious one.
JJ: In terms of that complex relationship between those two main characters, how exactly would you characterise it? Is Rick a sort of father-figure to Dennis? Does it blossom into a type of subtle friendship? Or is Dennis just a victim of exploitation?
RB: I think people have different interpretations of it. It’s hard to say that Rick is looking for a friend or to be a father figure. I think he’s a bit more pragmatic and a little cold for that. But I do think he’s looking for a companion and this is where Michael Shannon shines as an actor. He understood very quickly he’s not the bad guy. He understood very quickly the roots of the character; that he came from a working class home and he’s figured out how the game is played. He’s figured out that it’s rigged and he’s a part of that now. Michael brought things to the world that were very deep. He’s lonely and he knew that. If he could find a companion in someone that’s he’s evicted, and if that companion would work for him, part of it would justify who he was as a person. There’s something very Nietzschean about Michael in that he disguises the thing inside of him that makes him who he is. But he’s also a servant to that thing. Michael can get to that because he’s great actor. He’s one of the greatest actors alive.
JJ: I love seeing extended long shots in films, so I loved your opening scene which really makes quite a visceral opening statement in terms of the magnitude of the issue and what kind of person Rick Carver is. Was that a scene that you envisioned quite early on and what was it like filming it?
RB: It’s a three-minute Steadicam shot and the movie’s a mix between stylised camera work and very rough, handheld, improvisational, docu-style work. I always knew I would shoot the opening scene in one long take. I wanted to highlight Michael’s performance and show how connected the whole thing was. When you cut, it’s very important. You cut to this body bag and the next cut is to Andrew and you start to get a sense that this man who’s killed himself in the opening scene is connected to Michael. That adds to the thriller element of it. It’s very early on that you get a sense that Andrew could be next in line and in fact he is that. The stakes are life and death. It’s great because again, the focus is the actors.
We’re talking about a lot of ideas right now, a lot of issues I think could be interesting to your audience. I’m not thinking about this while I’m making the film. I’m just thinking about how I let the actors deliver great performances. When we’re shooting the eviction scene, part of the strategy was to bring a real sheriff. That guy’s actually done evictions and he’s there as a force of authenticity and intensity. The people throwing stuff to the curb, the clean-out group. One’s an actor and the rest are real clean-out group guys. That’s what they do for a living. When Andrew’s knocking on doors doing evictions, every other person is a real person in their real home, and Andrew had no idea what was going to happen when he knocked on the door. Was it going to be an elderly man who was lost and confused, or was it going to be a man with a gun? He didn’t know. It really pulled out the best from the actors.
JJ: In reference to that equally powerful closing scene, would you say that the ending ultimately constitutes as redemption for Dennis?
RB: He certainly makes a choice. He’s probably going to lose a lot in that choice, but he thought it was the right one. Andrew’s character’s journey kind of comes to a conclusion. He makes the moral and emotional decision and I feel that’s all I needed to do as a storyteller.
JJ: You’ve alluded to this already, but in real life, the Rick Carvers of the world get away for the most part. In your mind, what do you envision happening to Rick when the film ends?
RB: I don’t really want to say. I prefer the audience to talk and think about it. You know what I’m thinking in a way because I’ve told you what I think happens to people like that. Michael’s sharp, he’s smart. He’s probably going to get away. But I wanted to leave it open to the audience to think on their own about what might happen and talk about the film. Let’s not just let this be over. Let this be the beginning now. The beginning of a conversation that I want people to have, especially now in Australia and New Zealand because it’s coming your way. The bubble you’re in is going to burst and I think you’d be better off having the conversation now before it happens. Because when it happens, you’ll be like Andrew and you won’t have time to think. You’ll just be reacting. Just like you said earlier—survival. There won’t be time to figure anything out.