I’ve been reading Roger Ebert for over ten years, and I’ve never seen him praise someone as much as he praises you. He’s given your films four stars, he’s put Chop Shop on his list of “the great movies”, he had this wonderful blog post about you. How must this feel, to get such accolades from a man like Ebert?
It’s very humbling, and I’m very grateful because Roger Ebert is a legendary critic, known as the most important in America for decades. I’d like to stress that it’s not just me; he’s said this about a handful of other important directors that I really learned a lot from, like Martin Scorsese, and that makes it all the more wonderful a feeling. Watching Mean Streets as a teenager was one of the most important cinematic moments of my life. It really got me interested in making movies, and what kind of movies, and how to make them. Roger has the ability to write about films in a profound way anyone could understand, and that’s a rare gift. I really appreciate all that he’s done for my films.
It must also feel, just looking at this from the outside, that there’s a little bit of a – maybe a lot of an – “upping the ante” feel to it. Is there an anxiety-inducing side to this?
It’s natural for any artist, when the work seems to be catching on and people are paying attention and enjoying it, that there’s always some kind of an anxiety. You want to make sure the next one is good too, but when it actually comes to the nitty-gritty of doing the work or writing the script, making the film, it’s important to put those things aside. Just follow your own vision and do your best to make a film you believe in, that you believe an audience could enjoy and appreciate and understand and be challenged by. That’s what I’m working on now. I’m working on a new project, and at some point you really just have to put everything aside and move forward.
It just has to be you, your collaborators, the project and nothing else in your mind?
I’m glad you mention the collaborators. That’s a big part of it: Michael Simmonds, my cinematographer, my co-writer and others, but I do think about the audience with every film. It’s incredibly important, as we’re working, to make sure: can the audience understand what’s going on? I don’t just mean plot-wise, which is critical – can the audience understand what’s going on in the story? – but if we’re going after certain emotions, or if we’re going after certain ideas or certain questions, do we think the audience can understand those? Increasingly, what’s been on my mind with each film, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo even more: would an audience be engaged by the story? Not just wonderful people like you who love movies and are cinephiles, but I honestly. and my collaborators also, we think about our moms, our brothers. People who like good movies but aren’t necessarily cinephiles. Could they enjoy the movie also?
Is this primarily, then, a discussion literally among you and your team about what kind of audiences would enjoy this, or do you take the discussion to those potential audience members as well? Do you guys talk to your moms while you’re doing it, or are you talking about your moms among yourselves?
The story that I’m working on now – I’m hoping to do a western next year, and it’s a period film – I was in North Carolina just a couple of days ago and I was able to tell my brother the story and watch his reaction to it. I’m a firm believer that a filmmaker should be good at telling a story that can keep the person who’s listening engaged. I could see in my brother’s face, he really wanted to know what would happen next. Of course, family likes whatever you do, but your hope is that other people are going to like it too, and you also don’t want to compromise as an artist. You have a vision and you have to stay true to that, so it’s quite a delicate balance.
I want to ask you about this new project, but first we should talk about your latest film, Goodbye Solo, which I’ve seen and loved even in screener disc format. I want to talk about how this project grew, and “grew” is not a term I use lightly; it does seem to have grown more than it was designed and then forced into being. The element of a location in this film, in North Carolina, “Blowing Rock” – could you tell us first what Blowing Rock is?
Blowing Rock is a real-life location which serves as the finale of the film. It’s in the Blue Ridge Parkway near Boone, a place I’ve been going since I was a child with my family. It is known for having a wind strong enough that it could literally blow a person back up into the sky, also that could blow snow or sticks or anything you could throw off of it back up. This real-life location became paramount to my believing that this film could have a chance to be good, that this story could have a chance to reach another level. Another element to Blowing Rock is the Blue Ridge Parkway. That area, in the autumn season – the movie was shot in October – is known as the most scenic place in America to see the changing of the leaves. There’s just an explosion of color in those mountains and if you’re lucky, you’ll also catch a very magical fog. We happen to have gotten all of them in the finale of the film.
What did you have in your mind – and did your collaborators have in their minds – before Blowing Rock ignited the creative fire, if that’s actually the metaphor that applies here?
What really got me started on the story was encountering a real-life taxi driver from Senegal whow as living and working in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where I was born and raised. I met him, believe it or not, years ago, before I’d even made Man Push Cart. I was just taken by this guy. He was incredibly friendly, very charming, very open, very curious, and I learned that he didn’t own a car, and he’d have to hire a taxi to take him to and from work or he’d have to walk. I thought this was very interesting and I later went back after Man Push Cart and spent a lot of time with him, spent several months with him riding around, doing the night shift, just kind of sitting in his taxi, watching where he went, who he picked up, what he did.
During that time period I lived with my brother in North Carolina, and I would pass by two assisted living homes to go to my brother’s house every day. I noticed an elderly man standing by the side of the road with a walker. This is kind of strange, to be standing by the road in a suburban town. I started honking and waving at this gentleman and I noticed he would smile and wave back. While that made me happy, it also made me deeply sad about his condition and the condition of the elderly in our society. I had also done volunteer work in a nursing home. In my mind, I put this man into the back of the taxi with this storyline, the storyline of the film: this elderly man wants Solo, the taxi driver, to take him to Blowing Rock in two weeks’ time, exactly on October the 20th, and he does not plan to come back. The driver thinks he knows why, that the old man wants to leave and never come back, and decides to change his mind.
I’ve got to know more about you tailing along with this Senegalese cab driver. What did you get surprised by early on? You must have learned a lot, but what was unexpected when you were sitting in the seat of his cab, just going getting fares with him and all that?
There’s a few things you should know. One is that, in a big city like New York, it’s mainly more affluent people who can afford to take taxis. Except in rare situations – you’re going to an airport, or it’s really late at night – in general you have to have money to take a cab. In a suburban town like Winston-Salem, it’s actually the people who don’t have much money who take cabs, because they cannot afford car insurance, oil changes, tire changes, et cetera. Predominantly, the people coming and going from the cabs in the neighborhood were poor or very, very working class. That was the first thing I came to learn. The next thing that struck me was the nature of this guy, specifically. Whoever got into his cab, whatever mood they were in — even if they were angry with him for reasons that had nothing to do with him, they were just angry – by the time he dropped them off, they were happy. He had that ability. He had that spirit. That became a big part of the film.
And as this guy was a model for the title character in Goodbye Solo, Solo, the character from Senegal, the cab driver, it’s the same sort of deal I had while watching it. I thought, “If only I could get a ride in Solo’s cab, I would be a lot happier coming out of it.” How close was Solo, in the filming, to this fellow you were riding with?
The character Solo is played by Souléymane Sy Savané, and his nickname was really Solo. It was kind of great for the film so we kept it. Solo, in real life, is a trained actor – this is his debut film. He does see the glass half-full, he is friendly, he is curious, but it’s a performance. Solo doesn’t talk that much, he doesn’t talk that quickly, he’d never use expressions like “big dog” or “big booty” or “original player”. These were actually expressions the real driver would use, and Solo was lucky enough to meet him a handful of times and that really helped him understand the language and the feeling. He had similarities, but it’s also a performance. He’s already talking off; he’s not gotten a manager and an agent and he’s going to be in an off-broadway play by Scott Elliott, the Tony award winner of Avenue Q, so he’s already on his way.
I have to ask this, because it was something that piqued my curiosity. I believe – correct me if I’m wrong – the actor playing Solo is Ivorian and the character is Senegalese. Was there anything that had to be done to make Ivorian play Senegalese?
No, not really, because Solo’s dad is from Ivory Coast but his mom is from Senegal, so he knew Senegalese culture deeply. He had spent time there, and he kind of grew up between Ivory Coast and France, but has spent plenty of time in Senegal, so it was very easy for him to understand. The cultures aren’t terribly different – there are, of course, differences – but he understood both cultures. It was important; for example, why does he want to help a stranger? Because he doesn’t know this old man, and he decides to help him, and there are many, many reasons, and culturally, one of the ones that Solo told me during the audition, casting and rehearsal process that really stayed with me was that, in his culture, which is an oral tradition, when an elderly person dies, it’s like a library that burns. That really helped him understand the character. He said he would imagine his great aunt, or his uncle, or his father, or his grandfather as the person of William, and that really made him understand.
In the three major films I’ve seen of yours, this theme of helping people and the importance of helping and the difficulty of helping in real life; it’s something that I draw out as a viewer, but was this deliberately a chosen theme for all those, or did it just happen to be an interest of yours?
I’ve noticed it more now that Solo’s made, looking back on them. I do think it’s something I’ve been interested in. I really do believe in the importance of one human being’s interaction with another and I’ve always wondered: what is our role in this world, and how do we treat one another? Especially in these three films, the characters aren’t necessarily in positions where they can help people, by which I mean, they don’t lead luxurious lives with plenty of time, money and resources just to help. In fact, their back is to the wall, usually. They’re not in the best of situations, yet they still make huge efforts to help people or to try to make their lives – other people’s lives – better. I respect this resilience and I find something inspiring about that in the human will, that even in tough conditions these characters are trying to do good, or trying to better their lives and the lives of people around them. I found that something extraordinary about the characters and the human spirit.
To backtrack a bit to bringing these particular characters, Solo and William, to life, when you had the model from the real Solo and the idea from the man you’d seen standing there on the sidewalk for the older southerner in the backseat, what was the next step, concretely, for you to bring these characters to life?
I started working on a fictional story. My writing process goes hand-in-hand with spending time in a location, meeting real people and casting, by which I mean I’m in a constant state of writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting as I spend time in these places. The first step was to write a basic treatment. Then I started spending time with the real guy. Doing that, I started to understand details, characters, feelings, milieu that would come and go in the taxi, and little by little started piecing together the fiction. Then I called in my co-writer, also the co-writer of Chop Shop. Once I have the basic foundation down, I usually get her involved, and we keep building the story from there. Once you cast a film and start meeting people who are going to play the parts, you tweak the characters a little bit: you change how they talk, maybe certain things change a little bit based on who you’ve cast. Dialog may change a little bit. The core of a film doesn’t change much at that stage, but you tweak the dialog for the way they talk colloquially, terms they use, expressions they may like.
I want to reiterate this, because I find this method so cool. Would this be a good way to describe it: you have something you write, but with every iteration it’s like a feedback loop with the real world: you get a little more reality involved in the project, which changes the fiction, which then changes the direction you go with the reality, which feeds back into the fiction? Is that at all accurate?
It is. There’s a filmmaker I really love called Robert Flaherty. His most famous films are called Nanook of the North and Man of Aran – he’s a documentary filmmaker but actually I think he’s just a great filmmaker. There’s great storytelling happening, and he talked a lot about the Inuit people in Nanook of the North and how, when they would see a rock and they wanted to make a sculpture, they wouldn’t go to the rock and make the sculpture they wanted. They would look at the rock and say, “Rock, what do you want to be?” I think that’s important, to look at life, and of course we’re talking about fictional films – they’ve been very carefully planned, there’s a very detailed script, the shots are very detailed, the performances are worked and reworked between me and the actors and everything is controlled – but at the same time you’re also trying to be true to life, not to impose yourself and your vision too much on the reality of the world. So it’s a very, as you said, back-and-forth process. Oftentimes it seems contradictory or paradoxical, but so life is, and you try your best to get in there.
How much does this process end up shifting the film from being whatever piece of fiction you had originally envisioned? How far did this one move away just based on what you got from actors and locations and collaborators?
The real taxi driver, about nine months before I wanted to make the film, kind of told me that he didn’t want to be in it. I had assumed he was going to play the lead and I was very startled, because in my previous films that never happened; people were always excited to be in the film. Actually, it matched his character because he’s, like in the film, that humble guy who doesn’t want attention for what he’s doing. I actually really respect him for his decision and we’re still close friends. That threw me off, though, and at some point I was wondering if I should even make the film. Good friends encouraged me to keep moving forward, and in a way it helped me to rewrite the story and move slightly away from him as a real-life character. It really helped to deepen the relationship between William and Solo. It freed me from the reality of the situation and more into the reality of the emotion, which ends up potentially being more fiction.
This brings up something I certainly wanted to talk to you about: your method of selecting and using actors. I’ve read you mention in other interviews that, in the projects you’ve done, you have liked to, whether or not it’s been a necessity, use actors that viewers won’t generally recognize. It validates an opinion I’ve held: I find even the best actors can be distracting, because you “know” them from real life. Is that the same way you feel, that the advantage in actors that are less known is that they can better inhabit a character?
It depends on what the film is. In these three films, we’re dealing with – you mentioned A.O. Scott’s piece on realism – we’re dealing with films that I wanted audiences to believe were real. We’re dealing with poor, working-class folks. In Chop Shop they’re quite poor, street orphans with no home. In fact, Solo’s probably the best off of the characters. There seems to be something disrupting if that person is inhabited by Will Smith. I think he’s a talented actor; he just puts his face up on screen, and you can’t help but look at it. He has that magic. I love him in a lot of his films, but it’s kind of hard for me to get terribly engaged in him in a movie like The Pursuit of Happyness, because I know he and his son have come in a Lamborghini and they live in a mansion, and they’re not really concerned with these things. That’s a big difference between film and theater. Then you get into a difference of actors who are known and actors who are celebrities. How do you handle that? Hitchcock, they say, always used Jimmy Stewart to his advantage, but that was a different time. There’s a difference in, for example, putting Cillian Murphy, a really great actor, in a movie, or putting Tom Cruise in a movie. Both are known, but one’s status overwhelms everything else that’s happening.
If you were to make a film about a wealthy celebrity character, Will Smith might actually be someone you would actively desire in that role?
It would make sense. I’ve said I want to make a western, a period film. I’m going to get more known actors. That doesn’t mean I’m going to get Tom Cruise or Will Smith – I again think there’s a difference between that stardom, that huge celebrity status and, let’s say, a working actor, an actor that we know and respect and can appreciate but isn’t in a magazine every single day. For example, Benicio del Toro: of course we know who he is, but his status doesn’t necessarily disrupt the movie.
There is a difference there, and it’s not one I can easily articulate, but there is a line between an actor I see frequently because they are very hard-working and one I happen to see on a lot of magazine covers.
It’s very different. Ken Loach has a great ability to mix non-professionally trained actors with actors. For example, Cillian Murphy, who I thought was amazing in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, but he doesn’t pull you out of the film. You don’t remember seeing him on every single magazine cover the way you would Brad Pitt. That doesn’t mean I think Brad Pitt or Will Smith are good or bad actors. They’re good actors, but they’ve become overwhelming in terms of pop culture. That has to be taken into account when you’re working on a project the same way that, if I’m going to make a western that takes place in 1850, I don’t think an actor you recognize would be as distracting or have the same impact as on a movie like Goodbye Solo or Chop Shop, where we’re dealing with contemporary times, where I want you to believe that the film really happened, where there’s no musical score, where there’s this sense, as A.O. Scott said, of realism. That sense wouldn’t come across as easily with an actor.
I do think Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy, you don’t really know who that is, you don’t recognize her. There are, of course, ways around this. Red West is known, he’s been in plenty of films, he has that long history with Elvis Presley, he acted for Coppola and Oliver Stone, he’s been in big Hollywood films like Road House and Glory Road, but he’s not disruptive to Goodbye Solo. Usually people say to me, “I think I’ve seen this guy!” or “That guy looks like my uncle,” or “my grandfather,” and that’s just perfect, you know? If Robert Duvall had been in the back seat, it would have been a different film.
Could we formulate it like this, very generally, very broadly speaking: the less foreign the context of a film or the less foreign the context the story of a film happens in, the less familiar the actors need to be?
That could be a way of saying it. Of course, there’s always anomalies: Rocco and His Brothers, one of the great films – Alain Delon is in it. It’s an amazing film, and he never seems to distract. I don’t know what it was like at that time period; I know Alain Delon was incredibly famous and I’m sure he was on the covers of magazines, but of course we’re in a different world now in terms of internet, magazines, TV shows dedicated to celebrity. Also, Alain Delon was a different kind of actor. There was something very Bressonian about his performances, and that’s a very controlled acting. So who knows? It’s a long conversation, one that you could come and go at from different angles. I was very excited to work with Solo and Red, both of them trained actors, Red with a long history. It was a different experience. I enjoyed it. Sometimes it was very similar to working with a non-trained actor; other times there were differences. It just depends on the project, really.
You’re only getting more well-known and more respected. I can imagine that, at a certain point – I’m sure there are already – very big names get interested in working with you. And I imagine – tell me if you foresee this as well – that there would be a tradeoff involved, because of course a huge name, like a Will Smith, is going to draw more of an audience to your movie, but it’ll have that same problem with the celebrity factor. Is that something you think about?
I look at a handful of directors that have been fortunate to make films, to keep making films, to have made many films, to have remained true to their own vision yet to have continued with each film to reach a wider and wider audience, and to do it for a lifetime. A great example is Robert Altman, may he rest in peace, who was an independent director, working with known actors, reaching big audiences, and he never really strayed from his vision. P.T. Anderson is another director that I respect in terms of working in and out of the system but doing his own projects. There Will Be Blood doesn’t look like a movie where he compromised for anything; he made the film he wanted to make. On the east coast, we have Jim Jarmusch, who’s been doing it for a long time and doing it his way. I respect these people; it’s very hard to do this and my hope is to somehow find a way to continue to navigate these waters and be able to make films that I want to make that can reach an audience and not have to make compromises I don’t want to.
This A.O. Scott piece we’ve discussed about the “neo-neorealism”; upon reading that, how easy or hard was it to envision yourself being part of this new tradition that Scott was hewing out of the cinematic rock, or at least the rock of cinematic journalism?
I think he’s correct to notice the similarities between these films. I agree with a lot of what he said. Some might say, “Oh, it’s a label, labels aren’t good.” Of course labels aren’t good, but labels are the beginning of a conversation. What do you want to call it, how do you want to phrase it, are the films different, are they similar? They’re different and they have similarities, and there is something going on, and it is a kind of movement of film, even if the filmmakers aren’t necessarily in touch or talking about it. There is something happening, and he’s right to talk about it as the beginning of a conversation.
Brody in the New Yorker disagreed. Great, because it got more people talking about it. I disagree with most of what Brody critiqued in Scott’s piece, but it made me even think about it more concretely. Criticism helped me understand more clearly what Scott was saying and what I think, and then other people started talking about it. This is wonderful. It’s been a long time since we’ve had real discussions about cinema in America, and I’m grateful to people like Scott and Roger Ebert, and I’m grateful that I’m a part of it.
More broadly speaking about a concept like realism, one of the most refreshing things I find about your films is that they have so much realism to them. You’re not a fan of escapism, correct?
No, not really. I understand people want to sometimes go to a movie to escape, and that’s fine, I appreciate it. I’m not one of those people. I think that reality is so engaging and so interesting – why should I have to escape from it? In general, as a society, we’re constantly being trained and encouraged to escape, not just in film but in our day-to-day life, in our conversations with one another. We’re constantly building barriers to eliminate reality, and I don’t personally want to do that. I think reality can be really engaging, and if a film is real that doesn’t mean that it’s boring or dark or depressing at all. It can be quite engaging, it can have humor in it like Goodbye Solo does, it can have hope in it and it can also have dark things in it. There’s a man in Solo who doesn’t want to be helped, and there’s a man who wants to help. Reality has all these things in it. Why should I turn away from that?
You seem like a director eager to learn things from his own projects. As far as realism is concerned, with this type of research you have to do, whether it be hanging out with pushcart vendors in New York or hanging out with cab drivers, it seems like you relish this opportunity to learn another life.
I mean, aren’t you excited to be a journalist?
I am. Very.
I always envy you. I love this column in the New York Times, “This Land”. This guy Dan Barry gets to just travel across America – big towns, small towns, big cities – and find stories. Recently on NPR there was someone who was going across America talking to people about how the recession has impacted them. I’m jealous of these jobs. Why should I make a film about a young guy who likes to read books and make movies? Sounds really boring to me. I love to learn about new people, different experiences. Even the western I’ve been researching for a year – what a joy to learn more about that time period in American history and to visit historical sites and real landscapes and to encounter as many people as possible to talk to them about that time. I feel lucky that I can do that. It’s that curiosity that helps keep me engaged in the story and lights that fire to want to make that film. I can’t wait to see the western, you know?
How have you gotten – maybe this isn’t the best way to put it, but – how have you gotten into peoples’ lives in the past to research these films? Like Man Push Cart, when you reportedly hung out with a vendor. How do you make yourself a place in someone else’s life like that effectively? I imagine myself getting rebuffed if I ever tried to do that.
Of course there are people who don’t want to talk, don’t want to be a part of it, don’t want to open themselves up. But people are oftentimes very friendly and hungry to communicate, hungry for their stories to be known, even just to find a friend, someone to talk to. It’s amazing how you can strike up conversations with people. Goodbye Solo is about someone who’s helping a stranger, and I remember when I was telling people about the story, they said it sounds really interesting, like a great idea that could be a great film, but why is he helping a stranger? And I thought to myself, I have to make the film, because why are we not asking this of ourselves? Why are we not more engaged with strangers? I think the political climate is reflecting that people are hungry for that. Our president was a community organizer.
I think this is very, very important, because while watching Goodbye Solo myself, the question near-immediately comes to the fore: William is getting fairly hostile toward Solo. By a certain point, you wonder why Solo still has these friendly conversational overtures for him, and I did start to wonder. I shifted from “Why is he doing this?” to “What can I learn from Solo?” You probably had the same view on your own character, trying to learn from him.
I really appreciate that you look at a film like that. Oftentimes we're so used to the same kind of film over and over again that when a film does something, instead of asking “Why is it doing that?”, people are just quick to dismiss. If you trust the film and the filmmaker and just ask, “Why are they doing that?”, it usually can lead you to the answer.
There are lots of reasons. For one thing, I don't actually think William's a bad guy or a mean guy. I think William knows that if if he is going to go through with this, that if he is going to leave this world on October the 20th in two weeks, he can't become close to Solo, or to Solo's stepdaughter Alex, who's a big part of the film, this nine-year-old girl. He can't become close to them because it's just going to make things harder for him and harder for them. William is talking to his grandson, a ticket attendant in a cinema who doesn't know him. It's a question as to why he doesn't tell his grandson who he is. Because in William's mind, this is a selfish thing to do: “Why should I announce myself to my grandson when I know I am not going to change my mind?” And he knows he is not going to change his mind. This would be a selfish thing to do, and I think partially Solo can understand that, even if it's unconsciously.
Thank god the critics and the reviews of the film have been incredibly positive, but oftentimes they write that Solo is studying to be a flight attendant. In fact he's not; it's a dream he's given up. He begins to study again upon knowing William, and there's something about William's determination that, in a way, inspires Solo to change. It's Solo who really changes in the course of the film, and part of that change is his determination to pursue that dream, to tell his wife “I love you, but you have to let me do this.” And that's what he has to learn with William. If he cares about that man and he comes to love this person as a friend, he has to do something very hard, which is let him go, even if it's painful to him. So I look at his action on that mountaintop, when he lets William go, as a selfless act of love, and it's all the more challenging because, one, he doesn't know exactly why William wants to do it, and two, hours before he is to take him to the mountain, he has read in a notebook that William cares about him and his future and his stepdaughter's future. A future which William is about to put an end to, yet he still lets him go, he still stands strong for him and lets him go, even though it's painful to him. That's an incredibly generous act.
And it seems to me that Solo could easily have let another cab driver take him pretend he didn't jump or decided to live, and yet he voluntarily put himself in the way of the pain.
In fact he understands, from scene one of the movie, “If I don't take this $100 deposit, another driver will take it and run, just take him there and never think twice about it.”
This determination that Solo has – I'm glad you've mentioned this, because it's a common thing for your protagonists. Solo is determined to save William. In Chop Shop, Ale was determined to realize his dream of a taco truck as he works there in the auto shop in Queens. In Man Push Cart, Ahmad was realizing his dream of owning the push cart. How much does this determination resonate with you? It must, if it's been so central to your protagonists.
Concretely in my life, if you don't have these kinds of feelings, you can't make these films. More abstractly, in all of our lives, there's a determination just to move foreward and strip through the parts of our society that don't relate to us as human beings. It's very hard to be determined to move forward the way you think is right in your soul. I've just finished reading an amazing book which I had never had a chance to read before called Black Boy, Richard Wright's biography, his own story of his own life. He's told it in a fictional way. You just look at that and think, what a determination it requires to live this person's life and not to turn right or left or in a direction you think is not correct.
I find these characters inspiring to my own life. Alejandro, who's twelve and trying to do everything in this world for his sixteen-year-old sister, for them to be together – which, as you said, that dream is a truck that they could live and work in and that he would keep his sister with him and they could have a life together – he's twelve and he has no home, no family, he's living in the harshest of conditions. Yet he never gives up, he's incredibly resilient, he still has a smile on his face in the end. And then I think about my own life. How could I complain when I'm looking at that kid?
Exactly. The comparison will harden you no matter what you're doing.
That goes to the idea of realism and actors. Look at what Solo does in Goodbye Solo. He's so selfless in his love toward William in the mountain to let him go, and it's just Solo. He's just a taxi driver from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and you believe it. That's different than if Will Smith had done it. Of course he could do it; he's got all the resources in his hands to do it. I mean, the real person Will Smith, not the actor. That's a different emotion that can be created by techniques of realism, which mean faces that don't distract you, a camera style where the camera's not moving all over the place. There's plenty of music in the film, but there's not a score. It means the storylines aren't melodramatic, outside the realm of believability. Again, I would stress that that does not mean the film is dark, boring or depressing. In fact, Goodbye Solo is engaging from scene one. From scene one you're trying to figure out what happens next. It has humor, and it has a very active story. I think people want to see that.
One of the planks of this brand of realism, it seems to me, is that the characters seem to live before the film began and, to some extent, on after the film is over. This is funny because it's one of the things I like most about films like yours, but when I read negative reactions they'll say, “Well, we don't know how Ale became an orphan. We don't know how Ahmad's wife died. We don't know how Solo got where he is. We don't know a thing about William.” What do you chalk that up to, when what negative comments there are – and there aren't many – spring from the same things as why I like this style, and why you like to work in it?
I think it's presumptuous to assume that we can know everything about a person. I don't think those details help us understand anything, and I don't think they open doors to the audience. I actually think they close them. By explaining all these factual details of someone's life, the audience gets less engaged. They're less able to invest themselves and people they know and experiences and emotions they've sincerely felt in their lives into the characters, because if you explain everything, you block those doors.
It's also this whole idea of “wrapping things up” in the end of the film. All three films end correctly for what the film is about. Chop Shop is, Alejandro wants to do everything for him and his sister to be together, to be loving together. In the end, you see that they are. Are they still orphans or not? What happens to them? I don't know. I can't go to the end of their life, and even if I could and stand next to their grave when they were eighty years old and had died, I still don't know what's going to happen because they would've impacted people along the way. This idea that our life can be “wrapped up” in the end of a film doesn't make any sense to me.
It seems like, thinking about it now, finding where to end your films must either be the most natural thing in the world or the biggest challenge. Where does it fall on that spectrum?
The most important thing for me is the ending, and in fact I usually don't start until I know the ending. I find it very hard to begin extensive writing until I know the end, and the entire film is formulated based on the ending. From scene one all the way to the end, everything is done for the ending. I think the ending of the three films is the summation of what the majority of the film is actually about, and it's the vision that I have for those characters and for their experiences. I find endings to be of paramount importance.
The lack of a score in Goodbye Solo. I was thinking about this in relation to films in general: a score is almost a “damned if you do, damned if you don't” proposition, because it either underscores, as it were, the emotions already present in the performances and in what you're seeing, and thus it robs it of its power. Or a score can try to fill in emotions that fail to come through in a performance or mise-en–scène or whatever is there. When is a good time for you to use a score? When do you think it actually helps to use non-diegetic music?
Man Push Cart has it. There were one or two longer sequences of music that go on for a minute or so, and then there were a handful of ten-second pieces. Looking back now, I wonder about the shorter pieces but still believe in the longer ones. In fact, the scenes were made with the understanding that music would be there. It's a tricky subject and I still think about it. In Chop Shop I knew there would never be any music; it made no sense to the film at all and there's so much noise in the film and actually 25 or 30 songs in the film coming from radios, cars and garages. That's been chosen carefully, and those situations could either act as a way to heighten the emotion or counterpoint it, depending upon what scene it is.
Goodbye Solo is the same; there's plenty of music in the film coming from the cab or the bar or a nearby place, et cetera. I tried to put a musical score in Solo and I really found that it pulled me out of the film. I came to believe less in what I was seeing. Because of the two performers, Red West and Souléymane, I was so engaged in the story as a viewer and I believed them so much. Putting music on top of the images pulled me out of the film, so it didn't make sense. I don't have hard rules that there should not be music in a film, but I take it very seriously. Godard said, “Tracking the camera is a moral decision.” For me, music is the same.
It does seem to me that the effort that goes into sound design is equal to or greater than what would've gone into a score. Maybe I'm just making this up, but in Chop Shop one of my favorite things was that, since so much of the film took place in garages, you would hear music.There were several different layers, if I'm not mistaken. There would be music coming from a faraway garage or a nearby garage or a faraway car or a near car. Is that layered construction a common thing to your films, because it's most noticeable there?
I really appreciate you saying that, and it's done with a huge amount of energy by my sound team, Dig It Audio in New York, on all three of my films. Man Push Cart was the same: every jackhammer, every car that drives by, all have been chosen and done with an extensive amount of work and decisionmaking. In Chop Shop also, buzzing lights and all kinds of sounds and noises, and the music was selected out of hundreds and hundreds of songs. Even if it was just ten seconds, it was really a conscious decision. In Goodbye Solo, the same: each atmosphere and each location and each song that was picked for each car scene. When Solo gets into a fight, there's music you're hearing from a car that you can't even see on camera; it's just somewhere over there to the left. Of course, in the end of the film, the sound of the wind: this is almost thirty tracks of wind that have been mixed together and chosen and picked just for the right moment, and I'm grateful that I have really great collaborators in sound, and they put a lot of energy into that.
This brings us, once again, to your collaborators. We talk about “a Ramin Bahrani film,” but we don't mean just you. There are collaborators that you work with and, I believe, have worked with for all your films. We know that Michael Simmonds, your cinematographer, is very closely associated with you; you work as a team. Who else is always part of a Ramin Bahrani film?
Michael Simmonds, it's important to mention, is not just a cinematographer. He's there from the idea stage, he reads the script, he helps pick the costumes, he's there in editing and it's a great blessing for me and a wonderful collaboration and a relationship I really enjoy and he's shot other great films, like The Order of Myths, Margaret Brown's documentary. My cowriter, Bahareh Azimi, has been involved in Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo, and she'll be engaged in the western as well. Our gaffer, Mark Koenig, has been there for all the films. Nicholas Elliott, who's an artist and a friend, he's a writer and a playwright and an actor, he was the assistant director on the first two films and the script supervisor on Goodbye Solo. My sound team has been the same, Dig It Audio, Tom Efinger, Abigail Savage. My people in the color: Jane, who does the color correction at Du Art. I've been lucky that there's a handful of people in key positions that keep coming back. When you find those people that know what you want and can elevate what you want and make it something better, you do everything you can to make sure they're there and they're happy.
I want to get into the notion of how Goodbye Solo is different from the films that precede it. Anybody who watches all three in a row will notice many similarities between Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, but fewer between Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo. It's the obvious things: you move from New York City to Winston-Salem. What else in the process was different for you between the first two films and the third?
The one you mention is critical, the change of location, and two other elements: the two lead actors, Souléymane and Red West, that for the first time I worked with leads that were professionally trained actors, which meant I actually showed them a script. In my previous films, I never showed the script, and even in Goodbye Solo the rest of the cast is populated by non-professional locals. None of them had seen a script or even knew what the film was about. They didn't learn what the film was about until it had screened in Winston-Salem. The other critical difference was, I really made an effort to push in the storytelling. All three films, especially Chop Shop, are classical storytelling. It's actually a three-act structure and a dramatic narrative. Even though critics who loved the film said that it didn't have a narrative story, it does, and it's very “correct” in its dramatic progression.
Goodbye Solo is even more so. I really wanted the relationship between the two men to be the deepest and strongest of the three films, that the relationship between two people would be the biggest part of the film, and that was a very conscious and deliberate effort in the screenwriting, as well as the added element of humor. I think Chop Shop does have a lot of humor in it, but here I think there's even more, and I was really excited by that and excited to see that it worked. Watching it on a DVD is so different than watching it with an audience, which I hope you get a chance to, because of the humor, and also because of seeing those men's faces on the big screen; it's a really different experience.
There's this quote I read from you: “The more you risk, the better you do,” something like that. Perhaps you recall it?
Certainly you want to risk with each project. It's important, otherwise you're resting on your laurels. We've tried to risk with each film; I think the western is probably going to be the biggest risk of all. It's also really important to be critical of your own work. I can assure you that the staunchest critics of my work are me, my cameraman and my cowriter. We try to be very critical of our work while we're making it, and also after it's finished in order to try to make the next films better. I think it's important for young filmmakers like me who are just starting out not to surround yourself with yes-people but to surround yourself with people who can make your vision stronger and are also critical of you, as long as you respect what they're saying.
What did you and your team regard as the riskiest elements of Goodbye Solo?
One of the most challenging parts was exactly making sure the audience could believe that Solo would do this for a stranger, and a stranger who appears offputting and doesn't want help. I never knew in the end if the audience would accept this or not. That was obviously a make-or-break for the film. Other than that, I would say it was the ending at Blowing Rock. Would that work or not? I believed in it, but in an end you don't know how an audience is going to react.
What would cause that ending to fail, hypothetically?
It's the mystery of how a work ends up translating to an audience at its time. You don't know that; it's impossible to know. I was just this morning talking to somebody about Jim Jarmusch's film Dead Man, which I think is his best film.
Oh, so do I.
Without a doubt it's his best film, and it premiered at Cannes – and he's a darling in Cannes, whatever he does, they love it – and he was booed. The film came out, it was not a success, and then it ended up being on almost every critic's top ten films of the decade of the nineties. You just don't know. And maybe it wouldn't have been; maybe no one would have cared in the end. There's always a mystery between will what you're doing translate to the audience or not, and you just don't know.
Did anybody ever figure out what happened to Dead Man to make it so poorly received initially?
No. In fact, in my conversation this morning, I was wondering, why did people not like it in Cannes? I never got it. I haven't done the research to find out what it is that they didn't like about it, and then why, a couple years later, it ended up being so highly regarded. I'm not really sure myself.
I can't help but make this connection. Dead Man was, in a lot of ways, maybe all of them, a western. You are also working on a western. Is Dead Man hanging above your head a little bit as an ultimate fate you would like, but a short-term fate you would like to avoid?
I guess you could say that. Really, you look at it mainly because it's his own, and that's important. He made it his own, and every artist wants to do that. They want to stay true to their own vision and not censor their imagination. There's so many great westerns: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance I think is one of the greatest. Of course, I am a fan of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, and the Anthony Mann westerns with Jimmy Stewart are so great. The western I'm working on is not like any of these; it's completely its own thing. I don't know if audiences will accept it or not. I'm trying to tell the most engaging story I can, one that can work on different levels, one that I hope you'll want to watch until the end and know what happens. But it's different. It's not like any western I can think of.
It seems as if the weight of tradition might operate on you in even more ways than the legacy of the western. You are, of course, Iranian-American. It seems that certain cinephiles hear that you have an Iranian name and heritage, and the names that pop to mind are people like Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf. This is an intimidating crowd to be lumped in, especially when the lumping isn't 100% accurate. Do you ever find that you're put in that lineup?
Oftentimes people mention especially Kiarostami in relation to the new film. That's fine. Of course I love Kiarostami's films and I love Amir Naderi's films. No, I don't find it intimidating. I don't mean to say that arrogantly; I really mean to say you can't think about it too much. I like it when people notice the not-so-clear references. That's always more exciting somehow, because sometimes the references aren't so obvious, but they're there. Ebert's one of the people – probably because he discovered Scorsese also – he's one of the people that's recognized Scorsese in all of the films. Mean Streets was one of the critical films to me. There are other filmmakers I like that have nothing to do with my style of filmmaking. I love Buñuel. I love Fellini. But you wouldn't necessarily recognize them in my films.
When you have people asking you about the references to other films, other filmmakers in your films, how often do they point out references that were deliberate, and how many times do they point out references that maybe were less deliberate, more subconscious on your or another of your team's part?
It happens all the time. It depends on where you are and who you're talking to. Man Push Cart, I still haven't had enough people tell me Man of Aran, which was a big influence on the film. And that's before Italian neorealism, and was actually more closely connected to the project. Also, when Man Push Cart premiered in Italy – because the Italians are Italians – they were quick to say Antonioni, Eclipse. And they were right. Here and there some people mention Hou Hsiao-Hsien, which is true. Oftentimes people talk a lot about Cassavetes with my films. I really like Cassavetes, but I can't say he was a huge impact on me as a filmmaker. I love his films and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was important to Man Push Cart, but I think sometimes people read one thing and it just becomes an issue. I don't mind. Thank god they're naming these directors, you know?
You could do a lot worse.
Yes. These are the greats, and it's flattering to be mentioned. The important thing is to really try to do your own film and to try to make it your own. With each film, I can assure you that Michael Simmonds and I and my cowriter and I talk less and less about films and more and more about life, and what the film is really about, and the simplest way to express that to an audience.
All of your films have been – and the one in production sounds like it's very – America-focused. You've been getting an America across in all these films, a very particular America. What is the America you want to depict? I know that sounds grand, but… regardless.
I appreciate that you haven't once mentioned “immigrant,” because I know all the films deal with immigrants, but they deal with Americans. We're living in an age of Barack Hussein Obama, and he is an American, and he is our president, and that's what makes America great, the ability for that to happen. All three characters are also working-class, and that's a big part of America which for some reason is ignored in cinema. People say, I think mistakenly, that these are marginal characters. They are not marginal characters; they are the majority. The majority of people in the world and in America have to pay the rent, and that's not always easy, and they think about it.
The majority of people in this country count how many times they can eat out a month, and that's never in a movie. Again, I would stress, that doesn't mean that the movie is about that, or that the movie has to be dark or depressing or boring, but at least those characters are recognizable to me and to people I know who live like that, which is kind of normal life. The films could be about other things; they could be about Solo's relationship with William and the journey these two men go on. But their milieu, their social class, their status in society isn't the one we normally see on film, which tends to just be rich, not a problem in the world and white. The world I live in in America seems to have a lot of other kinds of people in it, and that's always been what's made America great. Why not have that as part of a film?