99 Homes + interview with Director Ramin Bahrani

Director Ramin Bahrani sat down with ScreenHub to discuss his new film 99 Homes, one of the most promising entries currently screening at the Sydney Film Festival.

Set in Florida amidst the US mortgage crisis, in preparing for the film Bahrani witnessed evictions and the mass foreclosure on homes in court [known as the rocket-dockets], spending time with many forced to leave their homes and relocate into motels or elsewhere. ‘I saw the structure quickly – a man who gets kicked out of his home and begins to work for the man who kicked him out in order to get his home back and has to kick other people out to do that; this kind of deal with the devil,’ he said.

Michael Shannon plays the overtly cynical and seemingly merciless real estate broker Rick Carver, evicting Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) and his family from their home, only to have Dennis come work for him to provide for his family.

‘Michael is like a God among men. I think he’s in the top five actors in the world,” Bahrani continues. “I wanted something different for him, to make him very handsome and put him in a slick suit and have his hair be beautiful and tanned and give him a lot of dialogue because Michael is usually quieter in his movies and very brooding, I wanted him to be this devil you love and hate.”

‘Andrew is more lose and improvisational, a lot of drifting around and Michael more structured. It was great because their different styles created electricity and I would just stand back, these guys together, it was just electric watching them, the job of the director there is to let them be.’

99 Homes is not dissimilar from its thematic pre-cursor Wall St, another story of a powerful man (Gordon Gecko) taking a younger man under his wing, kicking off a slow descent into corruption, rendering both Nash and Bud Fox unrecognisable from their former selves. Representing the consequences and moral turpitude of the recent financial crisis and fall-out perhaps better than any other recent film, 99 Homes is this generation’s Wall St and leagues ahead of the regrettable sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps99 Homes borrows much from the original, but certainly stands on its own.

‘I told Oliver (Stone) I really wanted him to see the movie because it (Wall Street) was very inspiring to the structure of this film, it’s a movie I love also and a movie which captures that time period in America” said Bahrani. “The whole movie is based on moral ambiguity, it is very hard to say what either of us would do in Andrew’s situation, I assume I would probably drift into the world he was in, you know I just assume, what else are you going to do? Michael is such a strong antagonist in the film but I can’t blame him for his behaviour, when he tells the story of his father it pulls Andrew deeper into the story because it makes so much sense what he’s saying,” Bahrani said.

‘There’s a thriller or gangster element, it’s a gangster structure, Michael pulls in the young lamb and brings him into the world of the gangsters. We know that structure, no one’s done it better than Scorcese.’

‘He is a convincing devil because for me the real issue is the system… I think what everyone in the world can understand in this movie is corruption and the idea of the 99% and 1%, that is a global issue to varying degrees… I think the film taps into that and how far are you prepared to go to survive.’

Despite the clear political overtones, the film is driven and succeeds as a consummate thriller, the process of the rocket-dockets and financial implications of the crisis playing second-fiddle for most of the movie to Nash’s moral angst and the dramatic and tense eviction scenes.

‘It’s not an agenda driven movie, you could be conservative or liberal politically, socially, economically… both sides of the political and economic spectrum have been drawn into it and gotten angry and emotional at what they’re seeing in a great and visceral way… this is not a housing film it’s a thriller.’

‘I spent days living in a motel, Andrew spent days living in a motel with these guys, families, it allows me as a filmmaker to craft the fiction based on and inspired by the real things I’ve seen so I don’t have to create things that are false, you’re going to know the movie is real when you see it.’

Achieving in no small part due to Shannon’s conniving, merciless and beguilingly cynical performance, his presence, as Bahrani tells, contributed greatly to one of the film’s penultimate and most powerful moments (spoilers ahead).

‘Michael has a very ambiguous line that ends the film. The last thing he tells Andrew, I can’t tell you what it means.’

‘I was talking to Michael for weeks, I said Michael in the script it says you and Andrew just look at each other and I think you should say something, I just don’t know what. I said figure it out together and he said figure it out on the day and I said oh my God, so we get to the day and Michael tries something and I said I feel you’re confessing almost. First he tries angry with Andrew’s character, and I felt he was giving himself up to the cops, and then he said just “thankyou.” I thought it was so good, and I looked at Michael and he was smiling like a kid. He said what do you think, and I said, Michael you’re smiling like a kid just do it again, I need a couple more takes of it. We shot it and then I said, Michael I don’t know exactly what you mean because it can be read in two or three different ways or all those ways at once, please don’t tell me and don’t ever tell anyone, and so I still don’t know. ‘

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

99 Homes
Director Ramin Bahrani
USA, 2014, 112 mins

Sydney Film Festival
3-14 June

On ArtsHub