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Interview with Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo)

Souléymane Sy Savané is professionally trained actor – this is his first film. Red West you know his history. Elvis Presley’s best friend and bodyguard (Memphis Mafia), all the films with Elvis all his character roles in Hollywood with Oliver Stone, Altman, Coppola, and films like Roadhouse and Glory Road. But this is his first leading role. Their faces were critical.

It was following a packed North American premiere at the Toronto Int. Film Festival (where many of the patrons already considered themselves fans of his work) and moments after Goodbye Solo had just won an award at the Venice Film Festival that I had the chance to sit down with filmmaker Ramin Bahrani and discuss his third feature film . Here is that interview.

Ramin Bahrani

Ramin Bahrani interview goodbye solo Tiff 2008

Eric Lavallee: Last year, day for date, you had just completed and showed Chop Shop at TIFF and were just getting ready to begin production on this film. Was Goodbye Solo your quickest shoot?
Ramin Bahrani: No. In fact I shot it in thirty days…I’ve shot all three of my films in 30 days which by European standards this is not a lot, but by American independent standards they usually film somewhere between fourteen to twenty days. I came back from Venice in 2005 with Man Push Cart with my producer partner on this film, Jason Orans contacted me and said he had some people who may be interested in developing a project. So, the idea first began in 2005 and I had made Chop Shop in between Solo and Man Push Cart.

EL: I’d like to know how you ultimately shaped Goodbye Solo? What order did the ideas come? How did the setting of the contrasting duel leads, their unique proposition and the flight attendant manual with the key phrase “support life” all make it into your screenplay?
RB: The first idea that came to me was based on an encounter I had with a real taxi driver that I had meet in 2003 in my hometown of Winston, Salem where both my brother and parents still live. I was with my brother who was playing a soccer game (like the scene in the film), and I noticed a lot of taxis and a lot of Africans. It is there I realized that many of the taxi where operated by Africans, specifically Senegalese. A couple of days later, I meet with a friendly driver in one of those games, we’ll just call him O because he doesn’t want to be known. I saw him a couple of days later in a gas station, he was working behind the bullet proof glass, and at that point I hadn’t made Man Push Cart yet, and I was interested in this idea of people in boxes and windows. He was extremely friendly and charming just like the character.
He didn’t have a taxi or a car — he would have to walk to and from places or had to hail a taxi despite the fact that he was a taxi driver. I never forgot him, and when Jason [Orans] told me there were people interested in developing a project with me I thought about this guy. I went back in 2005 before Chop Shop and after Man Push Cart, and found him. He said “you are here to make a film?” and I said, “I’m here to make the film”. And I spent six months in a taxi. This guy’s charm, his way, and the details of his life the drug dealing stuff, his curiosity – he would read Aristotle quotes and he read about Machu-picchu – that combined with a nursing home and how elderly people are dealt with in an American culture helped form the story.

To drive to my brothers’ house in Winston, I would pass by these nursing homes. And old people would stand by the side of the road. This one poor guy was alone and I started honking and waving at him and this guy that I didn’t know starting waving at me. This man became happy and I would become happy too, but at the same time it was very sad. What kind of existence is this? So I started combining these people, and this got connected to Blowing Rock which is a real location which I used to go to when I was young child. I used to throw sticks off of there. Legends about the snow blowing upside down are true you can read about it in the esteemed journal, The Genius Book of World Records. There is also another legend about that same location. Two Native Americans were forbidden from seeing one another. Man jumps out of despair and the women prays to the wind gods that he will come back and the man does.

All these things created the story, and I wrote an outline/a treatment and they agreed to fund the writing of it, I called my co-writer and told her the story and she said she had the idea of the flight attendant which I liked immediately, because it was connected to the taxi, and to the sky and to the ground and to the stick and to the enclosed location, basically the metaphysics of wind, earth and dust and the cycle of life and it all made sense plus it was kind of funny. So we agreed on three rules. I told her that the movie needs to start when it starts, [Ramin clicks his fingers] No exposition, no nothing, no shot to show something. We find ourselves in the middle of the conversation and we need to see the whole story, which is different from the other films…

EL: …by the time the 1st scene/1st page of the dialogue is completed – you’ve firmly announced the film’s final resting place…which is a bold way to go about it…
RB: Yeah it’s a very strange way to go about this with a Boom! The story is going to be about this. A man who wants to charm someone out of doing something. The second rule was that nobody would hide money in jar like my first two films. And the third thing we agreed on is that it should have humor. And it just went from here.

Ramin Bahrani Goodbye Solo Interview

EL: I found a common trait among your three films are how the protagonists find themselves in a position where their perspective outlooks are bleak and where they find themselves in some sort of difficult balancing act and yet, they manage to see life as a glass half full. What draws you to design your characters in such a way?
RB: First, I would say thank you for not saying that the thing that connects the three films is that they are about immigrants, because I find that to be such a limiting comment and I find the films are about much more. The truth is that I tend to see the glass as half empty and I wish I could be more like my films and more like the characters in my films. I think the films accept life for what it is, and somehow understand that you have to be try and accept that. How is it that Solo can be sad and yet so happy at the end of the film? This is to me the way life is. Both at the same moment.

EL: Another characteristic among your three films is that you show these protagonists them as nocturnal creatures. They’re hustling for a very tiny piece of the American dream. What attracts you to these forms of life during traditional sleeping hours?
RB: Solo reminds me of Ahmad (Man Push Cart) in a way because he doesn’t seem to sleep much. I remember when I was writing it in 2005 when I first started thinking about it…I was sleeping on a lot of sofas and moving around a lot. I think I counted that Solo sleeps on five different sofas in the course of the film…again what I admire is the trait that despite the situation a person keep moving forward. And in this case Solo does it with a big smile and a big heart.
Personally, they say that independent cinema is dead and buried all this talk for the past year and a half – and I say great — I love to smile from the grave and make three films and they get released. I like the challenge and I love that that Solo does it with a great smile and such hope in the face of death.
Specific to my life, I had a very close, childhood friend [Sandra Trujillo de Moyano] who passed away in May, days after her 34th birthday. Even though she knew that she wouldn’t beat the cancer in the end, everyday she was smiling, laughing, moving forward with her projects, she knew that in six months she wouldn’t be there – and wouldn’t be a part of them. She helped me with the casting and location while I was writing and rewriting the script, she had so much life and energy – a way of doing and seeing things that I found profound. She accepted what was going to happen to her, and that death was coming and she was still doing these things. She knew the story of the script. It was very important to her. Knowing her influenced me in making those feelings as part of the story. I dedicated the film to her.

Ramin Bahrani Goodbye Solo Interview

EL: Back to the nocturnal world. Would you say this is where Michael [Simmonds] does some of his best work?
Oh yes.. You saw the print? It’s the best print we’ve had. First as you know it’s a big challenge when you light a dark skinned black man and white man at night and in a moving taxi and see them and give it the feeling that it is not lit. Huge challenge and he does an amazing job. I think it is his best work. We shot in HD again, but people think it is 35. I think the mise-en-scene is deceivably simple.

EL: You address the taboo issue of suicide and suicide in elders via the person who is trying to prevent it & less on the person trying to act on it. A lack of free is also what blocks Solo from committing fully to his girlfriend. Was your intent to discuss fundamental rights of the individual instead of the act itself? [Spoiler ahead***]
RB: I think that both these men have an extreme amount of courage. What is interesting about Solo to me is the change he goes through and the decision he makes in the end – which is the exact opposite of his initial goal at the beginning of the film. His wife says that she loves him but she tells him all the things that he should and should not be doing if he really loves her. This sounds strange to me. His drug dealing buddy claims to be his good friend but asks him to do things he does not want to do. His X-girlfriend wants him to do things he does not want to do. The dispatcher tells him which way to turn. He is not in control of his free will. William on the other hand is like a rock – he does not alter for anyone. Nobody is going to change him.

What is interesting about Solo is he comes to learn that if he really loves William, he needs to let him go. Let’s say your girlfriend leaves without giving you an explanation and says you have to let her go but does not provide any reasons, and just says you have to believe her. It would be very hard to do this. This is one of the reasons it is not revealed why William wants to kill himself. Of course if I told you the reasons, you wouldn’t want to invest yourself as much into his character; but more importantly if Solo knew, it would be easier for him to let William go. What makes it even harder for Solo is to read William’s notebook the morning he is to drive him to Blowing Rock and have his intuitions confirmed by learning that William indeed cares about him and even about Alex’s future. There is a little family growing with Alex. Solo standing at the end of the film – is his a rock. William is on the verge of tears.

Ramin Bahrani Goodbye Solo Interview

EL: Final shot: When Solo mounts the edge of the cliff I got the sense that he is verifying two curiosities – the obvious being what happened to his friend, but the other being Solo’s own mortality/fate. Is there some truth to that assessment?
RB: Look what he has to do with his own life? Look what he tells his wife when is he is holding the baby – this is not the man that started the film. And what is this stick that he has to throw? The whole metaphysics of the film come down to stick, hand, clouds and trees and wind. I think it is interesting that he throws something into the sky, then the next shot goes from the sky then to the road with the colors of life and then with this young girl Alex sitting in William’s place and asking similar questions — Solo has to confront a lot of things on that rock and in that space. It’s also the only handheld scene of the film. 

EL: Can you discuss the casting of your two leads? How did you find them? And do you favor physical traits over experience or inexperience in front of the camera.
RB: I love the face I think it’s really important. I’ve been blessed with four great faces now. Ahmad, Alejandro, Solo and Red/William. This is the first one obviously with professional actors in the lead. Souléymane Sy Savané is professionally trained actor – this is his first film. Red West you know his history. Elvis Presley’s best friend and bodyguard (Memphis Mafia), all the films with Elvis all his character roles in Hollywood with Oliver Stone, Altman, Coppola, and films like Roadhouse and Glory Road.  But this is his first leading role. Their faces were critical. Solo is just charming, the second he walked in the door I just wanted to hug him– he looked friendly, charming and outgoing and didn’t seem to hide his emotions – I liked him immediately. And he had been a real-life flight attendant for two years! William sent me his casting tape, we contacted his agents. I didn’t really know who he was. I saw so many tapes. But with Red I saw two or three seconds and I hit pause and said, “this is William, this is the guy. This is the man from my script!”. I’m a fan of many takes 20 or 30 takes. I never did so few takes in four years of experience as I did with Red. He got to what I wanted very quickly. Their interactions are great. Their goodbye is my favorite moment in all of my films — that moment where they are looking at each other. The rest, the supporting characters are once again all non-professionals.

EL: About 1/5th of the film is spent in the car. How difficult was it to shoot in such a cramped space while trying to display emotional changes in your characters? What kind of challenges did you face?
RB: Michael [Simmonds], my cinematographer for all three of my films said, “okay, so Ramin, half the film is in the car? I said, no it’s like 12 minutes of the film. In the script stage we thought about it. When is William in the back seat. When does he comes in the front seat. When is Solo suddenly in the backseat and someone else is driving the car? And again when do they go back to the front and backseat. This was a game that was arranged in the script in terms of their relationship. When Solo pick ups William and says I will take you where you want to go. And then when he says I’ll take you where-ever you want to go and pushes the meter, he means hat you will pay this time –that’s not by accident. You are my passenger and you will pay this time too. You are my passenger and I accept your fate and decision. Shooting with Simmonds we mapped out the car scenes: the first scene had to be in one shot, I wanted people to believe that these two people are in the cab and no questions about being in separate frames. When is it a dirty two-shot so that you see both of them together. At what moment do we use a rearview mirror? When does William actually get to see Solo in the rearview mirror in a POV shot. All these were mapped out in terms of where they are in their relationship. So it was very carefully thought out. We looked at a lot of movies with driving scenes. It was clear that it was best to be simple. The ones that don’t work are those that try and get the cool shots don’t work.

Since the screenings at the Toronto Film Festival, Goodbye Solo’s North American rights were picked up by Roadside Pictures. The film is opening on March 27th in NYC and open nationwide in the weeks after. 

Here is the schedule:…

March 27 Chicago Century Centre
March 27 New York City Angelika
April 10 Los Angeles Sunset 5
April 10 Pasadena, CA Playhouse 7
April 10 Santa Monica, CA Monica 4-Plex
April 17 Berkeley, CA Shattuck
April 17 Boston Kendall Square
April 17 San Francisco TBD
April 24 San Diego Ken Cinema
May 1 Minneapolis Lagoon Cinema
May 8 Baltimore, MD Charles Theater
May 8 Charlotte, NC Park Terrace
May 8 Philadelphia Ritz
May 8 Seattle Varsity Theater
May 8 Washington, D.C. E Street Cinema
May 10 Portland, OR Fox Tower
May 15 Atlanta Midtown Art Cinema
May 15 Austin, TX Arbor
May 15 St. Louis Tivoli Theater
June 14 Ojai, CA Ojai Theatre

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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