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99 Homes director Ramin Bahrani on his dream debate between Trump and the Pope

Ramin Bahrani is mad as hell, and he’s not gonna take it any more. He’s not keen on the mounting reluctance from studios to commit to character-driven dramas with a social conscience (like New Hollywood staple Network, for instance), instead favoring CGI-driven sure things. And he’s none too pleased about the flourishing culture of fiscal greed that laid the groundwork for the cataclysmic housing crisis of the late 2000s, either. His new film 99 Homes finds a novel point of entry for a penetrating look at the frontline of the economic disaster. It stars Andrew Garfield as Dennis, a struggling contractor with no other choice than to take work kicking homeowners out of foreclosed properties for a shark-toothed real estate broker named Rick (Michael Shannon). But in the tradition of the great film-school rebels, Bahrani leaves nobody morally scrubbed; Dennis is keeping his family fed with food practically taken from other families’ forks. Rick might be a heartless bastard, or he might be a no-nonsense pragmatist determined not to allow himself to be on the wrong side of a growing income gap.

With 99 Homes prepped to enter a wider release, Bahrani answered A.V. Club’s difficult questions about difficult questions, the slums that’ve sprung up in Floridian suburbs, and the vital urgency of a final showdown between Donald Trump and the Pope.

The A.V. Club: Like 99 Homes, many of your previous pictures have centered on poor families struggling to stay afloat. Would it be fair to say that doing right by the lower class is high on your list of priorities when you’re starting work on a new film?

Ramin Bahrani: I can’t say that for every story; it just depends on what I’m doing. I mean, I must be drawn to it because I’ve made five films with working-class people in the lead.

AVC: So what is it that’s attracted you to this theme time and again?

RB: Probably the one thing is that I like to tell stories about people or worlds that I haven’t seen in other films. Since Hollywood seems to be more interested in people wearing tights and using powers, there seems to be a fertile ground for movies about real human beings. The movie’s a thriller, a Faustian deal with the devil, and those are archetypal structures that we know and respond to. We can connect with them. But the world they take place in is new. It was a world I didn’t know about, that I was inspired by researching.

AVC: What sort of research did you do to get acquainted with the profession of foreclosing homes?

RB: I’m based in New York, so to start, I read about 400 or 500 articles, 20 books, got on the phone with a lot of people. But then I actually went down to Florida. I spent time with real-estate brokers. I was surprised they all carried guns. The same way people who’ve seen the film are surprised by the pace, or the mood, or the tone of it, how quick it is, I was surprised too. I didn’t expect violence down there. I didn’t expect so many mind-boggling scams. I didn’t expect that level of corruption. I didn’t expect the courts to be called “rocket dockets” because they’d decide your case in 60 seconds flat. That’s so fast. And the movie had to have that speed to it. I spent time with a fraud attorney—the banks made a huge mistake trying to foreclose on her, and she uncovered a massive fraud and led a lawsuit against the bank to the tune of $100 million and won. She opened my eyes to so much fraud, so many scams. I spent time in the motels on the way to Disney World. In the shadow of the castle, you have motels populated by gangbangers, prostitutes, migrant day laborers, and middle-class families. Not poverty. Mom and dad have part-time jobs.

AVC: Metaphors don’t get much cleaner than that.

RB: I asked myself, “Why hadn’t I seen this in a film?” And I wanted to put this in a film. This is the story of 5, 6 million people in the country who were foreclosed on, and the tens of millions more who were impacted by the financial crisis. It didn’t just impact rich bankers who made money. It impacted real human beings. I think the actors were excited to be a part of it for these kinds of reasons, too. They want to play real characters and tell a story that has some meaning to them. They want to act with other actors in scenes on location, not with a tennis ball in front of a green screen.

AVC: You don’t anticipate taking any big-budget studio work in the future?

RB: If it’s good, but it depends. Most of the projects aren’t that interesting anymore. There used to be a day when the studios made amazing films, and they were about human beings. Now we’re seeing at the end of the year, the Academy Awards is constantly being populated by independently financed films.

AVC: If this were the 1970s, 99 Homes would’ve been financed by one of the big studios.

RB: That’s exactly right. I was looking at those great films.

AVC: In specific?

RB: On The Waterfront, The Hustler, All The Presidents Men, Dog Day Afternoon.

AVC: And so you felt like this combination of human stories with taut thriller storytelling doesn’t come up too much nowadays?

RB: Right. But I gotta tell you, I didn’t think I was going to do that. I was surprised when I got to Florida. The job of the writer and the filmmaker is not to impose his vision on the reality, but to be inspired by the reality and create a vision out of that. That’s what that world told me.

AVC: The struggles that Dennis and his family face, as well as his own moral compromises, all stem from the need for money and the difficulty of getting it. Do you design 99 Homes to be an anti-capitalist film?

RB: No, I think it’s against a rigged system. I think it’s against things like the heads of the for-profit banks becoming our quote “public servants” and running the National Treasury and the Federal Reserve banks, making decisions that benefit the banks and have nothing to do with the average person. I’m not for that. I’m not for policies that have been in place from 1979 onwards that do not benefit 99 percent of the people. Not one economist on either side of the fence will tell you that tax policies which benefit homeowners are a good thing. But no politician can get elected saying that. I don’t think it takes a genius to realize that when the Libor scandal hit, billions of dollars were lost from average people. The banks lost money, around $5 billion, but they profited tenfold. And nobody went to jail! We’re living in a world that says that if you engage in mass fraud, you’ll be rewarded, but if you go down the street and steal an orange juice, you get arrested. Of course Michael Shannon’s character will exist in a system like that. He’s not an Iago.

AVC: He’s an opportunist.

RB: Right, he’s created by the system. It tells him he’s living in a world of winners and losers, and he’s gotta be one. It’s no surprise that the frontrunner in this country is blabbering about winners and losers in this vitriolic language like a volcano that’s erupted. I call out to Donald Trump, watch this movie.

AVC: Fraud on this scale is two-sided, though. It’s permitted to come about not just because of the greed of bankers and financial types, but also the willingness of the public to believe that they’re looking out for everyone’s best interests when they’re very clearly not.

RB: Michael Shannon’s character implicates greedy homeowners in the film, and that’s very important. We know the majority of this crisis was due to predatory lending. We also know that the president gets on television and says that it’s every American’s right and duty to own a home. The people who run the major banks have MBAs and wear suits. And when those people in suits come to the homes of people who don’t have a high school diploma, don’t even speak English, and offer them a home at zero percent down, that doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. It becomes very hard to blame people when this is the world we’re living in. But the film does also address greedy homeowners who should’ve known better.

AVC: In the film, Michael Shannon’s character says not to get emotional about real estate. He makes a good point, that purchasing a home is not the same thing as purchasing a stock. There’s an element of sentimentality, and so homeowners get more defensive about this investment than pure finance.

RB: The movie doesn’t really take sides on these issues, and I think that’s what works about it. Michael Shannon’s character says that homes are just boxes, they’re things you can make money on. I don’t disagree with that. I think he’s right. Andrew [Garfield] and Laura [Dern], their characters say that the home is a place of community, of safety, of memories, that it should reflect who you are. I think they’re right, too. The movie doesn’t take sides on these issues. It lets the ideas bang heads. All the economic policies I’ve been talking about, these were implemented by Democrats and Republicans alike. I really have no agenda here.

AVC: You really consider it to be a non-partisan film?

RB: One-hundred percent. The 99 percent is not partisan—that’s everybody. You’re trying to tell me Tea Partiers are happy with the government? Andrew Garfield’s character says, “Hey, what’ve the banks done for me?” And he’s supposed to be the hero of the film. At the same time, it’s hard to argue with [Michael Shannon’s character’s] arguments as well.

AVC: Dennis ends up in a moral quandary because his first obligation is to take care of his loved ones, but there’s no telling whether or not it’s right to do that if it means endangering families just like his. You don’t feel as if the film itself ought to take any stance on that?

RB: I feel the viewers ought to take their own stance. If I asked you if you’d evict someone, you’d tell me “no way.” But you can see how easily it happens in the film. It’s very gray. Michael Shannon’s character didn’t go to school to do evictions. He didn’t tell his kindergarten teacher, “I can’t wait to grow up and evict people from their houses.” It became his job because of the crisis. He had to do evictions and foreclosures, because if he didn’t, someone else would. It’s not like he could say, “Oh, I’m not gonna do this.” What job would he have? How is he going to protect his family and keep a roof over their heads?

AVC: Those are fairly classic rationalizations. In no small way, the film is about how easy and seductive the option of rationalizing behavior like that to yourself really is.

RB: I don’t even know if it’s rationalization. What else is he supposed to do? Now, should he be engaged in fraud? No, that’s crossing a line. But actually doing the evictions? That’s very gray territory. We live in a country where capital punishment is legal. That means someone has to do lethal injections whether they want to or not, and I promise you, there’s no child anywhere that wants to grow up and do executions one day. It becomes your job because that job exists in the society we’ve created, and someone has to do it. My heart breaks for the real estate brokers I met with, because they’re so torn up emotionally. They’re so lonely, so conflicted. He’s engaged in fraud, things that really aren’t good. But I do empathize with the character, I don’t judge him.

AVC: You were born to American parents of Iranian heritage. In the film, you see elements of the social realism established by Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and yet this is still a distinctly American story. How did you negotiate these two identities as a filmmaker?

RB: I’ve had that in all my films. I consider myself very lucky to be able to draw on these two backgrounds, like my heroes did. Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese were born here, but able to pull from their backgrounds and put that into their films. I consider myself blessed to have that. I like realism, but I also like classic Hollywood films. John Ford, we talked about that.

AVC: Having now touched on the housing crisis, do you have any other pressing social concerns you might like to address in future films?

RB: I have a couple projects I’m working on now that I can’t talk about. But I gotta tell you: I’m excited by the Pope, man.

AVC: I saw the Pope earlier today, actually! He and his entourage drove by me as I was getting lunch.

RB: Were they listening to music? What music were they listening to?

AVC: I couldn’t tell. He had the windows rolled up.

RB: Aw. I like that he’s talking about wealth inequality, and I like that he’s talking about the environment. I think he’s saying some amazing stuff. Like Andrew and Michael in the ring for 12 rounds in the movie, I’d like to see the Pope and Trump in the ring for 12 rounds. That’d be a hell of a battle. Will you write that down, so that someone sees it and maybe arranges this?

AVC: This is the A.V. Club. You never know who’s reading it.

RB: Good! Get that down. Let’s make it happen.