With his movies Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani established his gift for naturalistic storytelling and his keen eye for the lives of forgotten people, be they recent immigrants, homeless hustlers, or—in the case of his new Goodbye Solo—a lonely old man (Red West) who makes Senegalese taxi driver Souleymane Sy Savane (playing a character named Solo) an unwitting accomplice to his suicide. At first, Savane only knows that West has offered a suspiciously large sum for a trip to the top of a local landmark named Whispering Rock two weeks hence. But he soon divines West’s intentions, then has to wrestle with whether to take the job and the opportunity to change West’s mind, or keep his hands clean altogether.
As a filmmaker, Bahrani gets his hands dirty, drawing inspiration from real locations and real people, including the African taxi driver who inspired Goodbye Solo. But although his movies are rooted in naturalism, he doesn’t underline their origins with grainy film stock and shaky camerawork. They aim for insight rather than immediacy. Bahrani spoke to The A.V. Club after a film-festival screening in Philadelphia.
The A.V. Club: Goodbye Solo was among the films featured in a back-and-forth between New York Times critic A.O. Scott and New Yorker editor Richard Brody about the existence of a new wave of what Scott calls “neo-neo realism.” Artists are generally reluctant to lump themselves in with purported movements, but do you think there’s something there?
Ramin Bahrani: I think there is, and I don’t think that if A.O. Scott creates this term, he’s incorrect to do so. You have to talk about things. It’s like, I want to say “American films of the ’70s.” What does that mean, really? Or “Iranian neo-realist film”? [Mohsen] Makhmalbaf and [Abbas] Kiarostami are radically different directors. They’re not the same. But there are elements of their films that are similar. He even says in the article that he’s trying to find some things that are happening, similarities. I think he’s correct to try to do that, ’cause there is something happening.
AVC: It’s been happening for a few years. Manohla Dargis wrote a similar article from Sundance last year about Ballast.
RB: Man Push Cart goes back to ’05, and the same year, there was In Between Days and Old Joy. Couple years before that, as Tony mentioned in his piece, there was Jim McKay’s Our Song.
AVC: And he’s been doing movies like that for more than 10 years.
RB: Yeah. So I don’t have a problem with it. I’m not going to read reviews like, “I have to do these things.” Any good criticism makes you think about your own films and about cinema in general, and his piece did do that.
AVC: And yet Goodbye Solo is the least naturalist movie you’ve made. You could reduce the plot to a sentence, if you wanted to.
RB: I actually can do it in a sentence. There’s more traditional dramatic storytelling happening here, and there’s a deeper relationship between the two main characters than I’ve had previously. That’s deliberate. These are long conversations, dating back to Man Push Cart, with my cinematographer Michael Simmons, and with my co-writer on the last two films [Bahareh Azimi]. There was a move for Chop Shop to be more accessible to a larger audience than Push Cart, and there was a move here to do the same—while not sacrificing things that we believe in. There was no backstory, there’s no soundtrack. Nothing’s explained, really. There’s no fancy cutting, the camera’s still observational, the film takes its time. I don’t cut the scene when the dialogue is done—or the film. I don’t know how many times I fiddled with that last shot. It has all the things I really like as a cinephile and that I believe in as an artist.
And at the same time, I think the film is really funny. From the first scene until the last scene, I think audiences want to know what happens next. In the language of me and my co-writer and my cameraman, our moms can enjoy the film. Really, that’s what we say. How can we make a film that me and Michael Simmons can go to at Anthology Film Archives, that we would still respect and like, but my brother and his girlfriend in North Carolina can watch it and not hit stop on the TV? They don’t have an arthouse, they’re watching it on DVD, so it may be hard to keep their attention. How can I keep them from hitting stop?
AVC: I wouldn’t take my mom to see Mouchette.
RB: I’m not sure how much my mom really likes Man Push Cart. It’s a tough film. I like it. I think there’s a lot of flaws in it. I’ve tried to correct the flaws in each film to the next. But it’s a tough film. I don’t think Roadside Attractions would pick up Man Push Cart, and that doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. I love Mouchette. If it is commercially viable or not doesn’t mean I think it’s good or bad. Big or small budget, to me, doesn’t mean big or small film. But as a filmmaker, I find it challenging to do what Dostoevsky did in Crime And Punishment and in a lot of his books—which is a staple for me, I always look back at Dostoevsky—Crime And Punishment is a page-turner. My friend [Aravind Adiga]’s Man Booker Prize winner White Tiger, even when the committee gave him the prize, they said, “depth, intellectually stimulating, morally complicated—and entertaining.” That’s hard. And I don’t live in [Jim] Jarmusch’s time. I could list a hundred filmmakers that are good. Thank God there’s so many good filmmakers, but it also makes it hard. So I have to get your mom to like the film. Did your mom see it? I hope you take your mom to see it.
AVC: No, she lives in suburban Connecticut.
RB: It will hopefully come to suburban Connecticut. Were we successful in that? Do you find this to be the most engaging of them?
AVC: Well it’s engaging in a different way. The first two movies are more about location and atmosphere. This one strikes different nerves.
RB: We still tried to be very specific with location. Location, I think, becomes as important as in the first two films, in the end. In the last 10 minutes, the location becomes as powerful as in the entirety of Push Cart and Chop Shop. And we really open it up there.
AVC: What’s great about the films is the way they reflect on the experience of recent immigrants without actually being about that.
RB: Thank God. Or we wouldn’t watch them. If I showed you Pakistani food and spices and Latino dancing and African drumming, I’m not going watch the film. I’m not a visitor, and neither are my characters. They’re American. To explain those things would be to exoticize them and to betray everything Edward Saïd did in his life. I’m not going do that.
AVC: There’s a substantial Persian community in North Carolina.
RB: North Carolina’s changed a lot in the past 20 years. In fact, I could not have made this movie 20 years ago. It wouldn’t have made any sense. The racial makeup of North Carolina has changed dramatically. Not only with the influx of immigrants—Hispanic, African, otherwise—but also Northeasterners who came down due to economic changes. The coupling of these things is actually one reason why North Carolina went blue. Not only the Northeasterners, but also the immigrants who came. You can see the change in the Hispanic community, too: when they went from the back of the construction truck to the front seat, and when the name on the truck changed from Smith to Rodriguez’s Construction Company. And then suddenly they came to the mall. First it would be men alone at the mall, then they would bring their families. And you could see the change.
If I’d made Man Push Cart 20 years ago, the guy would have been Greek. Now the Greek guys own diners. And eventually, the same thing will happen. They won’t be South Asians 10 years from now. If Man Push Cart was made 10 years from now, they’d be something else. Who knows what, we don’t know yet, but it’d be some other job. If I’d made the movie in Greensboro, North Carolina, it would’ve been Sudanese. In fact, the three guys, the two DVD sellers and the janitor Moloch, they’re all lost boys from Sudan and Greensboro. That’s why that guy’s got that shirt, “Sudan: Ask Me About It.” That belongs to the DVD seller Gabriel. “Hey Gabe, can you give your shirt to Malaak for the day?” So even specifically, had it been in another town, the movie would have changed.
AVC: Is the actor who plays Solo actually from the area?
RB: No, we looked. The real taxi driver—I spent six months with the real guy, and I’d known him since 2004. We first met then. The first draft of the script dates before Chop Shop. Chop Shop finished before Cannes happened. I knew I had to make some changes to the mix, but I just quickly went back six weeks to get the thing going—hire my interns, start the casting. And in that time, the real guy said he didn’t want to do it. So I almost quit the film. We started looking for Solo, and that involved New York, Los Angeles, Paris, various African countries, England. It also included looking locally. In the looking locally, we found these other three guys. But Solo himself was an actor in New York. He had been a model in France. His dad is Ivory Coast, his mom is Senegal. He grew up between Ivory Coast and France. He had become a runway model in France, and believe it or not, was a flight attendant for two years. Moved to New York, handful of years in New York, then he decided “I think I’ll try this acting thing.” So for about three years, he was a waiter, waiting for his break. And he got it. He’s already booked. The guy that did Avenue Q, he’s booked in that guy’s play. They’re rehearsing now, it’s going up in like two, three months. And it’s not like a small part. It’s three actors, and he’s one of them. It’s kind of exciting.
AVC: Did the part change once he was cast?
RB: Not dramatically, no. The arc of the character and the movement from scene to scene didn’t change at all. Just specific lines. There’s certain improvised lines from rehearsal. In the entire movie, I’ll tell you the two improvised moments. One of them happens only once. William looks at the phone, sees a picture of Alex, says “How did you do that?” And Solo goes, “I don’t know.” And then he says, “Redirect, redirect.” That happened once. Then, talking about Hank Williams’ music: This happened and then was done 10 more times to hone it into a scene. Nothing else in the film was improvised at all.
AVC: Did you know you’d be able to clear a Hank Williams song?
RB: It’s not a Hank Williams song. It kind of sounds like one. But during the rehearsal, improvised lines may happen. It was Solo’s dialogue: “Ten people can sleep in here.” “If I turn out this light, you won’t see me.” He was darker than his friends back home, so he used to tell his friends that. That happens in rehearsal, and he may have like eight other awful ones. So I’ll be like, “No to those, these I like a lot, let’s put them into the script.” Everything’s planned out. If Alejandro [from Chop Shop] was here, he would tell you that I would run behind him and move trash around 50 feet in the background behind him. Everything is mapped out, planned obsessively.
AVC: When people think about realist movies, they think more about Cassavetes or Ken Loach, where the style is a little grittier, or handheld. But your shots are very composed. If you’re looking at them rather than just responding to the energy of them, it’s clear that it’s a very strongly considered look.
RB: Push Cart and Solo are 95 percent on tripod. Chop Shop is more deceptive because it’s handheld, but even then, it’s incredibly planned. It’s 30 takes minimum. And not 30 takes figuring it out. It’s 30 takes doing the same damn thing. It’s hard to make someone think it’s real. It’s really hard.
On top of that, it’s not exactly real. Nothing can be in the frame or the shot or the performance that would take energy away from the point of the scene. Nothing should take energy away from the viewer, and nothing should create meaning where there is no meaning. It’d be very hard to film you with that glass and for people just to think of you in the glass. This allows the audience not to get distracted from the meaning of it, even if the meaning is not announced by the film. “October 20th, why?” “Because 18, 21, 7, 13, all have meaning. I can’t pick them. Twenty has no meaning. And it sounds better than 17.” So 20. Do you know what I’m saying? Imagine if it was October 13. “Why 13, is it the unlucky number?” I don’t want to answer that question. The question distracts you from the point of the film.
AVC: The title has a literal meaning, but the movie is about solitude, and the fact that both characters are putting aside a kind of isolation. Solo is so gregarious, but he’s in this position where you have five-minute conversations with 42 people in the course of a day. And he has this dream of becoming a flight attendant, which no one is on board with until West’s character, William, comes along.
RB: I appreciate you recognizing that. I’ve been reading a lot of, thank God, positive reviews that are like, “Solo, who wants to be a flight attendant,” or “…is studying to be one”—but he’s not. He doesn’t actually start doing it until William gets into his life. When William gets there is when Solo starts to say “I want to do this, and I can, no matter what she says.” William is so determined to do what he wants to do. William and Alex love people selflessly and independently, they don’t suffocate. His wife is “I love you, do this.” His drug-dealing buddy, “I love you, do this.” The dispatch guy, “Go back, go right, go left, go forward.”
AVC: That kind of solitude actually runs through the three films.
RB: Yeah, I think so. They’re all immigrants, yes; they’re all outsiders, yes. When you crash down to the world and you smash out of the garden, and you open your eyes and you have a consciousness, it’s kind of scary and frightening. It makes you feel alone when you start to think about, “How do I behave in this world?” I think even those of us who are blessed to have great relationships in our lives still feel those pains of solitude, especially about the point of everything. It is in all the characters. Originally, the film was named after the real guy. That changed obviously, but Souleymane’s nickname happened to be really good. He actually goes by that name, Solo. For a long time, I thought the movie would be called Solo. Then I looked on IMDB and saw 23 other films called Solo, and I was like, “This probably isn’t a good idea.” Then I checked Goodbye Solo, and there was just one Korean TV show.
Goodbye Solo matches the film better. One, because it’s putting the movie in William’s perspective, which the movie’s not. So it kind of could make some people think a little bit more from William’s side. Two, it’s also, I think, Solo saying goodbye to himself. He really changes and becomes a new person. But then I also think it’s about saying goodbye to solitude. This was a big hope, that you would feel hope in the moments of sadness. I cannot eliminate the sadness. It doesn’t match my thinking or my cinema or the real world. I know Hollywood loves to eliminate that and just give you happy. I think happy and hope is more hopeful when you acknowledge that there’s awful things too.
AVC: So you see the ending as hopeful?
RB: I see it as finding and believing in hope in the reality of the world. I’m excited that so many people are responding to the film, and that it’s working commercially. It’s a tough ending, but it still is a hopeful ending. I think it’s hopeful, yes, I think all three of the films are hopeful, even Man Push Cart. I understand probably half the audience didn’t. So I tried to make Chop Shop a little bit more clear, a hopeful yet realistic ending. I mean, I think Slumdog Millionaire is a fairy tale. My films aren’t fairy tales. Camus’ myth of Sisyphus is the example that Man Push Cart is based on. It’s a defense against suicide, his book. He’s telling you, “Your fate is going be to push a rock up a hill and watch it roll back down again. Don’t kill yourself.”
AVC: You aren’t always going to get the rock over the hill.
RB: Most people don’t. Imagine that’s what someone told you. We all die, and what’s left is the landscape in the end of Solo. That’s why I ended with the landscape. I believe in the utmost importance of one human being’s actions toward another. This is actually what I believe in. How we handle one another, that’s what makes the characters feel isolated, feel like outsiders sometimes. These questions are overwhelming. “What do you do in this world?” I believe in that more than anything.
AVC: That brings up the question of Kiarostami and the obvious resonance between this movie and A Taste Of Cherry. Was that something you went into the film with?
RB: It was more that I thought of the idea and then I thought, “Okay, I have to accept that Taste Of Cherry exists.” There are other similar films—The Fire Within—but people never mention it, because Taste Of Cherry takes place in a car, and Kiarostami is Iranian. And people have already talked about him and me. He’s there first, and then all the other [inspirations]. Rossellini, Flaherty—please, no one ever says Flaherty. There is no Rossellini without Robert Flaherty. There is no me without Man Of Aran. None of those realist films exist without Robert Flaherty. Please, make people rent Man Of Aran. The greatest film—that’s it. What else do you need?
Of course I thought about it, but the differences in the films are clear, they’re so obvious I don’t think I need to tell them to you. Goodbye Solo is not about a guy who wants to die, it’s about a guy who wants to stop the guy from dying; it doesn’t take place in a day, it takes place in two weeks; 12 minutes of the movie are in a taxi, not 90 minutes. My movie’s kind of funny, that one’s not. As I mentioned—and I was glad Tony printed it, because it’s kind of hard to get these things printed, because it’s kind of an intellectual idea—but there’s a longstanding tradition in Iranian culture, which is when one poet takes from another poet one line, one rhyme, and moves into another poem. Ferdowsi, Hafez, Khayyam, they’ve all done it. Kiarostami does it. Sohrab Sepehri, the great contemporary Iranian poet, has poems called “Where Is The Friend’s House,” “The Wind Will Carry Us.” Great, Kiarostami knows this tradition. He’s taken that title and some idea from that poem and made his own art. So we understood that that’s what can be done, and I think we’ve made our own film, and it’s a quite different one. Really, the cinematic reference is [Roberto Rossellini’s] Flowers Of St. Francis. That’s the main connection for me, cinematically.
AVC: Kiarostami comes up first because you’re both of Iranian descent. Do you feel there’s something particularly Persian about your work?
RB: I spoke Persian before I spoke English. I was born and raised in America, but my parents taught me the language, the culture. The poetry was in the house from a very young age. I spent three years there, and I know those years were paramount to my filmmaking, and my co-writer is Iranian-French. If I was only American, it would be harder for me to have created that ending. We don’t like to accept certain things. I don’t like to make these divisions, east and west, these things have been created by people for economic gain—but let’s just talk in generalizations, the same way A.O. Scott talks about realism. You have to, in a way. It’s hard for me to say you have to accept that the world is meaningless and the landscape is there before and after. That’s not something we learn much in our culture growing up. In Iranian culture, it’s there in the poetry from when you’re a kid. Poetry is in every newspaper that gets printed, and the poems are oftentimes with these themes. So I couldn’t have been thinking these things had my parents not been Iranian. So yeah, I think it’s important. I’m lucky—thank God I have two cultures. Maybe the storytelling is different because of my American background.
AVC: In the Middle Eastern cinema we get over here, it seems the approach is often less dramatic, more rhetorical.
RB: And I like poetry, but honestly, I like dramatic literature more. If I had to pick between Rumi and Dostoevsky, I would pick Dostoevsky without even thinking about it. Ninety-nine out of 100 Iranians would probably pick Rumi. Kiarostami, too, would probably pick Rumi first. I try to have the meaning be in the action of the story, not in the symbolism. I want it to be in the action, and it’s dramatic action that creates the meaning.