Interview with Ramin Bahrani, Part I

It used to be that someone had to make a bunch of films over several decades to earn a career retrospective. Now three seems to do the trick. As noted earlier "Adventureland" director Greg Mattola just had one at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Now Ramin Bahrani will be similarly celebrated this weekend when he appears at the Harvard Film Archive which will be screening his three features (there is a fourth called "Strangers" that won't be on the program, but that is on the short side) "Man Push Cart," "Chop Shop" and "Goodbye Solo." And as if that's not enough Bahrani has been proclaimed by New York Times critic A.O. Scott as one of the leading figures in a new movement he labels "neo-neo-realism" and Roger Ebert has declared him "the new great American director." Sounds like a big load to carry, but in my phone conversation with Bahrani (who was in Minneapolis) transcribed below it looks like he's bearing it with grace, and after seeing his films I'd say that the whop-de-doo is not all hype. 

PK: What's going on in Minneapolis?

RB: I’m at the Walker Art Center and they were kind enough to invite  meand they’re showing the three films and I spoke to some of the students about making films and about  “Chop Shop.” I’m showing some scenes and talking about how they were made. I enjoyed it. I was supposed to lecture for a set period of time and show some clips and in the end open it to some discussion but in the end I tried to get the discussion going during the lecture and the showing of the clips to get it more engaging for them and for me. their questions make me think about things in a different way and help me understand what it is they are looking for in their careers as filmmakers or artists

PK: Which shots did you show?

RB:I showed a handful of scenes. One I like to show is when Alejandro comes home and his sister is asking him where her money is. It’s a complicated scene for the actors, dramatically it’s interesting , it has a turning point in terms of the dramatic structure of the scene and also the shooting of it is quite complicated. it’s done in one shot and there’s multiple setups. There’s Alejandro in a single, there’s over the shoulder, it turns into a two-shot, another single, another over the shoulder all in one shot so it’s an example of how you can use blocking which probably as we know is not used enough in cinema. Just simple blocking: characters, cameras, movement, props.

PK: On screen it looks spontaneous and uncalculated.

RB: Most scenes in “Chop Shop” are thirtieth takes and it’s really precise blocking with those kids who never acted before hitting really precise marks and  doing something very deliberate with the camera and at the same time he and I are talking about hopefully how people wouldn’t think it was blocked it just happened. It gets kind of complicated which gets kind of interesting to discuss with a class.

PK: What’s with this “neo-neo realism” controversy? Is it a useful discussion?

RB: I do think it is. I like a lot of what A.O. Scott wrote because it made me think things. Reading the piece made me e-mail him and made me say, you’ve just made me think of these things. Which is good, it means he’s doing his job as a film critic if he’s making people think. I think Brody’s error was responding so quickly. Obviously he hadn’t really thought out what his point was. It showed because it was a little bit slapdash and he responded just too quick. We all do that, respond too quickly and wish we had thought it out more.

PK: That’s the danger of the internet.

RB: When I read e-mails that upset me or make me disagree I try to sit on it a couple of days. But look, Brodie said a couple of interesting things which I completely disagree with but made me think. Like “facile materialism.’ What does he mean by that? And why do I disagree with that. And that just made me more aware of why I do certain things and why other filmmakers do certain things.

PK: So you follow film criticism. You’re probably the last person in America who does. Or takes it seriously.

RB: I take it very seriously and I get annoyed when... it’s not that I get annoyed, I know your job is a hard one, you’re in as dangerous a position as me because people are trying to eliminate you and they’re also trying to eliminate me. Which is serious critics obviously are having a really hard time with jobs and filmmakers are really having a hard time unfortunately.

PK: Though there are still people like Ebert who can call you the new great American filmmaker and make a difference in your career. Has it?

RB: Yeah. Roger Ebert -- him saying that is incredibly humbling especially when you look back at the people he’s said that about. They are people I worship and adore and have seen their films 10,000 times over. It was already flattering since he said such nice things for my first film and the next one. I’ve been looking at Roger Ebert on television since I was a kid I’ve been reading his criticism since I was a teenager and again as with A.O. Scott he writes about films in a way that makes people  think. I remember recently going back I was watching some Paul Newman Films and I went back to read Roger Ebert’s writing about “Hud,” because I think “Hud” is such a an amazing film. And that linked me to another Ebert article about the anti-hero and about Paul Newman playing the anti-hero and he mentioned three films in a role that began with the letter “h” -- “Hud,” “Hombre” and “Hustler.” And I had never seen “Hombre.” So first he led me to a movie I had never seen and second reading about his understanding of the films  “Cool Hand Luke” and about “Hud” got me thinking about them in a different way. And that’s what you want from criticism.


PK: So next you’ll  be making a Western?

RB: That’s true. How do you know this? I said it somewhere probably.

PK: Are you really?

RB: Yeah.

PK: No kidding. I was just shooting off my mouth.

RB: I want to make one.

PK: Can you talk about it?

RB: Not really. I apologize for that. I do want to make a Western. I’m hoping to finish a script in about two months. It’s taking longer than I thought to finish it. I should be done with the first version in about two months and my hope is to shoot it in  2010.

PK: This is a period Western?

RB: 1852.

PK: There are scenes in “Chop Shop” where the location looks like the main street in Dodge City.

RB: Exactly. I was happy when Tony Scott told me that, that it reminded me of a Western. I said, me too, that’s why I have that plastic bag floating around. I was waiting for people to jump out with guns and shoot one another. In fact some surreal filmmaker should go there and make a Western. I wish some filmmaker would go into Wall Street at night and shoot a Western there. It’s got weird long streets, narrow it just seems like some filmmaker with the right sensibility could go there and do something really different.

PK: The way things are going soon you might not even have to wait for night-time to find it abandoned.

RB: Yeah.

PK: Scott was arguing that the economic situation was somewhat behind your films and others like Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy.” That they are more relevant. Do you agree?

RB: Because of the economic crisis?

PK: Yeah.

RB: Well, “Chop Shop” was made almost a year before the economic crisis and “Man Push Cart” was made a couple of years before. Now I’m going to Boulder for this conference on world affairs and Ebert is going to be showing “Chop Shop” there which I’m excited about and I was excited to show it here at the Walker Arts Center because suddenly the movie has a different relevance. I wonder what the impact of “Chop Shop” would have been if it had a wider release if it had come out two months ago instead of a year ago. I think there is a relevance of the films to the economic crisis but I don’t think the economic crisis... It wasn’t on my mind when I was making these films because they were made beforehand. and I’m not sure that naturalism or realism has to happen in times of economic strife. Those same techniques could be used in other contexts. Of course the people in “Gomorrah” are not financially well off but it’s a different kind of film and it’s still using on some level techniques of naturalism.

PK: Do you feel a kinship with those making a film like “Gomorrah” or “Wendy and Lucy” as opposed to, say, “Slumdog Millionaire?”

RB: I don’t feel a kinship to “Slumdog Millionaire” because I just think it’s not a good film. I have a kinship to films like “Gomorrah” because there is something truthful about them. That doesn’t mean my film is good or better than them. My film could be worse. But at least I think they’re aspiring to something honest and real and they’re trying to see something truthfully. I could say the same thing about a Buñuel film and clearly it’s a completely different style. I could say the same thing about a Fellini film not necessarily the early ones but also the later ones. And that’s a completely different style of filmmaking. But I still feel a connection to the filmmaker because they’re struggling for something truthful. The same way, I think, a “Raging Bull” is struggling for something truthful. I feel I have a connection to this filmmaker as well in terms of enjoying that film or respecting it or trying to learn from it. “Slumdog Millionaire” taught me lessons in what not to do in cinema.

PK: So truth is demonstrated in intent not in method or technique necessarily?

RB: Yes, and the technique is relevant to each specific filmmaker and potentially to each specific story. Even Renoir talked about reality. Renoir talked about all the time. He talked about why people erect barriers in their day-to-day life not just in their cinema, in their day-to-day life in conversations with one another. He said that people are constantly erecting barriers to escape the reality. He didn’t think people should do that in their day-to-day life and he didn’t think he should do it in his cinema. but we don’t talk about Renoir as a naturalist or realist filmmaker yet I still think the emotions are correct.

Next: Bresson, Kiarostami, ethnic stereotyping and how to film a hotel minibar.



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