Okay, now it's starting to get on my nerves. Not only has Ramin Bahrani been declared a founder of a new film movement by A.O. Scott and declared "the new great American director" by Roger Ebert, he just won a Guggenheim Fellowship. Why don't we just give him the Nobel Prize and be done with it? O the other hand, it probably couldn't happen to a nicer or more talented guy. Here's the rest of our conversation.
PK: But what a way to make a living. You've said it's Sisyphean.
It's almost like it's his cross he has to bear. Was there any influence from
"The Bicycle Thief" when you made it?
RB: Honestly, thematically, it was more "Man of Aran" and Camus's
"Myth of Sisyphus." And I think it's important, Camus's interpretation of the
myth. We all know what the myth is. His interpretation is that the myth and
my book about the myth is a defense against suicide. Imagine someone wants to
kill themselves and you're trying to convince them otherwise because their fate
is to push a rock up a hill and have it fall down and do it again and again.
PK:It's interesting that your first film is about the Myth of
Sisyphus and the latest one is about someone who wants to commit suicide.
RB: There is a connection. This subject has always been on my
mind going back to when I was a teenager reading Camus's book because if that's
your a vision of the world which seems to make sense to me because that's kind
of what happens anyhow how can you do that and not kill yourself. I do think
"Man Push Cart" has a different relevance today because suddenly Ahmad saving a
dollar a day and working that hard for his modest dream, which is a pretty
modest, one suddenly seems a lot closer to a lot of us. I thought a lot of
what's close to us is not in a lot of films. Because in a lot of films nobody
has to pay the rent. And unless you're independently wealthy like me you probably
count how many times you can eat out and have a nice meal, once a month or maybe every other month. My
assumption is that most people are like that, but most people in the movies aren't
like that. That the people in "Man Push Cart" and "Chop Shop" are like a lot of
us. And now we can feel it even more that these people aren't that far away
PK: One critic has said that the people your films are about
probably aren't the kind of people that go to your films.
RB: I read that. I don't know her work but she said something about how Senegalese taxi drivers
were unlikely to watch my film and I think that's racism. I think she doesn't
realize she's a racist. I don't think she's a bad person, but I don't think she
realizes that this comment has racism written all over it. In the same way, I've
always publicly said that I resented Todd McCarthy saying that
"Chop Shop" was a "Third World style of cinema."
I find that comment hidden racism. This is not to say that I think Todd
McCarthy -- I don't know him -- is a racist or a bad person. I don't think he realizes what he's
saying. The same way I don't think this
woman realizes that her comment is irrelevant.
PK: Maybe she was talking more about class than race. That a poor
person would more likely see "The Fast and the Furious," say, than your movie.
RB: I think if this is the case then we should also throw away
Faulkner and Steinbeck. I'm not saying I'm as good as Faulkner and Steinbeck;
I'm saying that are poor agricultural folks going to read "Grapes of Wrath?"
Are working class poor folks in the south going to read Faulkner's work...?
PK: I hope they read something.
RB: ...I don't think so. I read these things because the publicist sends
me everything and I learn to quickly delete these things because I don't like
to reread them. I find that comment so bizarre. I feel bad for that
person if she thinks that's the way to qualify a film.
PK:Was that kitten really dead?
RB: It was a real kitten but it did not die. But it tormented us
because... "Man Push Cart" was a film made by four people. Me, the
cinematographer, Ahmad and Nicholas Elliott the AD. This is an example of a
scene in which the crew went home because it's a scene that can be made with just a
few people. It's just Ahmad inthe scene and we're just waiting for
that kitten to go to sleep. And believe me, we wanted to kill it because it
was wasting so much time. How many hours were we waiting for that damn thing to
fall asleep? That kitten came out of a real incident. I remember going to visit Ahmad --
I knew Ahmad for two years -- and I remember going to visit him and he said, "Ramin, look
at this." And he had this little kitten he found. It was just like in the movie
but he called it Blondie because it was a blond colored one. And I went back
and saw it again and maybe two weeks later I came by and it was dead and I
asked him, why did it die? And he told me he fed it milk and he went to his
friend who was a veterinarian. That's how I came to learn all these things,
that you can't bury them [in New York City], that you have to throw them away,
and it provided Ahmad with that very rebellious moment where he
says, "This is America and I can do what the fuck I want." Which, for him, is to
bury a kitten in the backyard. Which for him is a very rebellious action. I
quite liked that scene.
PK: Weren't you kind of tough on your actors? Sleep deprivation
for Ahmad? Calling the kid in "Chop Shop" names?
RB: They're two different things. One's a kid and one's an adult. We made a trailer to make money for "Man Push Cart" -- Ahmad, the
cinematographer and again the AD. I remember looking at the trailer and
thinking that in every other scene Ahmad is trying to impress a woman. I think
he's already imagining becoming a star and getting laid because of this film.
And I showed it to him and it was the only time I ever showed him footage and I
said, "Look at these moments. I can tell you're trying to get a girl out of
this film. You can't do that." And we really tried to wear him down before we
made the movie of those natural tendencies. And in shooting the film, it just
made sense. It wasn't just Ahmad who wasn't sleeping. None of us were. Because
we were working such long hours. But him we deliberately kept up at night. He'd
sleep on my sofa. I wouldn't let him go home. And it matched his performance,
which was one of just physical exhaustion. He was better when he wasn't
thinking a lot. And that differs from actor to actor. Some actors, if they
think too much, they trip themselves up. He's just naturally emotive.
PK: Has he done anything else? Does he have an acting career?
RB: Not a full-time one. He's done a few things. Some supporting
roles. Unfortunately, he got offered a lot of "Terrorist 1, 2 and 3" parts.
Personally, he did not want to accept them. And I respect him for his decision.
PK: Getting back to you making a Western. I find that hard to imagine
because you'll have to recreate a world
instead of recording one.
RB: That terrified me for 6 months. I got involved in reading,
non-stop, historical books. Then I went out west and looked at a lot of
locations. And then suddenly it started to come to me in bits and pieces. I
managed to put it together in my mind and in notes two or three weeks ago.
Which became very frustrating because then I had to do all the stuff for
"Goodbye Solo" and I just wanted to write it. I still set aside two or three
hours in the early morning to keep writing. I'm really curious and I'm really
looking forward to the challenge. I do have another New York street film I want to make. It's been in my mind since 2003. But
I really want to push myself forward on this period film because I need to grow as a
PK: Going from the sublime to ridiculous, I'm interviewing in a
few minutes the director of "Observe and Report," which actually was a pretty
RB: Is it Jody Hill? From the North Carolina School
for the Arts? Tell him hello, please. We met a couple of times because he, David Green and Craig Zobel , whom I like a lot, and I worked on staff for the film school. That was a year and a half
after Columbia that I met them and it's amazing how nice all of them are. Such
good people. The last time we bumped into each other he had "Foot Fist Way" and
I had "Man Push Cart" at Sundance.