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Ramin Bahrani, Part II

PK: You've said that if Buñuel was going to make "Los Olvidados" today he'd make it in Willets Point.

RB:Yeah.

PK: Is it three films you've made or four?

RB: "The Strangers" is a medium length film. It's like 60 some minutes, I think with the credits it's like 71. It was basically a thesis film. I was just finishing Columbia University and it was done in an Arts organization in Iran and it was kind of like I could go to Iran, live there and through this arts organization make a film. Or I could go to grad school. Living in Iran seemed like more of an education than going to grad school to me. So I did that. And made that as kind of a step between my short films like "Backgammon," which is one of those I had done, and making my first feature. 

PK: Did you come in contact with some of the Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami?

RB: Yeah. I came to meet Kiarostami, I came to meet Makmalbaf. The one I got to know the most was based in New York. His name is Amir Naderi. I don't know if you know him or his films. His most famous films are called "The Runner." "Water Wind Dust." And then he had a series of New York Films called "Manhattan By Numbers" "Marathon" "Sound Barrier." His new one was called "Vegas." It was in Venice at the same time as "Goodbye Solo." And in fact Michael Simmonds my cinematographer shot two films for Amir and I met my cinematographer because I went to see "Marathon" at the Tribeca Film Festival. I didn't know Amir until I made "Man Push Cart" when he saw the rough cut of the movie and he said "You've been through the fire now. You've got something. Now we can talk." He was gracious enough to talk to me about editing and I learned a lot of lessons from him. Not only about editing but just going with him and walking in the neighborhoods of New York with him and listening to everything he had to say about filmmaking. Kiarostami's first scripts were written by Naderi... Naderi decided to leave Iran and came to America and he's been making films here since then.

 

PK: "Goodbye Solo" reminded me of "Taste of Cherry."

RB: Yes. I can't say it's an influence and I can't say it's coincidental. Of course I know and love Kiarostami's films and I knew at once I would have to deal with "Taste of Cherry" and all the things that would help me and all the things that would potentially distract. we tried very deliberately to emphasize differences in the films. The biggest one being that film isn't about someone who wants to kill himself but about someone who wants to stop somebody from killing themselves. The movie isn't taking place in a day but in two weeks. You learn quite a lot about the people. It's quite funny, "Goodbye Solo" and "Taste of Cherry" is not funny at all. Fifteen minutes of "Goodbye Solo" is in a taxi whereas almost 90 minutes in "Taste of Cherry"  is in a car. In Iran, I've mentioned this before, there's a long standing history  of something called "tazmin" which is when one poet takes from another poet an idea or rhythm or verse or rhyme and puts it in their poem and moves on hopefully to build on that and keep moving forward. It happens in Iranian poetry all the time. Two or three of Kiarostami's films are coming from poems by Shorab Sepehri.  One of Iran's most famous contemporary poets. "Where is the Friend's House?" "The Wind Will Carry Us." These are poems. The titles of these films and some of the ideas of these films are from poems. And Kiarostami has taken them and moved off in his own direction. And the idea is that he would build on these ideas and hopefully make them stronger. and that's what we all try to do. Any filmmaker who likes films or literature they always try to build on something that has impacted you and move forward. The way "Taxi Driver" was influenced by "Pickpocket" and took it and moved forward. The way "Pickpocket" was influenced by "Notes from Underground" and "Crime and Punishment" for example. Or the way "Man Push Cart" was influenced by "Myth of Sisyphus" and "Man of Aran." Things like this happen.

PK: Intertextuality, in other words?

RB: Most artwork is. Not just film but painting literature. Picasso's early period in connection with Cezanne. It's very rare that a filmmaker or any artist would not be impacted by other works of art. The important thing is whether or not you've moved off into another direction from there. Whether you can build upon it. That's up to the audience to decide.

PK: Can you talk a little bit about your background?

RB: I was born and raised in Winston-Salem. My parents were actually not really movie people they very rarely went to the movies. As a kid I have a memory like everybody of going to see "Star Wars" that was the movie you saw as a kid in my generation. I didn't really start to get hit by movies until I was a junior in high school. I had a teacher I really liked. he taught US history and humanities, philosophy and things like that. He got me engaged in American cinema of the 70s. And I remember really being impressed by Scorsese's films, and Robert Altman and Coppola and Woody Allen. That kind of led me to the local video store we didn't have Netflix so if you're living in North Carolina there was no art house cinema so basically you went to the video store and went through their collection in about a summer. And then you just kind of bided your time until you went to New York. There I went to Columbia University as an undergraduate where I got to know about cinema through professors like Andrew Sarris and others and then walking down to the theater... and catching double features and learning about the history of cinema.

PK: It seems like you tried to go beyond getting you're experience just from films and are trying to get it from real life.

RB: I find that really important. While all the films have had cinematic and literary and other influences the most important one to me has always been real life. And trying to spend as much time as possible with the real characters in the real locations that film is going to be based in. In a lengthy process of writing that involves going to the location, meeting real characters, casting potentially real characters or professionals. But really writing and rewriting while coming and going from the location and trying to make them as honest as possible but also having fictional ideas stem from possibly real things and trying to get the details right. Like when you read a Chekhov short story and you see how correct the details are. I've always tried to make the details correct in the film and kind of going back to what Brody talked about with "facile materialism" -- I find that materialism, those details, I find those to be incredibly important.

PK: That's the medium that film uses.

RB: And it's actually really hard to do. It's really hard. Right now I'm in a hotel and there's a mini-bar with a Tanqueray, a Maker's Mark, a martini glass and a corkscrew here. That's really hard to film, actually. Because they conjure up lots of ideas in your mind. What happens if I move some of these things or I shoot it in a certain way. We're in a constant process when we're shooting with my cinematographer Michael Simmonds talking about what exactly is in the frame whether it's creating meanings we don't want is it distracting the viewer from what they should be focusing on. Even like garbage in the background -- is that distracting the viewer from what the scene is about?

PK: I heard that Abbas Kiarostami described your use of details as being like "a loose shirt."

RB: It was a kind of surprising. We were at Cannes where we got a standing ovation which is kind of overwhelming. He was sitting behind us and Atom Egoyan was also there. These are two great filmmakers I've been looking at for a long time and they both responded so favorably to the movie. Kiarostami was one of the first people who responded to the movie. He understood since he was a master filmmaker that this was not just "happening." He understood that this was planned and he said that the mise-en-scene was like "a loose shirt dangling from his body." I appreciated that he saw that it was natural and real but that we had planned it.

PK: Is the use of multicultural characters intentional? Is it a statement about tolerance?

RB: Now that there is three of them I like looking back on the films that one is a Pakistani-American two are Latinio-Americans another a Senegalese American. I'm an Iranian American or an American Iranian or maybe just an American. And all these characters are the leads in films made in America by an American. And they're never commented on. I know eventually if  I keep making films Iranian-American in front of my name is going to go away and it's just going to be my name. We don't write "Italian-American" for Scorsese any more. I know for the first films they did. Same with Coppola too. So the Iranian part will get erased and people will get over it. What's important to me is not commenting on it. What I don't like in certain movies that deal with immigrant characters or ethnic characters is when the movie becomes about that. Because I can assure you that might life doesn't revolve around funny Iranian foods and cultures and traditions. When movies do that, even when they're made by a filmmaker who's ethnic and it's about his own ethnic culture and they focus on it it usually means weddings or foods. You know what I'm talking about, those movies that are made about, Indian American and they always end up with weddings somehow.

PK: And critics describe it as a saucy curry of a movie.

RB: Exactly. I remember somebody told that he didn't want to be engaged in "Man Push Cart" because it didn't make them want to have Pakistani food. And I'm thinking to myself, for me to exotify those characters for another person's benefit would not only be a disservice to myself and to that person but it would make Edward Said turn around in his grave and how could I do that to him. I can't make people comfortable by exotifying their characters. The characters simply exist.

PK: Actually, it made we want to have a coffee and a bagel.

RB: That's okay.

NEXT: Would Camus have preferred a push cart or a taxi cab? And the unexpected link between "Goodbye Solo" and "Observe and Report."

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