Can America still be considered a country, or has it intractably morphed into a business? What is American culture comprised of apart from consumer-driven mega-events? When the disenfranchised cannot participate in these capitalistic rituals, they are left to form a country of their own, resembling the impoverished Third World landscape on display in Ramin Bahrani’s 2007 masterwork, “Chop Shop.” Bahrani’s latest film, “99 Homes,” may initially appear to be a stylistic departure from his previous pictures, with its feverish pacing, amped up suspense and operatic drama. Yet it remains as nuanced and naturalistic as his other work, while maintaining a provocative social awareness that has become a celebrated trademark of the director.
Andrew Garfield turns in a riveting performance as Dennis, a young father evicted from his home in Orlando, Florida, along with his mother (Laura Dern) and son (Noah Lomax). Out of desperation, he agrees to work for the very same real estate broker (Michael Shannon) who left his family homeless. Suddenly, Dennis finds himself on the other side of the door, firmly ordering his blindsided neighbors to place their belongings on the curb.
During their visit to Ebertfest this past April, Bahrani and Lomax spoke with RogerEbert.com about tackling topical issues without becoming political, reimagining scenes onset and tailoring films to feel like “a nice, comfortable shirt.”
One of my all-time favorite films is your short from 2009 entitled “Plastic Bag,” in which the titular bag, voiced by Werner Herzog, is abandoned by its owner and left to wander the planet, questioning its existence. Like “99 Homes,” it drives home a powerful message without becoming preachy.
RAMIN BAHRANI (RB): After that film popped up on the Internet, it became this huge thing. It started getting coverage from big national publications and I realized how people can get a career from putting things up on YouTube. ITVS was doing an online series [“Futurestates”] that pondered what the future would be like, and I had gotten some development money. I started thinking about plastic and environmental issues that sparked my curiosity, but I wasn’t interested in making an agenda-driven film. I wouldn’t want to watch it and I wouldn’t want to make it. So as I started writing the script, it became quite an existential film about why we’re alive, why we should stay alive, what is the purpose of being alive, what are the mysteries of being alive, does God exist, does God not exist, what does that even mean, what is purpose.
In 18 minutes, it accomplishes everything “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” aspired to do.
RB: I really wanted Werner [Herzog] to do the voice. I e-mailed Roger [Ebert] and said, “I made a short film about a piece of plastic on an existential journey and I’d really like Werner to do the voice. Could you please connect us? 24 hours later, I get an e-mail from Werner—who had been one of my heroes since I was a teenager in North Carolina—and he said, “If Roger said that it’s good, then I assume I must do it, so I’m just going to do it.” I asked, “Don’t you want to watch the film first?” and he said, “Yes, I should make sure that it’s not an agenda-driven film.” I told him that if it was an agenda-driven film, I would quickly lead him and everyone else out of the cinemas, because I don’t want that either. He watched it and said, “This is great, I want to do it.” We did another short film together, “Lemonade War” for Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder. He commissioned a series of shorts about the economy, and my subject was regulation, so I put Werner Herzog and Patton Oswalt in opposing lemonade stands. I had always wanted to put a Schopenhauer quote in one of my movies. I’ve had it in my drawer for a long time, so in this film, I have Werner issuing some strange Schopenhauer quote about porcupines.
I could talk to you about that all day, but I must move on to “99 Homes.” Andrew and Noah are so close in age that there’s almost a brotherly dynamic between them in their scenes together.
NOAH LOMAX (NL): He really did feel like a big brother to me. We hung out a lot and I’ve always wanted a big brother, so it was pretty cool. And he played Spider-Man, so that was great too. He’s such a great actor, and I learned a lot from him. We went to the zoo, and he took a lot of time to hang out with me to get that real chemistry. And so did Laura. They were all great.
RB: It’s Andrew’s best performance. I’d always liked his work in films such as “Boy A” and “The Social Network.” The character I was writing was in his mid-to-late 30s. Then I saw “Death of a Salesman” onstage. That has been one of my favorite plays since I was young, and seeing Andrew perform it with [Philip Seymour] Hoffman under the direction of Mike Nichols was amazing. Andrew was so strong in it and he held his own next to Hoffman. There’s no cutting in theatre as there is in film, so you have to be good. We later met at a friend’s wedding and talked for a couple of hours and really got along. We had a lot of things in common and a lot of ideas that we shared. Then he randomly showed up in a class I was teaching for a couple of hours and then left.
I started thinking, “What if I made the character younger?” I thought it would actually be kind of interesting that the character would have a son at such a young age. His relationship with Michael’s character would change in a good way if he was younger. I asked Andrew to meet, and we talked about the concept of what I wanted to do. I had written the script, but I didn’t give it to him yet. He had a very quick personal and emotional reaction to the story, and I said, “Just give me one month,” and I rewrote it for him. Then I gave it to him and he said, “Yes.” And even then, once we got into it, we started to revise things together based on ideas he had or questions he had about character.
Noah, you had previously lived in New Orleans. What was it like revisiting the city for the film shoot?
NL: I was born there and I lived there for four years. My dad got a job in Atlanta, and we were moving partly because of that and partly because of Hurricane Katrina. We had to move all of a sudden, and we didn’t really have time to say goodbye to our friends. My grandparents still live there, so I get to go back there all the time. I would move back there like that because I just love the city. I also have some friends there—
RB: Some of them appear in the movie.
NL: Leaving there is similar to getting evicted but nothing close to it. It was great to go back to New Orleans and finally get a [job] close to home.
RB: We had an amazing production designer on “99 Homes,” Alex DiGerlando. He and his wife were from New York and had a great career there. They were just so drawn by the script for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and saw it as their last chance to do a no-budget, community-type film. They went to New Orleans to do that film and then ended up staying because they loved the place and there’s so much film work there. It was my good fortune that Alex had just finished “True Detective” by the time I arrived in New Orleans.
The camera is so restless throughout “99 Homes.” It keeps the audience pinned to their seat.
RB: When I went down to Florida to do research, I quickly saw the story. It was this very archetypal “deal with the devil” film. A man and his family get evicted from their home. The man has to work for the very person who evicted him, and in order to get his home back, he has to evict other people. The other thing that became clear right away was how much corruption there was in Florida. It reached all the way from Washington—with the banking system and the political system—all the way down to the smallest scale. Real estate brokers carried guns and home owners had guns. There were people shooting out of their homes to stop evictions. Then the idea of making a humanist thriller became exciting to me. I was like, “This needs a mix of Steadicam, handheld and studio-mode.” A lot of movement. Zooms, aggressive editing, score—a lot of things that I had not done. I was thinking a lot about early Scorsese films that had a restless pace and lots of score. Oliver Stone became an important figure and an inspiration in many ways. “Dog Day Afternoon” inspired some of the quick cuts in the editing.
There’s a particularly painful moment where Noah pulls away from Andrew, expressing that he’s no longer able to trust his own father.
NL: All the serious scenes were pretty difficult. There are lots of scenes like that in the movie. The idea is always to think of something sad. One of my friends had recently passed away, so it was a little bit easier to put the emotion into the acting.
RB: All the actors had some freedom. If they felt it didn’t make sense to say certain dialogue at a particular moment, we would do multiple takes—some with the lines and some without. If they wanted to add dialogue, we would make sure to shoot it in case we ended up wanting to use it. Sometimes the improvisations would surprise. Andrew didn’t know what Michael was going to come up with and vice versa. In the scenes where Andrew and Noah are horsing around, there was some scripted dialogue that they used—“What are you going to put in this room?” “I want a pool!”—and then they would add their own ideas. Noah would go, “I want a hot tub!”
NL: Oh yeah. [laughs] I said that I wanted a hot tub with a tunnel that weaved around the backyard and into the pool.
RB: I would like that! [laughs]
RB: Definitely. In fact, when I wrote it for Andrew, I wrote it for his age. In the script, I wrote that his character was 30, and Andrew later said, “I think my character should be 27 because I’ll be even less formed as a man and more open to Michael as a mentor/father figure.” I thought that was a really smart idea, so I just erased 30 and put 27. Psychologically, I think he was right that 27 was even better. Laura’s character had Andrew when she was very young, and Andrew had his son when he was very young, and that can often be the case. So there was a big brother-type feel to his character. When you have a son and you have a mom and you’re the breadwinner, what are you prepared to do? How far are you prepared to go for your family? When you go down that road, you may start to discover something nasty inside of yourself that you hadn’t known about.
You’ve mentioned that the exchange in the film where Andrew asks, “Is it worth it?” and Michael replies, “As opposed to what?” encapsulates the film’s themes.
RB: The real villain is always the system. The opening scene is quite shocking for people—no one expects a very disturbing, three-minute-long Steadicam shot with Michael to be the opening of the film. Even there, you can see that his character is disturbed. His father was a roofer who got screwed by the system, which leads him to tell Andrew things like, “You did honest, hard work your whole life and what did it get you but me knocking at your door to evict you?” Who doesn’t feel like that? Michael’s not prepared to go down that road because he’s seen what happened to his father. He probably knew hardships growing up and now he has three daughters and a wife. He’s not going to let that happen to them. No matter what your economic/political/social persuasion is, we all feel this way.
I don’t know what the solutions are and everyone has their own ideas. Everyone knows that something isn’t working. There are many solutions that have been proposed, and this film doesn’t provide any of them. But it does say that we have to reassess now. Michael makes some very convincing arguments on one side, and Andrew’s character is getting confused on the other side. I don’t know the solution, but I think there has to be a conversation, and I think people want to move forward in a more unified way. I hope this film can help start that conversation. When Michael Douglas says “Greed is good” in “Wall Street,” some part of that statement was true. Greed for knowledge and greed for love are positive, but greed can also distort things. “99 Homes” can serve as the “Wall Street” for this generation because it speaks to what we’re going through right now.
What was Ramin like as a director?
NL: Ramin is a great director and he gave me lots of freedom in what I wanted to do with the character. He would also guide me and treat me like a professional, not like a kid. I would go up to him and ask, “What do you think I should do in this scene?” and he would ask, “What do YOU think your character would do?” I really appreciated that freedom.
RB: I remember when we had a very hard scene to do one night in the mansion. Noah and I went out on a walk in the dark foggy night.
NL: That’s right! It was so foggy.
RB: We were brainstorming about what would happen in the next scene.
NL: It looked like there was a big cloud right next to us.
RB: Part of me was like, “How can we film right now in this fog?” [laughs] Together, we came up with some ideas for the scene. You have to allow the film a chance to be reimagined onset. Hitchcock was the only person who said, “What’s the point of making a film? I already have it in my mind.” For him, the making of a film was some sort of chore. There’s only one genius like that that I know about. For me, you have to let the thing come alive.
Take the scene that’s happening right now between the three of us. I never imagined it in this room, I never knew that that woman [the publicist] would be standing there, I didn’t know that the light would be this way. You are not exactly how I wrote you to be. You are a little different, and I have to tailor the shirt to meet you and to meet [the requirements of] this space. Otherwise it would look too baggy and you will look goofy or it’s going to be so tight that you won’t feel comfortable. The shirt should fit and you should feel comfortable, so I have to tailor it. If I’ve cast the room and the actors correctly, they will fit together perfectly. Otherwise, the audience will be able to sense that something isn’t working. It’s forced somehow. It has to feel like a nice, comfortable shirt.