Ramin Bahrani, the young director of Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, is a New York Magazine favorite. After all, we interviewed him back in 2006, and profiled him last year. With his latest feature, Goodbye Solo, Bahrani, whose tough, poetic urban tales made him one of New York’s most astute cinematic storytellers, returned to his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and emerged with a haunting character study about a Senegalese taxi driver hired by an old man to help him commit suicide. Bahrani spoke to Vulture about going back home, the grueling preparation he puts his actors through, and the next generation of filmmakers.
You’re known for putting your actors through a lot in advance of shooting. Did you do that here as well?
Solo came to North Carolina and lived with me and my brother for three months and drove a taxi. I’d drop him off at the taxi stand; he’d find a car and get a guide. He was supposed to make enough money to pay for the rental of the car, to pay for his guide, and to pay for his meals. He was able to spend time with the real cabdriver whom I had based this character on. There were certain things in the script that the actor had problems with. He doesn’t really use expressions like “big dog” or “big booty” or “original playa.” I tried to tell him how to say it, and he couldn’t do it. But when he met the other driver, all of a sudden he started to get better at it.
You used trained actors in the film, which is a change for you.
Red West, who plays the old man, is a pretty well-known Hollywood character actor. He’d never had a big movie role, but he had almost 80 credits to his name. He’s a fascinating guy. He was Elvis Presley’s best friend since childhood. He was in half the Elvis movies, in bit parts, and when Elvis passed away, he became a Hollywood bit-part actor for Coppola, Altman, Oliver Stone, etc. I didn’t spend as much time with him before the shoot because he was SAG and I couldn’t afford to bring him down to North Carolina for three months. I remember when he first arrived, he asked me if we would be doing a table reading, and I politely informed him that I didn’t know what a table reading was. [Laughs.]
Goodbye Solo is, for much of its running time, character based, but then the last third the film is almost taken over by the awesome power of nature.
Well, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop are also films that are overwhelmed by location, about characters who are in constant conflict and tension with the landscape. In Goodbye Solo, you really feel it in the last third. All three endings are connected by the idea that the landscape, which could also be viewed as the mysteries of the world, becomes more important than the people. Which is a bit of a paradox, because all three films are saying how important people are, and how important each individual’s decisions, actions are, but the endings highlight our insignificance.
You teach film to students at SVA and Columbia. What do you think about the next generation of filmmakers?
I feel really bad for them. It’s getting so hard for films to get made in an independent way, by which I mean films with an independent vision, not just independently financed. It’s gonna be a great challenge for them, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it. It’s been a bit less of a challenge for me since the success of Man Push Cart, but it’s still hard. I’m making films without famous actors and without Hollywood expectations. I think the films are challenging, but they’re also deliberately enjoyable. A film like Goodbye Solo I like to think that even someone who’s not a cinephile can really enjoy it, although it still has the rigor that a cinephile can appreciate.
Are you still living in that shithole apartment you were in the last time we spoke to you?
I live two blocks down the street, in a place that’s just a little bit better. I walked by that shit hole just a week ago, and it looks even worse now.