Ramin Bahrani speaks clearly and assertively. He knows what he wants; even more admirably, he seems to know exactly why he wants it. He can easily go on at length about a subject, but never lapses into rambling.
It's late January, and Bahrani is speaking to me by phone from his home in Brooklyn. The 2000s have recently ended, and there aren't many American directors whose work better encapsulates the shifts, as much aesthetic as cultural, that occurred during that decade than Bahrani. It should also be said that there aren't many people who are better to talk about a director's "working life" with than Bahrani, as all of his films have been set at the point where life and work intersect, whether it's Ahmad's everyday humiliations as a cart vendor in Man Push Cart (and the ghost of the music career he abandoned), Ale's junkyard home in Chop Shop, or the title character's overstepping of his role as a taxi driver, which sets the plot of Goodbye Solo in motion.
Bahrani is currently in pre-production on his next films. We discussed his plans for the upcoming project, his long-running collaboration with cinematographer Michael Simmonds, the influence of Werner Herzog on his work, his little-known early film Strangers and his methods as a director, screenwriter and editor.
This is the first part of a two-part interview. Part two can be found here.
NOTEBOOK: Rumor has it that your next film will be a Western.
RAMIN BAHRANI: In fact, Michael Simmonds, my director of photography, is coming over this afternoon so that we can look at some images and continue our conversation about it. We're planning to shoot in August.
NOTEBOOK: What you can you tell me about it? Are you keeping it under wraps?
BAHRANI: I can't say a lot, but I can say that it's going to be a period piece set in 1849, which is the time of the Gold Rush. As you probably know, most Westerns are set post-Civil War, in the time of the railroads, but this will be in 1849. Michael Simmonds is shooting it and it's gonna have a large cast. The leading roles will mostly be played by known actors, which is very different for me. We're putting it together now.
NOTEBOOK: I assume it's being financed through smaller independent groups...
BAHRANI: Yeah, I'll have full control of it, if that's what you mean.
NOTEBOOK: Will you be shooting it in HD?
BAHRANI: That's the conversation we'll be having. We may be shooting it in 2-Perf, the way Leone shot his Westerns. We were looking at some tests yesterday in the lab, so we might be leaning in that direction.
NOTEBOOK: So you're not taking the "Public Enemies route"? Though I gather that you're not the biggest Michael Mann fan...
BAHRANI: [laughing] Why do you say that?
NOTEBOOK: Well, I remember you didn't have the nicest things to say about Collateral...
BAHRANI: You know, with Collateral, the first 30 minutes—I was so jealous. But I feel like it really collapses after that—it turns into The Terminator by the end. I think it goes over the top, but the first 30 minutes I still think are great. I think Michael Mann's a very interesting director. I don't dislike him. All of his films have some really strong moments. Ali, even the Dillinger film, I think is flawed, but has very strong moments.
NOTEBOOK: I assume this project has been consuming most of your time.
BAHRANI: It took a long time to write this script. It took all of the last year. In addition, we did a short film called Plastic Bag, but the rest of the year was dedicated to writing this and meeting with the casting director, our producing partners, and, in addition, we have someone helping put together our timetables for shooting this.
NOTEBOOK: Are you shooting in California?
BAHRANI: That's a possibility, but we're also looking at New Mexico, at Mexico, at shooting in Canada. I've gone out there three times. I've seen a lot of locations, so, we'll hopefully decide in the next month.
NOTEBOOK: Are you doing a lot of historical research in preparation?
BAHRANI: I did historical research. It's important to me, but at the same time it's not.
NOTEBOOK: Are you attracted more by the situation the history provides you with?
BAHRANI: I like the historical context for this film. In 1849, the American West was an extremely wild place. It was not civilized. There was no law, really. Even in Huck Finn, which is one of my favorite books, there's a romantization of this idea of the West, even as it's satirized. As problemtic as Twain found civilization—and I think all artists do—he thought it was a little bit better than being in the West. That moment in time, the Gold Rush, Manifest Destiny, the lawlessness, it all makes sense for the story I want to do.
Sam Brennan and many of the other people who founded San Francisco as a town of wealth, not just as a port town—it's amazing how much of that money came from the Gold Rush, and the exploitation of miners. They exploited a lot of miners, people from every country: French, obviously a lot of Mexican, South American, Brazillian immigrants. A lot of the people like Brennan, a lot of the people who helped found San Francisco, also owned newspapers, and they'd print false announcements or exagerrate what was going in terms of the discovery of gold in certain places, to get people to flood those areas looking for it. And they already owned trading posts in those areas, so they'd sell things at eight times the price and use that money to build San Francisco. It isn't part of my film, but learning about it is very interesting.
The film is going to focus on "outsider" characters, but not in the way that you'd expect. It's going to be an adventure. One of the actors I was interested in asked me what films he should see to understand the role, and I sent him Titicut Follies. He was incredibly disturbed. But the film is going to be an adventure, but you'll know 100% that it's mine. The sense of adventure is something new, so I was really excited to work on the script. And there are things that a period film and a genre film allow. In my last three films, if someone pulled out a gun and shot somebody, it'd be a major event. In a Western, if someone doesn't pull out a gun and doesn't shoot somebody, the movie doesn't feel real.
NOTEBOOK: That's part of the beauty of Westerns. The director has the opportunity to use all of these gestures...
BAHRANI: Yes. And a big influence, too, are the Werner Herzog films, like Aguirre, The Wrath of God. It's been remade once, as Apocalypse Now.
NOTEBOOK: Herzog narrated the short you made, Plastic Bag.
BAHRANI: He's actually the voice of plastic bag. It's the main character of the film, and he supplies the voice. He's been one of my heroes since I was 17.
NOTEBOOK: You hear this more and more from younger American directors, this admiration for Herzog. A relationship to Herzog's films as acts of heroism. What attracts you, personally, to him?
BAHRANI: There are so many reasons. People got so fixated on neo-realism and the fact that my parents are from Iran. They kept insisting I'm an Iranian-American director—even though I was born and raised in Winston-Salem and all of my films take place in America and the characters are Americans. No one understood that the films that directly correlate, for me, to Man Push Cart aren't films like Bicycle Thieves, but Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran and Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. It seems so obvious: there's already one movie about the myth of Sisyphus, and that's Fitzcarraldo. It's always been a deep influence. And Herzog's films tend to deal a lot with outsiders and some kind of dream that can barely be accomplished. His films...you could make them. Why couldn't you make a Herzog film? All it takes is guts. It's within the reach of a young filmmaker. Maybe he has an explosion here and there, but it's always understandable how the films have been made. Another thing I like is, that, while some of his films definitely have a style to them, he's not really all that interested in style. And I'm not interested in that either.
What I love about Michael Simmonds, my cinematographer, is that he knows cinema history even better than me. He understands cinema language, and he understands that cinematography isn't just "beautiful shots." He's fine with not being noticed as a cinematographer if that means making the film better.
NOTEBOOK: Are the two of you set for life, then? Is it like a marriage?
BAHRANI: Well, Simmonds has a girlfriend. [laughs] Look, I like this guy a lot. He's a very important collaborator to me. We're not shooting the film till August, and he's coming over to discuss the film today. I've been discussing the script with him for a year, if not longer. He's not just a cameraman. He doesn't just show up and shoot. We talk and discuss many things. We went to see Titicut Follies yeserday, on the big screen, because the Wiseman retrospective has started. We went together. I consider him a real collaborator.
NOTEBOOK: Wiseman's a much more idealogically concerned filmmaker than people think. He's often described as this observational filmmaker, but there's a very clear point of view to his films. It comes through entirely in the images.
BAHRANI: I've always liked Wiseman. The reason we went to see Titicut Follies, and I've been thinking about it, in regards to the Western project is that the plot of it has something to do with insanity. I recently saw Basic Training for the first time on the big screen, which I really liked. I've seen 9 or 10 of his films, and each one of them has been great.
NOTEBOOK: You made a film before Man Push Cart—Strangers, starring yourself.
BAHRANI: It's a 70-minute film—I don't know if it's really a feature—I made in Iran. I graduated college in 1996, and then in 1998, I decided to go Iran for the first time in my life. I'd never been there. I planned to go there for six weeks, to see family, to have an experience, to better understand my family. And I ended up staying 2 1/2, almost 3 years. I was just exploring, meeting people, living. I had a simple idea for a film that seemed doable, simple. And it was extremely cheap to make a film there at that time. Things have changed now, but at the time, it was incredibly cheap. I paid more or less the same out of money to make that film—which is something like 67 minutes long, maybe 70 with the credits—as it would've cost to go to one year of grad school, so I just did that. Y'know, I never went to grad school. I just went to under-graduate and studied theory at Columbia. I took a couple of screenwriting classes, but there were never really any classes on how to make a film, or how to direct actors.
NOTEBOOK: Well, that's the easiest part. Everything else is hard. Focusing a shot takes no time to learn, but the reason for focusing a shot that takes time.
BAHRANI: Yes. I mean, you make short films, you make medium-length films, you look at all of the mistakes and you try again.
NOTEBOOK: You lived in Iran when you made that film. You live in New York, where your first two films are set. You grew up in Winston-Salem, where Goodbye Solo is set. Every film you've made, except the one you're currently working on, was set somewhere where you'd lived.
BAHRANI: I went out West three times while writing the film. But of course going out West in 2009—or 2008, when I made my first trip for the script—it's not 1849. That was a challenge. But I got over it. You do enough research and reading and you reach a point where you don't worry about whether it's historically accurate or not. And then you just focus on the emotions, the characters. That's what's most important. Contemporary films are full of falsehoods and I don't think that really matters: what matters is whether it feels correct to the audience, and whether it's emotionally correct. The facts don't really matter. If Citizen Kane was really based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, we'd probably be bored to tears.