2009 was a good year for director Ramin Bahrani. The 34-year-old was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and watched as critics continued to laud Chop Shop (2007) and Goodbye Solo (2008). Not only has Roger Ebert dubbed Bahrani the “new great American director,” but the critic ranked Chop Shop the sixth best film of the 2000s, saying, “In my opinion, [Bahrani is] the new director of the decade.” Goodbye Solo continues to appear on most year-end lists, and lead actor Souléymane Sy Savané was nominated for both a Gotham and an Independent Spirit Award.
Goodbye Solo screens in Springfield on March 14 and 16 as part of the Springfield Art Association’s annual film series. Below is a transcript of our recent interview with Bahrani. (Warning: specific plot points are discussed in detail.)
IT: Goodbye Solo tells the story of a Senegalese taxi driver and his unlikely friendship with an elderly passenger. How did you get involved with these characters and this story?
RB: It was in Winston-Salem, where I was born and raised. A lot of people think that I am an Iranian director, but I’m American. I was playing soccer and met a charming guy like you see in movie. He piqued my interest, so I returned a couple years later and rode with him for a few months to learn about his world and form a story from those explorations.
IT: You worked as director, co-writer, editor, a producer, etc. That much control isn’t always given to young filmmakers. Is that the main advantage to working outside of the Hollywood system?
RB: I’ve never been in the system, so it’s hard to say. But I have a vision for the film I want to make, and I surround myself with the collaborators that can help me attain that vision and make it even better. Instead of trying to change the film into something it’s not to make it more marketable.
IT: But I think this film especially, if made at a traditional studio, would have been pressured to hit certain plot points or have a different ending, to tie up loose ends, this film makes you think and doesn’t spell it all out.
RB: Audiences are much smarter than some people give them credit for. They have imagination, and are looking for real stories, and they don’t want to be bored. We’re trying to tell an engaging story that starts right off the bat. All of my films have been 90 minutes or under. That’s important to me. I use very engaging, emotional characters. I think it’s important for your audience in Illinois to know that Goodbye Solo may have serious scenes or subjects, but it’s quite humorous. They can enjoy it. An independent film that doesn’t move at the same pace as a Hollywood film does not have to be boring.
IT: Tell me about your actors. You often use local non-professionals.
RB: Souléymane Sy Savané, who plays Solo, is a trained actor who never had a chance. Red West (William) used to be Elvis’ friend and bodyguard and is a veteran character actor. The others are mostly non-pro locals. Non-professionals don’t come with baggage of training that might distract from what I want. I dream to work with Robert Duvall, and we thought about him for William, but I thought he would have been a distraction for this specific film. The emotion would have been a bit different if it was Don Cheadle as Solo. I hope to work with him on a different film.
I didn’t show the script to the actors. Besides the two leads, no one saw the script and knew what the movie was about. They only knew their scenes.
IT: We mostly get mainstream cinema here. Is it important that your film is accessible?
RB: Oh, yeah, it’s important. I didn’t make an art house film; I tried to make the most engaging film that I could. My kind of movie doesn’t mean you have to think to understand it, it’s a very simple story. If we don’t make these movies then Avatar is going to be our only option. A movie should be something where a child can understand what is only going on, but perhaps only an adult can understand what it’s trying to say or express.
IT: Roger Ebert has been effusive in his praise for you. How do you react to that, and does it change what you’re doing in any way?
RB: I think about Ebert and Scott and other critics who have said very flattering things. I don’t know if I believe them because I think I’m a charlatan sometimes, but it makes me want the next film to be better.
IT: Goodbye Solo is out on DVD now, but this festival allows people to see it in the theater. Is it a much different experience?
RB: Oh, 100 percent. Seeing these two actors’ faces on the big screen is like watching a completely different film. If you get a good audience and someone realizes the movie can be funny, it’s a much more enjoyable film. I saw Hudsucker Proxy when it came out on opening night in New York. I was laughing hysterically with the entire audience. Then I rented it five years later and I didn’t laugh once.
IT: You’ve been pretty prolific so far. Why?
RB: What else would I do if I wasn’t making a movie? I’d be bored. I’d read a book or something, but I do that anyway.
— Zach Baliva