The American filmmaker opens up about the anger that fuelled his latest feature film.
The financial crisis that took hold in 2008 not only turned the world upside down but also sent the real estate market into complete disarray, the effects of which are still being felt in a fraught post-recession landscape. The levels of homelessness continues to rise, with the impact of the housing crisis resulting in elevated rents, poor living conditions and even a huge number of people forced out of their homes altogether. Although Charles Ferguson’s 2010 documentary Inside Job touched on similar issues, they haven’t been explored to such an urgent, powerful and painstaking level as they are in 99 Homes (2014), the fifth feature from writer-director Ramin Bahrani.
Bristling with anger at the escalation of the housing epidemic and its destructive effects on families the world over, Bahrani set about capturing how this impossible situation became a horrifying reality, ensuring that his passion project of sorts refused to give answers to the moral questions he posits. “None of my films have wrapped up endings because I like to have emotionally resonant conclusions that feel like the end of the journey for the characters without necessarily tying up the plot, because that’s not the way the world works,” says Bahrani, who always intends to provoke a wider conversation. “If I answered things then the audience wouldn’t continue to think about it when they leave, and who’s to say that I have all the answers?”
The film sees Andrew Garfield – fresh from his curtailed incarnation of Marvel’s Spider-Man – playing Dennis Nash, a young single father in Florida struggling to find sustainable construction work and keeping the money coming in. When an altercation with the courts results in he, his son Connor (Noah Lomax) and mother Lynn (Laura Dern) being prematurely evicted from their home, Dennis finds that his only chance to win it back is to go to work for Rick Carver (Michael Shannon, offering a charismatically nuanced variation on his stock-in-trade villainy), the seductive, ruthless self-made businessman who was originally instrumental in their ejection.
Though reluctantly trading his moral standards for a more comfortable life for his family, Dennis finds that his falling deeper into Carver’s web of deceit may cost him everything he holds dear.
For Bahrani, who cites John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath as one of his favourite novels, it wasn’t until he went down to Florida to see first-hand the corruption, scams and violence that’s rife on the sun-dappled streets that he knew he had to channel it all into a genre film in the mould of a gangster thriller. “What I thought was going to be just a social drama would in fact become a Faustian, deal with the devil story. I had never seen that being told in this particular world, and, as with my other films, I get inspired by and enjoy entering worlds and learning about other people and cultures that I’m not familiar with, and I think audiences respond to that as well.”
Not only did the director meet fraud attorneys – including noted whistle-blower Lynn Szymoniak, and gun-carrying real estate brokers, who inspired the darker edges of the story, Bahrani also spent a lot of time in motels along Highway 142, ironically positioned in the shadow of Disney World. There he encountered a large amount of foreclosure victims: migrant day labourers, gangbangers, prostitutes and poverty-stricken middle-class families, who were all incorporated in and fatalities of the 99% of global wealth inequality. What’s more, when Garfield conducted his own research, he found himself talking to a man whose story closely resembled the moral tightrope Dennis walks in the film: an out-of-work construction worker who turned to evicting others to provide for his family, no matter how much he was taking from those around him. This heartbreaking confrontation ultimately inspired the core tension of 99 Homes, that audiences wouldn’t expect Dennis to be doing to others what was done to him a mere thirty minutes earlier.
Although shot in New Orleans to benefit from their generous tax breaks, the film is very much a story about the Sunshine State, which Bahrani chose over other states with similar problems -Arizona, Nevada, California, etc. – because the sheen and beautiful sunlight offers an effortless contrast with the darkness of the story. This darkness establishes itself from the very first shot, thrusting audiences into a world governed by deceit, greed and betrayal that’s all too recognisable. When asked whether the film was easy to get funded considering such an identifiable range of moral complexities, as well as a unambiguous condemnation of how bankers got away with billions of dollars of theft, Bahrani was quick to describe that it’s those very elements that ensured it got made.
I don’t want to say that this is an issues film. I personally don’t want to be coaxed into an agenda when I see fiction, and I don’t even want an agenda from a documentary unless I really know what I’m getting into
“Once people read the script they found that it was doing something totally different than what it was initially described as, as a “foreclosure drama”,” says the director, who found that it was the script’s ties to a specific genre that ultimately helped it through to production, much like the enjoyable George Clooney romantic drama Up in the Air (2009), about a man who makes his living in corporate downsizing. “Imagine I asked you if you wanted to see a film about people losing or being fired from their jobs in the middle of the economic crisis; you would say it sounds horrible and that you didn’t want to watch it. If it hadn’t been told in this way then it wouldn’t have been getting the attention it has so far, where audiences are finding themselves startled after watching it, which is great!”
Much like his previous handful of films and their treatment of real-world concerns, from the stark child-orientated Chop Shop (2007) to the tragicomic 2009 short film Plastic Bag, about a disregarded supermarket item (voiced by none other than Werner Herzog) attempting to find his way in the universe, 99 Homes retains its potency through Bahrani’s attempt to strip from it any kind of agenda. “I don’t want to say that this is an issues film. I personally don’t want to be coaxed into an agenda when I see fiction, and I don’t even want an agenda from a documentary unless I really know what I’m getting into,” says Bahrani, who stresses that the crux of the film is essentially a typical but enduring storytelling gambit: the mentor/apprentice-father/son relationship between Dennis and Rick.
For this he drafted in Garfield, who also serves as producer and helped refine the script, and Shannon who the director believes is one of the best actors working today. Not only did they contribute exceptionally adroit and thoughtful performances, they also influenced Bahrani to actually create more scenes for them just so he could continue watching them butt heads. “I’ve never seen Andrew or Michael doing anything like this before, and it was so exciting on set because they have such differing acting styles; Andrew is more loose and improvisational, whereas Michael is more like a bulldog who knows exactly what to say and do. It was sometimes hard for me to manage them because they were clashing in terms of style, but both men respected each other like the characters in the film, so that added an extra foundation to their performances.”
If a film is indeed a product of whatever time in which it’s made, then 99 Homes succeeds in reflecting both the anger, confusion and desperation felt by millions across the world and, fortuitously, the divisiveness of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the US – a figure critics in the states are comparing Shannon’s character to. It’s a sign of troubled times when the name Trump is a signifier of success, Bahrani believes, a sign that, though he doesn’t have the solution to, hopefully his film can go some way into stimulating a wider dialogue.