Ramin Bahrani‘s films have premiered and screened at Venice, Cannes, Sundance, Berlin and Toronto Film Festivals. He has won numerous awards including the FIPRESCI prize for best film (Man Push Cart, London; Goodbye Solo, Venice), the “Someone to Watch” Independent Spirit Award (Chop Shop), and was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. He collaborated with Werner Herzog on his short film Plastic Bag and recently directed a music video for Sigur Rós. In 2010 film critic Roger Ebert proclaimed Bahrani “the director of the decade.” His new film, At Any Price (Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron) premiered in the main competition at the Venice Film Festival where it was nominated for the Golden Lion, and later screened in the official selections of The Telluride (2012) and Toronto Film Festivals (2012). Bahrani is a professor at Columbia University’s graduate film program.
Bahrani will be holding his Narrative Filmmaking workshop Feburary 23-24. Emphasis is on clarity, simplicity, and the articulation of beats and turning points via blocking, shot progression, props, and performance. Students participate in hands-on direction of scenes in the presence of the instructor. Bahrani discusses his personal process through a look at his own work.
Roger Ebert has dubbed you the, “greatest director of the decade.” Others have called you the greatest up and coming indie filmmaker. You do partake in multiple roles as director, producer and editor of your films. In this sense, many aspiring indie filmmakers find you a very relatable icon in the film industry. What advice can you offer indie filmmakers who are juggling multiple roles?
I enjoy working in all aspects of filmmaking, and have strong opinions about everything from props, to costumes, the casting of extras and the budget. At the same time, it is critical to have smart collaborators who can improve on the work. Understanding budgets is very useful for any filmmaker, since there will never be enough money to get what you want. Doing a lot of work in advance of production is a great way to save money and improve the specificity and control you have over a film. Similarly, it is important to understand how to film a scene in the least number of setups possible, because just like money, there is never enough time.
What do you think the future has in store for the film industry as a whole? How does indie filmmaking play into the mix?
These predictions are always very hard to make, but with a few rare exceptions, independent cinema is the only option left for making dramatic stories.
What were your first experiences in the film industry like? At what moment did you think to yourself, “I’ve broken through the barrier?” What were some key moments in your early career that led to your success?
I never thought of things in these terms. Making films is hard, and I assume it always will be. Remember, Robert Bresson failed for the last eight years of his life to make his final film. Kurosawa tried to kill himself at the end of his career because nobody would finance him. My first experiences were making my own films. I never worked in the film industry. I avoided it by choice. Instead I had many odd jobs like manager of a bed and breakfast, truck driver, bartender, and telemarketer. Telemarketing was very useful. It taught me how to convince people to give me money for something they were not sure they wanted.
Your films explore the lives of very “real” characters that have larger than life struggles. There lives a very documentarian feel in your films, telling the story of ordinary people with extraordinary will. Explain your passion behind your unique style.
Reality provides a context for nearly anything to be possible. I want the audience to feel connected to the characters and the world as if it were their own lives, rather than a fantasy they know does not exist. Remember, even Kafka’s Metamorphosis or The Trial contain realities we all know could exist
When it comes to juggling roles, at what moment do you, “put down the pen and pick up the camera?” What steps do you take to remove yourself from a writer’s role and get to the core of the narrative as a director?
I am thinking about camera, location and performance from the screenplay stage. I do not storyboard. I have blocking and performance in mind before shooting, but I allow the actors the freedom to rehearse and see what they will bring to the script. Only after rehearsals do I make specific decisions regarding where to place the camera.
What methods do you employ in your directing to illicit such subtle and powerful performances?
Each actor requires something slightly different. It is best not to talk too much to an actor. Allow them the freedom to explore and bring their ideas to the first takes. Only after seeing their interpretation should you guide them – if necessary. If you can attain what you want by giving mechanical and physical directions, then that is best. If not, you have to use other more psychological or manipulative methods.
What types of audiences do you hope to capture with your films?
What types of responses are you looking for? I think every filmmaker hopes to capture the imagination of as many audiences as possible; but of course I am not in the business of design-by-committee “tent-pole” filmmaking. I hope when an audience watches my films they have more questions than answers.
How do you stay relevant and up to date with film? What is your research process during writing, and then directing?
I enjoy reading more than watching films. I also enjoy researching locations and characters while conceiving characters, themes and stories. All my films so far have come from research and immersion in worlds I was curious to know about.