Ramin Bahrani talks about GOODBYE SOLO


On the lonely roads of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, two men forge an improbable friendship that will change both of their lives forever. Solo is a Senegalese cab driver working to provide a better life for his young family. William is a tough Southern good ol‘ boy with a lifetime of regrets. One man‘s American dream is just beginning, while the other‘s is quickly winding down. But despite their differences, both men soon realize they need each other more than either is willing to admit. Through this unlikely but unforgettable friendship, GOODBYE SOLO deftly explores the passing of a generation as well as the rapidly changing face of America.

Born and raised in North Carolina in 1975, Ramin Bahrani received his BA in Film Studies from Columbia University in New York City. He made several short films culminating in BACKGAMMON (1998) which he made in Winston-Salem, NC. After completion of the film, Bahrani moved to his parents’ homeland of Iran for three years where he made his student thesis film STRANGERS (2000). Bahrani then spent some time in Paris before returning to the States to begin work on his first feature film, MAN PUSH CART.

MAN PUSH CART (2005) premiered at The Venice International Film Festival (2005) and later screened at The Sundance Film Festival (2006). The film won over 10 international prizes, including the FIPRESCI international critic’s prize in The London Film Festival (2005), before being released around the world to wide critical acclaim.

Bahrani’s second film, CHOP SHOP (2007) was co-written by Bahareh Azimi and produced by Lisa Muskat (George Washington) and Big Beach Films (Little Miss Sunshine) and premiered in the Director’s Fortnight at the 2007 Cannes International Film Festival, and then screened as an official selection at both the Toronto Film Festival (2007) and the Berlin Film Festival (2008).

In 2008 Bahrani premiered his third feature film, GOODBYE SOLO, as an official selection of the Venice Film Festival and won the prestigious FIPRESCI international critics prize for Best Film. The film’s North American premiere was at the Toronto Film Festival and producer Jason Orans received an Independent Spirit Award nomination as “A Producer to Watch.” Goodbye Solo will be released theatrically in the United States by Roadside Attractions in the spring of 2009 and globally shortly thereafter. Lions Gate Films will handle the U.S. DVD release.

Bahrani will be the subject of several prestigious international retrospectives in 2009 including the MoMA in New York City, Harvard University, and La Rochelle Film Festival.

Bijan Tehrani: How did you first come up with the story for Goodbye Solo, and when did you decide to make this film?
Ramin Bahrani: I first met the taxi driver, way back in 2003. I was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina playing in a soccer game with my brother, and there were a lot of taxi cabs by the field. I came to understand that a lot of taxi drivers in Winston-Salem are African. One of these drivers—who doesn’t want to be known, so I will refer to him as “O”— was Senegalese, and was a very friendly guy. I saw him a few weeks later at a gas station, where he had a second job. We started talking, and I came to learn that even though he was a taxi cab driver, he had to either get a ride to work or walk. I thought the idea of a Senegalese taxi driver who has to walk to work in the suburbs could be interesting for a film. At the same time, I would see elderly men standing by the side of the road near a nursing home, which in the suburbs is a strange sight to see. Coming from the Iranian background, there is no nursing home per se; the family kind of stays together. I thought that if I put this in the taxi with the driver O, that it could be a very interesting situation. So I started to develop a story about the two men, and I combined it with Blowing Rock, the final destination in the film which is a real life location that I visited a lot as a kid with my family. It is known for its almost mystically powerful wind, and that location as an ending gave me the courage and confidence that this film could be something special. After that I wrote the script.

BT: Observing the actors that exactly matched these characters is very interesting. They are so believable. How did you find your actors?
RB: With the taxi driver, I went back and actually spent six months with the real guy. I always assumed he would play himself, and the film used to be named after him. But after I made “Chop Shop” and came back, he said he didn’t want to do the film anymore. To find Souleymane Sy Savane, the actor who plays Solo, we searched in LA, New York, North Carolina; I went to Paris, and tapes were coming in from African countries and England. In our search, we contacted the African Diaspora Film Festival in New York City, the head of that festival contacted directors who contacted friends, and one of them was Solo. I liked him immediately and believe it or not, in the first casting interview I found out that he had been a flight attendant for two years, which was already part of the script and he had no idea about it. It was almost too good to be true. And so we rehearsed together for several months before I gave him the part. By the way, Solo was a trained actor, which was new for me. Red West is a Hollywood character actor, which is also new for me. To find West, we called casting agencies in the South East. I really wanted a real southerner, with an accent and the walk and talk and look of the South. A tape came in with Red West, and I watched it for about five seconds, and I paused and I understood that this was the guy that I had been writing about for five years. It was him; his hands, his face; it was so obvious that he lived, worked and was physically strong, which was very important to me. This guy is big and strong, and he is tired but doesn’t look weak or sick. He was great. He took all the directions well, we brought him to Winston-Salem to do a rehearsal with Solo, and they were great together.

BT: How did you work with your actors?
RB: Well, to tell you quickly about Red West; he was Elvis Presley’s best friend from childhood and then became Elvis’ bodyguard and part of the Memphis Mafia. He was also a stunt man in the Elvis movies, and when Elvis died he became a character actor and worked with Coppola, Oliver Stone, Altman, and in big Hollywood films like “Road House” and “Glory Road”. This was his first feature film lead role, and so it was different for me because I had never worked with a professional actor. This was also the first time that I had given the script to the lead actors. In the past I never showed the actors the script. Red West was quite easy to work with in terms of emotion; he was very quick to get at what I wanted. We talked briefly about back story, but not much. His real life back story was pretty close, minus the fame. He came from a modest, agricultural upbringing. He had seen a lot, had a lot of adventures; he experienced hard living. For Solo, this was his first feature film; he had studied acting but was never really given a chance. I brought him to Winston-Salem and he lived with me and my brother for three months. I put him in a taxi and he worked as a real cab driver learning the business, meeting the driver and the guy who inspired his character. This helped him become more comfortable with some of the language of the film. In real life, Solo doesn’t use expressions like “big dog” or “big booty”. He had a hard time in rehearsals with those words until he actually came to Winston and met the real people. Like my other films, initial rehearsals would involve him and the other non-professional actors like his step-daughter and wife, just hanging out and spending time together—a technique I used in my other films.

BT: Compared to your other films, I feel as though you get closer to your characters in this one. In your other films you observe your characters from a distance, which worked great, but perhaps because of the requirements of this story, you needed to be closer to your characters.
RB: Well, I appreciate that you say that. It did seem that way to me also. Not only in the scripting of the film did Bahareh Azimi and I consciously try to go deeper into the relationship between William and Solo more so than the other films had, but also in the shooting of the film. “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop” were based so much in the foreground and background, and the landscapes of those films were so important. With this film, other than the ending, while landscape and location are specific and important, the real landscapes are the two men’s faces. This gets you close not just emotionally, but also physically. Thankfully for me and the audience, these two men have amazing faces. I could look at William’s face for hours—it is so interesting—and Solo has such warmth to his face.

BT: The relationship between the man and his grandson is something that is always lingering. You wonder why he doesn’t get close to talk to the boy is his grandson, but of course you understand that he doesn’t want the image to be broken. What was your reason for not letting him talk to the boy and tell him who he is?
RB: It is a very big point in the film. If William knows that he is to kill himself in two weeks, and the grandson doesn’t know who he is, telling the grandson at that stage would be a selfish thing to do. This would open the door to the grandson, a relationship he plans to end two weeks later. This would be a selfish act and painful act for William. And this talks to what the film is basically about, a concept of love that is in contradiction to what we normally perceive in our life—cinema and art as love—which is something possessive and destructive. Like in Romeo & Juliet or Wuthering Heights, the ideas of love are often quite destructive. Here things are turned around, and it is about loving the other person more, which is not how we normally think about it. Consider that in the first scene of the film, Solo decides that he is going to charm this man and change his mind away from suicide. As the film develops he comes to love the old man in some way, which means he really cares about this man and now really wants to change his mind. Oddly, by the end of the film, all that he wants to do is take him to the mountain; to his death, which is the opposite of what Solo wanted at the start. Solo comes to understand that if he really loves this man, he has to let him go. Even if it is painful to him, even though he doesn’t know the reasons why he wants to go, and even if the morning he is to take him he reads in a notebook that the old man really cares about him and his future, he knows he has to let him go. And Solo still takes him to the mountain, because he loves him that much; he loves him selflessly. This is quite different than his wife, who tells him ‘Solo, I love you. Now do this for me.’ Also, you could say that the reason William has such a strong connection with Alex, the step daughter, is that Alex is the only other person in the film who seems to love people independently; she never bothers Solo about leaving home. That is a big part of what this film really is.

BT: The visual style of this film is really beautiful. How did you come up with the visual style?
RB: Well, it is simple. Like the last two films, there is not a lot of cutting or a lot of flashy camera work. It is pretty simple. But that doesn’t mean it is easy to do. Unlike “Chop Shop”, it is not handheld, but on a tripod, more like “Man Push Cart.” Like with all the films, we just tried to focus on what is essential to the scene, what the audience needs to be engaged in. The shots on the car only comprise about fifteen minutes of the film. But those scenes were mapped based on their relationship towards one another. When William moves to the front seat, it is based on his connection to Solo. And then the shooting style changes as well. Michael and I also tried to give a slight feeling that Solo was trapped in the first part of the film; he is in a closed space within a cab. There are not a lot of super wide shots of the landscape until the end of the film, when things really open up. That was a deliberate contrast.

BT: The relationship between Solo’s daughter and William is very interesting. Sometimes it seems as though she is more comfortable with William than her own dad.
RB: I think that she is pretty comfortable with everyone that she meets in the film. But her connection to William is that they are both fairly independent. I do think that she loves Solo very much. I also think that it is important to note that she is Hispanic, and not African. And suddenly at the end of the film you have a young Hispanic girl, followed by Solo, a young African man, and William, an elderly Caucasian man. When I look at these three people, I think, ‘This is the way America looks now.’ I think, especially with the current election, it is starting to look like people finally understand that the concept of a “Visitor” has to end. These aren’t visitors, this is America, and this is their home.

BT: These new people of this country, even if they are struggling a lot, are happier than some that have been living in a lifestyle that cuts off relationships with others.
RB: I think, in this current economic situation, it is important to look back at the first two films and realize that what connects the films, more than immigrant status, is poverty. Solo is better off than Ahmad and Alejandro and his sister in “Chop Shop” and “Man Push Cart”, but he is barely middle class; he is really lower class economically, yet he still seems pretty happy. In all three films, their dreams are very important, and they are modest. What is happening economically is going to force this kind of change in people’s mentalities. The idea of failure in contrast to success is something Arthur Miller warned us about in “Death of a Salesman’. Flying a flag in playschools around America saying “this is success and if you do not reach it, you are a failure and there is nothing in between”, is an idea that has to change. The idea of what we consider success and the pressures of being a “failure” and what “failure” means has to change.

BT: How has the audience reaction been thus far to this film?
RB: I am happy to say that it has been the strongest reaction yet. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival (2008) and won the International Critics Award for best film in Venice. In Toronto, it had a similar reception, where the critics voted it the second best film of the festival. There was a retrospective of my three films at the MOMA in New York and the audience was very receptive. I think that there is something about Solo, his optimistic nature and strength that somehow strikes a chord with people. I have been happy to see that some critics and audiences who were worried that the film would be like “The Legend of Bagger Vance”, where the angelic black guy saves the white guy, or like “The Bucket List”—clichéd and sentimental—have found that is not the case. I am really excited that people, after seeing the film, write on the internet that it is something very different. They see that the characters are true, it is honest, there are no Hollywood tricks in it, and in the middle of death, life has been found, and there is an acceptance of things. This is something that I think is more common for Iranian culture. I think audiences are embracing that.

BT: Speaking of American culture, I think one of the films that had a great effect on me as a young boy was “Shane”. The ending of this film reminded me of “Shane”. It is very nice.
RB: I really appreciate that.

BT: When is the film opening?
RB: The theatrical release of the film starts on March 27th in New York and Chicago. By the end of May it is going to go to twenty-five cities. It comes to LA on April 10th.


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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