Ramin Bahrani talks to Bijan Tehrani about FAHRENHEIT 451


Michael B. Jordan (“Black Panther,” “Creed,” “Fruitvale Station”) and Michael Shannon (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”; Oscar nominee for “Nocturnal Animals” and “Revolutionary Road”; Golden Globe nominee for “99 Homes”) star in HBO Films’ FAHRENHEIT 451. Directed by Ramin Bahrani (“99 Homes”) from a screenplay by Ramin Bahrani & Amir Naderi (“Vegas: Based on a True Story”), the drama is based on Ray Bradbury’s classic novel of the same name, depicting an alternate tomorrow in which media is an opiate, facts and history are rewritten, and “firemen” burn books. FAHRENHEIT 451 debuts SATURDAY, MAY 19 (8:00-9:30 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.

The film will also be available on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW, HBO GO and partners’ streaming platforms.
Jordan portrays Montag, a young fireman who begins to question his beliefs and turns against his friend and mentor, Captain Beatty, played by Shannon. Sofia Boutella (“The Mummy,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service”) stars as Clarisse, an informant who becomes newly politicized through her interactions with Montag.
The cast also includes: Lilly Singh (“Bad Moms,” YouTube’s “Superwoman”) as Raven, a social media vlogger who works with the fire department to spread the Ministry’s propaganda by broadcasting its fire-shows to fans; Khandi Alexander (HBO’s “Treme”; Emmy® nominee for “Scandal”) as Toni Morrison, leader of the underground effort to memorize and preserve books and knowledge; Martin Donovan (“Inherent Vice,” “The Portrait of a Lady”) as Commissioner Nyari, Beatty’s superior; and Dylan Taylor (“Covert Affairs,” “Reasonable Doubt”) as Fireman Douglas, Montag’s rival firefighter.

Ramin Bahrani, director of Fahrenheit 451 is an Iranian American writer and director whose films have premiered at The Venice, Cannes, Sundance, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals. In 2010 legendary film critic Roger Ebert proclaimed Bahrani as “the director of the decade.” Bahrani has won numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has been the subject of retrospectives in venues such as the MoMA. His films include Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo, and 99 Homes, and have won numerous awards around the world, including a Golden Globe nomination for Michael Shannon (99 Homes).

Bijan Tehrani: After watching Fahrenheit 451, I think it’s, in a way, a continuation of the other movies you have made so far, dealing with the human species’ place in this world. There are even some critics that think this film is totally different from the other projects you have done, as far as your insight to the world. What do you think about that?
Ramin Bahrani: No, I think it’s again my type of film with some of the same themes and ideas that have always concerned me. I’m more in agreement with you and I think it’s the same person. Different wallpaper, but same person.

BT: You’ve been very brave to accept the task of working on a very well-known book—a book that has also been adapted to a film by well-known director Truffaut before. I personally think that you made it your own, and I don’t want to judge your film based on the book because a lot of film critics are referring to the book and comparing and trying to find out if the film is faithful to the book. I don’t think the film needs to be faithful to the book personally. I think it addresses the same concerns of Ray Bradbury, only places it in the right time. Tell me how did you come up with the concept and the format of your Fahrenheit 451?
RB: Well you know I hear what you’re saying, I confess, I haven’t read a review of my film since Roger Ebert died some years ago. If critics are comparing it to the book and are upset that I changed it, then they should just go read the book again. Of course, I’m not going to stay faithful to the plot of the novel because I’m adapting it to a film. I must make it personal to me and I must make it relevant to a contemporary audience, and I should also follow Bradbury’s lead itself. I didn’t do these things carelessly or without thought. Bradbury himself adapted his own novel twice into a musical and a stage play. He let Clarisse McLellan live in those versions, he also changed many other elements. He also approved of Truffaut’s film, which changed the novel significantly, eliminating characters, changing characters and storylines as well. I had to change these things but, in my mind, the one thing I did not want to change was the theme and ideas of Bradbury—that’s what excited me to want to make this to begin with. The themes and ideas present in the book seemed very relevant to me in 2015, when I read the novel again. That’s what I wanted to explore. Firefighters weren’t going to just barge into your home to burn books. Every book you want to read is now available to you in the cloud, so how would they contend with that? They had to deal with that, so I was curious what that would mean. I read the book in High School in 9th grade and if there was a difference between this and my other films other than it’s an adaptation, which I had never done, it was also that for the first time I was thinking: could teenagers like this film? I got it as a teenager and I remembered it always from when I read in in 9th grade and I really was hoping that a younger generation would see this and feel something; that they would feel connected to it personally to the way their life is.

BT: The timing of your version of Fahrenheit 451 is exciting because now, there’s the opportunity to make realistic video games that can tackle the same social justice issues.
RB: Yeah, I mean, Bradbury in the novel predicted fake history and alternate truth. Bradbury wrote that the firemen wanted to know who started the first fire department. They read their handbooks which say that it was Ben Franklin and that he did it to burn books. Montag can ask Yuxie, which is something like Siri or Alexa, and the internet can show it to him, and he’ll believe it. This is like the world we live in now where we, whatever we want to believe we go to the news we look for our information in a stream that has been algorithmically created for us to like it, for us to stay happy, and we certainly all read these articles. I appreciate you and other journalists want to talk and write an interview with me, but is anyone really going to read it? They just look at the headline, a nice headline, and like it and share it and move onto the next thing. This keeps people happy, and Bradbury warned us about those things.

BT: Was there anything about the current issues of the world today, especially in U.S., which also inspired you in making Fahrenheit 451?
RB: I mean initially what was striking me was technology and the internet, but the election began while we were finishing the script. Bradbury talks about buyers shown in the novel as being showed as being entertainment. He says in the novel the firemen almost weren’t necessary anymore, that is was mainly for the show of it all. The election cycle seemed to be like that, to be something of a show to it. It was entertainment more than anything else. You know Bradbury, he talked about a lot of these books being banned and burned because they were insulting minorities, and there’s a lot of talk about that now, trigger words and certain types of censorship. I’m not saying it’s good or bad but things that are happening in schools and universities that I think Bradbury was alarmed by, I thought could create a conversation. People could argue both sides of the point. Part of the point is that people don’t argue two sides anymore, they just get stuck into the one side only. They don’t really want to engage in any conversation or dialogue, they don’t want to read. These are the things Bradbury was concerned about. Politically, around the world anyway, there was the rise of the right, which leads to a lot of things Bradbury was concerned about. I hope whatever happens we don’t fall back to the left, because they didn’t do that great either.

BT: There are a few reviews that raise doubts on the transformation of Montag from someone burning the books to a book savior. I’ve found Montag’s character quite convincing because his transformation is subtle, and it is based on all they’re facing and what is happening to them. What do you say about that?
RB: Again, I haven’t read these reviews. To me, the transformation makes complete sense. In the very first frame of the film, he’s haunted by the dream. From the first frame of the movie he’s playing a double character. He seems troubled by something in his past that he’s not getting answers to. But he doesn’t seem to be there when he burns in public in the first fire show, and he’s kind of show-boating in front of the crowd as a superstar when he’s burning all that information and knowledge. It immediately cuts to him in a dream again, and he seems haunted by something. He doesn’t seem to be himself. He seems impacted by Clarisse and her comments to him about thinking and reading and being, finding something different. He has a conversation with Beatty in a bar where Beatty talks about Plato’s cave and Montag’s character seems to, ironically, fake he’s a hero. He doesn’t even seem to believe it. Beatty feels constantly troubled, he steals, he is impacted by the historian’s words about journalism, about reading, about the right to read. He seems deeply impacted by that. He steals, he’s set in that location and he discovers he has a vent, as Bradbury has in the book, full of things he’s stolen. I don’t understand how many more things could I put to show that he’s waiting for the final moment, which is the old woman killing herself alive with books. What else would a person need to change, I don’t understand. I’ve just outlined in 30 minutes, almost 15 things that have led him to the point of wanting to change, anything more would be redundant. I don’t know, maybe they should watch it again and stop comparing it to the book.

BT: I love the poetic ending of the film along with the hopeful imagery of the birds. How did you arrive there?
RB: Bradbury ended it on a slightly optimistic note. He had the people who had memorized books returning to civilization to start it again. He had a nuclear bomb go off in the end, which is horrific, and later in life he said he would cut that out of the book. Again, if you studied Bradbury, not only did he change his book, he said he would have changed it again. He said he would have eliminated the nuclear bomb in the end. He was not shy from changing things. I wanted to have that in the end, some type of a hope. Bijan, and you know because you’re Iranian, of course I thought about The Conference of the Birds, the great Attar epic work. That led to the ideas like phoenix, which Bradbury talks about, the phoenix on the costumes and what could be reborn. The idea that Montag could go the full journey of a hero, he does what the old woman did. He allows himself to die in the end so that this bird could live and spread knowledge around the whole world.

BT: One last thing is about the character of Michael Shannon, Captain Beatty. He is just like some of the leaders of our world today, he knows the truth but they try to kill it. Is this something you did intentionally with the character?
RB: You know in the novel Beatty’s character is constantly quoting books. How does he know them all? He must have been reading them all, otherwise how can he keep quoting them constantly? So, I just thought if he’s reading this much then maybe he’s interested in writing, and, so he’s also living a double life. In the novel he knows Montag is searching for some truth and he knows Montag is doing things he shouldn’t be doing, but for a while he doesn’t stop it, he seems to encourage it and then he wants to stop it. I felt there was something more to be developed there. Beatty’s character is very conflicted. I think part of him believes not reading will make you happy because he’s been reading a lot and he doesn’t seem very happy. He seems really confused and tormented by what he’s reading. I think Jordan’s character manages to do what Beatty can’t do, which is free himself from a system. He must pay the price for it, but he does free himself from the system, and Beatty’s character is unable to do that. But he does let that bird live, he manages to. He can’t seem to bring himself to kill that bird in the end.

BT: Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me and talk about the decision that went into your film. Looking forward to your next one.
RB: You know I’m doing White Tiger next. My next film will be in India!
BT: That’s wonderful, and something our audience will be looking forward to.


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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