Sundance 2015 Interview: Michael Shannon and Ramin Bahrani on 99 Homes
I’ve been waiting to talk about 99 Homes since I saw it at Telluride last year. That’s actually a quick turnaround for festival movies. I waited nearly a year to talk about Whiplash. 99 Homes played again at the Sundance Film Festival, and director Ramin Bahrani and actor Michael Shannon were in Park City for screenings. Shannon plays Florida real estate mogul Rick Carver, who evicts Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) and then hires Nash to help him with evictions. Nash becomes his number two but he has to confront other homeowners who are in the same situation he was. I discussed the complexity of issues surrounding 99 Homes with the film’s creator and its chief corruptor.
CraveOnline: Thank you for making this movie. I’ve been dealing with a situation with my house for eight year. Luckily, I’m not close to foreclosure yet, but was this a subject that affected you personally or just something you saw going on and felt you had to address it dramatically?
Ramin Bahrani: It didn’t address me personally. I guess like the entire world, the financial world was turned upside down and the root cause of the financial crisis was housing in the States. So there were a handful of epicenters. One of them was Florida, one of the four main epicenters in the country, so I went down to Florida just to see what was going on and was very struck by what I saw including, just like you, very normal middle class families that were being evicted, that were being moved into motels on the side of the road with their kids, school busses picking them up.
That was emotionally very powerful and I thought important. What I was surprised by was, what’s in the film now, which is the thriller or gangster element in the film. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect people with guns. I know it’s Florida, but still, I didn’t expect in this environment everyone would have a gun and for there to be such corruption, such thievery and how intense the whole thing was. So in thinking about it, that’s when the whole idea of this deal with the devil story came along.
I think the film asks: Can a good person get ahead by playing by their rules? And I hope he cannot, because that would be so disheartening if the solution was just for everyone to cheat. Was that your big question?
Ramin Bahrani: The huge question for Andrew’s character is how far is he prepared to go to provide for his family and the slippery slope that Michael’s character puts him on, which is seduction, that getting his home back for his family, providing for his family may not quite be enough, that there should be more. The scary thing is, it’s hard for us as a country to know is honest, hard work good enough anymore? Michael’s character I think maybe doesn’t believe that anymore, but I’d prefer Michael to say because he has his own interpretation of the character.
Michael Shannon: Yeah, I agree with you. It would be incredibly disheartening to think that the only way you can survive nowadays is to be some ruthless scumbag. But, conversely, if people don’t want to go down that road, they can’t just be apathetic either. If you say, “Well, I definitely don’t want to do that. That’s wrong.” Then you have to figure out what’s right and you can’t just sit in your house and wait until they come and take it away from you. So it involves I think trying to find the courage to do things that seem impossible. These people have created a system that seems untouchable and impenetrable. We just have to find a way to penetrate it.
It’s so interesting that your character says, “Don’t get emotional about property” when isn’t that exactly how they sell us on it? They talk to us about having a home and ownership.
Ramin Bahrani: Don’t get emotional about real estate.
Michael Shannon: I find there are two very distinct kinds of people in the world. There are people that get very attached to where they live and there are people that don’t. Historically for me, my whole life I’ve moved from place to place. It’s never really bothered me very much. In my 20s I would basically sleep anywhere as long as I wasn’t shivering, but there are some people who get a home and it’s almost like another member of their family. Particularly in this movie, you see how attached they are to the home and it’s passed down from generation to generation. It’s like some sort of fortress. People want to feel safe. They want to feel like they’re somewhere they can go where they’re safe. That’s what makes this such a horrifying situation is your refuge can be taken away from you.
Is it also manipulative for financial institutions to play on that and then turn around and say it’s only money?
Michael Shannon: I would never be reluctant to claim that financial institutions were manipulative.
Ramin Bahrani: Yeah. Yes. I mean, yes.
Michael Shannon: That’s what I’m saying is I guess there’s a three way fork in the road. There’s the way that Rick Carver goes and then there’s the people that just sit there and don’t really do much about the situation. This third road that if you really believe that these financial institutions are criminal, then we have to do something about it.
As you show in the movie, every foreclosure is a different dramatic situation. Did you have unlimited scenarios to draw from?
Ramin Bahrani: Yes. There are so many because I spent a lot of time in Florida researching the film and I went on a lot of evictions, and became friends with a lot of real estate brokers. Michael did as well. Andrew also. They ranged the gamut and we tried to show them in the film, some of them extremely heartbreaking and others very scary. Some people with guns, some people with tears which is interesting because after the screening today, the audiences kept telling me that they were so tense the whole way through the film because it’s a thriller, but because it has this social emotional element, they said that they were clawing their own hands out of tension and weeping at the same time. I’m happy it has such a visceral reaction from audiences and I think it’s some combination of this tension and this emotion.