Ramin Bahrani's Goodbye Solo made its Seattle premiere at the Northwest Film Forum on Wednesday night. Critics around the country and the world (most notably those awarding the Critics’ Prize at the Venice Film Festival) have done everything but turn cartwheels about this film, and rightly so. It is beautifully shot (particularly sequences in the misty, autumn-hued North Carolina forest), well acted, and painstakingly constructed. However, the most memorable part of Wednesday’s screening was the Q&A with Bahrani that followed the packed screening, when he shared both his unbelievable process and the intense vision that informs all his projects.
Ramin Bahrani makes no compromises when it comes to the quality of his films. For Chop Shop, his second film, he auditioned about 2,000 children for the lead roles, a 12 year-old Latino boy and his 16 year-old sister. During Goodbye Solo, he kept another child actor (for a supporting role) coming back to auditions every weekend for three months while he tried to settle on the film’s lead. These auditions, which stem from Bahrani’s work with nonprofessional actors, begin with a simple question and answer, get-to-know-you conversation, to discover similarities between the performer and the written character. Once the actors are cast, the process does not become any more traditional, or any less involved.
Before even beginning his 30-day shoot (“I would take 90 days to shoot if I could”), Bahrani rehearses with actors for weeks or months. For Solo, he took lead actor Souleymane Sy Savane, one of two professionally trained leads in any of Bahrani’s films, from New York to Winston-Salem, NC, where Savane drove a cab for three months to learn his character. Savane and Diana Franco Galindo, an untrained child actor, spent rehearsals hanging out together eating hot dogs; Chop Shop lead Alejandro Polanco and supporting actor Carlos Zapata played basketball for a week as Bahrani manipulated their power dynamic to make sure Ale ended up the leader of the two.
The time Bahrani devotes to his unconventional process serves his uncompromising cinematic vision. He may not have formal training in how to make a film – the film studies program he attended at Columbia University was theoretical in nature – but he knows what he wants to see, and will not stop until he gets it. Shooting in HD allows him to take and retake scenes until he sees perfection: the record for Man Push Cart was well over 50 takes of a single sequence, while Chop Shop’s rang in at 64. Asked if his crew gets annoyed with having to repeat the same shots over and over again, Bahrani calmly replies, “I don’t give a shit. I’m here to do one thing, and that’s make the best movie I can make.”
A very broad, passionate vision underlies this brutally single-minded commitment. The common thread in all of Bahrani’s films is a deep interest in the way one human being relates to another: Ahmad to Noemi, Ale to Izzy, Solo to William. He believes in the virtue of the purely selfless act: “I believe in one person’s actions to another more than I believe in just about anything else,” he insists, adding “but I also believe that it’s meaningless.”
That bit of philosophy looms large in Goodbye Solo, particularly as the relationship between Solo and William—shadowed by an unspoken, descent toward death—culminates in a moment of youthful ascension. On Wednesday night, Bahrani spent several minutes pondering the scene.“It’s really about hope and despair. I think it’s important for the audience to be able to accept both things at once. So many movies try to separate it, to be all good or all bad, but that’s not the world we live in.” Goodbye Solo is Bahrani’s latest attempt to explore that world and project what he finds.
Goodbye Solo ran at Northwest Film Forum on Wednesday night only; it will, however, begin a weeklong run at the Landmark Varsity on May 8th.