Kernel Morgan now holds the record for the longest article on Salty Popcorn but it is with good reason; she firstly reviews the spectacular 99 HOMES, that she actually saw in June for the Sydney Film Festival, but she also got to interview the talented director, Ramin Bahrani. I have held out posting the article because I was dreading the edit to be honest haha ok not entirely true, I wanted to wait until we had a confirmed release date for Australia. It was finally announced that 99 HOMES will release in Australia from the fine folks at Madman Films on November 19th, BUT, it released this week in the U.S. so it is time to let our thoughts be known and time for you to make note in the diary for November 19th because YOU NEED TO SEE THIS MOVIE. Morgan rarely dishes out a perfect score and I know I am going to love it; Michael Shannon, Laura Dern and one of my all time faves, Andrew Garfield, I am already sold. 99 HOMES runs for 112mins and based on U.S. rating comparisons will be rated MA15+ in Australia. Now enjoy Morgan’s thesis with interview included………..all the best…………JK.
Opening scene: a gunshot victim in a family home. Police in Orlando Florida rifle through the crime scene. Rick Carver (Michael Shannon, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, TAKE SHELTER, and BOARDWALK EMPIRE) walks through the house with authority. It is an apparent suicide. The police try to consult with Carver. He abruptly brushes them off. The sheriffs call him ‘Boss’. Carver calls the scene an “absurd situation”. As Carver barks instructions down his mobile phone and opens the door of his big shiny new car we realise he is not a cop or forensics or a federal agent, he is a real estate broker who evicts families from houses repossessed by the banks.
We are then taken to young construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, and NEVER LET ME GO). We see Nash working hard on a building site only to be told that the project has been aborted and that he won’t be getting paid – the last two weeks he has been working for free. In a rapid-fire court scene we find out he has missed three repayments on his mortgage and is scheduled for foreclosure. He is told he has thirty days to lodge an appeal and is surprised when Rick Carver arrives on his doorstep with two sheriffs to evict him, his mother (Laura Dern, JURASSIC PARK, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS), and his young son. They are given two minutes to pack anything they need – cash, chequebook, medicines – and then they must stand out on the kerb as a hired work crew empty all of their belongings on to the front lawn
99 HOMES is a timely and striking portrait of the layers of deceitfulness that contributed to the American housing crisis, as told through the moral journey of one man, Dennis Nash. It was written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, an American filmmaker whose previous work includes AT ANY PRICE with Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, and low-budget indie realist films CHOP SHOP, GOODBYE SOLO, and MAN PUSH CART. This is contemporary realism at its best. It is lower middle-class realism, a subject rarely tackled, as realism is more the realm of the inherently down-trodden, those born into poverty and tragedy. Here we see a cast of characters who played a part in their demise. They are not straight-up victims. They have been suckered into a scam with the lure of the American dream.
Bahrani’s screenplay is tight, well-researched, and punchy. It is less verbose than an Aaron Sorkin (THE WEST WING, MONEYBALL, and CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR) script, but more effective. As a writer-director, Bahrani knows how to balance pointed dialogue with simple visual storytelling. There are two pivotal monologues in 99 HOMES that were reminiscent of writer Peter Morgan (THE QUEEN, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, and THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL) in their ability to send shivers and command attention. These scenes are perniciously persuasive appeals to emotion and justice, delivered at crucial times where the protagonist, Nash, is asked to assess his reality. Carver gives a speech to Nash beginning “My daddy was a roofer. I grew up on a construction site,” launching into a tirade about politics “rigging a nation of the winners, by the winners, and for the winners”, and landing intensely on flooding imagery, declaring, “I’m not going to drown.”
The second powerful monologue comes from Nash’s former neighbour, the dad of his son’s friend, Frank Green, in a career-defining performance from Tim Guinee (HOMELAND, LIE TO ME, and THE GOOD WIFE). Green, in his speech to Nash, points at the sun and screams, “Nobody is going to tell me it is night when it is day.” He embodies the madness that unacknowledged deception can bring to an everyday man.
This film examines the morality of opportunism in times of economic decline. It is about the ends justifying the means, community, neighbours, decency, success, and survival. The story toys with the idea of what trespassing really is, and what really makes a home. It shows how linked housing is to every element of our lives. Nash’s mother works from home. Nash constructs and repairs houses for a living. The Nash house has been in the family for generations. Evicted people make a motel their home. Nash’s son has to change school and social connections when they lose their home. Carver buys and sells houses and calls them boxes that one shouldn’t get too attached to.
When Carver offers Nash a job, he is asking him to venture over to the dark side and make a deal with the devil. Carver tokes away on his e-cigarette, a great symbol of his adaptability, and reels the desperate Nash in to his schemes and dirty work. Nash is given a chance to get his family home back if he compromises his natural compassion and agrees to evict people that he was once just like. There is a hundred-home real estate deal that is held in the balance by one principled hold-out, and the situation simmers to a boil.
Michael Shannon (Carver) and Tim Guinee (Green) are superb as counterweights to the impressionable Nash. Andrew Garfield (Nash) delivers a solid performance, grounding the film with a relatable everyman character. The eviction scenes of the elderly and confused in 99 HOMES are heart-wrenching, as is the whole sordid process of foreclosure and repossession. This film will ignite something in you. It will show you that homes are life and death, but also that they are a mirage.
KERNEL MORGAN’S POP SCORE:
JK’S POP SCORE:
Interview with Ramin Bahrani
99 HOMES (Director, Editor, Producer, Writer)
4 June 2015 Park Royal Sydney
MB: I saw the film 99 Homes. There are a couple of great monologues that contrast with each other. One comes at the time where we are learning whether we should trust Rick Carver or not, the other with Frank Green. They seem like two sides of the same coin.
RB: Michael Shannon’s character is clearly a strong antagonist in the film. Some people say he is the villain or the Gordon Gecko type character. And he is. But for me the real villain is always the system. I believe in Iago, I believe in real villains. I think that sometime the modern world incorrectly wants to psychologise away real villains, and I think that’s wrong. I believe in the mythic power of real villainy. But I think in this film the system is rigged. And Michael appreciates that, and a big part of that is that we start to understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, because he’s not going to allow what happened to his father to happen to him and his kids. If the system is rigged then I’m going to be the best player at it. If greed is the way I’m supposed to survive then I’m going to be the most greedy so I don’t get destroyed.
Dramatically it [the monologue] propels Andrew further down the rabbit-hole of moral ambiguity because he starts that scene being told his job will now be to evict people, which he does not want to do, and he’s to go with Michael to learn. And by the end of that scene he’s gone from not wanting to do it to saying I’m just going to do it on my own, I don’t even need you to do this. Because Andrew can sense there’s truth in what he’s saying. Which is scary, because there is truth in what he is saying. When Michael says ‘honest hard work doesn’t get you anything but me knocking at your door’, he seems to be right. And it’s very hard to argue with that.
MB: Tell me more about the Frank Green character
RB: What I’ve noticed in the screenings of the film, that I’ve attended in Venice, Toronto, Sundance, whatever it is, conservative/liberal sides of the spectrum – politically, economically – are both deeply moved emotionally by the film, and angry by the film. If you are a liberal and you are not angry at the government there is probably something wrong with you. Even if you are conservative and you don’t see something inherently wrong with this, there is something wrong. Which gets to a guy [Frank Green] who says I can see the system is rigged, but I do not care, I want to do what I know to be true, and I know that it is day, I know you have done something wrong. Anyone with eyes, even blind people, could see you’ve done something wrong. Even if you destroy me I’m not going to budge from what I know to be true. I admire characters like that. Even if they cannot change the system. There will always be a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi who actually change society, and of course society assassinates them, Society always wants to destroy people who want to change it. To me, I admire those characters, because I’m not as strong as them and I wish I could live my life like that.
MB: The Frank Green character and his monologue at the end parallels the opening scene with the suicide, and that madness that comes with deception. A deception you can’t prove because it is so systemic.
MB: Yes! It is the con that everyone has an equal chance, and everyone deserves what they get. That is something Rick Carver says in his monologue, saying to ask why people would get a mortgage to put an extension on their house. He tries to put the blame back on the little people.
RB: That’s right, and I don’t think he’s wrong to say that. The banks and government are the key forces of the global economic meltdown. And some people who knew better. Some home owners knew better. Not all. The majority were duped. The majority were not even English speaking, they didn’t have high school diplomas. When the President of the United States comes on television and says ‘you should be a home owner’, when multi-millionaire bankers with amazing suits and fancy cars send other amazingly educated people in fancy suits to your door with contracts, who say ’sign here, no interest’, those people have been duped actually.
But there are people who were educated and who just were greedy. For example I think INSIDE JOB never wants to point a camera at that human being. But I think it should. It’s part of it. I don’t think it’s the majority of the situation but it is part of it, and Michael’s character is correct to acknowledge it.
MB: You also acknowledge the link between unemployment and people not being able to make repayments on those mortgages
RB: That happened to Andrew of course. Andrew takes a loan out because the only way his character, as a construction worker, can keep up with the boom is to expand. If you don’t expand you’re going to die. But then the crash hits and he’s got all this stuff he can’t afford any more, and that’s the beginning of the spiral downward. Then he gets duped by the banks with a system called ‘Dual Tracking’, which is what happens to him in the ‘Rocket Dockets’.
I did a lot of research. I went down to Florida, spent time with fraud attorneys. I was in foreclosure court, they are known as the ‘Rocket Dockets’ because within 60 seconds they decide your fate.
MB: The speed of the decisions in some of the court scenes was amazing.
RB: I’ve been there.
MB: How little time was spent by the court looking at anything.
RB: It’s so frightening.
MB: Tell me more about your research
I’ve been with real estate brokers. I’ve been on evictions. I’ve been in motels. As you see in the film on Highway 142, that we lead just directly to the entrance of Disneyworld, where middleclass families, you, your sister, your neighbour, your brother, your grandfather – normal people you know, who have part-time jobs even – are living in hotels next to gang-bangers and prostitutes and drug dealers, and sent buses come to the motel, just as you see in the film, to take kids to school. The corruption I saw in Florida was mind-boggling.
MB: And the guns
I never knew real estate brokers could carry guns. Every other home-owner had a gun. Everyone was always shooting at everyone. And there were so many scams that I realised suddenly ‘oh wow, I’m making a thriller’.
MB: [laughs] It was a bit.
RB: It’s a thriller.
MB: Well you open with a death, and there’s tension throughout the whole movie
RB: Because you realise the stakes are life and death, and those scenes are real. You can go on google now and see that.
MB: Did you choose to set the film in Florida in particular because the laws are the harshest?
RB: I chose Florida because four states were hit hardest by the housing crisis in the States: California, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida. And I liked Florida because we think about golf and retirees, and we think about Disneyworld. It seems like an idyllic place. California has the movie industry and pornography. Nevada has gambling and prostitution and all this stuff. Florida seemed safe. But when you get down there you see it’s craziness. You know, Florida and Texas are always dangling off of America somehow.
MB: They are, aren’t they [laughs]. That’s very true.
RB: I liked the contrast of the evictions and the motels and the violence with Disney and palm trees and retirees and golf.
MB: Did you have a personal connection with any people that had been evicted?
RB: I met a lot of people. I spent time, for example with Lynn Szymoniak, she’s a fraud attorney. The banks made a big mistake to try to foreclose on her. It uncovered ‘Robo-signing’, the forged document mill. She got the biggest lawsuit, on behalf of the government, against the banks, to the tune of ninety million. She was featured on 60 Minutes, and endless news outlets. And she was a huge resource to me. She was the one that brought me into the ‘Rocket Dockets’ and took me on tours. We went to foreclosure happy hours – actually, there is such a thing. There’s more things than I could put it a film. I spent time with real estate brokers, we went on evictions together.
MB: I hadn’t heard of the term ‘cash for keys’ before. The amount of information in the film made it like a documentary, but so much more personal, and you managed to convey the information without using exposition or voiceover
RB: The movie never gets bogged down in stuff. I learned that – and I’ve told Oliver [Stone] that I’ve studied WALL STREET – because WALL STREET has that gangster structure. And I was looking at Scorsese films, like MEAN STREETS and GOODFELLAS, a lot for that structure of gangster film. What was interesting in WALL STREET was how he took complex financial themes, which are hard to understand, and made them very simple. Even if you didn’t fully understand, you didn’t need to. Even here [in 99 HOMES] when he [Nash] and his buddy were stealing stuff for the scams, his buddy asks why are we taking a pictures, and Andrew is like if you want to get paid just shut up and take the picture and lets go. We know it’s wrong, and we get a sense of how it’s corrupted, even if we don’t know all the details it’s enough to move forward. Because the movie has a relentless pace, and I hate movies with agendas. I just want to stick to the story and the emotional core.
MB: Michael Shannon’s e-cigarette is the perfect symbol of someone who is adaptable to change, in a film where everyone else is still smoking tobacco, and tobacco is becoming unaffordable. It was ominous. Did it come from the actor or from you?
RB: I had it in my head for two years, and I was always so worried that someone else would use it. But Michael was the first. The blue tip. I knew it had to be blue. Cool and slick like his outfits and his hair and his sunglasses. My last film [AT ANY PRICE] was with Dennis Quaid, and Dennis Quaid had it [an e-cigarette]. And it was the first time I’d ever seen it in my life. I wrote down a note to myself ‘the next movie should have a blue-tipped e-cigarette’. [laughs]
MB: AT ANY PRICE had similar themes to 99 HOMES, in the ‘expand or die’ ethos and turning against your neighbours.
RB: Absolutely right.
MB: 99 HOMES has continued the deviation from the boundless optimism of characters in your earlier work. Did you see 99 HOMES as a companion to AT ANY PRICE?
RB: In a way yeah. I thought it was related.
MB: It was another big systemic issue told through looking at the little person
RB: In my earlier films, the size and scope of them was just that little guy in his tiny world there. It was just the perfect way to do this kind of Faustian ‘deal with the devil’ story, that can go from Andrew and his home, and then oddly in the end of the movie somehow he’s a character that is important in a thousand home deal, that we have a sense goes to a huge guy in a skyscraper (which was a real guy, that’s all real stuff, that guy, that was a real attorney who was running a foreclosure mill – Mother Jones broke that story – the guy never went to jail, the Michael Shannon character never went to jail, no one went to jail for any of this stuff).
MB: Rich people don’t go to jail! [laughs]
RB: The billions they stole and lied about and no one goes to jail?
So it [the story] was an amazing chance. I knew I had a structure where you could see one guy get evicted from his home, Andrew [Garfield] and Laura [Dern] and the family, and that could somehow be a thread that could go to a huge thousand-home deal. Then the rest of it we know. We know about the global financial meltdown, I don’t have to say it. That was exciting.
MB: It is similar to the washing of the seeds in AT ANY PRICE, you didn’t have to be from a farming background to understand the ethical dilemma from a small amount of technical detail
RB: You don’t have to know anything about housing to understand or enjoy the movie, or get taken into it. I assume that anywhere in the world everyone understands 99% vs 1%.
MB: The title has a dual meaning, referring to both one hold-out in a hundred-house deal, and also to the 99% protests. The house deal comes in relatively late in the movie. I was waiting for the title to be referred to in the dialogue.
RB: The closest it comes is when Michael says ‘only one in a hundred is going to get on that ark, and everyone else is going to drown’. It [the title] sounds good and it looks good graphically.
MB: Who are your filmmaking influences?
RB: Werner Herzog is one of my heroes, I’ve been lucky enough to work with him before. Scorsese has always been a huge influence. On this film Oliver Stone was an influence. You may find this surprising, but for the directing of the film I was looking at Polanski. I was also looking at some stuff in DOG DAY AFTERNOON, and some scenes in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN where they go knocking on doors. Recently I’ve been looking at a lot of Altman again, and Bergman.
MB: Sydney Film Festival has a whole Bergman special this year [locates Essential Bergman: Selected by David Stratton page in the guide on the table in front of us]. It’s on over several days.
RB: In the festival here? [Looks intently at the festival guide] This is amazing! You know what, I’ve actually never seen THE FACE. I’ve seen all the other ones several times. Anyway, this is very good to know. I feel very good.
MB: You have previously cited DEATH OF A SALESMAN and GRAPES OF WRATH as influences? And the idea of the American dream?
RB: More than anything here I would say Dostoyevsky. In fact, in the script I had a quote from THE GRAND INQUISITOR, but I took it out. Dostoyevsky, I think, has always been a force in my films. The scene of the two men at night talking at the dock, which is my favourite scene, the whole movie comes down to this dialogue there where Andrew says ‘is it worth it?’ and Michael says ‘as opposed to what?’ Before we shot the scene Michael looked at me and said ‘is the entire movie about this?’
MB: That’s also where you see Rick Carver with a cigar, and see he really loves smoking.
MB: Andrew Garfield was one of the producers on this film, did he join the project fairly early?
RB: Andrew came on early when I was still re-writing the script, he had a very personal and emotional reaction to it. He was just great, a great partner. I saw him in fact in DEATH OF A SALESMAN, that’s what convinced me to cast him. He was on stage with the late great Phillip [Seymour] Hoffman, with the late great Mike Nichols directing. When I saw him there – whatever I’d seen him in I’d loved him in, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, I loved him – but when I saw him in that I thought ‘my god this guys an actor.’ We’ve never seen him in as a leading man, as a leading adult man. He’s not a teenager or a young adult, he’s a man. So it was very exciting.
MB: When you put him in a role with a son and a mother in the same house, the three generations, you got to see him in every facet of a man’s life: a father and a son.
RB: Exactly. And you don’t normally see a single man with a kid in a movie. And it was actually Andrew’s idea, and I liked this idea very much: first I said “Andrew let’s make your character 30,” and he said “no I should be 27, I shouldn’t even be a fully formed man yet, so I’m more influenced by Michael as a father figure.” It was a great idea. Then he suggested that the mum should be younger, so that we know that the mum had him when she was young, and he had his kid when he was young, and it’s all a broken family. Her husband left her. His wife vanished, we don’t quite know what happened, Michael hints at it ‘prom night fiasco’, and he was like I don’t want to talk about it.
MB: Yeah, he just says ‘close’
RB: That was exciting. Michael and Andrew both have such radically different acting styles. Part of my job in directing was to make sure the set could accommodate both of their styles, which were so different, because when they got together there was always electricity. They were so good together. And they were so different. They always had sparks. And that was great.
MB: Michael Shannon is very intense, he always brings the intensity with his eyes. With your casting choice you are setting up doubt about how reliable the character will be. He’s in a suit, he seems respectable, but there are a few little things that hint at the criminal activity to come.
RB: Yeah he has a mistress but he still says ‘I don’t respect a man who isn’t married no one does’
MB: [laughs] So what is next?
RB: I can’t tell you
MB: It’s a secret!
RB: But check out the film. I’ve made one minute change to the film, and added, well changed, two cues in fact. I wrote the movie to Wagner but when I saw it at Sundance I thought ‘this is too much’. I added a little bit here and there. Pretty minor. But I convinced the distributors to let me do it and that is very hard to do. Because it costs money. I thought they would never go for it but they said ‘yeah’. But now I can’t look at it again or ill find five more things to do.
MB: Tell me about the film’s score composers
RB: I loved the score, and Antony Partos and his partner Matteo [Zingales], guess where I found them?
MB: Where did you find them?
RB: A very amazing city that you may have heard of called Sydney Australia. Anthony has four films in this year’s festival. He’s so good, and I love the score
MB: I didn’t realise there was a Sydney connection. Australians love hearing about other Australians doing things!
RB: Well I love Australians making score for my film!
Kernel Morgan is an author of short fiction, an anthology editor, and a technical writer. Her debut collection was SNIGGERLESS BOUNDULATIONS. She enjoys scowling at children and bursting bubbles. She can be tweeted and stalked at @queenboxi.