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Director Ramin Bahrani Builds Real Life Drama in 99 Homes

October 6, 2015 | By

Director Ramin Bahrani (left) and actor Andrew Garfield on the set of 99 Homes, (Photos by Hooman Bahrani / Broad Green Pictures).

Director Ramin Bahrani (left) and actor Andrew Garfield on the set of 99 Homes, (Photos by Hooman Bahrani / Broad Green Pictures).

Drawing upon the recent foreclosure crisis for inspiration, writer/director Ramin Bahrani tells the story of a laid-off construction worker (Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spiderman) who loses his home to an unscrupulous real estate broker (Michael ShannonRevolutionary Road).

“I’m obsessed with sound. I have always been, in my films,” stated Bahrani who has directed five features, two without any music score. He strives to have a rich, detailed soundscape that can create a mood and even change the emotion of a scene.

This film was the director’s first collaboration with Formosa Sound. Located on The Lot, sound designer, supervising sound editor and additional re-recording mixer, Odin Benitez had worked on a number of David Russell films. Benitez had his own experience of foreclosure within his family, so he quickly formed an emotional attachment to the film’s subject matter.

Benitez shared the director’s passion for detail-orientated sound. They spent a lot of time on various sounds, including birds.

99 HOMES“We were very attuned to bird sounds. Odin was always finding ways to put a bird in,” explained Bahrani. “Specifically where he would place the sound would accent the scene. It was amazing to work with him.”

A veteran of numerous high budget films, Mark Mangini was the key re-recording mixer.

“It was an amazing experience mixing with him,” commented Bahrani. “I was able to contribute my ideas, but I also learned a lot watching him work. I wrote down several things that I had never experienced in a sound design and mix. Mark had ideas of where we could strip things away and create the perfect mood by having less sound.”

“I’ve always assumed that if a film was barely out of focus, I don’t think an audience would notice, but if the sound wasn’t good, they would leave the cinema quickly. They would not tolerate it,” surmised Bahrani.

To get good post sound, it was imperative to record quality production tracks. The boom operator not only needed to know the script, but also had to be in sync with the gaffer and director of photography in order to keep the mic from casting shadows or appearing in frame. Although the director preferred the boom, long steadicam shots, tight hallways and improvisational handheld work made it necessary to use radio mics in addition to the boom.

Bahrani credits boom operator Paddy Hanlon with the quality of the audio recorded on set. “We had a lot of great boom work, but you never know what’s going to happen, or what you might want to rely on, so its better to also have lavs.”

Although they are both based in New York, the director had never worked with cinematographer Bobby Bukowski before. They admired each other’s work and wanted to work together.

99 HOMES“Before I got to know Bobby, I wanted to work with him for a couple of reasons,” said Bahrani. “Impeccable lighting. It’s very naturalistic lighting, but it also has a style and look to it. That was part of what I thought this film was going to be. I wanted to ride a line between naturalism and stylization.”

According to the director, Bukowski is an intuitive handheld cameraman. Bahrani knew he was going to use some handheld in the film. As he got to know Bukowski better, the director wanted to collaborate even more.

“He’s kind of like a beautiful, Zen, teddy bear kind of character. He’s so calm and a good person,” elaborated Bahrani. “Everyone knows that about him.”

From their first meeting, Bukowski was attuned to story. Every morning on set, the cinematographer wanted to talk about story.

“That is always the sign of a great cinematographer, when their first attention is to the story and the characters and how they serve that, before we get into conversations about shots and lighting and style or photographs that we are referencing,” stated Bahrani. “I was very impressed by that.”

In prep, the pair went over the script, talking about which scenes would be steadicam, which scenes they thought would be handheld, and which ones they thought would be in a studio mode on the dolly. Michael Fuchs, who had worked with Bukowski previously, hired on as steadicam operator.

The director did not use shot lists or storyboards. He would go to the locations in advance and block out the scenes with the help of interns. Watching the blocked scene he would talk to the cinematographer about how they would shoot it, remaining flexible as to what the actors wanted to do with a scene. If the actors came up with something better, they would change the camera set-up to accommodate the new blocking. Most importantly they wanted to highlight the emotional moments.

99 HOMESAnother phenomenal department head was production designer Alex DiGerlando who had previously worked in New Orleans on Beasts of the Southern Wild and True Detective.

The director wanted the main character’s home to look like a real home, one a child would draw. DiGerlando, Bukowski, Bahrani went along with location manager David Thornsberry and location scout Michael Dittmar to find the house. They wanted to imprint their collective vision on the home.

The production designer and his team emptied the house and designed it from scratch so that when the eviction happened, the filmmakers had total control to move anything that they wanted to. Production design coordinated with the cinematographer as to how the lighting would be incorporated.

“Bobby ended up blasting light from the outside of the home and then worked in prep very closely with Alex on lamps – what kind of bulbs, what kind of lampshades, what type of fabric might be reflected off these lamps,” explained Bahrani. “All the prep work that those two guys did was in service of what I wanted, which was a home free and clear of film equipment. A home where the actors could go anywhere they wanted and not bump into a light stand. Where Bobby’s camera could turn 360 degrees. That added to that scene a lot.”

To support the reality of the situation, the director used a real sheriff who had actually done an eviction and a real cleanup crew that had taken part in an eviction so that there was no film world around the actors. That gave the cast the freedom to create performances that would engage the audience in the experience.

DiGerlando and costume designer Meghan Kasperlik worked with the actors to make sure they had what they needed, such as specific props or costume pieces. They hid these objects in the house so that when the eviction scene happened it was more personal.

Before financing was complete, Kasperlik had already started working Shannon, sourcing the expensive suits that the character preferred. She also had to dress characters of varying economic status, from real estate moguls to construction workers to crowds of neighbors.

From very early on, the production team was very collaborative, getting together every few days to share each department’s progress. According to Bahrani, it was like having a “4-headed brain” with one unified vision to make the film.

Executive/line producer Manu Gargi was a critical member of the team. He was skilled at managing the schedule and budget, while coming up with creative solutions for production problems without sacrificing vision of the director.

“A very strong leader of the crew, of the production. An impeccable relationship with the bond company, he was always on budget,” said Bahrani. “I like to go over lengthy budget discussions to see where we are. Manu and I worked closely in prep. He was very vested in the film and went out of his way to serve my vision.”

Assistant editor Alex Camilleri was skilled in building the temp sound design that acted as a template for the final soundtrack. He also cut some scenes as Bahrani edited the film. Camilleri has worked for a few years with the director, assisting on his last feature and editing the shorts that Bahrani likes to do in between feature projects.

In finishing the picture, Bahrani worked with Bukowski and Fotokem’s senior digital intermediate colorist, John Daro, who had done a number of Soderbergh’s films. After the team worked together for a few hours and got comfortable with each other, the colorist was given total reign to express his opinions. Bahrani thought Daro’s ideas were both bold and good.

“I can’t tell you how much I love post. I love sound. I love color-timing,” shared Bahrani. “John Daro is a real gem. Technically this guy was on another level. On the cutting edge of technology, this guy knew the depths of the technology. He added to the look of the film. He was a mix between a real artist and a deeply skilled technician and craftsman.”

It was hard to find the right composer for the film. Music supervisor Michael Hill sent Bahrani 30-40 suggestions before the director chose Sydney-based Antony Partos and Matteo Zingales to compose the score.

“It is a very strong score, a very creative score. As I said before, I have made several films without scores. When I heard Antony and Matteo’s work it was not only good, but it was original sounding,” commented Bahrani. “It sounded like there were real creative minds behind it. They are certainly people I want to keep working with.”

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