The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of 99 Homes.
How did you come to this story, and what was the writing process?
Ramin Bahrani: I was interested in this whole world-turned-upside-down issue during the economic crisis. The focus was housing. There were four states that would be epicenters; Florida was one of them. I did a lot of research here and then spent a lot of time in Florida with fraud attorneys, real estate brokers, motels. All the things you see in the film are based on research, on real people, on real facts. Initially I thought I was just going to make a social drama, and quickly I realized how much corruption was involved, how many scams were involved, that everybody carried a gun, and I realized it was going to be a thriller. It was this kind of Faustian story, this deal with the devil film, but set in a world we hadn’t seen before. It was better to go somewhere with no preconceived notions and just let the location and the characters you meet tell you what’s going on.
“It was this kind of Faustian story, but set in a world we hadn’t seen before.”
Can you talk about your preparation and research for this character?
Michael Shannon: Ramin had done such thorough research himself that I just kind of followed his lead. He introduced me to somebody that he had spent a lot of time with who is a real estate broker down in Florida. I spent about three days with him, hung out with him at his office. He told me stories, showed me stuff, and I tried to soak up everything I could.
Would you consider your character, Carver, unethical?
Shannon: I think there is no denying that what he does to Frank Green is pretty rotten. But up until that point in time, I’m not so sure. I look at it like, when you’re a little kid, you get a new board game at Christmas, and you are so excited and you open it up and start reading the directions, and then you’re like, “I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. I can’t play this game.” I feel like that’s what a lot of these regulations and laws in the real estate industry are like. They’re indecipherable to the point that most people just throw their hands up in the air and assume they have our best interest at heart, which obviously they don’t. But Carver didn’t do that. Carver read the directions a thousand times, and he’s like, “Oh, yeah, I know how to play this game, and I can play with you.” The options we have are some sort of massive revolution, where we take to the streets with pitchforks and burning, and that doesn’t seem to be happening. Or you can either figure out the game, or hope that the game is going to take care of you, which it probably won’t.
Bahrani: The real heavy is the system. Carver has been gotten by the system. It’s hard to argue with some of what he says. I agree his actions are not ethical, but it’s hard to argue with things like, you did honest hard work your whole life, and all it got you was me knocking on your door. For Andrew Garfield’s research, he went down there and stayed in the motels—those are real motels off the side of highway 142 that lead to Disney World. So many families start piling up in there that school system diverts the buses to pick them up, just as you see in the film. When Andrew was down there, he went to a Home Depot to talk to some day laborers, and this one guy said to him, I’m an out-of-work construction guy waiting for work. He said it got so rough he had to start evicting people. He told Andrew this; Andrew’s just listening. Then the guy said, I did it, it was very hard, but I had to do it. I couldn’t sleep nights. My kid’s hungry, my family has nothing. Eventually it got to the point that he knocked on the door and it was his best friend. He evicted him. So of course now they’re not friends. And then months later he just couldn’t tolerate it anymore and he just had to stop. Months after that, the best friend shows up and says, I forgive you. He asks, Why? The friend says, I’m doing it too.
It feels like there’s a lot of the authenticity is in the casting. Can you talk about how that came to be?
Bahrani: There are a lot of nonprofessional actors in the film. My first three films are predominantly nonprofessional cast. The sheriff here is a real sheriff, he does evictions—he’s done plenty evictions. The clean out crew, one is an actor, and the rest are real clean out crew. The people Andrew evicts, every other one is a real person. That’s really their home, and they’re telling some version of the story that is partially based on research I’ve done and partially based on their own story. The way the eviction sequence happens with the Nash family, you get great collaborators. You have an amazing production designer, Alex DiGerlando. He empties that house out, and then completely designs that house, so now we own everything in there and we can do anything we want. Bobby Bukowski, great cinematographer, he’s blasting lights from the outside, and then working in prep very closely with Alex on practical lightings—lamps, lamps shades, more lamps, more bulbs—and that means the house is free and clear of equipment. There’s no film equipment anywhere, which means the actors can go wherever they want. They have dialogue, they have the script, but you throw a real sheriff into the mix and take-to-take, things are different. You just let the bulls loose and see what happens.
Shannon: Randy the sheriff, I just can’t say enough about that guy. He was the real calm in the center of the storm, because Andrew got pretty worked up, and they weren’t going to let us in that house. Sometimes, via improvisation, I would get to the point where I literally didn’t know what to do anymore. They wouldn’t let me in. Randy would just elbow me, be like, Yeah, I got it from here.
Bahrani: Just look how he kicks the door with his toe. You only see that in the television show, Cops. No actor would do that.
Shannon: There’s not really any lines or borders between who’s an actor and who’s not an actor. The dirty secret is that it’s really not that exclusive of a club, the actor club. We’re all in tune with trying to capture something. I know for me personally, before I did this movie, the foreclosure crisis was something I read about in the paper. I’d feel bad for people, but it was very abstract, just a bunch of words. I think everybody, actor, non-actor, crew, was really devoted to showing people, This is what it’s really, really like. Those people don’t really have a voice. They don’t get in the spotlight very often. It was important to give them this opportunity to respectively try and recreate that.