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99 Homes: Q & A with Writer and Director Ramin Bahrani

99 Homes Writer and Director Ramin Bahrani with actor Michael Shannon I Photo Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures

The United States' 2008 Subprime Mortgage Crisis was what economists often refer to as as a burst in an economic bubble caused by a trend that had inflated home prices based on unrealistic views of the future. The crisis affected many parts of the country's housing market, hitting hardest in the states of Arizona, California, Florida, and Nevada. Foreclosed homes became a norm in neighborhoods throughout the U.S., and in the spring of 2010, news stories began to emerge detailing fallacious foreclosures and evictions. This included banks variously foreclosing homes which were paid for without a mortgage, foreclosures on the wrong homes, as well as providing fraudulent documentation in courts.

The film "99 Homes" is the story of single father Dennis Nash (Golden Globe nominee Andrew Garfield) as he is evicted from his home and his only chance to get his home back is to work for Rick Carver (Academy Award® nominee Michael Shannon), the ruthless self-made Florida real estate magnate who makes a killing profit by repossessing homes, who evicted him in the first place. It's his deal with the devil that provides security for his family; but as Nash falls deeper into Carver's web, he finds his situation grows more brutal and dangerous than he ever imagined.

KCET Departures interviewed Ramin Bahrani the writer and director of "99 Homes" about his need to tell this story and what the 2007-2009 housing crisis means to us today.

99 Homes Writer and Director Ramin Bahrani with actor Andrew Garfield I Photo Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures
99 Homes Writer and Director Ramin Bahrani with actor Andrew Garfield I Photo Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures

Why did you want to write and direct a film about the effects of the 2010 housing market in 2014?

The whole world was turned upside down and financially the United States was in tatters and it was because of a bunch of homes. I wanted to make the film because it seemed to be such a huge topic that affected too many people. If it hadn't affected you, it affected your mother, your brother, your friend, or your neighbor. But most importantly it had never been told before. I didn't know what was happening on the ground and though today we know the statistics, I didn't know what it really meant to be evicted. I found a slew of scams, like the foreclosure mill and fraudulent paperwork that quickly became the thriller aspects of that story. For me this was something I read about in the headlines, but didn't know what it meant to be evicted and the emotions and the impact real people go through.

What was your research process to understand the stories of those who lost their homes to bank foreclosures?

There were four states that were the epicenters of the housing crash and Florida was one of them, so I decided to place the film there. I spent a lot of time with real estate brokers and I saw that all of them carried guns because they were very worried about who was on the other side of the door when they knocked and said, "You're going to be evicted." At first, when I thought of foreclosures I assumed this was going to be a realistic and depressing film. But when I got to Florida I realized the film was going to be a thriller and it was going to be fast paced. I very quickly found the structure of the story. It was going to be a Faustian story, a deal-with-the-devil film with the atypical relationship of mentor-apprentice, father and son. These became the characters for Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield.

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In your research process did you find a person or family who inspired a particular character or scene in the film?

Lynn Szymoniak was a major force in my research, she's a fraud attorney for The Housing Justice Foundation. The banks made a big mistake because they tried to foreclose on her and she uncovered robo-signing, a massive mill of fraudulent paperwork the banks were propagating. She led a lawsuit on behalf of the government to the tune of $100 million and won. It was a key force in the housing crisis and she's still in massive lawsuits now. This story is still happening now and the government is filing lawsuits, just last week, against the banks and I'm talking about billion dollar lawsuits.

Michael Shannon and I spent time with real estate brokers, and went on evictions with them. Andrew Garfield lived in the same motel we visited in Florida. You have to understand that highway 142 in Orlando is the highway that leads you right into Disney World, and in the shadow of Disney are all these motels. Who's in those motels? Day laborers, gang-bangers, prostitutes, and normal average families living in motels. I'm talking about moms and dads --part-time jobs each, no insurance, not enough income and they've just been evicted and most have up to three kids and they're living in motels in that environment in the shadows of Disney. And there are so many kids that school systems have to divert their school busses to the motels to pick up kids to take them to school in Orlando. This is happening right now, not ten years ago, but right now and this was startling to me and a big part of the film.

99 Homes Writer and Director Ramin Bahrani with actor Michael Shannon I Photo Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures
99 Homes Writer and Director Ramin Bahrani with actor Michael Shannon I Photo Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures

The idea of "home" is redefined in several iterations throughout the film as each character questions their definition of what a home means to them. Do you think the typical story of the "American Dream" of owning a home is still relevant today?

It's certainly changed because we're in a twenty-year low in home ownership and the film touches on "bulk buying." Also, we've become a nation of renters. Our landlords are going to be people we don't know. The landlords are hedge funds, banks, and family funds, which could be overseas. Your landlord could be in China, Canada, or any other country. You may never know them. These are big changes.

In the film, home could mean many things. It doesn't specifically have any agenda. Michael Shannon's character has three beautiful daughters and he has a wife and an amazing mansion, which he's going to flip next year because for him home is just a box, it's a property he can make money off of. I understand that position and you can't argue with it because it makes sense. At the same time, for Andrews Garfield's character, home is a physical space where he was raised, where he was born, and where his son was born, where their father used to live. Home for him has memories.

How relevant is the 2010 housing crisis to audiences currently? How does it speak to what the nation experiences today?

I want people to think and reassess where we are. The film is very relevant to right now. The housing crisis affects pretty much the majority of people. We're all feeling how hard it is to make ends meet. Like when Michael Shannon's character tells Andrew Garfield "You did honest hard work building homes your whole life and where did it get you, but me knocking on your door to evict you." We know what that means because we all know someone who's been there.

A preview of "99 Homes" is scheduled as part of the 2015 KCET Cinema Series on Tuesday, September 1 at 7 p.m. at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica (1328 Montana Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90403). Film expert and Deadline.com writer Pete Hammond hosts our Q&A's following each film and for 99 Homes we'll have director/co-screenwriter Ramin Bahrani. If you're not a KCET Cinema Series member, single admissions will be available for purchase $25 at the door.

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