Simple story in his home state

Staff WriterMay 29, 2009 

Ramin Bahrani won't be around this weekend to show off his latest movie, "Goodbye Solo," which starts playing in Triangle theaters today. He has been called away to shoot a short-film project.

It's unfortunate, because Bahrani has hosted premiere screenings of the movie wherever it's played. He has had quite a time playing the film in other theaters, including in his hometown of Winston-Salem, where it recently ran at the RiverRun International Film Festival. Wherever he's gone -- New York, San Francisco, Cleveland, Minneapolis -- the reaction has been pretty much the same.

"The film seemed to create a resonance with people not just in urban settings, but also in smaller towns and different parts of the country," says Bahrani, 34, on the phone from New York. "And that really excited me, to see that people responded to it in different locations."

But Bahrani was taken aback by audience reactions to the sight of immigrants and minorities in a North Carolina setting, which the Iranian-American Bahrani spotlights prominently in "Solo."

"I thought it would be surprising to them. But instead, they all knew that," he says. "They were actually just happy that it was finally being displayed on screen."

Because of the recent presidential election, Bahrani says, people are getting used to the fact that multiculturalism is as American as apple pie. "I think that really made people rethink race and class in our society," he said, "and I'm excited by that."

Shot in 30 days in Winston-Salem in 2007 for less than a million dollars, "Solo" mostly revolves around two men: a suicidal gentleman (Red West) and Senegalese cab driver (Soulemayne Sy Savane) whom he hires to drive him to his final resting place, North Carolina's Blowing Rock.

For Bahrani (whose previous movies "Man Push Cart" and "Chop Shop" have placed him in the new wave of indie filmmakers making what The New York Times dubbed "neo-neo-realism") and his crew, it was about keeping the story simple.

"There was an effort in the script stage to formulate and construct a very classical story, in terms of its dramatic narrative," he says. "We've really been trying to find the simplest and most emotionally direct way to shoot each scene, with as little fanfare as possible."

Bahrani says the Solo character is based on a taxi driver he spent time with over two years. Bahrani agrees with critics and other viewers that Solo can be an intrusive character, but his intrusiveness was intentional.

"Part of the journey that Solo goes on is to learn not to be that way," he says. "It's a very delicate balance between being a caring person, which I think Solo is. ... At the same time, he does push too far, and that's part of the journey he has to go on, to learn that if he actually cares about this man, he has to let him go. He has to let him do what he wants to do, even if it's painful for Solo to do that."

As for finding the actor to play Solo, former Senegalese model Savane was found during a casting session in New York. Bahrani stumbled upon West, and he didn't initially know of the man's history as a stuntman, songwriter, character actor and, most important, a member of Elvis Presley's Memphis Mafia.

"West was a great blessing to the movie," he says. "I really wanted a Southerner, not an actor pretending to be from the South."

Bahrani did a casting search for West's character, William, in the Southeast. West's manager, also his wife, sent a tape of him reading a scene. "I watched Red's tape, I think, about five seconds and hit pause and said to myself, 'That's the guy that's been in my mind for two years now.' "

Bahrani is quite excited that people from his home state will be seeing "Solo."

"I always knew, for years, that one day, I would come back there and make a film," he says.

craig.lindsey@newsobserver.com, 919-829-4760 or blogs.newsobserver.com/unclecrizzle

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