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Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani shoots and scores with Goodbye Solo

Already one of the year’s most lauded films, Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo took home the coveted FIPRESCI Prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival and looks to reap even more awards and accolades before the year is out. The film details the relationship between Solo, a Senegalese immigrant who drives a cab in Winston-Salem, and William, a crusty old man who wants Solo to drive him to Blowing Rock on a specific date (Oct. 20). One way. He doesn’t intend on coming back. As Solo tries to befriend William, he also tries to uncover the mysteries that surround his embittered, tight-lipped fare. Ultimately, the relationship compels these two men — from vastly disparate backgrounds — to a better understanding of each other, and of themselves.

Goodbye Solo will be screened April 25 and 26 at the ACE Cinematheque Complex on the campus of the UNC School of the Arts’ School of Filmmaking, as part of the 11 th RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem. Bahrani will be on hand for both screenings and will also receive the festival’s first-ever Emerging Artist Award. Goodbye Solo has opened to the sort of critical accolades that filmmakers dream about. AO Scott of The New York Times called it “almost perfect” in his review and then discussed it at length in an article entitled “Neo-Neo Realism” in The New York Times Magazine. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave Goodbye Solo a rave review and selected it to be shown at his Overlooked Film Festival (also known as “EbertFest”) this month. Although he received widespread praise for his previous films — Strangers (2000), Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007) — Bahrani admits that the reception for Goodbye Solo “has been very overwhelming… and it’s changed the tide of things.” Born in Winston-Salem, the 34-year-old Bahrani is a former staff member at the School of Filmmaking and still has close ties to the area. His parents and brother still call Winston-Salem home, and so does he… sort of. “I spend a third of the year in New York, a third of the year in North Carolina and a third of the year traveling,” Bahrani says, adding with a laugh: “I’m not really sure where home is anymore.” Bahrani made his filmmaking debut with the 1998 short Backgammon, followed by Strangers, in which he also played the lead. After completing Chop Shop, for which he received the Someone to Watch award from the Independent Spirit Awards (as well as a nomination as best director), Bahrani began work in earnest on Goodbye Solo. There was just one problem: He had no Solo. “We looked at actors from North Carolina, New York and Los Angeles,” he recalls. “I physically went to Paris for the Cannes Film Festival and taped actors there.” A lot of talented actors, says Bahrani, but still no Solo. “Then, one day, Solo just walked into my office in New York and smiled, and we said ‘There he is.’” That would be Souleymane Sy Savane, who had never acted in a film before. “He’d never had a break,” Bahrani says. “He’d done some modeling, he waited tables, he went on a lot of auditions… but nothing ever came through.” The character of Solo dreams of becoming a flight attendant, and Savane had done that for a time himself. “That was ironic,” Bahrani laughs. Once he had landed the role, Savane immersed himself in the culture of the character. He came to Winston-Salem months before shooting and drove a cab for three months, soaking in the stories he heard from other drivers. (Some of those drivers appear in Goodbye Solo, playing — what else? — Solo’s fellow taxi drivers.) “He got to know the drivers and to know the milieu,” says Bahrani. “By the time we started filming, he was Solo.” “The most important thing for me when making a film is casting,” says Bahrani. “Oftentimes we’d change the script after getting to know the actors. We would rehearse and then rewrite.” Bahrani found his William in the person of Red West, a one-time member of Elvis Presley’s entourage, known as “the Memphis Mafia.” West (real name Robert Gene West) acted as Presley’s driver and bodyguard, and even wrote a few songs for the King (as well as for Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson). West has appeared in a variety of films in character roles, including Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), Francis Ford Coppola’s 1997 adaptation of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker, and Robert Altman’s 1998 comedy Cookie’s Fortune. Man Push Cart and Chop Shop were filmed in New York, but Goodbye Solo “was always intended to be shot here,” according to Bahrani. “It encompasses a whole part of Winston-Salem that I don’t think has ever been shown before.” During the shoot, Bahrani discussed that very issue with actor/playwright Angus MacLachlan, who has a small role as one of Solo’s passengers. MacLachlan wrote the script for the critically acclaimed 2005 film Junebug (for which Amy Adams received an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress), which was also filmed in Winston-Salem. “Angus said that between the two films we’ve shown two very different cultures of Winston- Salem — completely unlike each other but still existing within the same geographic area.” A constant theme in Bahrani’s films is the emotional connections made by the characters, who often come from disparate backgrounds. “I really believe in one human being’s actions having an impact toward another human being,” he says. “I also believe in the landscape, because it was here long before us and it’ll be here long after us.” As he’s still on the promotional circuit for the film, Bahrani hasn’t had much time to devote to his next project — but he’s working on it. He wants to make a period Western. Having never done one before, he savors the challenge. “I love the films of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, but this is a Western like you’ve never seen before.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Mark Burger at marksburger@yahoo.com.

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