Goodbye Solo: Writer-Director Ramin Bahrani’s Indie about Bizarre, Life-Affirming Friendship

Ramin Bahrani’s new film, Goodbye Solo, bears strong thematic resemblance to Iranian director Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Fest.

Senegalese cab driver Solo works hard to provide a better life for his young family in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

William, an old man, hires Solo to take him to Blowing Rock, a peak in which updrafts cause objects that are dropped from it to fly upwards. William, rather depressed, does not ask for a ride back from the rock, so Solo assumes that he plans to commit suicide there. Solo befriends William, in hopes of talking him out of ending his life. He introduces William to his wife and his stepdaughter Alex, hoping to inspire the old man with a renewed joy of life.

“I began to wave at one specific elderly man every time I passed. Soon, he recognized me (or my car) and started happily waving at me, despite the fact that we did not know each other. I confess I was also happy to wave each time, but this man’s situation also filled me with a sense of sorrow. Clearly he was lonely and that small connection really meant something to him,” says writer-director Ramin Bahrani.

“I remember throwing sticks off the rock as a child,” Bahrani recalls, “and watching, hoping, and willing the wind to blow them back up.”

“The first thing I wanted to tell Bahareh (Azimi) about was O himself. He was a complex, kind and charming man, whose street past and language, love of reggae music and overall spirit became fused with the fictional character of Solo and the spirit of the film. O had the ability to make everyone who entered his taxi feel good. No matter how mean they might have been to him, they always left his taxi with a smile.”

Bahrani notes that GOODBYE SOLO not only encourages the viewer to see the film from William’s perspective instead of Solo’s, but that “…it was also about Solo saying goodbye to himself. His encounter with William has decisively changed Solo. The man who stands on Blowing Rock is not the same man who accepted the $100 from William in the first scene of the film. The title also refers to my hope that in the ending there is enough life and hope that even in the face of death these two friends can say goodbye to solitude.”

Bahrani remembers watching Red West’s casting tape. “I saw his face and heard his voice for no more than five seconds before jumping out of my seat and yelling ‘That’s William!’ In fact, he was so much William to me that I never called him by his real name. During production I honestly could not remember his real name!”

“Everything that William was not going to say in this film was there in his face, and in his walk, and the way he smoked; it was even in the real-life past of West,” Bahrani said. “His Elvis Rock and Roll days were all done; a faded memory. You could sense a struggle for purpose and meaning in the future, but what else was there? Who else was left? This just seemed so palpable on West’s face that I knew nobody could question it.”

“A film is not a novel to be read at a table; it is to be acted and blocked out in scenes with a camera,” Bahrani says. “Red came very prepared and gave me even more than what I wanted.”

“From the script stage, Azimi and I had planned out a visual game of when William is in the back seat, when he moves to the front, and even the one time when Solo is in the back seat,” Bahrani says. “And then with Michael’s help we reinforced their relationship with the camera.” Simmonds adds, “Ramin and I talked about the dirty-two-shot, to visually connect the two men in profile when they’re both in the front seat studying or drinking beers. But ultimately we maintained that it’s best to stay simple and classical and let the story, and the two men’s striking faces unfold honestly before the camera without tricks.”

Bahrani says, “Michael and I decided on hand-held after I showed him photos I had taken on the rock.” Simmonds laughs, “I remember someone from production asked if we wanted a crane that day! What the hell would we do with a crane?!”

In general Bahrani did not often compliment West during the shoot. “I wanted to keep him alone, isolated and in character.” Bahrani adds. “Sometimes I would frustrate him right before scenes where he was to get angry at Solo.”

“The cinematic language of the final moments on the rock with Solo are important to me,” Bahrani states. “I tried to capture a very intense emotion and a complex philosophy about the world, god, life and death, through basic elements and cuts: Solo’s face, his hand holding a wooden stick above the clouds and trees, and the gusting sound of wind. No dialogue. No music. No sentiment. This scene can’t be a novel, a song, or theatre. It can only be expressed this way through cinema.”