This and That next for Bahrani

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Acclaimed writer-director Ramin Bahrani will make the darkly comic drama "Solo" for executive producers Ted Hope and Anne Carey of This Is That Prods.

The award-winning creator of "Man Push Cart" and the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival entry "Chop Shop" will dramatize the friendship between a Senegalese cab driver named Solo and an ornery 70-year-old man named William, who will be played by Elvis Presley "Memphis Mafia" member Red West in his first starring role.

The North Carolina-based pair meet when William offers Solo $1,000 to drive him to a nearby mountain, where he plans to jump to his death. Solo decides to befriend William, hoping to change his mind in the 12 days before their scheduled ride.

Bahrani wrote the screenplay with his "Shop" collaborator Bahareh Azimi and is producing the project with Gigantic Films' Jason Orans. Bahrani's Noruz Films, This Is That and Gigantic are the producers. Kate Dean serves as co-producer. This Is That and ITVS are funding the feature, set to begin filming Sept. 19 over five weeks in Winston-Salem, N.C.

As with "Cart" and "Shop," the Iranian-American director mainly will use nonprofessional actors and a neo-realistic style in the vein of early Roberto Rossellini and Ken Loach. Bahrani spent seven months in New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Africa searching for his lead actor before discovering newcomer Souleymane Sy Savane in Gotham. He developed the idea for the film after befriending an immigrant cab driver in his Winston-Salem hometown four years ago, then researched the film by driving with him for eight months.

Savane's character gives up his dream to become a flight attendant to support his pregnant Mexican-American wife and 9-year-old stepdaughter. But despite the bleak subject matter of "Solo" and his previous films, Bahrani went out of his way to include "ironic, dry humor," he said. "That's new for me."

He has preshot the project with actors on digital video for more than four months in his hometown, where his lead actor literally had to drive a taxi to pay for his supper. "We're staying with my brother, and my mom has driven over sometimes with home-cooked Iranian meals. It must have been like how Cassavetes worked," he said laughingly.

Another challenge is working with a professional actor for the first time. West has appeared in dozens of supporting roles, including the older coach in the Walt Disney Co.'s "Glory Road," the mute ringleader of a gang of traveling con artists on FX's "The Riches" and several parts in Robert Altman projects. The Memphis native was a childhood friend, driver and bodyguard of Presley and got his start appearing in 16 of the singer's films.

Carey and Hope were introduced to Bahrani by his "Cart" and "Shop" cinematographer Michael Simmonds, who also will film "Solo."

"Ramin does things according to his own rules but informed by a full knowledge of cinematic history," Hope said.

Added Carey: "He doesn't make navel-contemplating films or small-minded movies. He's making films about the world and not about himself." Like Bahrani, they will attend Toronto with their Alan Ball drama "Nothing Is Private" and Fox Searchlight release "The Savages."

Both expressed admiration for "Shop" and "Cart," set for release Oct. 9 on DVD from Koch Lorber. The latter film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, won the FIPRESCI International Critics Award at the London Film Festival and this year earned three Independent Spirit Awards noms.

"Shop," now being shopped for distribution by Cinetic Media, premiered at May's Festival de Cannes Directors' Fortnight section and has its North American debut Sept. 10 in Toronto. The film follows a 12-year-old Latino orphan who works and lives in an auto body repair store near Shea Stadium in New York. It has earned Bahrani praise from two of his directorial heroes; a teary-eyed Abbas Kiarostami and Atom Egoyan, who told him that a smart distributor would market the film for a family audience beyond its obvious art house appeal.

Bahrani is repped by ICM. West is repped by Geddes Agency and Pat West at Actors & Others Talent Agency.
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