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Foreclosure's Groujnd Zero: Florida
From the start, Ramin Bahrani knew he wanted to set his story in Florida - the sun-soaked Southern state where real estate boomed explosively, then crashed like nowhere else. He began the process of making 99 HOMES with an eye-opening journey to the panhandle. The troubles continue even now; in 2014 one in every 400 Florida homes was in foreclosure.

Still, Bahrani wasn't so much interested in the dry statistics as in the extreme ways that real people react to the high-pressure situation of losing one's home - and to the equally extreme, if highly profitable, venture of taking homes away.

"I started researching by reading books and articles about the financial crisis, but I really like to be on the ground, so I started spending time in Florida," Bahrani explains. "I visited the foreclosure courts, what they call the 'rocket dockets,' where they decide your fate in 60 seconds flat. I spent time with real estate brokers; I spent time in the motels where families live after they've been evicted and have nowhere to go; I met hoodlums and con artists. And I learned all the methods of cheating the banks, the government and homeowners."

Bahrani also spent time with those who were cheated. These included Lynn Szymoniak, a West Palm Beach fraud attorney who was shocked to find herself suddenly foreclosed upon for no apparent reason. Unwilling to just give in, Szymoniak set out on a quest to expose the practice of "robo-signing," a vast, scandalous conspiracy of falsified documents that dropped thousands into the horror of the foreclosure maze with no recourse. She became a symbol of a system as un-policed as the Wild West. "Lynn led a law suit to the tune of $95 million against the banks and won," notes Bahrani. (The government joined Szymoniak's case against Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo and Citigroup and she received an $18 million whistleblower fee.)

In addition, the writer-director witnessed the harrowing reality of evictions-in-progress, and saw first-hand the acute hazards of the process. "They are very frightening events," he says of evictions. "We've all heard statistics on the housing crisis, but unless you have gone through it, you probably haven't really seen what it's like for a family in the middle of it. I witnessed that and it's emotional and terrifying on both sides. It's terrifying for families and it's equally terrifying for agents doing the eviction because angry home owners will try to retaliate."

Another surreal realm Bahrani explored is that inside Florida's low-rent, roadside motels that line Highway 142, the road to Disney World, where evicted homeowners frequently flee in search of a roof over their heads. Within them, he says, you see it all. "These motels will often be populated by gangbangers and prostitutes on one side, and then in another section they'll have migrant workers or day laborers -- and then you have ordinary families with kids in school who have been evicted from their homes," he describes. "There are so many kids in these motels that the school systems have to send buses to them."

All of this became woven into the taut narrative of the film. Bahrani wrote the film with Amir Naderi, an accomplished international filmmaker in his own right whose films include the Iranian classic THE RUNNER and the U.S. drama VEGAS: BASED ON A TRUE STORY. Together they fleshed out a story Bahrani developed with his long-time collaborator Bahareh Azimi (CHOP SHOP). "Amir is someone that I've admired since I was a college student," Bahrani comments. "I was lucky to come to know him and to get mentorship from him on some of my previous films. We started talking about the idea for this film early on and he became a vital part of the writing process."

The script they created together was raw and stripped back, letting the ticking-clock of the story and the friction between the two main characters escalate without distractions. Bahrani says his hope is to use the unadorned suspense of 99 HOMES to bring people into this world where greed and need are still colliding in explosive ways, but without trying to shoehorn in simplistic answers.

"It doesn't matter which side of the political, economic or social spectrum you reside on, we all can see is that something's wrong with the system," he comments. "Most of us know someone who has lost their home, almost lost their home or know someone who lives in fear of losing their home. The mix of that fear with nail-biting tension had the producers of 99 HOMES exhilarated. Says Ashok Amritraj of Hyde Park: "The film is a combination of an intense thriller with the acting moments of an inspiring drama. Ramin saw all of that going in and he brought a real vision for it."

Adds producing partner Kevin Turen: "At its heart, 99 HOMES is the story of a man trying to save his family. It starts out with that simple, basic drive -- then it escalates into themes of seduction, corruption and greed. Ramin has done an amazing job making that all work as a thriller. You feel so engaged with the characters' lives, that you're on the edge of your seat."


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