'Fahrenheit 451' Director Ramin Bahrani On Adding The Cloud To Ray Bradbury [Interview]

Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon come hot off Black Panther and The Shape of Water, but you don't need to leave the house to see their new movie. Fahrenheit 451 premieres on HBO this weekend, an adaptation of the Ray Bradbury classic. Ramin Bahrani adapted and directed the film.

Shannon plays Beatty and Jordan plays Montag, two "firemen" in a future where the government burns books. This future is more of an extension of our present than perhaps the Bradbury novel, as the firemen also deal with cloud uploads and screens connected to central networks. Bahrani spoke with /Film by phone about Fahrenheit 451 this week. The film premieres Saturday, May 19 at 8PM on HBO.

In movies like 99 Homes and At Any Price, you've been able to deal with modern day issues dramatically. Is it any different dealing with such issues in science fiction?

I don't know if I would say science fiction or not. I thought of the movie more as some alternate tomorrow. I wasn't really thinking about the movie was set in the future. What was different about it was I couldn't research real people or real places like I had done in all five of my other films. Also, I had never adapted a book. These posed real challenges and also exciting opportunities.

So how was the adaptation process different from your originals?

Yeah, the fact that it was an adaptation made it different. I had wanted to modernize the book to include internet, social media. I thought if I come into your house now and burn all your physical books, you may not like it but you could also download all those things from the cloud. If I smashed your iPhone, you could just get another one and download them again. I encountered the novel in high school and I was trying to make something that if you were in high school, you would still be impacted by it. I thought I had to include technology that they were born and raised with really, but I didn't approach it lightly. Bradbury himself had adapted his own novel twice, into a play and for a musical. He had changed many critical elements including letting Clarisse McClellan (Sofia Boutella) live. That gave me some courage to make some dramatic changes to the text, but to stay true to the themes within the novel.

I figured uploading books to the cloud was not in the original Bradbury.

No, but I had to have it because I just thought if I was a teenager and someone said they were going to burn some physical books, I just don't know if they even read physical books anymore. Tablets and smartphones, I wanted a way to make it impactful to that generation.

Famously one of the problems with cloud books is of all things, 1984 got removed from people's kindles because of a rights issue. Would it be easier for the government to control electronic books, making physical books underground currency?

That's what we tried to highlight in the film. Actually, a physical book ends up having more power and more weight to it in a digital world. I don't even show a physical book for almost 30, 40 minutes. My hope was when you first see them, when Michael Jordan's character first sees that attic and there's an almost one minute long panning shot around a room filled with books, that the audience would feel the weight of that. You would miss the book. You would miss physically touching a book. It would make you want to pick one up right now and read it.

Some other artifacts he finds, like a Blockbuster Video VHS tape, is an artifact now, let alone in the future.

Yes, exactly. Photographs, a VHS tape, all the photographs now are stored in old mobile phones that we don't even know how to plug in anymore. They're just gone, so a VHS tape, I remember when I had to throw out a whole stack of VHS tapes because I don't know what to do with them anymore. I don't know how to play them. There is no VHS player. So again, a physical book, a strip of celluloid lasts and doesn't need any really technology to look at it. I thought these were things that would be relevant if Bradbury had written the novel today

Any incarnation of Fahrenheit 451 is a cautionary tale, but people's memories are so short they even forget recent history. Can art really remind people not to let our world escalate this far?

Wow, that's a very large philosophical question. The world has gotten this far. The things Bradbury warned us about are happening now. We are more interested in being happy than we are in understanding the true nature of things. He famously, in his own way, predicted alternative truth and fake history with his concept of Ben Franklin starting the first fire department to burn books. The firemen know it is true because they see it in their firemen's handbook. In the film, Montag asks his computer, like Alexa or Siri gives him the answer. It sounds like the world we live in today. We don't really want to read news or anything. We just want to look at headlines that have been generated by an algorithm to make us happen and we click and like it. I don't even think people read the article. They just click like. Sadly, in your profession, I'm concerned about, I'm sure you are too, if you're going to write about this interview, will anyone read it? They may just click the headline. They may like it and share it and be happy with that. I think these were things that Bradbury predicted, these concepts. They seem to be happening right now.

It's hard for truth to compete with the lie you want to hear.

I would say that's really true and that's the world we live in. That's the world Bradbury warned us about. We would rather be happy. Why have two sides of a question when one is enough? I think that's what we've asked for in our current world. I think that's what Bradbury was warning us about. I think what you said is sadly true.

So back to my question, is art and film a possible solution?

I don't know if it's a solution, but art, film, books, I think they do have a way of really impacting people. Of eliciting thought and ideas in people. I think without them, the world would be an even more frightening place than it already is.

Fahrenheit 451 reviewFor the fire scenes, would you burn actual copies of books?

Sadly, it was very painful, we burned real books. I think the hardest part of making this film was actually composing shots to burn real books. Interestingly, what Bradbury describes in the novel was also true. At a certain point it became hypnotic and seductive. This was also very scary because you found yourself being mesmerized by what you were seeing. I'm a filmmaker but I grew up with books. I grew up in a household and read books and respected books. I've always been more impacted my books since I was a kid than by film. Of course I love film, don't get me wrong. So it was very difficult and also a lot of work went into picking the right books, the books that mean something to me or that I thought would have the right impact in this film. A lot of Easter eggs in a way, in the books and in the quotes and in the references.

I suppose it's possible to make blank books with covers, but that might be impractical and unfeasible. 

What we actually had to create were fake covers for a lot of the books because we did not have the rights to the artwork. This became very complicated to try to secure copyrights to different art. Sometimes there was one person who was the typographer, one person was the graphic artist, another person was the rights holder. It became almost impossible for some of these books. There's a handful that we were able to secure but in the end we had to design them. The art department had to, in a way, open up a book design company. We had to design a lot of the covers. There's an attorney for everything.

Were you able to use CGI fire in any of the scenes?

Yeah. I mean, it was real fire a lot of the times. The flame thrower was designed and actually shot real fire, so when Jordan or Shannon are using the flamethrowers, those were real. Then of course CGI was used to enhance certain areas. The final sequence in the barn for example is a mixture of real and CGI fire. It would've been too dangerous otherwise.

Stuntmen love to do burns so were some of them game to be set on fire?

Yeah, when Montag kills the fireman, that's real. That was a real stuntman. That was Jordan really shooting at a stuntman. The old woman was a stuntwoman who came in to take her place for the burn. It was very, very disturbing for the whole cast and crew to see that. For that sequence, I asked her and Jordan to watch, horrifically, but to watch YouTube video of Tibetan monks self-immolation. We wanted there to be a very purposeful, calm sense to what she was doing in that scene, that impactful scene from the novel.

Even though it's an adaptation, are there some lines in the script that come directly from Bradbury? 

Oh, many. A lot of the dialogue comes straight from Bradbury or have been slightly altered. There are a lot of good lines there. As I mentioned earlier, "Why give people two sides to a question to worry about? Better give them one or none." Or Beatty tells Montag, "We were not born equal. We must be made equal by the fire and then we can be happy." It was very frightening.

You're doing the Treadstone pilot. Is your plan to mimic the shaky handheld style of the Paul Greengrass movies or give the show a new style?

I love Paul Greengrass. Bloody Sunday is an amazing film. I think talking with Tim [Kring, writer of the pilot], I think his interests are a little different but let's see where it goes.

Is the plan to mention characters like Jason Bourne or Aaron Cross or really keep it separate?

I probably shouldn't say.

Any other films in development for you after that pilot?

Yeah, after that my own project is The White Tiger which I'm doing for Netflix. It's a film I've been trying to do for almost a decade now. It's based on my friend's novel The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and it's set in India. That's what I'm working on now almost entirely. My whole day is consumed by White Tiger.

Is doing it for Netflix the same sort of resources as a theatrical feature?

Yeah, it's a theatrical feature film and so far, like HBO, they've been very supportive. If you're a book lover, please read it. You could read it in two days. It's a very quick read and a very amazing book.