One of the most interesting and consistent filmmakers in the last 10 years is Ramin Bahrani, and if you haven't heard of him or seen his films, you should seek them out and prepare for a discovery. I never saw his 2000 debut STRANGERS, but I've seen eveything since, including the features MAN PUSH CART, CHOP SHOP, and GOODBYE SOLO, as well as his 2009 short PLASTIC BAG, all of which I highly recommend. Bahrani is a fan of using first-time actors (commonly, mistakenly referred to as non-actors) in his films, which often deal with America's outsider class--whether the be poor, immigrant or just forgotten by society.
For these and many other reason, his latest work, AT ANY PRICE, is quite a departure for Bahrani. It features known, bankable stars (and one unknown who, naturally, steals every scene away from her more famous co-stars). And the character at the center of the film is very much an insider in his community. He's a seed salesman named Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), a man of many personal and professional flaws, and can't seem to understand or keep a grip on his youngest son, as aspiring NASCAR driver named Dean (Zac Effron).
It's clear Bahrani is interested in expanding his storytelling avenues while still staying true to piecing together deep, rich character studies. AT ANY PRICE views the profession of family farming as the outsider and the corporations that hold it hostage as the oppressors. That's not the focus of the film, but it certainly run through every minute of it. And it provides Quaid with one of his most satisfying performances on the big screen in quite some time (I still think he's killing in on his series "Vegas," which probably won't come back for a second season, and that's a shame).
I occurred to me while doing research for this interview that Quaid is one of America's great unsung acting legends, with great performances in such films as BREAKING AWAY, THE RIGHT STUFF, DREAMSCAPE, ENEMY MINE, INNERSPACE, THE BIG EASY, EVERYBODY'S ALL AMERICAN, GREAT BALLS OF FIRE!, WYATT EARP, ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, TRAFFIC, THE ROOKIE, FAR FROM HEAVEN, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, AMERICAN DREAMZ, G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA, and the FOOTLOOSE remake. The man embraces every type of film, including a healthy diet of genre films and ones that pick apart a version of the American Dream, including AT ANY PRICE.
It was a real honor to sit down with Bahrani and Quaid not too long ago. One of Bahrani biggest supporters was Roger Ebert, whose funeral was held the day before this interview and who Bahrani has become close to over the years, having had his films play at the Roger Ebert Film Festival more than once. Please enjoy my talk with Bahrani and Quaid…
Capone: Hi Ramin. I’m Steve from Ain’t It Cool News. It’s good to meet you.
Ramin Bahrani: Did we meet before?
Capone: At Ebertfest years ago, yeah. We’ve ever done an interview before.
RB: You look familiar.
Capone: I’ve moderated a lot of Q&As at Ebertfest in the last few years and again this year.
RB: You’ll be there this year?
Capone: I will.
RB: I spoke with Chaz this morning.
Capone: That's great. I want to ask you about Roger, if that’s okay. He obviously liked your movies. Hi, Dennis. I'm Steve from Ain't It Cool News.
Dennis Quaid: Right, hello.
Capone: So Roger’s funeral was yesterday, and he clearly was a huge, huge fan of yours, Ramin, and a friend. With regards to this movie, he said that you are “the best new American director in recent years.”
DQ: I agree with that.
Capone: Talk to me about the role he played in your life, both as a fan of his and when he started taking about and throwing a spotlight on your movies.
RB: Like a lot of people, I came to know Roger from the show, and then from the show you start to read his written work and then you start to realize, “My god, you can think and talk about movies.” As a kid, it doesn’t occur to you that such a thing is possible. So he’s what, for me and for so many people, introduced you to the world of cinema as a thinking medium, and as I was mentioning earlier, what’s great about Roger is his ability to get at the heart of it. This was a really smart guy, very well read; we emailed a lot about books actually more than about movies.
To say he's a big reader is an understatement. I never could say one book that he had not read, and he could quote me the book. He lived a life. He had really lived. From childhood all the way to the end, he had lived, so he knew it. It wasn’t as if he had read some intellectual theoretical book and wanted to say something intellectual about a movie; he had read all of those books, but he had lived.
And he had an ability--because he had been writing for so long and he was so imaginative--to get to the heart of the film and to write about it in a way that anyone could understand it. For me as a kid when I was growing up in North Carolina, to me as an adult who has been to university and I can think and read books too, but I could still grasp what he was saying, and he had revealed things in a movie that seemed so simple. It’s like, “How come I couldn’t understand that? How come I couldn’t think of it so simply?” That’s very hard to do. It’s like when you watch a Kiarostami film, and you’re like “How did he say something so complicated so simply?” Roger was like that, but he was funnier.
So for me personally, he gave me courage when I said, “Why should I keep making films when I get great reviews, but basically I’m living in a tentpole movie world?” His existence would give me courage, and also I always feel I have to make a better film and I have to keep getting better, so that one day Roger will have been able to say, “I told you. I told you to watch this guy.” Because he said it about Scorsese and Herzog and Mike Leigh, and over time we said “He was right.” So I feel I have to live up to him and I mean that in the best way; he makes me want to be better.
Capone: Dennis, about this movie in particular, Roger said that when he saw it in Toronto, that this is one of the performances of your lifetime. But I looked it up, and he also gave BREAKING AWAY four stars, which is of course absolutely right.
DQ: All I can say is, I was so buoyed by that, and to tell you the truth, I usually don’t really read the reviews and critics, but I’ve definitely always paid attention to Roger Ebert, because of what Ramin is saying: he’s been a part of film. He’s been much more than a critic. He’s really taken himself out of what he does and he was one of the last people who was so versed in the art of the critical faculty of classical criticism.
RB: That has to be talked about.
Capone: I was wondering if you were going to try to make it down to Ebertfest next week given your schedule.
RB: To Ebertfest? It’s tough, because I was to be at the service yesterday, but we were in San Francisco, and then we're going to be together in Boston on Thursday, so what I was able to do is visit and spend time with Chaz this morning. Actually Roger and I had emailed the day before he passed, and I told him I would see him this morning. I was able to come see him on Christmas Day a few months ago. I came to visit with him.
Capone: Well let’s talk about your movie. It’s so different and yet there are so many wonderful things about your movies that are still present here. For one thing, there are two very distinct stories going on here that you’ve melded together very beautifully. There’s this farming story and then there’s this family story, and it seems like the farming story is more than just the backdrop. It’s more than just a job for these people. There’s a condemnation of a certain practice going on here and also a sadness and a loss of what farming used to be. Then there’s this screwed up family at the heart of it. Just talk about which story came to you first, and then how you blended them.
RB: They came almost at the same time. Through [author] Michael Pollan’s work, I came to know George Naylor, who's a farmer out in Iowa, who is actually in the film. I still brought in some real farmers and put them in smaller roles and I lived out there with the farmers, and they all told me the same thing, “Expand or die; get big, or get out.” That seemed like a theme for the film and a theme for the country and the world really, this kind of capitalism run amok. Then I met a seed salesman and I said, “My god, this is DEATH OF A SALESMAN.” Who knew there was even such an occupation of a guy that would go door to door in farm country and try to sell genetically modified seeds.
And so that theme came and then came the idea of this character that Dennis plays. How could we see that character and his family slowly reveal itself to us? How could we see the Dennis character, who's kind of unlikeable in the beginning, over the course of the film through the pressures that mount, how could we see him start to realize “Who am I actually? How have I been behaving?” These are the questions that I’ve always been curious about, how does one live in this world, which doesn’t always seem to have respect for life?
Capone: Then in the storyline about the family, I think I summed it up as I was writing about it: “Parents are always going to disappoint their kids, and kids are always going to disappoint their parents.”
DQ: Wow! I’m going to use that because that is so much the case, isn’t it?
Capone: I love seeing you dig into something like this.
DQ: Yeah, this is a very different role for me, because Henry Whipple is a person who shows a face to the world outside. We talked about DEATH OF A SALESMAN when we were getting ready to do this, and he’s a seed salesman along with being a farmer as well, and he shows a face to the world that a salesman shows, because he’s trying to sell somebody something, that of confidence and bravado that he’s got going on the surface. But inside, he’s a completely different person. He grew up in another world of farming, and I think he romanticizes it, and he wants to pass this legacy on to his sons who don’t want it. Inside, he's a broken person, and as the film goes along, the weight of which becomes too much to bare caused by the events of the film.
Capone: To say he's flawed doesn’t even begin to cover it. You said he’s not likable at the beginning, but I think he comes and goes, how likable he really is at any given point. The women in this story are the most likable people in the movie; they're the heart and soul of what’s going on here.
RB: Right, especially the young one [Maika Monroe, who plays Efron's girlfriend].
Capone: I want to talk to you about her. I’ve never seen her before; she's unbelievable.
DQ: It was her first film.
RB: I was lucky to find her. We were doing casting, and there were very talented, kind of famous young actresses who wanted the part and were very good actually, but Maika is a professional kite boarder and was also doing acting, but had not yet “been discovered,” and her mom taped her. At the beginning of the tape, she was going to do a scene, just saying “Hey, my name is Maika,” and she was waving all animated and “I just turned 18 today,” and I just saw this and said, “My god, that’s the girl. I don’t even think I need to watch the reading of the scene.” I did watch the reading of the scene and it was really good, and there was a sincerity in her and an honesty in her that was great for that part, because her character was the only honest and sincere person in the movie somehow. She’s a bit of a ragamuffin character, but she's the one that actually has the heart, and I think she is an important part of Dennis’s character starting to think, “What am I doing?”
Capone: That scene where she’s on the sales call with you and saves your hide in that one call, that made me nervous. I was thinking, “Oh no, don’t corrupt her. She’s good!”
RB: She knows better.
DQ: She brings out the best in Henry. In a way, she’s the son that he wanted. I think it’s the purest relationship in the film.
RB: You know she’s already done two huge things already. With Jason Reitman, she’s playing the young Kate Winslet. She got a role in Sofia Coppola’s film [THE BLING RING] and then she’s the young Kate Winslet in the new Reitman film [LABOR DAY].
Capone: Wow, okay. You mentioned that Henry is a salesman, so a lot of what he says feels scripted, fake, and it’s supposed to feel fake. When is he at his most authentic?
DQ: He’s supposed to feel fake? [laughs]
Capone: I’m just saying he feels like he is selling you a used car. That’s what I mean. You nailed it. You nail exactly what a guy like that would be, I think.
RB: Exactly. We always say it’s like Dennis Quaid playing Henry Whipple, and Henry Whipple playing Henry Whipple.
Capone: When is he at his most authentic? Even when he is being confronted by his wife or fighting with his son, he still feels like he’s going some ideal in his mind that he wants them to fulfill.
DQ: That’s when he’s most authentic, when he’s with Maika’s character in the film. Also at the very end when he has this cathartic type of split, I think, in his life of the inside that he just cannot hold any more. It’s really him asking for help.
Capone: You said it’s a very different character than what you’ve played before, but I think it’s one of the beautiful things about looking over the films you’ve done, you very rarely repeat yourself. There have been variations on this American ideal broken down like FAR FROM HEAVEN or EVERYBODY’S ALL AMERICAN, where it’s like the ideal is completely shattered. Do you go out of your way to make sure you don’t repeat yourself?
DQ: It’s partly conscious and partly unconscious in a way the films I’ve done have found me more than me thinking, “Okay, I want to do this type of movie.” I know when they come along, like with AT ANY PRICE and also FAR FROM HEAVEN or a film like THE ROOKIE or whatever, that I say, “Yes, I want to be a part of this.” But if there’s any kind of strategic part of my career that I’ve had, it’s to try to do as many different types of films as possible.
RB: One thing Dennis mentioned when we talked, he said to us there was something that frightened him about doing character, which I was like, “Great. If he’s a little bit frightened to do the role, even better.” He said it excited him to want to do it, and I was like “Good,” because there were so many things in this movie that were so new for me as I’m trying to broaden my creative scope, I was like, “I’m scared too. Let’s try to make it together.”
Capone: When you read a script and see a character that you’re not even sure you can play, is that more of an incentive to play it?
DQ: There is a fear factor that goes with it, and fear is a great motivator, because you have to stretch yourself. You have to go some place that is not in your wheelhouse at that particular time, but at the same time, you're relating to it.
Capone:You mentioned that you had some real farmers in the movie and obviously you’ve made a nice series of films with, I’ll call them “first-time actors” because I don’t like “non-actors.” They're just actors that haven’t acted yet.
RB: I have to stop you--thank you for saying that, because once they get in front of the camera, they are, but it’s so complicated for me to explain this that I’m just like “Okay, call them non-pros.” But you’re right, once they step in front of the camera, they are actors.
Capone: What was it like working with people who have filmographies? Was there any kind of concern on your part of actually using veteran actors in your film?
RB: The concerns were quickly diminished. When I first went to Austin to meet Dennis, I was just taken by how friendly he was, and he was really smart. Like we spent three days together mainly talking about history and politics, books and cinema, which he was the expert on all of them, and I would ask questions and he would talk to me about stuff. I said, “Dennis, I have high hopes for the movie and I hope you would be recognized for this role,” and he said, “You know, I don’t really want that.” I said, “Really?” “No.” I said, “Well then what are you interested in then with the movie?” He’s like, “Do you remember in CHOP SHOP when the little boy pulls the garage door down and locked it with a screw driver?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Can you make me like that?” I said, this movie star with this many films, with this much talent and this much worldwide recognition is asking me to make him like a nonprofessional actor pulling a garage door down. I said, “I’ve stepped into heaven.”
So then the next day, I had a little more courage. I said, “You gave me the courage to be more open. Can we do no hair and makeup?” He said, “Of course.” It was like, “Great.” The great thing about it was how much the actors, all of them, brought to the part that had never occurred to me. When I saw Dennis do the first scene of the film, which the first scene with Dennis was in the cemetery. By chance, we shot that first. I didn’t know what he was going to do and I was quite nervous--“What actually is he going to do?” I gave him a big bear hug, and he thought I was out of my mind or something and I was like, “I just saw Henry Whipple.” He did his shoulders a certain way, his hands, his face, the way he touched his hair, the tone and cadence of his speech. He had planned all of it, but didn’t tell me, and suddenly the character was alive in ways I never would have been able to do alone. I was like, “This is why you bring somebody like Dennis Quaid.”
Capone: What was your favorite movie of Dennis’s before you met him?
RB: BREAKING AWAY, yeah. BREAKING AWAY is one of the great films, and I think I sat down in the car, and the first thing I said was “Can you please talk to me about BREAKING AWAY and [director] Peter Yates?” I think it was the very first thing I said, and then he was like, “I learned it all from him.” There are certain performances that are overwhelming, like FAR FROM HEAVEN and THE RIGHT STUFF; there are certain films that touch you. I love the bravado of THE BIG EASY; it's so memorable. BREAKING AWAY and FAR FROM HEAVEN are my favorites.
Capone: BREAKING AWAY is one of the quintessential Midwestern movies, as far as I’m concerned, absolutely. Well thank you both so much. It was great to meet you.
RB: Great to meet you.
DQ: Thank you very much. That was an intelligent interview too.