Ramin Bahrani, a Winston-Salem native, has charted an unlikely path to making a film with Zac Efron in the cornfields of Iowa.
His three previous, widely praised features were marked by their devotion to a realist aesthetic most closely associated with foreign filmmakers. This was underlined by his choice of outsider subjects—a Pakistani immigrant in New York in Man Push Cart, Latino street urchins in a Queens wasteland in Chop Shop, a Senegalese cab driver in Winston-Salem in his powerful 2009 effort, Goodbye Solo. He followed that film with the Wilmington-shot Plastic Bag, a droll and profound 18-minute short that featured a voiceover by Werner Herzog and has received approximately one million online views.
With his latest, At Any Price, Bahrani finds himself moving into new territory, including working with actual movie stars. He has characterized this elsewhere as the latest step in his development, a way to keep challenging himself. We spoke to him from Brooklyn last week.
INDY WEEK: At Any Price is a pretty dark film. Was it difficult to get such an uncompromising film made?
RAMIN BAHRANI: I'll tell you, that was not the reason it was hard to get made. It was hard to get made because most people do not want to finance films about human beings, because they think audiences only have interest in machines like Iron Man or whatnot. And people in North Carolina need to know that these people do not like to finance movies that take place in rural communities because they think that the rest of the world has no interest in movies that take place in rural communities. They only want urban movie settings—urban locations, which I think—I must be living in some insane world. It's interesting, I thought I was the only one who had this experience, but [Steven] Soderbergh recently gave a speech in San Francisco on the state of cinema which was not very optimistic, and he discussed the same issues.
[In order for film financiers to sell your film around the world], it means they all must be the same. Urban, white male, and then some kind of genre element, and an actor, like a gun.
This is the first film you've made using "name actors"—I'm sure that was the requirement of getting this film financed.
I found it creatively necessary, as well. I just felt it was the kind of story and the kinds of characters that I just really needed professional actors who could also bring something to the table, and they did. Dennis [Quaid], Kim [Dickens], Zac [Efron], Clancy [Brown], all of them. They had real ideas, they had the ability to bring their interpretations and a physicality to their roles. And I also really did not have a lot of time... so their ability to get things done quickly also really helped. They really added a lot to this project.
I know you said the film was dark but I think the film also has a humor to it. And based on the world I'm living in, to me it doesn't seem very dark. It's just what's going on around me at all times.
It looks like a mainstream film, handsomely produced, with attractive professional actors, no sign of it being done on the cheap, and then to go in the direction that it goes—
[Laughs] Yeah, it's something that a Hollywood film wouldn't do. I mean, the only Hollywood film I can recall recently that does something like that was The Dark Knight Rises. It's so dark; I couldn't believe it.
Did Michael Pollan get you started on At Any Price?
Yes. I had read Michael Pollan's work and we were in touch via email, and he introduced me to George Naylor. I also read a very interesting column in The New York Times by Dan Barry, a journalist that I like, and we became friends actually. He had a column called "This Land" which was very good, and he'd written about a dairy farm in California, and as I read the article, I was just very surprised because to me it sounded like he was writing about a big business. And what he wrote didn't resemble a farm or a farmer. It was a business. And I was really amazed by that. It seemed so strange. And so when I went to visit the farmers in Iowa, that's what I was struck by. It was just nothing like any previous movie we had seen in previous movies set on a farm. Those days were long gone.
Do you see slow food, local farming movements being a realistic direction to go, or do you think, out of necessity, that we're stuck with big agribusiness?
I would say we're stuck with big business, period. Any industry. And that industry could be farming, that industry could be journalism, that industry could be filmmaking, that industry could be health care. And that is fueled, in terms of power, by things like Walmart and Wall Street. These are the massive, massive industries that control all the modes of operation and distribution and also the government. I'm just talking about the former head of Tyson in Los Angeles who runs the FDA, which is no different than Goldman [Sachs] running the Fed, which is just like former head of Deutsche running the SEC. I don't think it takes a high school graduate to know that that's not correct.
The farmers I met were very good, nice, warm-hearted people, but the pressure of the world and of large business is forcing them to behave in a way that I don't think they wanted to behave. You know, Dennis Quaid's character is not a very nice guy, but I hope by the end of the film you see he's a very haunted human being.
Are the farmers who are working the corn and soybean crops—are they OK with the patented seeds or do they want to rebel and start saving seeds?
There's no real choice because they do produce bigger yields. And so you're forced to compete with your fellow farmer. It becomes so that you really have no choice. Even as a consumer, how am I going to tell someone, I really want you to buy this locally grown, humanely grown, no pesticides, no etc. vegetables from the local market, when you can get the same thing for half the price at Walmart? In this type of economy, how am I going to successfully make that argument? But of course, it's no surprise we're in this type of economy. The economic policies have been designed by the people who run Walmart.
I assume these are topics you'd like to return to in future films?
We're talking about all the things that I enjoy talking about. These ideas are hidden deep underneath. You and I could talk about them now. But my hope is that this is an emotional story. My next film is about a family getting kicked out of their home.
Do you have that production set yet?
I hope to start shooting in autumn. I just need to get the financing together.
Getting back to At Any Price, it reminded me of 1950s melodramas. Was the brother subplot taken from East of Eden?
John Steinbeck's one of my favorite authors. [His work] was a huge influence on the screenplay. Death of a Salesman, too.
Could you talk about Roger Ebert's influence in your career?
It was a huge loss for cinema. It was a huge loss for me, personally. I had come to know Roger and we had become friends. You know, as much as a film critic and a filmmaker could become friends, we had become friends. We would communicate in the last years, via email. Mainly we would talk about ideas and about life and about books, and occasionally about movies.
He was very important for my career. He said yes very quickly about my first film. And the first film was made with just a handful of friends, no money, no actors. Man Push Cart managed to get to Venice, it managed to get to Sundance. It got some small attention here on the art film circuit. It was really Roger who saw it at Sundance and opened the doors and gave way to his audience, which is huge.
The people who know about my film know about it because of Roger. He was a real champion of cinema. He could like any kind of movie. He knew how to write about film. He was a very, very smart guy. Very well read. And he had lived a real life. And you could tell when he was writing about movies because there's no phony intellectualism, and he kind of gets right to the heart of it. He really gave me the courage to keep making films. He gave me the courage to make something I hadn't before, and I think about him. With every film, I think about him. You know, "Would this be up to the standards of cinema that Roger dreamed about?"
You think he's one of a kind with the niche that he filled? Do you think that's a role that someone else can assume?
I don't think that you can really replace him. I don't know a lot about it. I think he was wildly influential on critics, and so I hope that the new crop of critics, especially the new generation of critics, look up to him. I do worry about obsession with fanfare with critics. That's concerning, the obsession with money. Contemporary Hollywood cinema can be very tempting, including to critics, so that is kind of concerning.
You filmed Plastic Bag in North Carolina. Did you benefit from the film incentives? Is that why you shot in North Carolina?
No—there was not enough money to collect any tax incentives on it. Goodbye Solo certainly took advantage of the tax incentives in North Carolina. Even my new film—I know there will be an analysis done to see if we should be shooting in North Carolina due to the tax incentives.
Do you see tax incentives as a good thing?
It's a massive part of how films are made.
The Triangle art houses will all have digital projectors by the end of the year. I imagine you're a traditionalist in that sense?
I'm not, thank God. I shoot all of my films on high def. When I shot Man Push Cart, we made the film in 2004 for about $170,000. And I remember when the film was accepted to the Venice Film Festival, they said it had to be projected on 35mm. I had to go find another $50,000 just to do that. And I remember thinking, "I can't wait for the day when I never have to do that again."
In fact, recently, I've been thinking, you know, maybe the new generation is right and maybe the Internet is the way to go. Maybe it's something to be taken seriously: "webisodes." I mean, Dostoyevsky and Dickens wrote their books in serial form.
Do you have a title for your next project?
Yeah, it's called 99 Homes. I gave the title in my last interview with Roger, which was actually his last interview. You can see it on his website. I also wrote a letter to him. We were doing an email interview about At Any Price before he passed away. I finished it, and Chaz [Ebert, Roger's wife] kind of pushed me to give the title. And it's very hard to say no to Chaz. It would've been easier to just give it to Roger. [laughs]
Interview transcribed by Mary Alta Feddeman, culture and sports intern for INDY Week.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Roger Ebert gave me the courage to keep making films."