The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
You emailed me the questions to this interview on March 15, 2013. In your March 16th reply to my email, you said: The piece will go out to all my print syndication customers. (“Print!” How times change.)
Times have changed. Before we could finish this interview, you were gone. I emailed you the day before you passed that I was coming to see you that Tuesday morning in Chicago. I did come. Chaz and I shared many memories, including how you and I communicated more about books than anything else. Roger, times certainly did change! You finally relented, bought and loved a Kindle Fire! Your embrace of social media was key to the last and possibly best years of your writing. I have tried to emulate some of that in this correspondence by using hyperlinks, photos and videos, but I’m still holding on to the old ways. Thus, I’m grateful that you always introduced me to writers by sending me real books printed on paper, including "O Pioneers!" by the great Willa Cather, among others.
We also shared a love of walking and exploring, and I told Chaz how I would send you photos sometimes when I was taking a good walk. In 2012, I was in Venice and found myself missing you, so I sent you these photos of the streets. You emailed me back to say what was around the corner. You were right.
(photo by Ramin Bahrani)
I’m grateful to have communicated with you about books, cinema, life and death; to have had Steak-and-Shake with you and Chaz, David Bordwell and others at Ebertfest; to have been witness to you holding court at the Red Lion with your dirty limericks; and to have done a shot-by-shot analysis of "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" with you and Werner Herzog at the CWA.
Because of you, I discovered some of my favorite filmmakers -- Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Mike Leigh and others. Because of you, I was able to work with Werner on "Plastic Bag" and find a friend and a mentor. Roger, I made my first film in total isolation with non-actors and a nickel. It miraculously found its way to Venice, Sundance, and tiny art-house audiences. But then you came, held the door wide open and asked the mass of people to look. You changed everything for me, my films and my future.
(photo by Ramin Bahrani)
Yet despite the success of my first three films, I found myself in a dark place. After "Goodbye Solo," I thought about giving up filmmaking. So few people seemed to care about cinema. One of my havens during that time was your essays, blogs and reviews. You’ve always had the ability to cut right to the heart of the matter. Your reviews were never bogged down in adolescent fanfare or stuffy intellectualism. You were wiser than that. You wrote about the most complex films in simple and direct ways that anybody could understand. This is a rare talent that reminds me of John Ford’s cinema. You also approached every film with the same generous heart, yet with the highest standards of what cinema can and must be. Your writings gave me courage to continue, especially your interview with Werner. Since then, with each new film I make I say to myself: This film must live up to Roger’s standards and strive towards what you saw in me.
I’m grateful you encouraged me to take a leap into something new with "At Any Price," and that you saw and liked it in Toronto last year. When I visited you a few months ago on Christmas Day in the rehab center in Chicago, I told you all my mistakes and how I wanted to do better. It’s what I do after every film I make. I also told you the synopsis of my new film, showed you a photo on my phone and even shared the title with you.
Above: Any real estate broker's ankle in Florida. (phone photo by Ramin Bahrani)
When I sent this interview to Chaz, she emailed that you would have prodded me to reveal the title. I might have been able to say no to you, but I can’t say no to Chaz! Like me, I know you were passionate about issues of wealth inequality and the 99 percent. In that spirit, what better place than your website to announce the title of my new film: "99 Homes."
Roger, in our final meeting I also asked you about love, life and death (I was never able to get the secret as to how you found and convinced Chaz to marry you!). These were topics I had asked you about before, in person and numerous times via email. You were pronounced dead once and returned - and wrote eloquently about Chaz sensing your heartbeat and your call to return. But I wonder what you experienced in your final moment weeks ago. Was there a mystery or just darkness? I guess I will find out one day. It’s only inevitable that I will go back to the dirt too.
For some we loved, the loveliest and best
That from His rolling vintage Time has pressed,
Have drunk their glass a round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to rest.
-- Omar Khayyám
If I am lucky, when my day comes, I will have just finished the final cut of my last film… a film that I hope may finally live up to what you saw in me.
April 24, 2013
THE EMAIL INTERVIEW:
Q: Where did the idea for the film come from?
I conceived of my short film "Plastic Bag" with a dear friend Jenni Jenkins (who tragically passed away a year ago). She was working in media, sustainability and the environment and fostered these passions in me. She also educated me on food, as I was increasingly curious about what I was eating and where it was coming from, and she introduced me to Michael Pollan's writing. Michael and I became email friends and he introduced me to George Naylor, a prominent figure in "The Omnivore's Dilemma." I lived with George on and off over the course of 6 months and learned everything that inspired the film "At Any Price."
What initially struck me was how modern farming had become. There was nothing romantic about it anymore. There were no farmers in overalls, plucking vegetables from the garden, surrounded by chickens and cattle. There was no bank foreclosing on the small family farm. Instead, there were smart, shrewd agri-businessmen with multi-million dollar farming operations in their backyards. They were constantly checking commodities prices on their smart phones and their tractors were high-tech million-dollar machines that drove themselves with GPS satellite systems.
Without fail, these farmers invited me into their homes to live with them. They were all good, kind and warm-hearted people who loved their neighbors and communities. But they lived under the mantras of "expand or die" and "get big or get out." These pressures were making them turn against their neighbors in order to survive.
In modern farming, a few-hundred-acre farm is considered a hobby. Three thousand acres is small. Five or 10,000 acres makes you a player. Operations of this size and scale, driven by the ever-present "expand or die" mentality, reminded me of how Wall Street bankrupted the world, and how Walmart is smashing up Main Streets across the country. I found myself and everyone around me feeling the same pressures that I witnessed in the Heartland. Showing what was happening to family farms seemed like a fresh way to tell the story of what was happening to the country.
What really set me off and running was when I met a farmer who was also a GMO seed-salesman. Who knew there was such a profession? From that moment on I could not look at a cornfield without thinking about Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman." That's when Dennis Quaid's character of Henry Whipple came to me and the screenplay for "At Any Price" began to take shape.
Q: In your films, the heroes are often focused on success. Here Henry Whipple certainly is. But the story questions his optimism. An evolution in your thinking?
With "At Any Price" I was eager to challenge myself creatively by making my first film where the main character is an anti-hero, a man who is unlikeable at the start of the film. Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is also my first main character who has money. However, Henry is under pressure to make even more money and to be an even greater success so that he can live up to his overwhelming father (Red West) and survive in a world run by the mantras "expand or die" and "get big or get out."
In "Death of a Salesman," the idea of boundless optimism helps lead Willy Loman to suicide. Willy Loman killed himself for a reason, and we have sadly forgotten him and his tragic demise. Roger, you reminded me in your email of an important line from "Death of a Salesman": "Attention must be paid to this man." I hope Henry Whipple's haunted soul in the end of "At Any Price" might ring an alarm bell from the cornfields, warning us about the path we are on as a country.
Q: Your feelings about modified or trademarked crops?
It is a complex and frightening issue. I'm ambivalent if sustainable and local farming methods with natural-hybrid seeds can produce yields that will meet the current and growing demands for food. However, the environmental damage done by modern industrial farming is too big to ignore. From chemicals like Roundup to the sheer volume of fossil fuels and oils used in large-scale planting, spraying, harvesting and shipping, large industrial farming is not sustainable for the planet. Additionally, recent studies on the negative impacts of GMOs on rats are cause for growing alarm, as GMOs could pose significant health issues for consumers.
What also frightens me is that Dennis Quaid's character is telling in the truth in my film when he says: "They [GMO seed company] copyrighted life." An Indian farmer recently brought Monsanto to the Supreme Court over this matter. I don't think this will be the last we hear of this battle.
Thankfully, on the frozen island of Spitsbergen in Norway there is a vault of seeds buried deep under the earth for future generations to uncover. Maybe the sequel to "At Any Price" will be a science-fiction film.
Q. Working with a name star like Quaid? Changes in your shooting schedule?
In my previous films I had worked predominately with non-professional actors I found in the streets. I knew from the writing process this film would involve a mainstream and professional cast. I was lucky to land Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron and a brilliant supporting cast. I didn't fully grasp Quaid's brilliance until I was in the editing room. It was only then that I saw how carefully he had calibrated Dennis Quaid playing Henry Whipple, playing the salesman Henry Whipple. As the pressure mounts, cracks form in the salesman revealing the real man behind the phony smile and glad-handing bravado. Quaid also brought a physicality that really made the character — the way he held his shoulders, clenched his fists, rubbed his neck, and walked like a man with broken bones.
A real challenge I faced was that I actually had fewer days to shoot this large-scope film, than I did to make my smaller and more intimate previous films. We worked with a budget well under $5 million and less than 30 shooting days. I only had two days to rehearse with Dennis and Zac, and the actors' trailers were their cars or the living room sofa of the wonderful Herrmann family (where we shot large portions of the film).
The only way I managed this tight shooting schedule was that I shot and edited the entire film on location with a handi-cam, two interns, my cinematographer and my assistant director. I blocked the scenes, decided camera set-ups, and then we acted out the roles and filmed each scene. At night we edited the footage to see if the ideas had worked. If they hadn't, I would return and try again. By the time filming began in earnest with the real cast and crew, I had already made the film. All the scenes were on my iPhone for reference and the AD had them on an iPad to share with department heads.
That being said, I remained totally open and eager for new ideas to develop during production. I gave the actors freedom to change anything the wanted, or develop new ideas if they felt something was not working. We were constantly striving for something more real than what I had prepared, and we did the best we could with the limited time we had. I owe a lot to my cast for pushing endlessly for something better.
Q. You've mentioned elements of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Death of a Salesman," and how it moves from one to the other. Conscious, or just worked out that way?
I think "The Grapes of Wrath" simmers underneath all my previous films and will probably be in all my films to come. With "At Any Price" I was much more consciously alluding to "Death of a Salesman."
Q. I wrote in a blog: "Quaid's winning smile is famous in the movies, but never has it been used to better effect than here, where it has a slightly forced, even desperate quality. It's as if he's running for office." One of your big reasons for casting him?
I have always loved Dennis Quaid, especially in films like "Breaking Away," "Great Balls Of Fire," "The Right Stuff" and "Far from Heaven." I knew that Henry Whipple, Quaid's character in "At Any Price," would be unlikeable and that it would take time for the audience to empathize with him. I thought Quaid's smile and charm and his heroic performances in his previous films could help bridge that gap with audiences. I was also excited to use his smile in a more devilish way, and to complicate our perception of him as an actor. It was no different with Zac Efron. He is known as a heartthrob and I cast him as a killer. He delivered in a big way. He has a limitless future ahead of him.
I should note the actors and I never spoke of such things. They were focused on their characters only, as they should be. They helped make their characters more complex, specific and stronger than I had imagined alone. Both actors (my entire cast really) elevated my script and my imagination of the characters.
Q. I also wrote: "The buried code of many American films has become: If I kill you, I have won and you have lost. The instinctive ethical code of traditional Hollywood, the code by which characters like James Stewart, John Wayne and Henry Fonda lived, has been lost."
In writing and making the film, I was compelled by the idea that father and son (Quaid and Efron) would finally bond over something horrific. In the limitless fields of corn, these men create their own code of ethics and make their own decision about success and family, with only the wind turbines as their witnesses.
My hope was that the ending would be emotionally haunting, paradoxical and open-ended. Henry Whipple has achieved success. He is the number one GMO seed salesman, and he has a son to inherit the family farm. It's everything he wanted. But he is so lost and hollowed out that he has to beg his neighbors to tell him that he is "a happy man." Unlike Willy Loman, Henry has to continue to live with his horror and his decisions. Adding to Henry's pain is that over the course of the film he has become self-aware. But it is too late. He is now trapped by his decisions, his father's decisions, and the mantra of "expand or die" that runs the world.
The Whipple family have gotten away with something horrible ... but in 20 seconds or 20 years a buried secret may be revealed that will change their lives again. In the meantime, Wall Street and corporate America continue to harvest massive profits while getting away with destruction on a global scale. With former heads of Tyson and Monsanto in the FDA, and former heads of Goldman and Deutsche in the FED and the SEC, no crime need go unrewarded! Unlike Henry Whipple, I am not sure they feel remorse.
Q. Your current project?
I've just cast the lead of my new film about the housing crisis. Set in sunny Orlando, Florida, it is about Dennis Nash, a man evicted from his home with his mom and son by Mike Carver, a power-hungry, gun-toting real estate broker, who works for the banks, Fannie and Freddie. In a desperate attempt to get his home back, Dennis agrees to work for Mike — a deal with the devil that leads him deeper into the heart of the corrupt housing industry. I will shoot later this year.