Interview: Ramin Bahrani Explores Rural Drama With ‘At Any Price’

By  · Published on May 5th, 2013

At Any Price is like a film someone stored in a time capsule during the 1970s, and we’re just now finally opening it. Influenced by Five Easy Pieces and other landmarks of that era, director Ramin Bahrani set out to make a rural drama that, despite popular belief, has an audience. He ran into resistance while seeking financing, and one might think that was because of the film’s unlikable huckster protagonist, Henry (Dennis Quaid). The trouble didn’t come from the anti-hero lead, however, but rather in the story’s rural setting.

According to the money men, nobody wants to watch a movie that’s not set in a major city.

Bahrani finds, understandably so, that belief to be ludicrous. And At Any Price has made its way to screen with its setting intact, a fact he is pleased with. The writer and director behind Goodbye Solo and Chop Shop originally had his eyes set on making a western, which didn’t come to fruition. Funny enough, At Any Price wasn’t much easier to get made, despite not being a part of what some consider a “dead genre”.

Here’s what the filmmaker had to say about his quick work ethic, his collaboration with Quaid, and why he isn’t interesting in making fast food Hollywood pictures:

This is your fourth film in six years. Do you naturally work fast?

I would have made another one. Between Goodbye Solo and this one I wanted to make another film, but I couldn’t get the money together. So I wish I could have gone even faster. And I’m hoping to shoot a film in the next few months.

What was that film you wanted to make?

A Western.

Oh, good luck with that.

[Laughs] Thank you.

Was that the typical response you heard?

I’ll tell you, the response you get with this one is “good luck.” You go to anyone who finances films and say, “I want to make a drama,” it’s as if you’ve told them, “I hate your mother.” Then tell them, “I want to make a drama in a rural setting.” They just laugh you out the door because they say no one in the world wants to watch a film taking place in a rural setting. I just think that’s insanity. Who conceives of these ideas? I don’t even think it’s true.

People with money and marketing power, they think they know what people want, and then they spend billions of dollars making people want those things, because people are busy and hardworking and are too exhausted to think a lot about what it is they want to have for dinner or what movie they want to watch. They are too exhausted. So they just bury them in advertising and convince them about stuff that they don’t even like. It’s like when you eat fast food and you enjoy it for five seconds, and then you have a stomach ache. That’s what the Hollywood film is like.

You could never see yourself making one of those?


Not a Star Wars kid then?

Well, you can have a larger budget film that might be actually really interesting. If possible, why not? I think Star Wars has some merit to it. Yeah, I think it does. But one thing, it’s been based off of Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. So, of course there’s something good in it somewhere. He’s stolen it from Kurosawa. And, of course, then they paid him back. Lucas and Coppola paid for Kagemusha. They convinced the studios to do it. So at least they paid their debt to the master. So it’s possible. Why not? In fact, I’m curious what James Mangold is going to do with The Wolverine. It might be interesting. And it brings kind of an interesting character.

He’s a really reliable director too.

And he did Vegas with Quaid. Vegas is Mangold working with Quaid.

I’m guessing he had good things to say?

He comes from [Alexander] Mackendrick. Of course Mangold is good. He studied with Mackendrick.

Early on in your career, did you know you weren’t going to one of those filmmakers? Were you always drawn to stories that aren’t mainstream?

I don’t know. I was just interested in movies that make me think about how I live, and who I am, and how I interact with people and forces of the world. That could take place in a smaller scoped film like Chop Shop, or, in this case, it’s slightly larger now. You can make a large scale film that’s actually engaging and entertaining and a good emotional story but that makes people think about things. In fact, Hollywood used to make them all the time. I’m not really sure what happened. It used to be artists that ran studios.

There will be a new way for that to happen [again]. And it is. I mean, increasingly, every year at the Academy Awards you have films that get nominated that are somehow independently financed. Just because Sony is releasing them doesn’t mean that they’ve financed them. It was independently financed. They just picked it up because they thought it was a good movie. Same with a lot of films.

You’re playing off the persona of Dennis Quaid. He’s seen as this American Boy Scout, and then you have Zac Efron, who…

Same thing. I thought about it when I was casting. I realized that these guys could be interesting because they’re great actors, and it’s opposite of what they normally do. And that’s exciting to watch.

Both characters have a similarly troubled relationship to what Henry has with his father. Do you discuss those hinted-at ghost chapters with them?

No. I don’t think it’s good to talk to actors too much about theoretical stuff or even psychological stuff. I think it’s better to leave them alone. It’s good to tell them a handful of things months in advance and just basically hand them like Death of a Salesman and they have a script. They are smart professionals. Then you are basically talking to them about, “In this scene you need to move from here to there, say these words and then move to there. And my camera is set up there.” And then leave them alone.

Now, if the performance isn’t what you want, then you have to get in there and do things. But, initially, I like to leave them alone, because what if they come up with things much better than I imagined? If they don’t, then I am going to get in there and do some stuff.

I imagine actors would respond to your approach, in how you often find drama in silence. The shot of Dean in the field, for example.

I don’t say “action” or “cut” ever. I just shoot and don’t scream at them. You gotta get to them, get to know them. When you don’t have a lot of time with an actor in advance, you have to quickly understand enough about who they are so you can relate to them and communicate with them in shorthand.

Before filming, do you have conversations to build that relationship? Not just discussing the film, but more personal?

I spent three days in Austin with Dennis, and I think we barely talked about the film. And Zac, also. We spent a bunch of time just talking about other things.

What did you talk about, if you don’t mind me asking?

Well, Dennis was a lot about politics, and history, and movies, other movies because he is a cinephile, actually. I mean, I would talk about how Dennis Quaid went and met with David Lean to make David Lean’s last film. You know this. It’s a hard thing to know about. I want to ask questions about that: “What was David Lean like?”

Dennis was nice enough to pick me up at the hotel in Austin. He was in Austin at that time. I sat down and said, “Hello, sir.” He said, “Hello.” I said, “Can we please start talking about Breaking Away? Tell me about Yates.” And he looked at me and he was like, “I would love to. I learned everything from Yates.” That’s how our friendship began.

For inspirations, like Five Easy Pieces, is that ever discussed on set, to set the stage for a scene?

No. I don’t think so. Better not to say that stuff. With non-actors I spend months in advance with them and I tailor my shirt to who they are. That’s a little different process. But I don’t think it’s good to talk about theoretical things on set. That’s good for us to talk about, but not on set.

Plus, with Quaid, he’s one of those actors who sees it all on the page.

He thinks it’s all on the page. And you adjust when it’s needed. And after the first four or five days of my notes to Dennis while we were shooting, after that, as he saw me approaching, he’d be like, “Yeah, yeah.” And at first I was like, “What?” But then I saw he actually made the adjustment I was going to ask for. I realized he knows what I’m after. Sometime by second week he would look at me and we weren’t physically close to one another. Let’s say the camera was somewhere else, I would look at him and I would just point and he’d nod his head like, “Yeah, yeah. I know. I should change… In this turning point I should shift my performance now.” And he would just do it. So that was great. I would say, “Dennis, how did you know?” And he would always say, “30 years, kid.”

[Laughs] Welcome to the big leagues!

Basically. But it was good because I knew, too. I think he respected that I knew. And we agreed there was no reason to talk about it a lot because we’ve got to keep moving. We don’t have a lot of time here.

You’ve said before you’re a fast writer. Where do you start? Do you begin with an outline?

I think structure is the most important thing. I like outlining very much. I like using Post-It notes on a wall. I like drawing the film out with lines and graphs and charts. I like spending a lot of time in the real location and letting them tell me the story and then just reorganizing it.

Do you see your scripts more as blue prints or…

If it doesn’t work you have to change. There was one scene we were shooting and I had no time. The sun was going down. It’s a big complicated scene, five actors.

What scene was it?

The agents come to the farm and Zac smashes their car. That’s not an easy scene to film because it involves a vehicle coming into location and physical violence. I looked behind me and the sun was going down. I asked the cameraman how much time I had. He said about an hour and half and then there would be no more light to film. To shoot a scene like that you should have five or six hours. I was feeling a little bit panicked. You have to stay cool and do it. I told the actors, “This is the scene. This is the blocking. This how you do it. Here’s the movement of it. My cameras are going to be in these five places. Let’s start.”

And then Dennis said, “Excuse me, but I have an issue.” Of course, I was like, “Oh, my god. What can the issue be? The sun’s going down.” But that’s not the correct answer. The correct answer was, “I’d like to know, because what if it’s for real?” And he said, “I don’t think my character would behave this way. I think my character would do this.” I thought about it. I looked at the sun, which was even lower in the horizon. I said, “You’re right.” I said to the rest of the cast, “Dennis is going to do something. I don’t know what it is. But I’m going to start shooting.”

I readjusted my cameras. I set up a second camera. And I know how to do it from my other films. My cameraman is the same one for the last film, so we prepared that we’ve got to start now shooting in a different way than I imagined. And Dennis did whatever he wanted. It was good, but too much, so I brought it down and I shifted around the other actors and I changed some stuff and we just kept shooting. Dennis made it a better scene.

When you hear him say “I envision this differently,” is there a slight scare? Or, by that point, is there already a level trust where that isn’t an issue?

Honestly, there were other times when he said, “I think it should be this way,” and I said, “I really don’t think so, but I’d like to see it.” So he’d show me and then I would say, “No. I really think the way it was was correct.” Now, if he really didn’t agree with that, then I would say, “I think the way I had it was correct. I would like to get a great take that way and then, time permitting, we’re going to do it your way because in editing maybe I’ll change my mind ‐ this is the way to do it.” And there were times where I said, “No. This isn’t the way I want it,” and it wasn’t a big enough thing to Dennis, and he’d go like, “Okay. I see your point. You’re right. Let’s not do that.” And we’d keep shooting.

At Any Price is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.