The At Any Price interview

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The At Any Price interview
with Ramin Bahrani and Dennis Quaid

Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: In 2009 Roger Ebert called you “the new great American director.” Can I get reactions from either of you about his death?

Ramin Bahrani: We were very close. It’s a huge loss for the cinema, and a personal one. I was to see him today, in fact, this morning. He elevated cinema, he made us think about it as a critical art form, something that can talked about and imagined. And he had a way of talking about any movie, no matter how complex it was, in a way that anyone could understand. And he had a way of getting to the heart of it very quickly and very simply… which is very hard to do. Personally I think he gave me courage to keep making films.

Dennis Quaid: One of the last great critics. What can you say? He was also so much a part of film – not separate from it, as a critic. He started so many careers, for directors and actors, for the attention he gave. The art of critical faculty was definitely alive in him.

RB: I don’t think we’d actually be here talking if it wasn’t for him. Most people in America know about my films because of him. I don’t think Dennis would’ve ever heard about my films, or agents would’ve got the script to him… It was in huge part due to him.

RRG: You were very much inspired by the slogans you encountered numerous times, “Get Big or Get Out” and “Expand or Die.” You were quoted to say, “It seems like a metaphor for American society, for the values that have led us to disaster.” Could you expand on this notion of ‘disaster?’

RB: Economic crisis, which is also a social and moral crisis. The idea that one should keep expanding – endlessly. There’s this weird motto, “Growth and Stability” [likely a reference to the EU’s Growth and Stability Pact (GSP)]… they just don’t go together. With every farmer I visited, and I lived with farmers for months – in Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina – all of them said “Expand or Die.” I didn’t make it up, they all said it. All of them. “Get Big or Get Out” and “Expand or Die.” Just think about that: in “expand or die’ somebody has to die. And capitalism is an economic system that works, it works better than any system we’ve managed to come up with – so far – and I think it does work. That’s what De Tocqueville talked about when he came to America, he noticed that pragmatism in America is “what’s good for me is good for you” – and maybe just a little bit better for me. Now it’s “what’s good for me should be bad for you – and endlessly good for me.”

Now we’re getting into CEOs for major banks, we’re talking about Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank running regulatory offices in DC, we’re talking about former heads of Tyson and Monsanto also in Washington, running the FDA – it just doesn’t make any sense. When those people have that much money and power, they create systems where they can just have more money and power – and a result people like Henry Whipple [Dennis Quaid’s character in At Any Price] has to potentially resort to corruption just to hold onto things. And it also creates a feeling that he must also keep expanding, or he will die. Now this can be connected to anyone – mom and pop’s competing with Walmart, it could be… critics, like the two of you [blushes] competing against John Smith in Miami who writes one lousy review that gets put into a hundred magazines and newspapers across the country but nobody knows why (because nobody wants to support local newspapers anymore). This pressure is being felt across the board.

I felt that when I interviewed farmers, they were so welcoming of me. “Come live in our home!” I lived with them, I didn’t stay in any hotels. “Come make your movie here!” They love their neighbors. At the same time they were prepared to cut them out to survive. I don’t think it’s because they’re bad people. I don’t think Henry Whipple is a bad guy… he’s quite nasty in the beginning of the film, unlikeable in fact, but by the time the movie ends, I hope we can say, “God, I can empathize with this character. I hope it won’t be so.”

RRG: That’s one thing I particularly liked about the film, now that you mention it: even the bad guys – the quote-unquote “bad guys” – were human. You felt a lot of empathy for Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown), I thought that was really great. It seemed to be a pretty balanced look at that way of life.

RB: Yeah, I love the scenes so much between Dennis and Clancy Brown in a diner. It’s like two giants of acting… that’s when you learn as a director, “How are we going to film this?” You just get a couple of over-the-shoulders, and singles, and get the hell out of the way and just let them do it! What I particularly liked about that scene is that [Henry] wants to say something. But [Jim] keeps saying, “Business is business.”

RRG: He’s resigned to it.

RB: [Henry] is like, “Please tell me there’s something more,” but [Jim] just says, “See you at the next meeting.” I think there’s both lost in a fog of money, and wanting to have more.

RRG: This is really too much to go into, but… do you think the problem, in itself, is capitalism? Do you think that this narrative has revealed some sort of inevitable wall that exists?

RB: No, I don’t think so necessarily. My imagination doesn’t go far enough in terms of economic and social systems to think of anything better. I think it’s about the mass, 99%, finding some way to force things to change. How that’s going to happen I don’t know, but I think it can. In fact, I actually read Joseph Stiglitz and conception of the idea of 99%, and of Occupy Wall Street, I think did change the election. Romney and Mother Jones, revealing that tape – the 47% comment – I think that really did change the election. So a bunch of kids in Zuccotti Park didn’t really know what they wanted to say – but that didn’t matter that they did or didn’t know. Who cares if they had a great policy? They had an emotional undercurrent that was correct. Kind of like a movie – a movie is an emotional thing. And Occupy, etc, was an emotion – it wasn’t an economic policy. I’m not going to sit there and be moved by an economic policy. I’m going to be moved by that emotion – and that’s what a movie is supposed to do.

DQ: I think that we, as a society, things have just been moving quicker, and quicker, and quicker. Technology that is out there, and the way the economic system works, I think we’re losing the humanity between each other. Our enemy in this film, in a way… it’s Wall Street out in a cornfield, the only things missing are office buildings and skyscrapers. It used to be about neighbor helping neighbor, now it’s about neighbor squeezing out other neighbor. There’s only so much land and… get big or get out! That’s the philosophy, and everybody follows behind it.

RRG: There were two things that happened in the film which united the cast: the singing of the National Anthem at the race, and the church at the end.

RB: Yes.

RRG: I could be totally nuts, but… when you were shooting the National Anthem, I actually thought it was kind of funny to watch, based on the way it was shot. I just sort of got the impression that everybody was going through the motions – you see Clancy Brown just muttering the words mechanically. It was a unifying event, but I just wondered if there was any humor intended – or maybe irony.

RB: Well, irony would be better than humor. I shot the whole thing because I think we should respect it. It’s the National Anthem, we shouldn’t cut it off.

RRG: Yes, I noticed that it was played in full.

RB: It was full, the whole thing is there. From beginning to end, it’s there. I don’t think I should cut it out because it’s disrespectful. I thought there was storytelling happening. As far as irony, I was thinking more of Altman. It was when we were shooting the first scene in a cemetery that I realized this movie would have a zoom lens, which I didn’t know. Once the zoom lens comes in you think about Altman, and there’s something so American about this film you think about Altman, and there’s something (I hope) subversive about this film that makes you think about Altman. So… that day I found my courage with the producers. They asked me, “Why are you shooting this scene over, and over, and over again when we have huge things to do?” I said, “Robert Altman, I think, might do it..”

The Lord’s Prayer, in editing, gets you thinking about Coppola, you think about the ending of Godfather – how can I connect so many things in this ending? Again, I thought the whole thing should be there. We worked a lot with the sound department – Tom Efinger and Abigail Savage, who did all my films – about bringing certain voices up to highlight certain emotional moments. When, in the Lord’s Prayer, is Kim Dickens’ character (Irene) starting to realize that maybe [Henry] and [Dean] are involved. And the editing and the sound of the picture would elevate her voice.

RRG: You must’ve been thrilled that Obama signed the “Monsanto Protection Act” last week.

RB: Yeah… (chuckle)

RRG: Where do you think the Whipple family is headed? Personally, I am not optimistic.

DQ: Well, I can see how you’d feel that way.

RRG: Particularly the father and son living with this profound secret.

DQ: And the wife, too. It’s always going to be there, it’s haunting. It could be brought into the light of day in twenty minutes, or twenty years. Who knows? They’re all kind of living… in that world… that Henry’s created.

RRG: Purgatory?

Dennis declines to answer.

written by David Ashley

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