With his second feature film, Chop Shop, director Ramin Bahrani carries on his theme of exploring the "invisible people" of society that he started with his first film, Man Push Cart, which played Sundance (and other fests) in 2006. Where Man Push Cart showed a cross-section of the life of a former Pakistani pop star reduced to selling doughnuts and coffee to busy Manhattanites, in Chop Shop Bahrani shows us the life of a young Latino boy who lives and works in the Iron Triangle district of New York City. Bahrani took time out of pre-prod for his latest film, Solo, to chat with Cinematical by phone about Chop Shop, Man Push Cart, and his unique style of making films.
Cinematical: Both Man Push Cart and Chop Shop have the similar thematic element of focusing on people whose lives most people don't spend a lot of energy thinking about -- the guy who sells them coffee and bagels on their way to work, the street kid hustling in a chop shop. Why the focus on these "invisible" people?
Ramin Bahrani: I don't know how you feel about this, and I don't know what the reaction is going to be to Chop Shop when it's released in the States, when more people in the States see this film. I think both these films are about immigrant-type characters: in Chop Shop, Ale is young enough that he maybe could have been born here, or if he and Isamar immigrated they were very young, that was left deliberately ambiguous -- but I don't think that's the essential tissue of the film. I just feel like I'm tired of seeing the same independent films being made over and over again. This "mumblecore" stuff that's popular right now -- I'm not interested in these stories about these really attractive white kids, and their really attractive friends, and their problems. I'm interested in these groups of people, the people you don't see featured so much in films, and that's why I focus on them.
I see the connection between these characters in my films, and the kind of people who will see the film – mostly white, educated, the bourgeois, you know? Not that there's anything wrong with those people at all, it's just that they're the most likely demographic to see independent films at all. I'd like to see someone figure out how to market a film like Chop Shop to Hispanic school-age kids, but that's just not reality.
But as a filmmaker I don't see it as my job to connect those pieces of society. There is a connection between the screen and the viewer, and how the viewer reacts to it, but I'm not interested in why that chop shop exists, or why Ahmad's character exists, or why the taxi driver (in his next film, Solo) exists. I'm not a moral filmmaker, there's no moral message in the end of my films, there's no moral question. The characters are pretty pragmatic. In Chop Shop, Ale is involved in many things that people watching the film may find immoral or illegal, and they may be confused about why there's no judgment in the film, why there's no good or bad in the film. But it's who he is, he's surviving, and he's a kid – he doesn't make those judgments. That's just where he is, and I just think it's not my place to judge them.
Cinematical: What made you decide to focus on the Iron Triangle area of New York City for this film, and how did the story of Alejandro evolve?
RB: I had been in that area since back when I was editing Man Push Cart; a friend had to get his car worked on down there, and told me I had to go check it out, that I was going to love it there. And I did, so I started just hanging out there. The more time I spent there, the more I found myself focusing on these kids who work there and live there. It's hard to ignore the incongruity of the area -- there's Shea Stadium, and the airport, and there was this huge billboard about "making dreams happen," and you can't help but wonder what kind of dreams these kids in this environment could possibly have. So that tension between those things is what drew me.
I had a co-writer on this film, a friend of mine I've wanted to work on a project with for a long time, who is Iranian, but was raised in France. Her parents were architects in Iran -- thinking, intellectual people. When they came to France they weren't able to do that work and had to take menial work, and she basically grew up a lot on the streets. So she related to the story. It was her idea to bring in the character of the sister.
Cinematical: How do you think audiences will react to the film?
RB: I'm not sure what the reaction will be -- I don't like heavy meals, I don't like to eat too much at one sitting, and I don't like my films to feel too heavy. There are very few films that can justify doing that. Coppola at his best, Fellini consistently. I'm more interested in my characters, their existence and what their life is. Especially this boy and his sister. That he loves her so much that by the end he's telling her to go prostitute herself, and through the course of the film, because you grow to understand Ale, you can understand why he does that. The relationship between them is kind of turned on its head -- Ale feels like the more responsible one. But sometimes he feels like the little brother, sometimes like the father, sometimes like a boyfriend.
As for how will the people who view the film will feel? I'm not going to allow you to bring your morality into the film to make you feel better. This isn't a film about the differences between Ale's world and the world of the people who are watching the film. This (the Iron Triangle neighborhood) is where Ale lives and works. And no matter how rough the neighborhood, there's still community, they hang out together, they have cookouts. You might be in a fist fight with someone in the morning, and be cooking out together that night, and everything's fine.
Cinematical: How would you compare Chop Shop to Man Push Cart?
RB: I think there's more of a traditional narrative than in Man Push Cart, in that he has this dream of owning the trailer, of living a better life with his sister. 30 minute mark he sees the prostitution, 60-65 minute mark the van becomes useless to him. I think Ahmad is really good in it, and actually his character in Chop Shop is much closer to who he really is than the character he played in Man Push Cart.
Cinematical: Can you talk about the search for your young lead in Chop Shop, and how you happened to cast Alejandro and Isamar?
RB: They both live in the projects in NYC. We saw thousands of kids, test shot about 650 -- we went to schools, youth centers, looking at Hispanic kids. Ale and Isamar came out of the same school, I realized later that they knew each other. Ale's real sister is about a year older than he is, but she's really small – Isamar had stood up for Ale's sister in school once when some kids were giving her a hard time, and so they already knew each other and he had a lot of respect for her.
Alejandro is a kid who is also a little adult. When he smiles and plays he's a kid, but when he's working he's serious, he's an adult. When he was nine he saw someone killed, he's sold his grandmother's empanadas on the street for extra cash. He got really into the work of filming, he would call me every day to see if he needed to be there for the shoot and if he didn't need to be there, he'd get upset.
Cinematical: How did you decide where to shoot?
RB: Rob (who plays the body shop owner in the film) really was the owner of that body parts shop, and he really trained Alejandro on how to pull parts. Rob saw me down in the district one day scoping it out, and he asked what I was doing. I told him I was scouting a location for a film and he said "you're going to shoot it here." And I was like, okay ... he's not really the kind of person you want to say no to (laughs).
Edwin, the gentle giant who never says anything but trains Ale in working on cars, is a real guy too -- I just loved him. And Alejandro got paid for that training, just as the kids who work there do; he got paid $5 for every car he pulled in. I was on location and people thought I was shooting a doc about Alejandro because he'd been there for so long doing the training. Once we'd stop shooting, Ale would kept pulling cars anyhow -- he wanted to make another five dollars.
Cinematical: Can you talk about the filming process?
RB: A lot of people think the film was improvised, that we just caught things, but that's not the case at all .Most of the scenes we shot we rehearsed over and over and then shot maybe 25 or 30 takes. The "improvisations" happen months in advance. The kids never saw the script, I'd tell them what they were supposed to say, and then they'd say it in their own way, the language that worked for them, and then over a period of months they'd memorize their own improvisations. Only Alejandro knew the whole story from beginning to end, though.
For instance this one scene where Ale is looking at his sisters shoes, the script said one thing, "Ale looks at his sisters shoes, says he knows they are fakes, not the real thing. His sister insists they are real." And when I told the kids what the scene was about, they ran with it and it became Ale going, "Yo, I used to sell stuff on 37th, and those ain't real, they fake." And Isamar replies, "No they ain't fake, they official." I wouldn't have know the right language to use there to make it sound natural, but they did. So I said, great from now on every time we shoot a take of this team, you're going to use the word "official" there. Letting them run with it made the dialogue sound much more real.
And then Alejandro, this kid is an actor, he's really good -- there was a review where it said that the acting was good, even if the kids were "just being themselves." I guess that was an underhanded compliment.
Cinematical: Don't you think that's kind of an insulting thing to say about your actors, though? What does that mean, exactly? The assumption is -- what? -- that these are Hispanic kids from the ghetto in these roles, so they must be playing themselves here? You wouldn't see anyone reviewing Little Miss Sunshine and saying, "Oh, Abigal Breslin, she's not really acting, she's just a little white girl playing a little white girl, so she's just being herself."
RB: Exactly! And then there was this Variety review that said that I'm an Iranian immigrant -- I was born and raised here, in America. That's basic fact checking, you can just go in IMDb and find that out. Then the review went on to say the film has a "third-world filmmaking style" -- what does that mean? Without even knowing me, without even realizing it he's making very xenophobic and racist assumptions. And it was a positive review overall but what does that mean? Naturalistic style, what? And this is what I'm talking about when I say that my movies make a certain type of people uncomfortable. I'm influenced by Robert Wiseman, Ken Loach, are those third world filmmakers?
Cinematical: Let's talk a bit about the shooting of the film, and about the cinematography in the two films – you mentioned that you feel (Director of Photography Michael Simmonds) Mike's work is even better in Chop Shop than in Man Push Cart. Can you elaborate?
RB: We shot the whole thing on location with Handy-Cam. We'd do 20, 30 rehearsals in a row with handy-cams, with the camera in their face. When you do that, eventually they forget the camera's there. Even if the handy-cam wasn't on, we'd hold it up and turn it around. So eventually the workers were so used to us being there, and to the camera, then when we brought in the bigger camera and the crew, the sound guy, it was no big deal. It got to be like, oh, they're here, they're just working like us. They told me the only reason we're letting you shoot like this is that "you've been here for a year, and it's obvious you don't have any money." (laughs)
In Man Push Cart we talked a lot about movies; when filming this one we didn't talk movies at all. We knew it was going to be handheld but not shaky, not frenetic, a very observational style. I think the camera and shooting calls less attention to itself than in Man Push Cart, and we liked that. I have no idea how they (Mike and the gaffer) got the night time stuff, because it looks so good.
Mike was running backwards on a treadmill and did lots of squats to get ready to shoot the film because he knew he'd be walking backwards and squatting down with this heavy camera to get down on the kid's level.
Cinematical: Let's talk about what's up next for you.
BR: I'm working on a film called Solo. We've had a six month pre-prod, we've been casting since February. I wrote the first draft of the script before Chop Shop was made. We start shooting in September, and hope to have it ready for next year. It's about a taxi driver from Senegal, and this old caucasian guy who wants to kill himself in ten days time and he wants the taxi driver to drive him to the place where he's going to do it. And how the taxi driver tries to forge a friendship with the man to keep him from killing himself. But don't worry (laughs), it's gonna be shot "third world style," I'm gonna shoot with a broken camera, we're importing the lenses from Iran and they'll all be cracked.