Ramin Bahrani, Chop Shop
Ramin Bahrani’s films are what one could term “outsider cinema,” and yet they are made with the quiet confidence of someone who knows he belongs. Iranian-American Bahrani was born and raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and moved to New York to study film at Columbia University. After making the short films Backgammon (1998) and Strangers (2000), he spent three years living in Iran, his parents’ former home country. Once back in the U.S., his awareness of immigrant life and the psychology of the outsider found a voice in his debut feature, Man Push Cart (2005). The story of Ahmed, a former Pakistani rock star who works as an anonymous push cart vendor in New York, the film revealed Bahrani’s talents for capturing small moments and telling ostensibly low-key stories in a compelling manner. After premiering at Venice and then also playing Sundance, Man Push Cart was released theatrically to glowing reviews.
Bahrani’s sophomore feature, Chop Shop, another tale of minority struggles in New York, is very much a companion piece to Man Push Cart. It centers on precocious teenager Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), who works doggedly at a garage in Willets Point, Queens, as he tries to save enough money to buy a food van that he hopes to run with his older sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales). Chop Shop is more minimal and pared down in style than Bahrani’s debut as he focuses more intently on resonant human stories told in simple, understated ways. Once again, Bahrani gets fine naturalistic performances from a cast of non-actors, principally youngsters Polanco, Gonzales and Carlos Zapata. Bahrani’s movies are unashamedly “small” in their scope, yet the emotional purity and power he manages to convey in his films eclipses that of bigger, grander productions.
Filmmaker spoke to Bahrani about his distinctive creative process, making the camera invisible, and Queen Latifah movies.
Filmmaker: When did you first discover Willets Point in Queens, the film’s setting?
Bahrani: I was editing Man Push Cart in the winter of 2004 and my cameraman [Michael Simmonds] called me and said, “I’m going to get my car fixed in a place you’re going to love. You should come with me.” And so I went, and immediately was struck by it. I turned to him and said, “We’re going to make the next film here. I don’t know what it’s about, but we’re going to make it here.” I started going there a lot. Visually it’s incredible, but initially I was struck by the people who were really struggling on the most fundamental level for survival. They were very fierce and in competition to get cars to their garage – sometimes leading to physical violence – yet later in the afternoon they would have a barbecue together, play music and have beers, or suddenly in the middle of all this a soccer game would erupt. I found this combination of competition and joy, life and death all at one time, to be great. How could I not make the film there?
Filmmaker: Did you go back there regularly? How did you find your story?
Bahrani: While I was finishing Push Cart, I would go there once every week or two weeks, and once that film finished I started going there three, four times a week. The last six, seven months before the film was made, I was going there almost every day. The more I went there, the more I became interested in the young kids that lived and worked there because it seems natural that you would be most interested in a kid in this adult world. As you see in the film, Shea Stadium is across the street and has this big billboard, “Make Dreams Happen,” and there’s something connected [there]. I really started to wonder what dreams these kids would have and what are they going to do in this situation? So we started to focus the story on a young boy.
Filmmaker: When you were going to Willets Point, were you interacting or just observing?
Bahrani: Initially you just come and go a little bit until you get comfortable, and then you start talking to people. And then after you’re there for months, they start to know you and they want to know what you’re doing. I usually tell people initially that I’m a student writing a short story, because it sounds really boring. Then they don’t really pay much attention to you and they’ll talk to you about just about anything. If you tell people you’re making a film, the first thing that comes into their mind is Hollywood and big money and big stars, and suddenly everything changes. So I really tried to avoid that kind of conversation for a long time. In fact the first person I talked to about it was Rob [Sowulski, the garage owner in real life and the movie]: after six, seven months, he called me over one time and said [puts on a gruff voice], “Come over here! What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’m just lookin’ around…” He said, “Don’t bullshit me. You’ve been here six months. What the fuck’s going on?” I said, “Well, I’m just making a little short story.” He said, “That’s a bunch of bullshit. What are you doing?” I said, “OK, well I want to make a small film.” He said, “You’re going to make your film right here.” And that’s it, that’s how you start becoming friends with people. I was there for so long that they trusted me. They told me many times the only reason they let me make the film was because I was there for so long.
Filmmaker: One of the incredible qualities of the film is that the camera feels invisible.
Bahrani: I consider it a compliment that you would say that. The cameraman, Michael Simmonds, and I wanted to be less visible than we were in Push Cart. Most of the scenes are just one shot, it’s usually take 30, and that you tell me you think it just happened is a testament to Michael and the kids. The kids were relentless performers, doing it until we got it just right. Of course there are scenes in the film that are just documentary – when Alejandro’s calling these cars in, he’s really calling these cars in to make money – but the bigger scenes that are involving him and his sister, him and other characters, they were all scripted, incredibly blocked out, with the goal that it would feel like an accident, that you would never feel the mise en scene.
Filmmaker: The film feels so loose and spontaneous, despite your tight scripting and blocking.
Bahrani: There was a very detailed script which was never shown to the actors. We would rehearse with them for months in advance, so I would tell Ale and Izzy, “Alright, in this scene this happens. This scene is about this” and I would tell each of them separately what I thought the scene would be about for them, not in intellectual terms but in the most fundamental terms. They remember enough of it to get the point and then they say it the way they want to say it. I’d record all the rehearsals and I’d transcribe the best of what they’d changed. If they forgot things that were important, I’d remind them, because they don’t read the words, they say it in their own language. “Those shoes are fake.” “No, they’re real.” That’s what it says in the script, but Izzy says, “No, they official.” That’s fuckin’ great, man. I don’t talk like that and I don’t know about it, but whenever she didn’t say “No, they official,” I’d say “Whoa, whoa, whoa, you said ‘No, they official.’ I like that. You have to say that from now on.”
Filmmaker: What was the process of casting like? It seems that who was playing the roles was integral to the movie’s success.
Bahrani: I learned on Push Cart that the biggest job in learning to work with the actors is casting. We were relentless on the casting: we looked for months for the kids, we saw probably 2-3,000 kids, I put 625 interviews on tape. Usually the first step is Q&A: “Who are you? Where are you from?” After you get them comfortable and you get them talking, you start asking things like, “So, have you ever stolen anything?” “No.” “Really?! You haven’t stolen anything?! Why not?” Then sometimes you’ll get, “Well, one time…” “Oh, cool. Tell me more about that.” Then you start getting into things that match the character: “Would you kill someone if they were hurting your sister?” “You wouldn’t?! You wouldn’t think about it?” Alejandro was close to that, and he and Isamar were from the same school so they already had a rapport of some sort. She had stood up for his real sister and so he already loved her and looked up to her. After that, it was just constant rehearsing.
Filmmaker: How quickly did people at Willets Point get used to you filming there and ignore the camera?
Bahrani: Thank God, they ignored us early! I’d been there for a long time, Alejandro had worked in the garage for six months so people knew him already. By the time we made the film, he knew more people in the direct vicinity of Rob’s garage than me, especially the ones that only spoke Spanish. People thought we were making a documentary about him, so five, six weeks before we shot the film, me, Michael, the kids and one or two assistants or interns shot the whole movie on handycam. I brought people, even if they had nothing to do, so it looked like a little crew almost and so that they would get bored with us. The first thing we did was film the kids with the camera right in their face, moving it around in front of their eyes, because after five or six days of doing this they don’t care anymore. And we would film the people around Rob’s garage that we knew we were focusing on and we would film them a bunch until they were bored with that too.
Filmmaker: Man Push Cart really felt like a New York movie, but the New York location you used here really feels like a different country.
Bahrani: It’s certainly not the New York that we know about in cinema but most of Queens and Brooklyn don’t look like the New York we see in most movies. And, of course, this is amplified. In fact, it reminded me of a place north of Tehran that has that same place where cars are fixed and torn up. This is part of New York, part of America. I was born and raised in North Carolina and there are places there that I would challenge someone to tell me that this was the richest country in the world. I bring you to these places that no one wants to accept that they exist. These movies aren’t about marginal characters, despite what people say. These movies are about how most people in the world live: check to check, month to month, day to day.
Filmmaker: What actor would you pay to see in anything?
Bahrani: I guess Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s pretty amazing in There Will Be Blood.
Filmmaker: What’s the most embarrassing film you’ve watched the whole of on an airplane?
Bahrani: I saw this movie with Queen Latifah, she thought she had cancer and she went to be a chef in Karlovy Vary. She fell in love with someone there and then she learned that she didn’t have cancer or something like that. It was really cheesy. No, she went to a spa in Karlovy Vary and fell in love with the chef, Gerard Depardieu, maybe. Something like that. I also saw Wedding Crashers — that was really dumb.
Filmmaker: What’s the biggest compliment you’ve ever received?
Bahrani: You just told me that it felt like there was no camera in Chop Shop. That’s a nice compliment.
Filmmaker: Finally, what are you working on at the moment?
Bahrani: I’m wrapping up post on my new film, Goodbye Solo. I shot it in my hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and it’s about a thirties Senegalese taxi driver who’s a very humble, friendly compassionate kind of guy. The movie begins abruptly in the middle of a scene: he’s driving the night shift, there’s a 70-year-old Caucasian man in the back named William who offers Solo $1000 to take him to a mountain two hours away called Blowing Rock. He wants to go there in about two weeks, exactly on October 20th, and he doesn’t want to come back. Solo understands why he wants to go there, so he decides to be his friend so maybe he won’t want to go there.