Director Ramin Bahrani ups the creative stakes with ‘At Any Price’
Expand or die. This ominous motto of economic imperialism courses throughout the film “At Any Price,” set against the imperiled world of modern-day family farming.
Director Ramin Bahrani, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hallie Elizabeth Newton, spent six months in Iowa living among farmers as the duo spoke to people about the issues facing their lives and businesses. The film grapples with enduring issues of generational conflict and transition as well as the perennial drama of success and failure in America. Yet it also deals with the timelier topic of the use of genetically modified seeds in commercial farming, which has recently been a growing source of legislation, litigation and controversy.
Opening Wednesday in limited release, the film follows multi-generation family farmer Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) struggling to stay afloat in a competitive world. As he faces ruinous consequences from dubious business practices, he reaches out to his son Dean (Zac Efron), who would rather race cars than work on the farm. With both their lives crumbling around them, Henry and Dean are pushed to a decisive moment as the future of their family desperately hangs in the balance.
The film is a bold stretch for the filmmaker and his cast alike. For the North Carolina-born Bahrani, “At Any Price” finds him working on a broader canvas and with a more charged, direct storytelling than in his previous work. For his actors, working with a filmmaker such as Bahrani, known for his smaller films, was a different kind of leap.
Bahrani’s previous films — “Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop” and “Goodbye Solo” — have garnered critical acclaim with their explorations of immigrant-themed stories set at the edges of society. “At Any Price” examines what happens when traditional ideas of family and community in deep-rooted Mid-America — an early title for the film was “Heartland” — are placed under new strain.
An interest in food production led Bahrani to the work of author Michael Pollan, including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which in turn got him thinking about current trends in organic food and sustainability. “And those things all led to corn,” he noted. “It all coalesced into the realization this was a chance to deal with modern farming, this anti-romantic version of what we imagine the farm to be.
“These are not small farmers getting crushed by the banks, these are multimillion-dollar farms destroying each other, because they have to, to stay alive. And that was very different from what we think about farms. I found it very telling about where we are.”
Where Bahrani has often worked with nonprofessional performers, “At Any Price” finds him working for the first time with name actors and an extended cast; besides Quaid and Efron it includes Heather Graham, Kim Dickens and rising newcomer Maika Monroe. Where each of his previous films was made for less than $1 million, the budget of “At Any Price” was significantly larger, at under $5 million.
The film’s dramatic sweep, reaching for big themes and big emotions, also feels like something new. “I wanted to try to do things I had never done before,” Bahrani, 38, said by phone from New York, where he lives. “I’d made three films that were kind of contained in their scope. All the films did that on purpose, and I was creatively becoming tired.”
Even with the praise for his previous films — no less than the late Roger Ebert hailed him as “the new great American director” — Bahrani acknowledged there was something else he hoped his starrier cast might help achieve.
“Just the probability that more people could see the film,” he said. “And I would want that. I would still like the films to be fresh and creative and about things, to be about people, to have questions. And for more people to see it.”
Yet it was those earlier films that helped attract his new collaborators. Quaid noted how struck he was by the naturalistically unaffected lead performance by young Alejandro Polanco in “Chop Shop” and how he wondered if Bahrani would get a similar performance from him.
“Watching his movies is really what sealed the deal for me to want to work with him,” said Quaid recently alongside Efron. “He doesn’t come at the audience and try to manipulate them. He just really unfolds a story in a quiet way. It leaves me really thinking about the film long after I’ve seen it.”
Though the story is set in Iowa, much of the film was actually shot around DeKalb, Ill. The film was a modest production by Hollywood standards: on the main farm location, Efron and Quaid would take shelter in the air conditioning of Quaid’s SUV (there were no trailers on the set) to get away from the sweltering summer heat.
Quaid acknowledged that he was only “somewhat” aware of the way in which his own iconography as a distinctly American actor — he has after all played variations of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — was part of his casting. In playing a man who sees himself as good even as he makes bad decisions, Quaid did like the idea of “putting a twist on it, kind of playing against the kind of parts I usually do.”
Efron, the former “High School Musical” star still in transition to mature roles, was well aware of what he was bringing to his part. Bahrani suggested he watch Paul Newman’s brooding turn in “Hud,” a film with which the young actor was already familiar. Sitting side by side, Quaid and Efron have a relaxed, easy dynamic between them, which makes their on-screen tension that much more striking.
“It was funny for me, because I love hanging out with him and was kind of chasing him around, wanting to pick his brain about stuff,” added Efron of working with Quaid. “And then as soon as we got out to film I had to push him away.”
Bahrani, who also teaches film production at Columbia University, hopes to be shooting his next project this year. With a story centered on the housing crisis in Orlando, Fla., that next film looks to add yet another chapter to Bahrani’s ongoing exploration of the everyday conflicts and deeper complications of what it means to lead a contemporary American life.
“I don’t want to keep making the same film,” said Bahrani. “I want to experiment and grow, and I hope to grapple with similar issues in a new way.”
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