Inspiration for Ramin Bahrani's latest film, At Any Price, came from reading food expert Michael Pollan's bestselling books, such as The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. Bahrani, touted by the late, great film critic Roger Ebert as "director of the decade" for films such as Chop Shop, Man Push Cart, and a short narrated by Werner Herzog, Plastic Bag, started an email friendship with Pollan and asked him for introductions to farmers like George Naylor, who was profiled in The Omnivore's Dilemma.
Bahrani then spent about six months in Iowa, living with farmers and watching them oversee their multimillion-dollar businesses as research for At Any Price. In the film, Dennis Quaid stars as a farmer and GMO seed salesman. Zac Efron plays the rebellious son who would rather race cars than join his father's farming empire. Bahrani says Pollan gave invaluable help.
"He read the script," Bahrani says. "I asked him to please clear it and tell me if it made sense, and he was gracious enough to do it. This was really nice of him because he's so busy."
In San Francisco with Quaid doing press for the movie, Bahrani talks about how kind and welcoming the farmers were -- and the enormous pressure on them. The phrases he heard over and over were "Expand or die," and "Get big or get out, " and Bahrani says he thinks this type of heedless competition led to the global financial meltdown and housing crisis.
Quaid agrees the movie is about the corruption of the American Dream.
"Basically, this is Wall Street in an Iowa corn field," Quaid said. "It's not a traditional farm story with the inspirational music in the background just as they miss by a minute having their farm foreclosed on. It's a very different kind of story, where you think you know where it's going, and it takes some turns."
In Bahrani's previous films he worked with unknown actors, so working with bankable stars like Efron and Quaid was something new. Neither had any movie star pretensions, he said, agreeing to no trailer, hair styling, or makeup for their roles. Speaking about how he admires Quaid's work in films like Breaking Away, The Big Easy, and The Right Stuff, Bahrani mentions seeing a special room at the North Beach bar Tosca Cafe the previous night with photos of Quaid. These are from when Quaid was filming The Right Stuff, and director Philip Kaufman brought him and Ed Harris into the bar with its red vinyl booths and opera-filled jukebox.
"Those were great times," Quaid said.
Since Quaid's character sells seeds and farms, both Quaid and Bahrani said it made them think of Willie Loman in Arthur Miller's classic Death of a Salesman, with a garrulous exterior masking desperation.
"Dennis' character seems so unlikeable, and little by little you start to see the cracks and you realize why he's behaving this way," Bahrani says. "Really, in the first part of the film, he's acting the part of Henry Whipple, so it's Dennis playing Henry Whipple playing Henry Whipple, which is hard."
"He's a salesman," Quaid says. "His whole world that he grew up in and based his life on is breaking down and falling apart, but what he expresses on the outside is completely different. This confidence he has to express in order to get ahead, because the world is no longer helping neighbors -- it's neighbor trying to push the other one out."
At Any Price opens Friday, May 3, at the Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco.