Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop, which opens today in Los Angeles, has received widespread praise since its premiere at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. The French daily Le Monde called it “the major revelation of the Cannes Film Festival's Director's Fortnight,” while John Anderson remarked in The Washington Post that Bahrani “has created a not-to-miss gem for the discriminating viewer.”
The story of a 12-year-old boy struggling to “make dreams happen” for himself and for his adolescent sister, Chop Shop is part “neo-neorealist” cinema, part cinéma vérité, and part gritty social commentary à la Pixote or City of God (minus the blood and violence).
Parent-less Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) works and lives in an auto body shop in Willets Creek, Queens, where he hopes to make enough money to buy himself a used food-vending truck so he can move on to bigger and better things. His world is one of fierce competition, lots of hustling and hard work, and a mixture of big hopes and just as big disillusionments. It is also filled with a strong bond between Alejandro and his sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonsales), with whom he shares his cot at the “chop shop.”
Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi's screenplay doesn't follow a particular plot. Indeed, Bahrani approaches his characters and their milieu as if he'd just stopped by to get a new carburetor and happened to have his high-def camera lying on the back seat of his car. As a result, unlike, say, City of God, which I found cheaply exploitative, Chop Shop is devoid of condescension and sensationalism.
Ramin Bahrani has kindly agreed to answer a few questions (via e-mail) for Alt Film Guide. See below.
Photos: Jon Higgins / Noruz Films
Alejandro Polanco, Ramin Bahrani, Michael Simmonds
Where did you and co-writer Bahareh Azimi get the idea for the unusual setting – Willets Point, Queens – found in Chop Shop?
My cinematographer, Michael Simmonds (who also shot my first film, Man Push Cart) had to get his car fixed and asked me to join him on a trip to Willets Point, assuming I would be interested in what I saw. It took no more than five seconds for me to decide the next film would take place here. The more time I spent there, the more I was taken by the juxtaposition of fierce competition and camaraderie. Workers would physically fight for cars, for business for their shops, and moments later kick a soccer ball together; by sunset they were having cook outs, drinking beer and listening to music together.
All of life seemed to be encapsulated right there in these twenty blocks of junk, in this “Iron Triangle” between LaGuardia Airport and Shea Stadium with its giant billboard “Make Dreams Happen.” That sign made me wonder what kind of dreams could the young boys across the street that I saw living and working in Willets Point have. And so Azimi and I set out to write the script in order to find out.
Like Man Push Cart, Chop Shop deals with New York City's downtrodden. Would you say the similarities end there? Or…?
I see every film as its own entity. It begins and ends with itself. We must accept that I am making films about how the majority of people in this world live, and we must also accept that this majority is utterly ignored by Hollywood and Independent film (95-99 percent of films seem only interested in how 1-5 percent of the population lives). Thus, you may say that the connection between the two films is there, but as relevant as saying I am making films about people and the human condition in the “modern” globalized world.
Chop Shop reminded me of an Italian neo-realist film – say, Bicycle Thieves or Shoeshine – but with a gritty City of God (minus the gun violence) touch. At the same time, you were clearly going for a documentary feel, using handheld cameras, avoiding background music, and having your characters and performers share their first names. And in a previous interview, you mention Satyajit Ray and Abbas Kiarostami as your “heroes.” What inspired your approach to Chop Shop?
To be as simple as possible. To erase myself and the camera. To direct without directing. To control everything, but be open and honest to life. To make everyone think it was “just happening” when in fact it was all planned out to the very last detail. For our camera to judge nothing and no one, be unflinching, and still find compassion and love in such a harsh location.
Where did you find Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales? What was it like working with two young, inexperienced actors? And what was it like to work once again with Ahmad Razvi, the Man Push Cart lead who has a supporting role in Chop Shop? How much of the dialogue was improvised?
We went to one hundred schools and twenty youth centers in all five boroughs of NYC and saw 2,000 kids. We put 650 on tape for casting, and picked Ale and Izzy. They went to the same school in Manhattan's [Lower East Side] and already knew each other. Isamar had stood up for Alejandro's real sister, and so he already loved her like a sister.
Ale and Izzy had never acted or studied acting before playing in Chop Shop. We rehearsed for over six months; they never saw the script, but memorized very scripted dialogues and their own improvisations of the dialogue. I made Alejandro work for Rob at the chop shops for nearly six months prior to making the film.
As a rehearsal, we also shot the entire film, on location, with a small handycam in order to prepare them and the residents of Willets Point to the idea of a camera, of being filmed and of being watched. This proved invaluable, because when we shot the film for real, with a larger camera and crew, the actors had all stopped caring about the camera entirely. What also impressed me about Ale and Izzy is that they accomplished nearly every scene in one shot, without cutting, while hitting marks in very complicated blocking in an extremely chaotic and unpredictable location. Even for a professionally trained actor, this would be almost impossible.
Working with Ahmad again was a pleasure. He plays such a different role in Chop Shop than he did in Man Push Cart that he silences anyone who said he was amazing in Man Push Cart, even if he was just “being himself.” I find it such a compliment when people tell me they are really looking for Ahmad inside push carts in NYC, or when they ask me in Q&A's if we managed to get Alejandro into school or does he still work in the chop shops.
In a New York Magazine piece, author Logan Hill says that you were – to put it mildly – rough with 12-year-old Alejandro Polanco. Was that an act for Hill and NYMag, or did all that name-calling really take place? If so, did you find that approach to directing Polanco effective – or did it freak him out to be called a “fag”/”pussy”?
While I very much appreciate New York Magazine and Logan Hill's support of me and my films, the article nevertheless distilled a three-hour conversation about life, politics, poetry, cinema, and philosophy into as many sound bites of me cursing as possible and took my quotes way out of context. Everyone who knows me well, including Alejandro and his mother, were surprised when this distorted article appeared.
I strongly disapprove of homophobic language or behavior in any form, nor do I condone rough behavior with actors young or old. The reality of making a film and trying to get an amazing and complex performance from a twelve-year-old boy is indeed a challenge where the actors and director must be pushed to the limits, but must never cross them. Over the course of several months, I was having an impossible time getting Alejandro to stand the way I wanted him to for the film. Explaining this to him in adult terms made no sense to him. I showed him video footage, to no avail. At this point, Alejandro and I had been working together for over six months and knew each other well. I felt I could speak to him in the kind of blunt terms he would understand and that were commonplace in the locations we were working in. He did not freak out, and stopped doing it. I remain in contact and am close with Alejandro and his mom and they are very happy with the film, the filming process, and we hope to work together on more projects.
Chop Shop is set in New York, but Park Avenue and Wall Street seem as far away from those auto body shops as Mars. Yet, despite the shocking grittiness and ugliness of the area, Michael Simmonds' cinematography is superb. How did you and Simmonds achieve that rich – but brutally natural – look?
Michael Simmonds is one of the most talented cinematographers working out of New York City. Chop Shop, like Man Push Cart and my upcoming film Goodbye Solo, was shot on High Definition, using the Sony F900, before being blown up to 35mm. Simmonds has a great team and a gaffer, Mark Koenig, who helps him achieve this look.
Simmonds and I spend a lot of time on the compositions and also worked closely together on costume and prop selections. Both of us are very vigilant about what is allowed in the frame. Oftentimes we would hold up shooting to remove a Poland Spring label from a plastic water bottle hundreds of feet in the distance – or anything bright red, the enemy of video. We also have a very talented color correction artist, Jane Tolmachyov, at the wonderful and famous DuArt lab in NYC.
While the final credits roll, M. Lo's haunting music moved me to tears. How did you find M. Lo? Did you tell him specifically what you wanted, or did he come up with something on his own?
My co-writer, Azimi, introduced me M. Lo (Monsieur Lo), a Paris-based French composer several years ago. M. Lo and I talked a lot about the music but it is entirely his, and it is absolutely perfect for the film. It is haunting and fills you with sorrow, but it also has a harsh, hard, and very hopeful energy that will help you survive a place like the chop shops.
To me, the ending – much like the one in Umberto D – felt both hopeful and terribly sad. Would you say there's hope for the young, amoral dreamers of Chop Shop – and for others living in similar conditions?
Yes, and perhaps more importantly they fill me with the hope that I could be more like them. In the end of the film, despite what they have done to one another, the kids love each other so unconditionally, without a trace of sentiment or judgment. And because the film has been so palpably real, I feel this hope is something I could strive for and maybe attain in my life. I hope the audience would feel the same.