Since turning up in a flick produced by Roger Corman and directed by Jonathan Demme (1975's Crazy Mama), Dennis Quaid has starred in plenty of memorable Hollywood pictures: Breaking Away, The Long Riders, The Right Stuff, Dreamscape, Enemy Mine, The Big Easy, Innerspace, D.O.A., The Big Easy, Everybody's All-American, Wyatt Earp, DragonHeart, Any Given Sunday, Frequency, Traffic, The Rookie, Far From Heaven, American Dreamz, and the remake of Footloose, among many others. Currently, he stars as Sheriff Ralph Lamb in the CBS drama Vegas and in Ramin Bahrani's independent film At Any Price. Bahrani's films include Man Push Cart, Goodbye Solo, Chop Shop and Strangers. The director and his star discussed At Any Price during a press stop at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: I thought I’d start by asking Dennis—this is a nice, meaty, juicy part of the sort that you usually have to step outside of the studio machine to get. Does doing a smaller film like this take you out of your comfort zone, for better or worse?
Dennis Quaid: Well, I have a safe comfort zone—yes, it takes me out of that. We shot in western Illinois, and it was out in the cornfields on our very first day. It was actually—we had—it was 130 degrees out in the cornfields.
Groucho: Oh, wow.
Dennis Quaid: We had a couple of people—someone actually passed out on it towards the end of the day. Bless ‘em. But you do a movie like this because you really want to do it. I met Ramin and saw his films—especially Chop Shop – it just made me really want to work with him. And, of course, reading the script—it’s just such a complex character which is out of my usual wheelhouse of roles. But I felt it was an important movie that I really had to do.
G: Yeah. On that note, the film deals in part with the challenges facing the modern American farmer. And we see the farm as a small business with this shrinking profit margin. It seems so much out of the farm owner’s control. And that...I think you talk about it in the press notes, Ramin...it makes a microcosm for what’s going on in the American economy: the little guy being squeezed out by the corporate giant. What did you hope to add to that conversation that so many of us are having now about that economic model?
Ramin Bahrani: Well, yeah—the farms are huge businesses now: they’re multi-million-dollar businesses. If you’re expecting this to be a movie about a guy in overalls with the bank trying to foreclose on his nice farm where they eat vegetables they grow in their garden—please don’t come. This is a high-stakes business—very cut-throat business. And we’ve seen so many movies that take place in Wall Street that it gets kind of dull after a while, and what was so exciting about going to Iowa and visiting the farmers was that—I was like "Wow"—this kind of romantic idea we have of the heartland can be turned upside-down on its head because in reality it’s changed so much. And so there’s something fresh in that. And the idea of being able to show how the business works and how it’s run: I thought everything about it seemed fresh and new and could have us re-imagine what we think the heartland is. And then to think about how this is connected to our lives—because the farmers that I met were all so friendly, so warm, so inviting—not just to me, but they loved their neighbors and their community. And they felt the pressure that they had to cut them out to survive. And we all know that emotion—because times are so difficult. And then we turn around and say, "How is it so difficult for 99 percent of us, and for this tiny percentage of the population it’s so profitable? And they’re bankrupting us while that’s happening." So there was a way to talk about that without talking about it directly because if the movie was an agenda movie, I would lead the stampede out of the cinema because no one wants an agenda. They want a human story about complex characters like Dennis and his relationship to his son and his family and his business and his friends. We want a human story.
Ramin Bahrani: Not an agenda. So just allow that to happen.
G: That being said, and with the understanding that it’s your job to ask the questions and not answer them—but you’re answering questions today so what the hell? (All laugh.) Do you have a sort of—on a policy level or a personal level—something that you would advocate for how to go about starting to solve this problem?
RB: Well, yeah. I mean, I think—I’m a very big fan of Joseph Stiglitz’ work Globalization and Its Discontents. His new book The Price of Inequality...outlines how economic and political policies into World War II but especially since the late ‘70s until today have helped create a system where wealth and inequality keeps getting larger and larger. And the disparity between that tiny percentage of the population and everybody else keeps growing. These types of policies do need to change. How? I don’t know. I’m not an economist. I’m not a policy maker. But I think that the mass of people are demanding it. And they will continue to demand it because America is something much greater than this. And the behavior that’s happening now: it’s self-destructive. I think capitalism is the way that works. I think I want to do better than you so that I can have a little bit more than you. But in doing that, what I’m doing should be good for you. I should want to be better for me. It cannot be that what’s good for me destroys you. Because ultimately it would destroy me too.
G: So Dennis. You have this script. You have a start date. How do you go about building the character of Henry Whipple? Can you talk me through the prep—what you gleaned from the farmers you met and some choices that you made before stepping in front of the camera?
DQ: Well, first off—you start with the script. You always start with the script. And the big ideas that are there—which Ramin so eloquently talks about—will come out. But you have to really start with a human being and what’s going on with this guy. I come from Houston, and I come from kind of a rural background, and my grandparents and stuff kind of understood the last generation. But just to understand what this character is going through, and Ramin and I talked a lot about Death of a Salesman before we started shooting here. He’s a very complex character. He’s a guy on the outside who seems like a blowhard and who’s—that he’s out for himself. But he’s really just trying to protect his family. He’s trying to protect a way of life that I think he’s romanticized in his mind and the way he thinks things should be in trying to give this farm to his sons—who don’t want it. And in the end he gets what he wants. But he winds up being a broken man along the way.
G: You’ve mentioned before that you’re drawn to stories of fathers and sons, and obviously that’s important in the dynamic of this film, as you mentioned. The tension over whether or not the sons will take on the family business—with Dean, his tension of his perception of being treated as second best. Did you and Zac Efron and Kim Dickens work out any more specific family history or did you approach that pretty intuitively?
DQ: It was pretty intuitive. And we had Red West there who represents the past as well. That all came out in the story. To tell you the truth, I didn’t do a lot of real thinking about this part. I was just trying to be in it more than anything else.
RB: It was interesting for me because I have a history of working with non-professional actors mainly. For me it was how much Dennis brought to it actually. And we met for three or four days in Austin and really got along, and Dennis is very intelligent. He was talking about history and politics and books and films, and I was just listening because he’s a very intelligent guy. And when he showed up for two days of rehearsal, months later, he was in a foul mood it seemed to me, and he’d come from a night shoot and I was like "Let’s rehearse this act for two days" and [making grumbling sounds] Dennis was mumbling [and I thought] what’s going on?
DQ: I had just come off another movie, in fact, I had done for three days.
RB: I remember going to this hotel that night before we started to make the movie—I thought to have a one-on-one talk, and it would be like "Dennis, what are you doing?" And before I did that my intuition said maybe I’m wrong. And I called Werner Herzog, who I’d been lucky enough to work with one time and to know and have as a friend and a mentor. I called him from the parking lot of Dennis’s hotel at 10:30 at night the day before shooting the film, and I said, “Werner, this is what’s happening. What’s going on in your experience?” And he said, “Well, Ramin, of course Dennis doesn’t want to rehearse. He’s a thirty-year professional. He doesn’t need to rehearse. He will deliver for you the day you turn on the camera. Stop wasting his time.” He said, “Maybe just ask him how he’s going to walk?”
DQ: That’s exactly what I was concerned about most. It’s like a process of osmosis. I was just trying—I was thrown into the place, and I was just trying to soak in as much as I could from the farmers, from the feel of the place where we were at, and I just read the script over and over and over. And then, here comes the time that it’s Take One of the first day. (Laughs.) And you go with it. You rely on the filmmaker too. And lucky enough to have someone like Ramin who is also the writer as well as the director.
RB: Then after the first take—Dennis may not remember, but we were doing the cemetery scene, and I just gave him a huge bear hug because he did all these things. His shoulder was a certain way. His talk was a certain way. He added these things with how he had the breath mint and how he did it. He did all these things, and suddenly the character became alive in a way that was beyond anything I had written or thought about. He added all these things and it never occurred to me. And it was so impressive to me. I had never had that experience with a professional actor of this caliber. I had just had non-professional. And I kept seeing more and more in the edit room later what he was doing. Because it’s a very hard part for the opening section of the movie—he’s not even likeable. He’s unlikeable.
G: Uh huh.
RB: The audience probably doesn’t like the guy. And little by little, as the movie keeps going—because after about thirty or forty minutes, the movie goes in directions the audience does not expect.
RB: And the Quaid character keeps growing to places where you’re like "Oh my god, I care about that jerk?" And then you realize that jerk is behaving that way for a reason that we can understand as the movie progresses. It’s a very tough part. I was amazed by Dennis on the set. In editing I was more impressed. I saw the detail work he was doing.
G: Yeah. I think some of the tragic texture is that he actually—the choices that he’s making—though they’re easy to judge from the outside, they seem almost inevitable. He really feels pushed into a corner by circumstances. I mean, he could fall on his sword and let his business die. Or potentially let a family member drift away or something like that, but who would make that choice?
RB: Yeah. He would destroy everything. Those are very hard choices that I don’t know what the answers to them would be.
G: How did you process those choices that were facing him?
DQ: I guess I went with the moment. This is a guy who really, in his mind, is trapped, and he feels out of control inside, but that’s not the face that he shows to the world because he’s a salesman. And he has to try to portray that confidence to the world. And he has to really kind of believe his own delusional feelings about that in order to just function. And there comes a point in the script where there’s just too much weight on his shoulders that breaks him inside.
G: Yeah. In your research and in shooting, what kinds of impressions did you glean about how a modern farm is laid out and run? It seems like a farm owner is really more of a manager almost than a farmer, like you were saying.
DQ: Yeah. There’s a—like the farm that we were shooting on—it was not your typical family farm anymore. There’s not a lot of people running it. You have these—huge machinery that they use. It’s a big, huge business with acreage. It’s basically—the farm now is—the only thing missing are the skyscrapers because it has turned into that big corporate world out in the middle of America.
G: It’s got the great view but without the walls or the windows.
RB: Well, I mean, you have to think if you have a few hundred acres, you’re considered a hobby farmer. If you have a couple thousand acres you’re considered small. Ten thousand acres is not bad. And you’re talking about ten thousand dollars an acre. Meaning Wall Street investors—when the market tanked, they were dumping money in the land in Iowa. That was considered more valuable even than gold. As it’s like a multi-trillion dollar industry, where even a Dennis Quaid character is constantly checking a Blackberry to check out the commodity market—how many fractions of a penny has the future of corn and soy been changed since three hours ago?—so he can decide when he should or shouldn’t sell. That’s pressure. Not to mention the fact that Mother Nature could come and wipe everything out.
G: Right. Now you guys shot in—around DeKalb in Illinois, right?
G: And that’s only an hour and a half from Chicago, right?
G: That kind of amazed me to realize that. That must have been pretty practical from a shooting standpoint.
RB: Yeah. The movie’s set in Iowa where I spent a lot of time researching. But Illinois had a favorable tax credit. It was an hour and a half from Chicago, so it had a lot of resources—like equipment. I cast—other than the handful of lead actors, most of the cast all came out of Chicago, including the great Chelcie Ross who has a very great part in this and a lot of amazing local talent.
G: A theater town.
RB: Yes, a theater town. A really great, great cast. And, as Dennis was mentioning, I was able to find these farms that, like Iowa, had dirt and gravel roads instead of paved roads, which was what I wanted. And the Hermans’ where we shot the farm—this is a multi-million dollar operation that we invaded for a few weeks and they were really gracious enough to let us do it.
G: I wanted to ask Dennis, because I’m running low on time here, but what’s a film on your resume that you feel was overlooked—that you wish more people would go back and check out?
DQ: I did a movie called Savior, which was about the Bosnian War, back in the ‘90s with a director Gaga Antonijevic. At the time, you know, the Bosnian war had just ended. Nobody was really paying attention to the Bosnian war at the time. I don’t think anyone wanted to know. But that was a film—it was a small film that I think said a lot that I don’t think a lot of people have seen.
RB: I’ve seen it. It’s a very good film—a very tough role. Meaning that the character Dennis has to play is very challenging. He sent it to me when we came to know one another because he’s very proud of the film. It’s a very meaningful film but a very challenging role, and Dennis really nailed it.
G: Something that was mentioned in the press notes is that—I think Dennis said that you would prod him on the set. And I was curious if like either of you could think of an instance where—you said, "He was always prodding me to do something different"?
RB: Well, I like for the actors—I like that they have the freedom in the beginning to change things. I’m not married to the material—because what if they have some better idea? Because at a certain point they may actually come to understand the character in ways that I don’t. And so I gave them all the freedom in the first take to do "whatever you want." I said, "This is the blocking. I’m going to put the camera here, here and here. You have a sense—I know what I want to do. But if you feel something is going to be better, let’s see it. Let’s see what you feel might happen." It’s very easy for me to say, "You know, I appreciate that idea, but I would prefer to go back to what we had." But if I didn’t see it, how would I know? And I remember in one case, we were shooting a very tough scene where agents come to their property, and Zac is going to get physically violent with them and the sun was going down. I had an hour-and-a-half to shoot a complex scene, for which I really needed four or five hours. And I was like quickly, "Okay, everyone, this is the blocking. I’m going to do five camera setups," et cetera. "Let’s start." I went to quickly start shooting, and Dennis was like "Um, excuse me"—very nonchalantly, as if I had all the time in the world. "Um, I don’t think my character would behave this way." I thought, "Oh my God. What does this guy want from me?" But, listen, this guy is Dennis Quaid. I said, "Okay, what do you think?" And he said, "I think this—my character should do these things." I thought about it. I looked at the sun which had gone even farther down to the horizon, and I said, "You’re right. What you’re telling me is more honest than the script. Please do it." I told the actors, "Dennis is going to do something—I don’t know what it is. You have a basic sense of the blocking. Let’s see what happens. And I’m going to start shooting." And he did what he wanted to do. I said, "Dennis, this is a great idea. Okay, from one to ten, you went to level ten. You got to scale back a little because that’s too much for this character. Come down a little bit." It took us two or three takes to find what was perfect and a few takes for the other actors to adjust themselves accordingly—because now their actions shift. And we shot like that. And they have to have the ability to do that. Otherwise I would just get a robot to play the part. I’m not into making an animation movie.
RB: I want to know what they’re going to bring.
DQ: That’s what I was always relying on Ramin for—was to take me down—take away the acting, please.
RB: Well, I have to say, because last night—this movie really goes in directions nobody expects. I mean, twenty or thirty minutes into the film, you're like "Oh, I know what is going to happen"—no. This is not what people are expecting. And it’s never going to turn out the way you think it is. And there’s a very powerful scene at the end of the film with Dennis and Kim Dickens. I can’t say, though, what it is. It’ll ruin the movie. I mean the people last night in the cinema were saying they had never seen a performance like that—ever. Not just from Dennis Quaid. It’s just they had not seen something so raw in its emotion—that we were lucky—Dennis and Kim Dickens—they managed to get there somehow.
G: All right. I think that’s a good point to end on. Thank you guys very much. It was a real pleasure.
RB: Thank you.
DQ: Thank you.