At Any Price tells the fictional, but oh so real story of the Whipple family, caught up in the Darwinian struggle to survive in the modern agriculture business, which thrives under the banner “expand or die”. We watch as this attitude of never having enough seeps from the corporate level down to the individual lives of farmers and their children. My review of this film will come out tomorrow. In the meantime, we thought our readers would enjoy a special interview to whet their appetites.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Ramin Bahrani and Dennis Quaid to discuss their upcoming film At Any Price. I commend this film to our readers and as a run-up to the release, I thought it fitting to include some snippets of the transcript from the interview. My hope is that this will whet your appetite for the movie.
What struck me most was the way Ramin Bahrani’s experience living with farmers for several months translated almost directly to the screen. Several lines and scenes in the film came straight from Bahrani’s interactions with farmers in Iowa and Indiana. So here are some highlights…
At Any Price not a political film or agenda film, but it does touch on hot topics like GMO seeds…what made you interested in this agricultural conversation?
I was curious where my food was coming from, which led me to authors such as Michael Pollan. You start to realize that farms are not romantic places anymore—they are big businesses. So Michael and I became e-mail friends and I asked him to introduce me to George Naylor who’s a farmer in Iowa featured in The Omnivore’s Dilemma so I went out and lived with George for many months. And when I went out there, the farmers kept on telling me “expand or die”, “get big or get out”. And I met a seed salesman, which I never knew there was such an occupation. And those mottos of “expand or die” seemed to be not just what America is thriving on, but a good portion of the world.
The [seed] salesman made me think about Death of a Salesman, the Arthur Miller [play]. I thought combining these things would tell a human and emotional story. Thank God you said it’s not an agenda film, or else I’d be very upset with myself. But when the movie’s done, maybe over dinner or the next day, you’ll be like, “Wow, it was actually about something.” And so that’s how the genesis was.
I don’t think the film tries to take a particular side on this issue or preach about it. It just holds a mirror up to life, I think.
When you have a lot of racecars and infidelity, it’s hard to be an agenda film.
The film seemed like a 1970s anti-hero kind of story. Were there any films in particular that you both looked at or did that kind of happen subconsciously?
That’s one of the things that really attracted me to doing this film because it was that kind of story. I cut my teeth on movies from the 70s like Bonnie and Clyde, Five Easy Pieces, Scarecrow. It’s a film that has an anti-hero in it, not a very likable character to begin with, but hopefully you come to see why he is the way he is and it’s an interesting human story.
Dennis, was contemporary agrarian life something that interested you before the movie or was it something that you wanted to learn more about, or…?
I really grew more in the film about these issues. I certainly knew about GMOs and how farming had become big business by looking at the news, but really, like I said before, it was the story that attracted me, Ramin’s writing and his films, and Henry Whipple—what a complex character he was to portray.
When we first meet Henry Whipple, he’s kind of like a sleazy car salesman, but as we get to know more about him, there’s something more going on inside. Was he the same man at the end of the film as he was in the beginning? Or does he kind of develop up to that point, where there’s more to that fake smile?
He comes to learn it. We talked a lot about Death of the Salesman before we did the film and the Willy Loman character and how he’s been chasing the American dream, but in the process has become corrupt. He presents this face to the outside world, that of a successful guy, a very confident guy, because he wants so desperately to be number one, but inside he feels that desperation—he’s losing his soul. It’s just too much to bear as the film goes on. You start to see the cracks.
You’ve spoken of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Were there any other philosophical undergirdings in terms of agrarian types of life. There’s a great scene where Dennis, your character, talks to his father, and reminisces of how he wished they were back in the old days, while his father responded about how he loves the air-conditioned tractors and the GPS. It reminds us of Wendell Berry or Wes Jackson at the Land Institute. Did you guys dig into that kind of stuff?
No, I let the real people tell me about it. And I was with Troy Walsh who’s another farmer who’s in the film (Troy was featured in Food, Inc.) and he had a massive case with Monsanto that would drag on for years and years and years. And I was living with Troy in Indiana and I went spraying with his dad, an old timer, in a massive machine with a GPS satellite system and we were just sitting there. He was sitting like this and he didn’t have to touch the steering wheel. And I looked at this old timer and I’m like, “Don’t you miss the old way?” And he replied, “Are you kidding me? I have air conditioning, I’ve got GPS, I’m gonna finish this field in a couple hours and get home to watch the football game on TV and drink a beer. Of course I don’t miss the old days.” And I was immediately struck by that. And I told myself, Red West, who plays Dennis’s dad, is going to have an attitude like that.
The scene where there’s a backroom presentation about micronutrients, I went to one of those. George Naylor suggested I stay at home because he thought I’d be bored out of my mind. I was like, are you kidding me? I want to go see it. You see the presentation, you see the farmers eating pork tenderloin and drinking Welch’s and Mountain Dew, which were the top two drinks. And the guy who did the PowerPoint presentation pointed out one of the locals, who was selling his product, to make you believe in it, and of course that local in this movie becomes Jim Johnson.
Ramin really did his homework on this. This is the way he makes movies to begin with. He spends months with these farmers. He knocks on their doors and then he’s living with them for months at a time.
At Any Price releases in Washington, DC tomorrow, May 3, so look for my review tomorrow morning.