Ramin Bahrani does not suffer fools gladly--which is not to suggest that the Iranian-American director is anything but infallibly polite. While indieWIRE recently talked with him about his second feature, "Chop Shop," opening today at New York City's Film Forum, he even offered to share the Thai food he was apologetically scarfing in the midst of an overscheduled press junket. But he has a way of dismissing a silly question or debate that echoes the understated pragmatism evinced by the characters in his films.
When asked why he chose to focus on kids in his latest film, he answered with a shake of his head: "Why not?"
"When I was still working on [his 2006 film] 'Man Push Cart' a friend took me down to the Willet's Point, Queen stretch of autobody repair shops," he continued. "I was so overwhelmed by how harshness and pleasure coexisted there that I knew immediately that's where I wanted to make my next film. And the children working in that adult world were just the most interesting."
The commingling of light and dark is a running theme for Bahrani. In "Chop Shop," 12-year-old homeless Ali labors mightily to protect himself and his 16-year-old sister Izzy, who has resorted to turning tricks. But the two remain capable of enjoying a barbecue and having fun.
"Half the world lives with enormous struggle. They can't stop to worry about it and they don't have time to get into any psychology." Bahrani said. "I get mad when audiences project those values on my characters."
That's why, he said, he refrains from including too much backstory. "What difference does it make how or why Ali and Izzy got to this point? Exposition is always the most boring part of a story. Better to stay in the present." He balks when his plots are deemed existential, though: "It's so pat."
Bahrani also said he finds the distinction between documentary and fiction to be arbitrary. "That line is always blurring. Even when I would shoot 30 takes on a scene, people watching the filming would think we were doing a documentary." Part of this effect stems from his cast of mostly nonprofessional actors. "People will say, oh, they're just being themselves. But they're not. "
Produced by Big Beach, which also produced "Little Miss Sunshine," "Chop Shop" boasts a much bigger budget than "Man Push Cart." Though it was shot with only a 14-person crew in 30 days. "Ultimately," he said. "I would love to shoot something in three months. An epic." His next film, which is already in progress, is set in the West and is "more metaphysical than documentary in feel."
Bahrani, who grew up in North Carolina (his parents are Iranian-born) and graduated from Columbia University, cites as many literary inspirations as cinematic ones. "Lately I've been reading the poet Omar Khayyam, who has this line, 'Moisten the dust with wine.'" he said. "That idea of failure living side by side with success. That's life! It's a mentality I want to insert into US cinema."