New York is so saturated with media that it sometimes seems like each of the city’s alleged eight million stories have been told eight million times. Then something like Ramin Bahrani’s 2006 film Man Push Cart comes and illuminates a facet of New York everyone here sees everyday but never thinks about. The story of a former Pakistani popstar resigned to life as a Midtown pushcart vendor, Bahrani’s directorial debut offered a jarring slice of Muslim immigrant life in post-9/11 New York. Chop Shop, opening at New York’s Film Forum today, is another compact yet epic portrait of unknown NYC, this time following 12-year-old Latino orphan Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) and his teenage sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales) as they eke out a third world existence literally in the shadow of Shea Stadium’s “Make Dreams Happen” banner.
While anyone who’s lived here long enough to have had their car windows smashed on a Sunday can point you to the teeming sea of scrap heaps and bodyshops known as Willets Point (aka “the Iron Triangle”), Bahrani scoops the tabloids by immersing us in the lives of pre-pubescent boys who sleep in the same garages they hustle cars into by day. We spoke with Bahrani about Chop Shop, which has gathered City of God comparisons since debuting at Cannes last June, over espressos earlier this month. See what he had to say after the jump.
Interview by Jesse Serwer
What made you want to do a film in Willets Point?
I initially came to know about it because my cameraman had to get his car fixed while I was editing my first film. He said, “Come with me, I think you’ll like this place,” and immediately I did. I didn’t know anything like that existed in America. It reminded me of a place north of Tehran, where my family is from. I liked how much life and energy there was in a place that seemed so broken down, and how the people who worked there were fighting to bring cars into their garages but, at the end of the day, they were barbecuing and playing music together like nothing had happened. The more time I spent there I started to see kids that worked and lived there, and I became interested in this idea of a boy in an adult’s world.
Were your characters based on real people there or did you create a story and set it there?
It’s a mixture. A lot of details I observed while I was there, and wove into the story. The boys were industrious, they were clever, they were able to negotiate with adults. These characteristics that Alejandro has came from real people there. My co-writer, Bahareh Azimi, brought this idea that the kids should be very slippery. Whatever you throw at Ale, he lets it slide right off and comes back with a joke or comment, something that will keep him going. That came from her background as an immigrant in France, and things she’d seen growing up.
Are there really people living in bodyshops there?
If you go there at six in the morning, you’ll see soapy water coming out of a closed garage. Or you’ll see people come out of broken down cars when the sun wakes them up and they’ll shower right there in the alleyway.
And this includes kids?
Yeah, you see a couple of the kids who live there in the film, actually.
How did you go about casting the main characters?
We looked at thousands of kids over many months. We went to 100 schools, 25 youth centers and then streets and playgrounds in Hispanic neighborhoods. We put 650 kids on tape. I’d get them comfortable and then ask questions to see how close they are psychologically to the character that’s been written. I found Alejandro and Isamar in the exact same school, actually. I was immediately interested in Ale. He was charming four women who were three years older than him at the same time, and there was this packet of ketchup on the floor I thought he was gonna step on. It would have been embarrassing so I pointed at him. He saw the ketchup, picked it up, threw it in the trash and then went back to doing what he was doing. I said, ‘This kid can take non verbal direction.’ I passed Isamar in the hallway and her face immediately struck me. After a few auditions I learned she’d stood up for Ale’s real sister who is older but really tiny. So Ale already knew Issy and somehow I think he kind of loved or respected her for what she’d done for his sister. We rehearsed together for six, seven months and by the time we shot the movie they were as close as any brother and sister. They’e very touchy. These games they played in the movie, like “name five cereals,” that’s really them.
How much of the Ale character came from the real Ale?
Most of it was created on paper. However, he matched a lot of those things. He was tough, he was sarcastic. He was very good at improvisation, another reason I cast him.
And he had that natural hustler instinct?
He really liked making money. He’d sold empanadas and pastries that his grandma makes on the street before. And his uncles had worked with cars so it made him feel connected to his older male relatives to do that. I made him work in the garage for four, five months before we started filming. He learned to do all the things he does in the film—sanding, painting, pawing cars into the garage. Rob, who owns the garage we shot in [and plays Rob, the garage owner], would pay him. For every car he brought in to his shop, he’d get five bucks. My pre-production is not typical. I’m usually on location, having people working six, seven months in advance.
Working at the jobs related they play in the film you mean?
I don’t write a script then hire a location scout four weeks before production to find locations that match what I wrote. I find what I want and then rewrite based on things I’ve seen at the location. Same with people. Once I decided to use Rob’s garage, I prayed he’d be a good actor. I really thought if he was bad, and I didn’t put him in the film, he’d literally kill me. I thought, ‘What am I gonna do?’ I can’t have a bad film but I also don’t want to end up in the East River. You can’t believe how happy I was when we did the first scene with him in the garage and he was good. What a relief. He was so natural. In fact he’d been asked to be in films before but he had a good business so he didn’t see a reason. He’s friends with guys you see in The Sopranos, like Vinny Vella. He could be a great character actor.
Have some of the non-professionals you’ve cast picked up additional film roles?
Ahmad [Razvi], who was the lead in Man Push Cart and one of only two people in Chop Shop who’d acted before, is in an upcoming movie called Trainwreck. He’s turned down many offers because he didn’t want to be in terrorist roles.
To go back to Ale, you had a minor doing hard labor to prepare for a movie. Some people might say that’s excessive.
The first several times we went to the location, Ale’s parents came. It wasn’t until they became completely comfortable that they’d allow him to come there with me alone. When school let out for summer, Ale would call me at 7AM to ask about going to the location. Sometimes I couldn’t, so I’d have people who work for me take him and wait for five hours until he was done working for Rob. If no one could go, he’d get quite upset. Not only did he want to make $10 but he enjoyed it. Why is Daniel Day Lewis so amazing in There Will Be Blood and everything he does? Because he does those things. He spends years preparing. In the roles DeNiro was great in, he immersed himself for months. The non-professional actor doesn’t know those things so, to make a good movie, I have to make them do it.
New York City is planning to redevelop Willets out of existence. Is there any “save this place” type advocacy to this movie?
Some people who worked on the film with me thought they should tear it down to the ground. Others were hoping they never get rid of it. I don’t know if it matters what I think because life continues in ways that we can’t control and may not like. What I want from my films or from art in general is to show things that haven’t been seen, and change your perspective. I didn’t really want to be an advocate. The hope is that when the end comes you’d feel “Ah, yes, it had to be this way, anything else wouldn’t have made sense.” That may not be to the satisfaction of people who are desperate for conclusions or finality. But what matters to me is that it ends in an emotionally correct way.
Do you write pre- and post-scripts that you don’t film? Neither Man Push Cart nor Chop Shop satisfy the viewer’s desire to know what happened beforehand to set these stories in motion. Which really stirs the imagination.
Better it be stirred than give you four steaks, five appetizers, three desserts and four glasses of wine. I don’t like movies that make me so full I get a stomach ache. (Breaks into impression) “I love espresso, I can go for an espresso right now. Let me tell you why, because when I was a child my dad molested me and he forced me…” I don’t want to know these things. The film I just finished shooting begins like this [snaps fingers]. Two people are having a conversation in a cab where the whole story is suddenly dumped on you. The leads are a Senegalese taxi driver in Winston-Salem, NC, which is where I grew up, and a very ornery old Southern man who wants to pay this driver $1000 to take him to a mountain. The driver realizes he’s going there to kill himself, so he decides to become his friend so he wouldn’t do it. The film is about this.
There are trained actors in this one?
Just the two leads. The old man is played by Red West from the Memphis Mafia, Elvis’ best friend in high school. Red’s been in films but never a lead.
What’s it called?
Solo, but it’s gonna change. What do you think of this title, Blowing Rock?
I don’t know. Chop Shop was originally titled Iron Triangle. Why’d you change that name?
I was nervous about coming into this environment and telling people there I was doing a movie called Chop Shop. I felt I should first gain their trust before unloading that on them. I like Iron Triangle too but I liked Chop Shop more because, in the film, the characters continually get chopped up, and they have to put themselves back together again.