“Expand or Die.” This is the mantra of the 21st century’s $2 trillion agricultural market, depicted in Ramin Bahrani’s “At Any Price.” Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is a firm believer of this saying. Whipple realizes that in order to survive he must expand, and to do this he must cut out rival farmers from the market. This philosophy of cutthroat business, however, has pushed Whipple to the limit. The weight and pressures are evident not only on Henry’s shoulders but also on his family’s. When his eldest son, Grant, leaves Iowa to climb in South America, and when his other son, Dean, prefers racing cars to farming, Henry feels that a deeper problem than agricultural rivalry threatens his business.
After a screening of “At Any Price,” an intelligent and engaging film, The Daily Californian spoke with director Ramin Bahrani and actor Dennis Quaid, two pleasant guys eager to talk about their collaboration.
Daily Californian: In the past, Ramin, you made films where the central characters are struggling financially. The Whipple family in “At Any Price,” however, isn’t so unfortunate. But Henry seems to be just as money-hungry as the poor characters in the other films. Tell me a little bit about the role money plays in your films.
Ramin Bahrani: Money is a necessity to survive, and there is also something corrupting in it … You mentioned one of the big differences between (the characters in) my previous films and Henry is that he’s actually more successful and making it … I spent a couple of months living with farmers in Iowa. They were very warm and very welcoming. They loved their community and their fellow farmers, but they were prepared to cut them out to survive. Those are the pressures that they’re under, and those are the pressures that we feel no matter where you live in America — or really in the world. It’s the pressure you feel just to make it, because the dream to making it is becoming tougher and tougher. And we wanted to express those pressures in Quaid’s character: what’s driving him to do kind of corrupt things and how was that impacting his family and his own sense of self and who he is.
DC: Dennis, you play Henry as this brittled man who very clearly puts on a facade of composure and confidence, but you can see that inside he’s miserable and desperate. Why do you think people like Henry, individuals who sort of automatically fall into a lifestyle imposed by their families, fall prey to this instead of trying to break free of it?
Dennis Quaid: Henry is a guy who grew up in a different world, a romanticized view of family farm and has taken on that dream and the responsibility from the former generations, continuing on the farm and then passing that legacy on to his sons. He lives in a world that, you know, farming’s become this 21st-century corporate world and it’s very cutthroat … So this is a guy who presents a facade out of necessity to the world to get ahead to make things better. But at the same time he’s split. He’s compromising the values that he grew up with to the point that it becomes too much for him to bear. I think he feels that the world around him will do (anything) to get him. They’re out to destroy him. This is a world where it was neighbor helping neighbor. Now it’s neighbor destroying neighbor.
DC: In your previous films, Ramin, you got really great performances out of nonactors, and I imagine you had a lot to do with their success. In “At Any Price,” however, you were working with all experienced actors, including Dennis Quaid. Was your approach to directing actors this time different?
RB: First, I had to do less. With nonprofessional actors I came to find them, I discovered them, and you spent months working together …. When you get to people like Dennis and Zac and all the other cast members, they know how to do all these things. With Dennis, as Dennis would always tell me, “Thirty years, kid!” He’s got 30 years, so he knows about it. My job at that point is more to make sure they feel comfortable. I like to give the freedom, especially in the first takes … They have the freedom to change things, because what if they have really great ideas. So they have a chance to explore and do something different. And if I think it’s good, I change. And if I think it isn’t, if it doesn’t work for the vision of my whole film, which they don’t necessarily see ’cause it’s not their job, then I go back to the way it was.
DC: How much did the two of you collaborate to flesh out the performance you gave, Dennis?
DQ: At first, when Ramin offered this to me, I went down to Austin and we met and we spent a couple of days together and just getting to know one another. I had seen his films. We talked about that and his way of filmmaking. We talked about the script and the characters. This is a man who spent two years researching this film. He basically just goes and knocks on people’s doors, invades their lives to find out the deeper things and all the little details. And then we talked about life and ourselves. After that, I was going away to do other jobs, so it was just me and the script. It was the interior of the character that I thought about . . . He’s very layered and complex. The films (Ramin) has done before have not been about acting. So I relied on Ramin to keep taking away the acting (in this film). It’s more about being.
DC: The movie applies to a lot of things that are happening with economic pressures. How do you hope this film resonates with audiences?
RB: This (film) is not (about) farmers planting corn and having organic vegetables for dinner. It’s cutthroat. So the movie’s actually exciting. And this has somehow drawn you into it … I hope other people have your reaction, which is actually to be excited by the story, (to be) moved by the characters and then to say, “Oh, my God! There’s a lot actually going on here. It’s actually about a lot of stuff.”