Ramin Bahrani's "Chop Shop" Preview at Museum of the Moving Image - Jan. 26, 2008
Museum of the Moving Image – Astoria, NY
January 26, 2008
At the Museum of the Moving Image on Saturday, Ramin Bahrani (RB), director and writer of Chop Shop, and the film’s young star Alejandro Polanco (AP) answered questions during a Q&A, moderated by Assistant Curator Livia Bloom (LB), after a preview of the film. Chop Shop had its world premiere at the 2007 Cannes International Film Festival. Also starring in Chop Shop is Ahmad Razvi, who played the lead in Bahrani’s previous feature Man Push Cart, which I saw last year during a Film Independent’s Spirit Awards screening. Last night’s screening was not only the first New York preview, but more fittingly, the first preview in Queens, the film’s setting. And I just couldn’t help myself from walking over to the MMI, just a short distance from my own Queens neighborhood of Astoria. Others in the audience who I saw at the screening included New York City cinema swami S.T. VanAirsdale of The Reeler, and actor Adrian Martinez (Mail Order Wife). I found Chop Shop to be very affective, showing us a world we rarely get to see or understand, practically in our own back yard.
Bloom started the evening by saying when she first Chop Shop it in Cannes last year, it made her see the world around her anew. She also mentioned that film critic Roger Ebert called it “Miraculous!” Bahrani then introduced the film, mentioning that it was primarily shot near Shea Stadium in the Willets Point section of Queens (aka The Iron Triangle with 20 blocks of junk yards and auto chop shops), which he said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has referred to as being bleak. Bahrani said he didn’t see it that way. He focused the story on one of the boys that lived and worked there. By the stadium, there’s a billboard that says, “Make Dreams Happen.” Bahrani concluded by saying he hopes Alejandro’s dreams come true.
Chop Shop opens at Film Forum in New York on February 27.
LB: How did you develop Chop Shop?
RB: I was editing my first film. The cameraman had to get his car fixed and I went with him to Willets Point. This was in the winter of 2004. The story grew out of going there. I started noticing young kids who worked and lived there.
LB: How did you hear about this film? What was the experience like?
AP: Ramin came to my school. At lunch, he asked the staff which kids spoke Spanish. Ramin spoke with me and pointed to a packet of ketchup that was on the floor before I stepped on it.
RB: He was sitting at a table chillin' with some ladies. I thought if he had stepped on the ketchup, it would have been humiliating. He took non-verbal direction really well.
AP: When shooting, Ramin wanted every scene to be perfect. We spent all day on one scene, or basically two scenes a day.
LB: In one scene, how did you get all the pigeons to come into the shot?
RB: The pigeons belonged to a guy down the street. They usually showed up at 8:30am. I showed up at 8am to start feeding them. The more time I had before the sun came up, the better. I scheduled that scene at the end of our shoot. It took about 50 takes, before getting the one shot used in the film.
LB: Chop Shop presents an original portrait of work in America. Had you done that sort of work before?
AP: I never worked before. It was a challenge for me. Before shooting the movie, I spent six months there. I used to get $5 dollars for pulling in each car.
RB: Some of those were shot like a documentary. After the camera stopped rolling, he wanted to keep calling in the cars to make more money.
LB: Why did most of the characters use their actual real names?
RB: It helps to eliminate the wall between fiction and documentary. I’m not sure there should be such a division.
LB: Who are some of your influences in film?
RB: Lots. Even ones that don’t resemble my films. Probably Robert Flaherty. The Italian neo-realists.
AP: I didn’t really know about independent films. I thought it would be a Hollywood film.
LB: What were some of the techniques used for the cinematography?
RB: Michael Simmonds shot the film. We met at the Tribeca Film Festival. All my films have been shot high definition. Michael is quite skilled with the camera. We have a lengthy color correction process. We avoid wide lenses. They’re disrespectful to the people in front of the camera.
Q: Did you get permission to shoot the scene in the subway where the kids were selling candy? Did you get the people to sign release forms? What was it like?
RB: We did somehow. The Film Office was really nice. Somebody was always trailing behind us after each shot getting people to sign releases.
AP: In the first car I was scared, because we had a camera, but people bought the candy, and I made money. In the second car, I was more comfortable.
Q: How did the dialogue seem so natural. Was the script improvised. Were real actors used?
RB: The only actor in the film was Ahmad, who was in Man Push Cart, and the guy who played the John toward the end of film, because that was a more complicated scene to shoot. All of the other people in the film had never been in front of a camera before. I never showed them the script. I told them what scene we were about to do and what to say in it. Some of what they said was their own words.
AP: I was ready to memorize what to say, but words just came out of nowhere sometimes. We were really talking. Ramin didn’t yell “action” or “cut.”
Q: Have you shown the movie in your school yet?
AP: My principal will take the film to school and show it grade by grade.
RB: We’re reaching out to schools to encourage kids to see it when it opens at Film Forum on February 27. Last year in Cannes, filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami and Atom Egoyan saw the film and said I should definitely show it to kids.
Q: In a lot of Iranian films, there are kids who face adult situations. Where does this come from?
AP: Not to simplify, but children’s stories are easier to avoid censorship issues there. Kiarostami is one of the forerunners of introducing kids in cinema.
Q: Explain the relationship between kids and adults.
RB: It shifts so many different ways. Alejandro negotiated with the adults really well in one scene, then acted like a kid in another.
AP: At some points, I was acting like a kid, then all of a sudden, I have a job and have to fix cars. As an adult, I had to talk more sophisticated, but when I was playing, I acted kind of childish.
Q: Did you shoot the film sequentially?
RB: My dream is to do that, but it’s financially challenging to stay on schedule.
Q: How did you work with your editor?
RB: I edited myself. I had an editor for Man Push Cart for one day who said it wasn’t going to be a good film. Filmmaker Lodge Kerrigan was one mentor who helped explain the philosophy of editing. Whatever’s not good, throw it away.
Q: Do you want to continue acting?
AP: Before doing the movie, I wanted to be a baseball player. But the movie inspired me to continue acting.
Q: What’s your next film?
RB: Solo, shot in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, about a taxi driver.