Ramin Bahrani’s debut film Man Push Cart, about a Pakistani pushcart vendor in Manhattan, was filled with details of New York street life: the dawn-break glint of headlights on the pushcart’s embossed chrome, and the protagonist’s morning ritual of tucking tea-bag labels between paper cups. For its lyricism and independence, the film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2005, garnered accolades—none perhaps more personally gratifying than the praise that Bahrani received from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, whom he cites as a major influence on his work. This first-generation Iranian-American filmmaker, born and bred in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, shares with the master a passion for Persian poetry, and feels his work draws on the structural simplicity that he admires in classic Persian poetry. “Certainly,” says Bahrani “I like less; I prefer simple.” Extending the reach of his poetics of place to the borough of Queens in his second feature, Chop Shop, Bahrani explores the noisy, heavy-metal world of hot cars and street urchins, focusing in on the story of siblings Alejandro and Isamar. The Voice sat down with Bahrani to hear all about it.
What is the genesis of Chop Shop? I was editing Man Push Cart when Michael Simmonds, the cameraman, called me and said he had to get his car repaired. He asked me to join him because he thought I would be interested this place—Willets Point in Queens. So he picked me up and we went there, and I was like, “My God, this place is the world—the world in 20 blocks!” And immediately I said, “We’re making the next film here.”
Once Push Cart ended, I started going there a lot, just watching. Keeping my mouth shut. If they asked what I was doing, I’d say I was a student writing a short story. I tried to think of the most boring thing, so they wouldn’t ask any more questions about it or change who they were. Otherwise, suddenly they don’t want to tell you things, they exaggerate things, or they want to talk about money. I avoid those kinds of conversations until later.
Obviously, the surrounding areas are strange, because you have LaGuardia Airport, which suddenly has a connection to the world, and you have to have a certain amount of wealth to fly on an airplane. And then of course there’s a baseball stadium . . . Shea Stadium, and the U.S. Open. The contrast was so striking. More and more I became interested in the boys I would see working there [in the chop shops], because it’s such a tough environment. So I started making the story about one of these young boys.
Where did you find the kids to play the leads? I found Alejandro [Polanco, who plays the character Alejandro] in a school on the Lower East Side. He lives [there], in the projects. I went through 650 kids on tape—100 schools, 25 youth centers, and then the street. Alejandro was good from the beginning, and then we rehearsed with him and Isamar Gonzales [who plays his sister Isamar] for months before I gave them the parts. I made Alejandro work in the garages.
How much of the dialogue was improvised? There was definitely a script, which they never saw. I would tell them what the scene is about. They would say what I wanted, but in their own way. I told Alejandro to say, “Those shoes are fake,” and Isamar to say, “No, they’re real.” Well, Isamar said, “Yo, they official.” That sounds really cool, and I then say, “From now on, you have to say that.”
I would tape all the rehearsals; any dialogues they had that were better than any we had written, we would add or change. Usually what you are looking at is take 20 or 30, not take one or two. This is one of the benefits of non-actors—they don’t have a preconception that it should or shouldn’t be one way or another. They don’t think it’s unusual never to have seen a script; they just assume that’s how a movie is made. I don’t say “Action!” or “Cut!”, so they never expected it. The scene would end because the camera guy and I would just walk away, and they realized we weren’t filming any more.