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A Farmer’s Life, in Focus and on Film

Posted on Apr 29, 2013
Matt Dinerstein, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Zac Efron, left, Dennis Quaid and Kim Dickens in “At Any Price.”

(Page 2)

EW: How did you get interested in this topic? It seems different than your other movies.

RB: It’s different because the characters aren’t immigrants this time, and they’re not financially unstable. The characters in this film have money. And it was the first time I decided to have a character who is not so positive. Alejandro [Polanco] in “Chop Shop” did some things that were questionable, but had a good heart. Here Dennis is quite unlikable for some time. Only in the course of the film does he start to become self-aware and we start to empathize with him because we realize he’s kind of trapped by himself, by his dad, by the system and it’s made him this way.

I became interested in this subject because of a friend of mine, Jenni Jenkins. We did “Plastic Bag” together. She was involved in sustainability, and she got me interested in food. I wanted to change my eating habits, and I started reading Michael Pollan. Then Michael Pollan and I became email friends. He liked “Plastic Bag,” and I was a huge admirer of his work. I asked him to introduce me to George Naylor, who’s a prominent figure in “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Then I went and lived with George in Iowa on and off for six months. Through Michael, I also met Troy Roush, a prominent figure in [the film] “Food, Inc.” When I went out to the farms, I noticed how modern it was. These are not yokels in overalls—most are very smart, very sophisticated businessmen. In fact most of them told me, “Make whatever film you want, just stop portraying us as yokels.” Most of them step out in the backyard, and it’s a multimillion-dollar business—in the backyard! And there’s so much pressure and so many variables. Not just the commodities market, but should there be some political instability in China that might affect the price of grain in China, they would have to make on the spot decisions about buying and selling crops.

I was startled by all these things, and it was so unlike what I had seen portrayed in films. Like my other films, I wanted to portray things we think we know, but portray them more honestly and fresher like “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop,” which show New York in ways we don’t see in movies, but New Yorkers said, “Oh, that’s the New York I actually live in.”

EW: What was the most surprising thing that you learned about farming? Was it the sophistication?

RB: The modernity of it was startling. I was with George Naylor, and he said, “I’ve got to go into town.” He wanted to go into Jefferson, the county seat, and he said, “There’s going to be a PowerPoint presentation about micronutrients. You’re going to find it really boring, so I’ll meet you in a couple of hours.” I said, “Are you crazy? Of course I want to go to this meeting.” You go to the back room of a diner with these faux wood accordion doors just like in the film, and there were farmers listening to a presentation by some guy with a Ph.D., and I thought to myself, “This was what doctors did with pharmaceutical companies—get steak meals and be convinced they should be giving Viagra to their patients or whatever.” I never knew it happened with farmers.

There were always things like this—like the idea of a seed salesman. I had never heard about such an occupation. I immediately thought of Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.” I met an amazing seed salesman, a genetically modified seed salesman and a farmer. As soon as I left my first visit with him, I saw Willy Loman everywhere. I saw Willy Loman saying, “Expand or die.” The thing about Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s masterpiece is that character at the end of the play, he feels compelled to kill himself to be a success, and that’s a warning. When I was writing this, it was 2009, 2010, the whole world was in complete financial meltdown, and I saw Willy Loman then too.

It’s just not your typical farm film. It’s like Wall Street in the cornfields, minus the skyscrapers. I really think these are good people. Somehow it breaks my heart, not just for farmers, but for the whole country, that there’s this system that makes no sense. It’s only for the very, very wealthy. It’s just no way to live. If you look at when de Tocqueville came to America, he was praising what he saw, which was pragmatism. What’s good for me, should be good for you—it just should be a little bit better for me. That works. Now it’s what’s good for me should be bad for you. That doesn’t really work. That’s going to rot out the whole system. That’s not going to work, and it’s not what made the country so great.

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