How Michael Pollan Inspired Zac Efron’s Latest Movie

Courtesy of <a href="http://www.sonyclassics.com/atanyprice/#/gallery/">Sony Pictures Classics</a>

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.

At Any Price
Sony Pictures Classics
105 minutes

At Any Price, a bleak family drama set against the backdrop of the Corn Belt, is essentially Death of a Salesman, but with genetically modified superseeds.

The film is co-written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, who the late critic Roger Ebert dubbed the new “director of the decade,” soon after seeing Bahrani’s 2007 film Chop Shop. At Any Price stars Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron (last seen getting peed on by Nicole Kidman in a Lee Daniels art film last year) as a father and son living their lives of noisy desperation.

Quaid plays Henry Whipple (no, not that Henry Whipple), an adulterous farmer and salesman entrenched in the ruthless, multimillion-dollar rivalry between Iowa’s big-business farmers. Henry becomes the target of a corporate investigation after illegally washing and reselling patented genetically modified seeds. Efron plays Dean, a local stock car racing champion who dreams of ditching the family business and making a name for himself as a NASCAR driver.

The pair’s disenchantment and bitterness result in a wave of betrayal, anger, and violence in their otherwise peaceful Midwestern town. The film is a quietly disturbing little picture, and features some magnificent acting, especially by Quaid.

The film is not (as Bahrani is quick to point out) in any way political, even though the story prominently involves GMOs, a controversial and extremely political topic these days. The origin of this apolitical film, however, is indeed rooted in Bahrani’s very political interests. In a conversation I had with Bahrani and Quaid, the 38-year-old director explained how he went about writing At Any Price:

I was curious where my food was coming from. I was reading authors like Michael Pollan…And I started realizing that farms aren’t romantic places anymore—they’re big businesses. So Michael Pollan and I became email friends, and I asked him to introduce me to George Naylor, who’s a farmer in Iowa who was featured in [Pollan’s 2006 book] The Omnivore’s Dilemma. So I went out and I lived with George for many months, and when I went out there, all the farmers kept telling me, “expand or die, get big or get out.” And I met a seed salesman, [and] I never knew there was such an occupation as “GMO seed salesman”…And [he] made me think of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. And I thought combining these things would be a way to tell a human and emotional story…When you have a lot of race cars and infidelity, it’s hard to be an “agenda film.”

(So there you have it: You can thank Michael Pollan for indirectly causing the development of Zac Efron‘s newest movie.)

Bahrani pulled from John Steinbeck, John Ford, and Peter Bogdanovich for narrative and stylistic influences. He also shadowed several Iowa farmers, incorporating their sentiments and commentary into his screenplay. One day, Bahrani noticed that a customer of one of the farmers owned a stock car for figure 8 racing—an observation he used to craft Efron’s character. “I YouTube’d [figure 8 racing] that night, and I made a point to keep going to Iowa to go see races,” Bahrani says. “I thought it would be a good contrast [for the two characters]…It had a different pace, and a different energy, and a different adrenaline.”

Dennis Quaid didn’t have time to conduct anything close to this level of research for his role. His learning experiences were all in the midst of production: “We shot it on a real farm,” Quaid says. “I didn’t have a trailer for this; it was my car or the living-room couch of the Hermans, the family [whose] farm we were shooting on… I spent my time with them, trying to soak up the atmosphere.”

Check out the trailer for this tense and surprising drama:

At Any Price gets a wider release on Friday, May 3. The film is rated R for sexual content including a strong graphic image, and for language. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

Click here for more movie and TV coverage from Mother Jones.

To read more of Asawin’s reviews, click here.

To listen to the movie and pop-culture podcast that Asawin co-hosts with ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg, click here.

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate