MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Chop Shop

Willets Points is so far off the beaten path trod by visitors to New York, it might as well be in Sao Paulo, Tijuana or Manila, which it more closely resembles. Equals parts scrap yard, flea market and slum, the “Iron Triangle” is the daytime home to a tightly knit community of mechanics, sanders, buffers, spray painters, welders, dent removers and hucksters of all ages and cultural backgrounds. At night, illuminated by the lights of Shea Stadium, next-door, the beehive empties and Willets Point becomes a haven for grifters, thieves and sexual predators.

For his sophomore feature, Chop Shop, Ramin Bahrani spent two years observing the denizens of the makeshift neighborhood, whose proximity to the stadium’s parking lot affords garage owners a ready supply of hubcaps, side-view mirrors and tape decks. Early in his research, the Iranian-American filmmaker was struck by the words –“Make Dreams Happen” – printed on a giant billboard visible from Willets Point.

“I was curious to know what dreams can happen in this place, and who these dreamers are,” Bahrani recalled. “So, I set out to make Chop Shop.”

It isn’t likely that the sign’s message was intended to inspire the “street orphans” we meet in Chop Shop. Forty years after the “Miracle Mets” confounded the experts by winning its first World Series, the team’s fans still believe divine intervention is as important as running, hitting, pitching, catching and coaching.

“In the background of some scenes, the cranes being used to build the new Shea Stadium are visible,” Bahrani points out. “It’s supposed to open in 2009, but plenty of New Yorkers still don’t know Willet Point exists.”

Bahrani was editing his debut film, Man Push Cart, when cinematographer Michael Simmonds, introduced him to the “Iron Triangle.” He had just gotten his car repaired there, and thought its tangled web of unpaved streets, piles of junk, trashed cars, stray dogs, pools of dirty water and carnival barkers would make an interesting setting for a film.

Judging from the reviews, which have bordered on the ecstatic, Simmonds’ instincts were right on target. After making a dozen stops on the international festival circuit last year, Bahrani received the Someone to Watch prize at Film Independent’s Spirit Awards. Since then, the movie has been slowly making its way west, opening Friday in Los Angeles. (Koch Lorber Films will release the film in DVD on July 8.)

At the heart of Chop Shop is a12-year-old Latino boy, Alejandro, who is a full-time resident of Willets Point. When he isn’t steering customers into the garage belonging to his benefactor, Ron, Alejandro is learning how to paint cars, running parts from the junk yard, selling bootleg DVDs to customers and M&Ms to subway riders, Alejandro’s constantly on the lookout for a used canteen truck. He hopes it will someday provide steady work for him and his 16-year-old sister, Isamar, who’s just shown up in Willets Point.

Minus the violence that shaped the 10-year-old protagonist of Hector Babenco’s, Pixote, Alejandro could be that character’s American cousin. Indeed, until he discovers Isamar is turning tricks to supplement her income from the job he found her, he is the kind of bright and resourceful kid viewers will want to put in their pocket and take home. Fearing he no longer can fill the father-protector role, Alejandro becomes desperate to make enough money to discourage Isamar from hooking. That sense of desperation leads Alejandro to commit crimes that aren’t so forgivable.

Bahrani never intended for Alejandro and Isamar’s story to become a vehicle for Dakota Fanning and whichever Culkin boy is reaching puberty at the moment. A recognizable child star couldn’t help but divert an audience’s attention from the film’s admiration for its unique setting, diverse population and cinema-verite texture. After a citywide search, he turned to novices Alejandro Polanco, a Dominican, and Puerto Rican Isamar Gonzales, both whom attended the same school and were familiar with each other.

Although much of the dialogue and interaction in the crowd scenes smacks of improvisation, Bahrani insists that everything was scripted and thoroughly rehearsed. Polanco spent six months hanging out at the “Iron Triangle,” where the locals came to assume he was the subject of a documentary. He also was able to make as much as $30 for a few hours of work, steering business to the shop owned by co-star Rob Sowulski, a dead-ringer for Paul Teutul of American Chopper.

“I liked Alejandro immediately,” Bahrani said. “As an actor, was tough, resilient, intuitive and flexible. Isamar had protected Alejandro’s sister in their school, so they already were comfortable with each other.”

The closeness of Bahrani’s relationship with his young stars – together with the already intimate nature of indie filmmaking – prompted performances that would be considered extraordinary, even if they were turned in by an Oscar nominee.

“A familiar Hollywood actor would have changed the focus of our movie, drawing attention away from everything else in the Iron Triangle,” Bahrani added. “As much as I wanted to be like a big brother to them, I had to be careful not blur the line between being their friend and being their boss. I had to remind them that making this movie was work, and not everything would be fun.”

Bahrani was born in North Carolina and raised there by immigrant parents, who left Iran before the Islamic revolution. He studied film theory and history at Columbia University before going with his parents to Iran, where he stayed for the next three years. He spent some time in Paris, before returning to New York and making Man Push Cart.

“I found those three years in Iran to be formative,” Bahrani said. “The experience re-trained my eyes to look at the things around me.”

If the Iranians he met bore any hostility toward him as an American citizen, Bahrain insists he didn’t notice it. Neither was he made to feel uncomfortable by fellow North Carolinians during the 1980 embassy takeover. He does acknowledge, however, that traveling with an Iranian visa on his passport hasn’t been nearly as easy as it was before 9/11.

Ironically, Chop Shop may prove to be as important as a historical document as it is fun to watch. With the opening of the new Shea Stadium right around the corner, the 75 acres that constitute Willets Point already are being targeted for upscale development and, some New Yorkers hope, a possible setting for events in the 2016 Olympics.

The mayor of New York recently called Willets Point “the bleakest place in New York” and “another euphemism for urban blight,” as if the same couldn’t be said about mixed-use community dominated by garishly lit chain hotels, shopping malls and movie megaplexes. No matter, the Iron Triangle has been a target of outrage and derision for as long as motorists have been getting into accidents.

Students of 20th Century literature and The Great Gatsby might recall that F. Scott Fitzgerald located George Wilson’s garage and Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s sign on the edge of a barren Valley of the Ashes – now Willets Point – halfway between the Eggs and Manhattan. That, alone, could qualify the Iron Triangle for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and save the funky industrial park from extinction.

May 30, 2008

– Gary Dretzka

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon