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“Copaganda,” Herzog and Punisher Comics: Ramin Bahrani on 2nd Chance

Dec 13, 2022

Richard Davis in Ramin Bahrani’s 2nd Chance

Richard Davis achieved redneck nirvana. The crude and quotable subject of 2nd Chance, Davis transformed in the 1970s from bankrupt pizzeria owner to small-town kingpin after inventing the bulletproof vest. The phrase “redneck nirvana” had a particular meaning for him: It meant he could suddenly afford to buy anything at the local KMart. Success soon unleashed his inner manchild. Davis devoted his leisure time to blowing shit up, burning through wives and producing straight-to-VHS movies that valorized police violence.
“Redneck Nirvana,” it turns out, could serve as an alternate title for a film about Davis, a larger-than-life figure whose story offers a cartoonish portrait of America at its most violent and juvenile. 2nd Chance marks Ramin Bahrani’s debut as a documentary feature filmmaker. Between his work as a director of fiction features (The White Tiger) and episodic television (The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey), Bahrani has directed two previous doc shorts: Lift You Up in 2014 and Blood Kin in 2018. 2nd Chance draws on his pointed interviews with Davis and the man’s cache of unhinged archival footage. Davis, who’s still alive, shot himself 192 times (often on camera) to prove that his bulletproof vests worked. As the de facto oligarch of Central Lake, Michigan, where he manufactured Second Chance vests, Davis also produced a line of films to indoctrinate police officers with his views on combating “urban crime.” 2nd Chance probes the myth-making and collateral damage of Davis’ ascent to Americana icon. Due to Davis’ near-total lack of introspection, Bahrani colors the film with a host of tertiary characters, including a pair whose reunion ends the film on a note of countervailing grace. 
Bahrani spoke to Filmmaker via Zoom while visiting family in North Carolina (full disclosure: Bahrani teaches directing at Columbia University, where I organized film screenings and events for seven years). Below we discuss the distinctly American saga of Richard Davis, the imprint of Werner Herzog and Joshua Oppenheimer on the film and Bahrani’s plans to “finally” tell an Iranian story with his next feature. I also introduce Bahrani to the phrase “copaganda.” 2nd Chance premiered at Sundance in January and began its theatrical run this week before heading to Showtime in early 2023.
Filmmaker: 2nd Chance and your nonfiction shorts have centered on the lives of rural, white Americans. I’m wondering if you have a sort of anthropological fascination with Americana, given that you grew up as an Iranian in the American South.
Bahrani: I don’t know, really. [laughs] In fact, I’m finishing another nonfiction short now. It’s about 24 minutes and set in rural Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. It’s about people who have no hospitals or healthcare. So if you saw that one, it would only add to your theory.
Filmmaker: How do you think the region has impacted you as a storyteller?
Bahrani: I was raised here in North Carolina, and it was not very diverse back then. It’s become much more diverse as industries have changed. In a way you had a perpetual feeling of being an outsider, but at the same time the people in the South can be very warm. Some say there’s a Southern friendliness that’s not genuine, but I don’t know if that’s true. Sometimes I think it is genuine. The South also has a very good history of storytelling—not just written, but verbal. I noticed that in making 2nd Chance compared to the first two short docs, because [in those films] the people were very good storytellers. They’re animated, funny, charming, and in Michigan people were a little more reserved. I had to find more people before I could get the stories that I wanted, because sometimes people were so reserved in how they spoke.  
Filmmaker: That does sound very Midwestern.
Bahrani: We got a lot of “yes” and “no” answers. Going back and pushing, though, we found some incredible people for the film. It just took longer. I was really moved by a lot of the people who spoke in the film, and at times very disturbed. 
Filmmaker: Your films have often focused on stories of unfettered capitalism, whether 99 Homes or The White Tiger. Were you drawn in part to Richard’s story for this reason? 
Bahrani: I was interested in a lot of things about Richard, including this search for the American dream. It was a rags-to-riches story, which is a very uniquely American thing. His story reminded me of the Arthur Miller play All My Sons. That deals with a father and son; the father makes a business decision that results in pilots in World War II losing their lives. Of course it’s Arthur Miller, so it’s a moral and tragic story, whereas here there seemed to be a lack of that moral center. It’s like a more modern version of that Arthur Miller tale. After there’s a tragedy, the family just moves forward to a new and more prosperous company. That also seemed very American. 
Filmmaker: Richard Davis’s propaganda films are really extraordinary, both as time capsules of their era and portals into his mind. Would this doc exist were it not for the trove of archival you had to work with?
Bahrani: I probably wouldn’t have made it. When I saw the amount of archival available of Richard shooting himself, then I started to look at eight hours of movies he had made, which as you said are part propaganda, part marketing, part broad humor, part megalomania—if I hadn’t seen all of that, I’m not sure I would have said yes to doing the film. When I saw all that, I was like, “My god, that’s probably a third of the film right there.” It was so bizarre, rich, frightening—a time capsule, a way into his mind.
Filmmaker: I know we call a lot of things “copaganda,” but these films were quite literal copaganda.
Bahrani: I’ve never heard this term. 
Filmmaker: Something like Law & Order. Media that somehow elevates the role of police in society. Richard’s films seem like classic cop propaganda because the films are selling a worldview.
Bahrani: Listen, he published a magazine called Sex and Violence. In that way, I like [his humor] because the film is, at times, quite funny. He understood film as a marketing tool. There are other of his films, though, that are just really fascistic in their beliefs. 
Filmmaker: When we met at an event earlier this year, you said you’d cut some material from the film about Richard’s more extreme political views. I’m wondering what those views were, and why you decided to cut those moments from the film. 
Bahrani: I don’t really want to say what they are. You already get enough of a sense of his beliefs in the film, many of which I find personally repugnant. I’m conflicted because I also kind of liked Richard. Maybe this is also what drew me to the film—his heroism, his bravery. I like that when we showed up at his house he always offered us mac and cheese and cookies and chili. I don’t think he was doing it to sway us into making a better film in his favor. But I also don’t agree with most of the things he believes in. Some of the things he said are just an exaggeration of those same beliefs. We just didn’t know where or how to use some of that stuff. 
Filmmaker: Were you afraid of Richard coming off as too repellent of a lead, that people wouldn’t want to spend 90 minutes with this man?
Bahrani: Maybe, yeah. I certainly went back and looked at the Errol Morris film Mr. Death to see what was in there. Before I went to Michigan, I talked to Richard’s son Matt who appears in the film. A very smart businessman, very educated. He really wanted to know what we were coming there to do. I told him I’m interested in Richard’s story; it is not a vanity film. I think he thought, “Oh wow, a movie about how great my dad is,” and that’s not what we’re doing. I said, “We will ask the hard questions that you already know we’re going to talk about—Zylon, the policeman that died. I’m curious about other things about him: What he dreams about, what’s inside his soul. These kinds of more character-driven questions. I’m not coming to make a takedown movie.”
Filmmaker: There are moments where you press Richard on subjects that he clearly doesn’t want to talk about. Did Richard ever threaten to stop participation?
Bahrani: No, he would either just stop talking or give the same answer, which I’ve described as a wall of cognitive dissonance. He could not accept the facts even if there was documentation. He would just insist that it did not happen, or that he was the victim or the hero of his stories. Either he was the hero or, in the case of this crazy story about the fireworks—which killed a man and someone lost an arm and a leg in front of their children—he would blame China. It was suddenly somehow an unknown factory in China using fireworks to slaughter Americans, and Richard happened to be at the center of it. 
Filmmaker: Did you ever have a fear of re-traumatizing some of the subjects in the film? Several of them are recounting some of the most painful moments in their lives.
Bahrani: No, not really. You give someone the opportunity and the choice to do something, and at that point either they want to do it or they don’t. For example, Clifford Washington wasn’t sure if he wanted to be in the film. He’s an important character who comes very late in the film. He eventually accepted. He’s recounting a story from almost four decades ago, but it seemed as if it were still on the tip of his tongue. He’s still feeling those moments. He’s the man who shot Aaron Westrick, and it seemed he needed to meet Aaron to release that burden he’d been feeling all those decades. It’s interesting, as soon as he did, and they talked for a few minutes, he was ready to leave and he left. I think he let go of what had been burdening him, then he just wanted to go.
Filmmaker: There’s been increasing talks of having therapists on set for nonfiction films. Do you think something like that would be beneficial?
Bahrani: I guess everyone would make their own choice. I think the session is with the camera, anyway. 
Filmmaker: There’s an argument to be made that the bulletproof vest isn’t a deterrent to gun culture, but an accelerant, because it further contributes to the arms race that Richard seems obsessed with. Do you believe that? 
Bahrani: Honestly, no matter how much research we did, we could not find any proof that there was a correlation between better body armor and more militarized bullets and police. It happened, obviously. The police are more militarized, bullets are more deadly, but we couldn’t find any report or expert that could say “Due to bulletproof vests and body armor, this accelerant happened.” We talked a lot about it because we wanted to say something like that, but we took it out because I didn’t really have any proof to say those things. What’s not in the film are two inventions that Richard talked about. One was for erectile dysfunction. More brutally, he invented a bullet called “Thunder Zap.” He made it with this guy who appears in the film briefly, Bruce McArthur, his buddy who was an ammo maker. When [a Thunder Zap bullet] would go into your body it would rip you apart from the inside. I thought this was such a weird contradiction that Richard, on the one hand, was making better body armor and also making the most deadly bullet ever conceived. 
Filmmaker: Could those bullets get through a vest? 
Bahrani: Oh yeah. He discontinued them. There’s a report of what they did; it was terrible. It became such a kind of lore that they appeared, including the name “Thunder Zap,” in The Punisher comic book.
Filmmaker: Who’s definitely a kind of right-wing hero at this point.
Bahrani: Something like the comic book Dirty Harry. Execution-style justice. It was hard not to include this in the film, but it always seemed like a digression. 
Filmmaker: I know you’ve long been friends with Werner Herzog, and I can feel a touch of him in 2nd Chance. Your questions, for example, are often less straightforward and more abstract. How do you think he’s influenced your nonfiction work?
Bahrani: I love his movies—fiction, nonfiction, however you want to describe some of them. What I like about them is their probing nature into character and larger themes rather than just [being a] factual document. So whenever possible, I’m trying to see what’s going on inside these characters, rather than just “Tell me the story.” At the same time, it’s not a verite-style doc where I’ve followed these people for months on end. I like those kinds of films very much; it’s harder to do when I’m busy making fiction at the same time. You’re trying to get in there and get to the core of something very quickly with someone. I like asking questions that throw people off a little bit. Often people are prepared with what they want to say. “We’re coming to talk to you about this subject,” but when you flip the subject, it opens them up to a different part of who they are. 
Filmmaker: I can’t help but notice that, aside from some very early films, you’ve stayed away from telling Iranian stories. Has that been a conscious decision?
Bahrani: I’m writing one now, actually. I’ve been working on it all morning. Finally, I’m working on a fiction story with Iranian characters set in America with my same creative partner, Bahareh Azimi. 
Filmmaker: What inspired you to tell an Iranian story now?
Bahrani: It was before the protests or revolution, however you want to describe it, were going on right now in Iran. It came out of personal things a lot of us are dealing with: the diaspora of our parents who were the first ones to emigrate, the age they are reaching and what it’s like for us to witness that because they have no home. We’re kind of lost in these exile spaces. Part of the reason it was always hard to make [Iranian-American films] in the past was that there was no one to act in them. I would talk to friends of mine like Zal [Batmanglij], who’s a really good filmmaker: “How come you didn’t make an Iranian film?” Our answer was always, “Who’s going to act in these films?” Fifteen years ago there were so few Iranian actors, but now there’s more in the new generation.
Filmmaker: We’ve talked about the political situation in Iran over the years. What are your thoughts as you see the footage of protesters right now?
Bahrani: It’s very inspiring and also very horrifying. Some of the bravery is unbelievable. I hope within the country they manage to take it to a better place. I fear for the foreign interference from neighboring countries. As usual, the West meddling in Iran would not be the best thing. 
Filmmaker: This being your first nonfiction feature, I’m wondering how the production experience compared to your fiction work.
Bahrani: In a way, it’s less taxing physically and procedurally; there are just fewer people involved. But in terms of imagination, you’re really stepping into some unknowns because you can’t write anything in advance. Having to reinvent your imagination of what the movie is as you’re shooting it, all the time. Probably the main structure isn’t going to change dramatically while you’re shooting a fiction film, but in this film it was constantly changing. When I encountered Richard I thought, “My god, the movie is not at all what I thought it would be.” Then when I learned about Clifford Washington, suddenly the movie had a different ending. How would I have written that? Working with the editor was also very different—Aaron Wickenden, a great doc editor. Working with him and with Joshua Oppenheimer, who talked to us about several cuts, was a new way of working that I had not experienced before and enjoyed very much.
Filmmaker: The role of the editor seems very different in particular. 
Bahrani: Every morning and night we would talk about ideas. Aaron had a lot of ideas, and Joshua really helped us. He highlighted what he really loved and what he thought we didn’t need to do. He said, “Don’t try to make a rise-and-fall story.” We still had in our head that this was a rise-and-fall story. He said, “That doesn’t even seem to be what you’re interested in,” and he was right. Hearing from him about what he loved in the film gave us the confidence to go in that direction.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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