2ND CHANCE

RAMIN BAHRANI PLAYS IT CLOSE TO THE VEST

INTERVIEW
By Connor Dalton
17th September 2023

The story of Richard Davis is truly stranger than fiction.

In the late 1960s, the then-pizzeria owner began developing what would become the modern-day bulletproof vest. He was convinced he had something, so much so that he started regularly shooting himself to verify his creation's effectiveness. Fortunately, it proved successful, and the vests were introduced to law enforcement and the military. As a result, Davis saved countless lives and became a titan in his industry. But despite the hero status he obtained, things turned sour down the line. Davis soon found himself involved in many major moral and legal problems. In his attempts to innovate and receive admiration, the man determined to save lives began putting them at risk.

Davis' story is now the subject of a documentary titled '2nd Chance'. Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Ramin Bahrani is behind the camera, helming his first feature-length documentary. The duo makes for an ideal pairing. Bahrani has a penchant for telling stories about underdogs striving for the American dream, and Davis slots nicely into that archetype. The film makes for compelling viewing. Bahrani probes deep into Davis' once-almighty empire and does well to manage a man often too eager to sprout tall tales or turn silent when the questions get tough.

Ahead of the film's Australian launch on DocPlay, I spoke with Bahrani about what Davis thought of the film, the famous documentarians who provided their feedback, and who the perfect actor to play Davis in a potential fiction film would be. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This story contains spoilers for the film '2nd Chance'.

CONNOR DALTON: How did you first hear about Richard Davis?

RAMIN BAHRANI: I didn't know about him until the producers of the film contacted me. I was editing 'The White Tiger', it was 2020, so it was the start of COVID, and it was my very first Zoom meeting. They proposed a story of Richard Davis to me as a fictional film. They said they were going to make a documentary about him and would I be interested in the fiction film. As they told me about him, I became interested in him. There was something very American about his story as a salesman and inventor that interested me. And when they sent me the materials, and I saw the archival footage, I thought, "This is a documentary for me, not a fiction film." Then I twisted it to them, and they said yes to me making the doc instead.

DALTON: Could you tell me about your first meeting with Richard?

BAHRANI: Yes. It was very cold, and he offered all of us piping hot mac and cheese. He did this every time we went there. He was always offering us doughnuts or cookies he had baked. I don't think he did this to get on our good side; I think that's just the way he was. I find many of his views morally repugnant, but I admit I also kind of liked him, and you feel that in the movie. The people that he's actually really harmed, many of them still have a soft spot for him. He's a mixture of a lot of things: brilliant, awkward, violent. His second ex-wife calls him narcissistic; it's maybe hard to disagree with that.

DALTON: As we go deeper into his story, some very ugly moments and attitudes emerge. So much so I found myself dumbfounded that he would agree to do this. Do you have any theories as to why?

BAHRANI: I mean, I had a talk with his son before everyone agreed to do the film. I told him, "I'm not coming to make a showpiece for your father," which I think, to some extent, [he] wondered if that's what it was going to be like or hoped for. I said, "I'm not coming to do that, but I'm also not coming to make a takedown movie. I don't want to tear him apart, but I will be asking difficult questions about things he's been involved in. You know what they are: people dying in explosions, a cop's death." The son accepted that.

And I thought I was going there because Richard Davis wanted to unburden himself and discuss the things he had done. But when I got there, I realised it's not that he didn't want to do that - I don't think he's capable of it. I don't think his mind works that way. I think he's unable to access those emotions. And initially, I thought, "What is my movie going to be about? He doesn't even accept the reality of the things that he's done. He doesn't believe that he did them." Then I realised that is the film.

This was actually quite telling and reminiscent of other people in leadership positions. I leaned into that, and then I thought, "I need to widen my circle like how you learn about Citizen Kane through the people we meet in the film." So we started to reach out to people who knew him to try to get the bigger picture of who he was and what his actions meant.

DALTON: On that note, the group of interviewees you assemble are so fascinating, and they add such interesting contradictions to Richard. How was it convincing his son and ex-wives and old friends to get involved? Were they all fairly receptive, or did they require a bit of swaying?

BAHRANI: Yeah, both. One of his good friends, who was a former cop saved by Richard Davis' vest and later became a whistleblower against him in a case involving a cop dying while wearing one of the vests, was on board from the beginning. He wanted to tell his side of the story right up front. The second ex-wife, who's an amazing character and is so poetic in her way of speaking, didn't want to do it at all. It was very hard to get her to the interview. Even when she came to the interview, she tried to leave, then she agreed to stay, then she said, "Only my voice." Only later did she accept that her image could be in the film. And when she saw the film, she wrote me a long letter about how happy she was with the movie and that she did it because she was able to unburden herself.

'2ND CHANCE' TRAILER

Then there were other characters that were surprises to all of us, like Clifford Washington. He's a very late guest to the dinner party. In Richard Davis' eyes, he is a bad man who shot at a cop, and he turns up at the end of the film and really flips the movie upside down. He was never even on our list of people. I'm so grateful that he turned up in the movie because he's quite funny and poignant, and he really takes it in a different direction in the epilogue.

DALTON: You're dealing with some very delicate topics and events. Did that influence your style of questioning at all?

BAHRANI: Not necessarily. There's some questions you have planned because they're about story and plot and details, which are important. But I'm always more interested in the deeper human questions, and some of those I have in mind, but a lot of them just come out of listening. You're really trying to engage with the person; you're trying to listen to them; you're hoping that you'll go into an unexpected place because they're going to places you never thought of. That leads you down a road. You're also trying not to talk because when you ask a question, if you just stay in silence, often people want to fill it, and they'll fill it with things they want to say that never would've occurred to you to ask.

DALTON: I can imagine Richard was a tad trickier to interview. How did you handle his stonewalling and his propensity for fibbing?

BAHRANI: In some cases, as you can see in the film, I just keep pressing him on it, or I present him with documents that say the opposite of what he claims. Other times, I had to stop him because he would go on really out there tangents that had nothing to do with anything, and you had to try to wrangle him. I like him, as I said, but it was difficult. If you asked him a very simple question, 30 minutes later, he hasn't even gotten anywhere near that question - he's just talking about subjects that are not related to anything.

DALTON: This is your first feature-length documentary. I understand you've directed a few shorts in the past, but how did the experience of making this film compare to your usual work in fiction?

BAHRANI: Yes, I've made three short docs. In fact, I premiered a new one at Telluride Film Festival just this past weekend, which I hope you'll see soon. But for a lot of my fiction films, like '99 Homes', which I actually came to Australia to present, that involved a lot of documentary-style research to come up with the story. You're also using documentary-style filming techniques in some of the scenes to create a more real feeling for the movie.

Here, [however], you were constantly thinking on your toes about what to ask. And as soon as an interview's done, suddenly your mind's twirling. You got to tell the producers, "I need to talk to these four people now! How do we get them very quickly?" I also think it's in the editing. You learn how much a [documentary] can change in the edit room. It really pushes the limits of that experience. I was shaping, reshaping, and finding a movie in the edit more than I had experienced before and in a very exciting way.

DALTON: I spied a few famous documentarians in your list of acknowledgements in the credits, including Morgan Neville and Werner Herzog. How did they help you?

BAHRANI: Well, Werner's been a mentor and a friend for many, many years now, so of course, I showed him the film and got some feedback. I don't know Morgan Neville very well, but my editor, Aaron Wickenden, who's an amazing editor, has cut a lot of Morgan's films. So he shared it with Morgan for feedback. And then there's Joshua Oppenheimer, who made 'The Act of Killing' and 'The Look of Silence', who's an executive producer on the film. Joshua and I are friends, and he was very helpful and probably spent the most time with the editor and me on lengthy Zoom calls - as he lives in Denmark - shaping the edit of the film. I found those very insightful and invaluable conversations.

DALTON: Speaking of editing, I like how you break the film into chapters. How did you arrive at that idea?

BAHRANI: I always thought the movie should be told in chapters. At some point, we tried without it just to try it, but it didn't seem to stick. There's so many stories and vignettes from different times of his life, and we didn't want to have just the rise and fall of a man. There were other elements to it, so we tried to break them into chapters - each one surprising and unexpected and sometimes shocking and hopefully funny. Richard Davis is quite funny. He's made some very campy movies and promotional videos that we see in the movie.

DALTON: Has Richard seen the film? If so, what was his reaction?

BAHRANI: Yes, Richard has seen the film. He sent me a lengthy text about it, which said he liked the first half of the film, but he did not like the second half.

DALTON: That's not surprising!

BAHRANI: I have to reiterate that I did like him despite not agreeing with him. And we should say he was heroic. I mean, he did something most people can't do - he invented something. He was ingenious, and he risked his life. He pointed a gun at himself and shot himself in the chest hundreds of times to prove that his invention worked. That is courageous, and that invention saved a lot of people. Now, beyond that, did he do a lot of things that are morally repugnant? Yes, but he was courageous, and I have to give him credit for that.

DALTON: Have the two of you stayed in touch?

BAHRANI: Richard and I? No, not really. I've been in touch a couple of times with his son and with a few other people in the film. We send text messages sporadically. But no, I haven't heard from him since then.

DALTON: There are a lot of cinematic qualities to him and his story. I could see why your producers would want a narrative feature of his life. Do you know if that's still going to happen?

BAHRANI: I think they're still trying to do it. Occasionally, they'll tell me they're working on a script or that a certain actor's interested. I hope it happens. It could be very interesting. Who could play him? Do you know?

DALTON: I thought about this! I'm not sure if his age would get in the way, but I think it'd be perfect for Ethan Hawke.

BAHRANI: Oh, I like him. He just showed a new film in Telluride too! It was quite good. I like that idea.

DALTON: Would you direct the narrative feature, or have you said your piece on Richard?

BAHRANI: Yeah, I think making the doc, you exhaust yourself of what interested you. So I'm happy to participate in some other way, but I like that idea: Ethan Hawke!

DALTON: Feel free to use that idea! I just want to say a massive thanks for taking the time to talk with me tonight. When I was a high schooler, and I really started getting into film, a very fond memory of mine is of my mum, sister, and I watching '99 Homes' on television, so talking to you now has been pretty surreal.

BAHRANI: Oh, wow. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

'2nd Chance' is available to stream on DocPlay from the 18th of September 2023.

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