Richard Davis is a complicated figure. As an out-of-work pizzeria owner who then invented the modern-day bulletproof vest, his larger-than-life personality led to marketing campaigns where he’d shoot himself (192 times!) in the chest to prove the quality of his product. His life and career then takes a turn of contradictions and falsities and, in his first documentary feature, Ramin Bahrani speaks to the man and those closest to him to try finding some truth.
Ahead of the theatrical release of 2nd Chance this Friday, December 2 from Bleecker Street and Showtime, I had the opportunity to speak with Bahrani about his uniquely American tale of mythmaking, diving into his first feature-length documentary, unreliable narrators, and the documentarians he looks up to and collaborates with.
The Film Stage: How did you come across the story of Richard Davis, and what was the process knowing this would be your first feature-length documentary?
Ramin Bahrani: Yes, I’ve only done two short docs prior to this. I was editing The White Tiger and it was in 2020. I had one of the first Zoom meetings—of many more that were to come—with Johnny [Galvin] and Daniel [M. Turcan] from the Vespucci Group, who were the producers, and they pitched me Richard Davis as a fictional film. They were going to make a documentary on their own. They were in the process of beginning that, looking for a director and all that. And when I saw the materials and spent a couple of days with it, I got back to them and proposed that I could do the documentary instead. And I was happy when they said, “Yes.”
Speaking to that earlier work: there is a sense of documentary-like authenticity with the characters you are capturing. What kind of experience with that, as well as doing the short docs, helped you prepare for making this film?
Yeah, it’s true. Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo, and 99 Homes all came out of a lot of research—journalistic research, talking to real people, meeting real people, writing for real locations, and people that inspired characters, asking actors to spend time with those people or casting non-actors to play versions of themselves. And I have found that very helpful in it not being such a crazy jump for me to make the short docs and now the feature. Those processes helped me understand how to listen to people I didn’t know. And types of questions you could ask, because sometimes you’re asking questions that aren’t expected, which are very helpful and twist things and turn things into different directions.
And I think I learned in the shortcuts, especially to not talk after you ask a question, even when they’ve answered it––saying nothing for a long time can be very helpful because a lot of times the subjects have other things they want to say and they’re waiting to say them. And you may not know how to prompt them because you don’t know what they’re thinking. And if you stay quiet long enough they’ll just start telling you things. And I think it’s a good way to try to get deeper into their soul.
Speaking of the main subject, Richard: before you did the interview, how prepped were you knowing his character, so to speak, and the kind of persona he puts on? Then as you’re actually doing these interviews, did it change your concept of what the documentary would be in terms of this whole idea of the unreliable narrator?
I didn’t expect exactly the Richard that I ended up meeting. He’s a very complex guy. I would say that I want to stress his invention is kind of amazing, that he made this in his basement when he was a broke pizzeria guy—that he invented the modern bulletproof vest out of nothing, really. It’s kind of amazing and very heroic and brave to test it on himself, point-blank, shooting himself over and over again. So he saved thousands of lives, and he’s also made some difficult decisions in the past. He’s done some morally questionable things. And I thought when I was going there, he was going to be very self-reflective and talk to me about kind of his regrets or things that he did that were positive—things that he wished he had done differently—but he wasn’t actually capable of that. And I was surprised by that.
Initially, I didn’t know what else the movie was going to be anymore because I was talking to a mountain of cognitive dissonance who could not accept certain things. Despite that, I had documents. He would still say no, he didn’t do them. Or when you would ask him to access emotional feelings deep inside of him about things that he had done or how he had treated certain people, he didn’t seem to be able to access it. So then that changed the nature of what I thought the film could be, and I had to lean into that.
And then I realized I needed more people to build out who he was, and the country we live in, what does that mean? I saw Richard as a metaphor for the country, increasingly, and I wanted to have other voices in there that could comment on that or provide different concepts that juxtaposed and contradicted Richard’s philosophies. And so then the cast of characters grew as we went back to Michigan more times to keep shooting people, doing interviews.
Touching on this point of how this feels like a uniquely American story in many ways, with the idea of mythmaking and making sure your persona gets larger no matter the cost. How do you think this film illuminates that idea? You normally don’t get a one-on-one interview with someone to talk through these things and see it firsthand.
Yeah, I was drawn to all of that when I started to learn more about who he was and then said, “I’d like to make a film.” A lot of those things reminded me of my fictional films or subjects and worlds I have tackled in the fiction films, like 99 Homes and Chop Shop, where characters are working within very complicated, sometimes harsh capitalistic systems and complex moral decisions they’re forced to encounter to try to get ahead. And with Richard, I was immediately drawn to the salesman quality in him. I love salesmen. Let’s say the Maysles brothers, let’s say Arthur Miller. I love that kind of character, very American. The rags-to-riches story is also uniquely American. I mean, that’s part of the American dream, right? Anyone could make it here. Even an out-of-work pizzeria guy could become a multi-millionaire—which he did become. And sat next to President Bush and was so important. So all that was so interesting to me.
And then the more we started working on the film and learning more and more, we started to realize that Richard, his origin story, is a violent encounter with three armed assailants. It involved gun shots, blood. It’s a kind of a crazy story that was recreated by the History Channel. We use it in the film. Even that it’s recreated by the History Channel is part of the myth and that this starts to unravel. Yet people still prefer to believe in that myth. Even Aaron Westrick, the police officer who works for Richard and then becomes a whistleblower, even he says he kind of prefers to believe in the myth because no one wants their illusions destroyed. There’s something very tragic and sad when your illusions meet their death. I think that’s also part of the gun- and blood-soaked myth of the American origin that was, again, reflected in Richard’s own life.
One of the threads I like in the film is Richard as an amateur filmmaker. When did you first learn that aspect? And as a fellow filmmaker, what kind of interest did you have in it?
I learned about it very early and I watched his eight-hour epic, which is a collage of all the films he’s made, some of which are propaganda recreations of police shooting criminals and back-and-forth and comedy––some of them brutal and fascistic comedy, which makes it very uneasy to look at. And some of it is just broad comedy. There’s a clip that we didn’t include in the film, but in my mind it’s in the movie because it was in and out, in and out as we were editing. And it was Richard’s reimagination of Little Red Riding Hood. He had a model playing Red Riding Hood. Richard had also a magazine called Sex and Violence to promote his bulletproof vest, so he was very tapped into what he thought his clients would want. And so in his Little Red Riding Hood movie, Little Red Riding Hood is skipping through the forest with her basket and she sees the wolf. And out of her basket, she pulls out a huge shotgun and just blows it away. It was just so nutty and violent.
And so his moviemaking was part of how he sold the product and also how he sold himself. Other than he shoots himself 192 times point blank and filmed it, he has people attacking him with giant samurai swords, he lifts weights, he constantly puts himself with models, he shoots giant guns at slabs of meat. But also, he had a very good sense of humor. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor. And he would also make himself the butt of his own joke in his films. And I think that’s actually part of his charm. That is part of his salesmanship, and it’s also part of who he is. There is something narcissistic in him, and there’s also something in him that is willing to poke fun at himself both. And I think those things go hand in hand, in fact.
You talked about Maysles and there’s also strong Errol Morris or Werner Herzog vibe in this capturing of subjects that are larger-than-life. From your past work, I wouldn’t have suspected such a… I don’t want to say entertaining, but there’s a certain level of salaciousness, a fun way, that you are dealing with both this character study and a conspiracy theory. What are some filmmakers you are drawn to in terms of weaving this structure together?
Yeah, of course. I love Herzog’s films and I know him and we work together on projects. I love Errol Morris films. I knew Varda and I love her fiction and nonfiction. Maysles brothers, Wiseman. God, I watched Salesman again a couple of months ago. It was just it’s so powerful. I watched Harlan County again. I’m shooting a short doc now in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. I drove to Harlan County to get from one character to another, and the character I was going to meet in Tennessee was a miner. So, of course, that night in the Holiday Inn I watched Harlan County again on Criterion. So I’ve always been drawn to documentaries.
I remember showing passages from a very early Wiseman film to my cinematographer when we were going to make Chop Shop and talking to him about how amazing the cinematography is, but it’s just happening in the moment and how could we choreograph that kind of feeling that it was just happening? We tried to do that in Chop Shop, where people would think we had just happened to have been there despite the shots might have been choreographed, and we would look at some Wiseman at that time to do that.
It’s funny, you’re diving into documentary now and I just saw A Couple at the New York Film Festival, which is Frederick Wiseman diving into narrative.
Ah, I haven’t seen it yet but I think it’s coming to the Film Forum.
Yes, this Friday.
And of course, Joshua Oppenheimer was an EP on this film and I love his two films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, and we’ve become friends over the years. He’s actually diving into his first fiction film [The End], which I’ve been helping a little bit, talking with him about as he’s been helping me on mine, and so we showed him the film in post and had several very long Zoom calls with him. And the editor, Aaron Wickenden—who’s a great editor—cut a lot of Morgan Neville’s films and Steve James and other top directors. Aaron was a phenomenal collaborator. He was just great to work with. And Joshua and I with Aaron had some long calls.
Aaron and I, we had a cut of the film. We knew there was something good in it but we didn’t quite know how to what to do with it. I had already broken it into chapters—that felt to me like, always, what the film was going to be. And then Joshua really responded to a lot of the film and proposed certain ideas of what we could do with that. And that was so helpful. And so he became a real kind of guide in a way, a north star in the post. Of course, Werner saw it too and had great thoughts and feedback. With Joshua we just had a lot of calls.
That’s great. I was just talking with the director of All That Breathes, another great doc this year, and Oppenheimer was a consulting producer; he had some very similar thoughts.
Joshua is the strange combination of deep intellect and deep empathy and compassion that you don’t normally find.
You said you were initially approached about this as a narrative film, but after doing the doc, it does feel like one of the stories that’s almost stranger than fiction. One wonders what a narrative film could explore further. Having done the project, do you feel like there is room on the table to explore more?
Oh, yeah. I think the producers are pursuing it. There were several people interested after the premiere at Sundance. I think they’re all looking forward to it. I think something around Richard and Aaron, and then of course Clifford too. I think you could get good actors. There’s a very good story and so I hope they do it.
I don’t want to spoil too much, but there is there’s a very nice touch of forgiveness and kindness toward the end of the film. It’s a really graceful note to end on. How did you go about setting that meeting up and getting the footage?
I never knew that Clifford Washington was going to be in the film. Clifford is the man that shot Aaron Westwick, who’s the police officer featured prominently in the film who worked for Richard Davis and was Richard Davis’ friend for many, many years. And I learned about him more through Aaron and Aaron’s interview. And when I came to know who he was and what he had accomplished in his life after coming out of prison, I just said to the producers, “We have to meet him and we have to just hope that he is eloquent, deep, rich and would say yes.” And not only did he said yes and was all those things, but he was also had a great sense of humor and he provided a real juxtaposition and contradiction to all of Richard’s philosophies. Which Richard is not only so confident about, but there’s truth in a lot of what he says. There is truth in a lot of what Richard says about man’s instinct to kill and to be a predator.
But the moment with Clifford Washington as a human being stands in stark contrast to opposition to that and does give you some sense of hope of what man can be when when he or she is at their best, and I just asked the two men if they wanted to meet one another. They had not met since 40 years ago when they shot each other and they said yes. And then I proposed: would you be willing to meet where you first met at this home that Clifford had been involved in a breaking and entering? Where Aaron responded to the call of the police officer and they shot each other. And they said yes, but I didn’t know what was going to happen. And Clifford ended up being the best late guest for the dinner party than I could have ever hoped for.
I saw this film at Sundance virtually, so it’s been almost a year since it premiered. Have there been any updates in the lives of the people you’ve interviewed? Or any of their reactions to the film?
No, nothing that monumentally new has come up that I’m aware of. Richard and his son Matt saw the film. Matt was very instrumental in the film being made and was very, very intelligent and a very, very good businessman who is separate from his father. You know, we’re not all our fathers. So he has his own business, his own life. I think he responded positively, in fact, to the film. Despite that, it wasn’t exactly what he thought it was going to be. Richard liked the first half more than the second half, I think it’s fair to say.
But I think Cathleen, Richard’s second wife—who at first did not want to be in the film—it was very difficult for her to finally come to terms with revealing all of this and going back into her soul to say these things that had been painful for her. She’s so eloquent in the movie. She sent me a long message and really wanted to be in touch with Brenda, the woman who worked at Richard’s company and had M.S. She was not aware of her story at all and she found that very inspiring and courageous and wanted to be in touch with her. And some of the other subjects responded that they were happy that the story had finally been told and they had a chance to speak their minds.
2nd Chance opens in theaters on Friday, December 2.