About The Story
In their American made car, the Singh family is on the road taking the great American family trip – the Grand Canyon. And, like most any father, Anant is pretty certain he can navigate his way through the smaller roads to take in the scenery and avoid the over-crowded interstate.
He was wrong. Their SUV breaks down on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Anant, Indian born wearing a traditional turban, sees this as just another challenge – an opportunity to save the family and tell great stories about their escape from danger. He tries to fix the car. His wife, Nageena, is annoyed. Not only did she insist on taking the interstate, but also she is pretty certain that this will be the last family trip since her oldest son is moving away to New York.
That son, Jagdesh, just wants to get his cell phone to work so they can get some help, get on the road, get the trip over with, and head to Manhattan to start his new job. His brother, Ranjit, is a high school kid, and like most teenagers would rather be anywhere than with his parents. Especially not stranded in the middle of nowhere.
It becomes apparent to Anant that he cannot repair the car. So, he decides to wave down one of the infrequent cars that passes by instead. No one stops. Anant, undaunted, plans to try again. Ranjit isn’t so sure. He says, “Dad, no one is going to stop because you look like a terrorist.”
And so begins American Made, a conflict between a father and a son, assimilation versus identity, faith versus compromise. Entirely on the side of the road in the American desert beneath a steadily setting sun.
This internal debate was the seed for American Made, and Raju easily found real world examples of the xenophobia that swept through the country in late 2001. His Indian-born parents, although having lived in the United States longer than they lived anywhere else, suddenly felt like outsiders in their own home.Although they were American, being “American” now seemed to mean something different, something less inclusive than what it had been. This feeling of alienation was not exclusive to a single race or group.
One community in particular felt this change in the social climate perhaps the most – the Sikh religion in America. Sikh males wear traditional turbans and, as part of their religion, do not cut any of the hair on their body. Many men have long beards while the women have long flowing hair. In late September 2001, a turbaned Sikh man was killed in Arizona in a racial hate crime. His brother was killed months later in San Francisco. Others were abused and countless more were intimidated and threatened. The fear became too much for many, and a significant number of Sikh Americans shaved, cut their hair, and removed their turbans – against the tenets of their faith. Still others became stronger in their faith, determined not to live in fear or succumb to intimidation. Countless felt trapped between both courses of action, unsure of what is best for them and their family.
Against this backdrop, Raju found the story. Thus the character “Anant,” someone who believes in America and was American, but has a visible trait – the turban and beard – that makes him immediately recognizable and “suspicious,” to use the language of the day. Set opposite of him is his son, “Ranjit,” who represents the Americanized version, the counterpoint that assimilation can be good and following the crowd is often necessary. Symbols like the turban are just symbols, he believes. Anant, on the other hand, knows that symbols are important icons of faith. Thus the conflict between two ideologies.
Although not Sikh himself, Raju researched and interviewed many in the Sikh community across the country while working on the story. As a result, he knew that this story had to be told, that it would mean a ot to people of all walks of life who believe in something strongly, only to start questioning their faith in times of stress and strain. Part of the challenge was to make it accessible to the greater film-going audience, most of who wouldn’t be Sikh. Therefore the story does not dwell on its inherent political nature, but instead focuses on the conflict between the father and the son and one man’s struggle to do what he thinks is right.
About the Production
The desert, more than one hundred miles from Los Angeles, a limited budget – everything was ripe for a disaster to bring the production to a screeching halt. No such disaster happened, due to the meticulous planning by producer Marcus Cano. A small army of production staff prepared for what was a challenging shoot logistically. Cano organized a small fleet of vehicles, both for the production and to be featured as picture vehicles. He even volunteered his own vehicle as the hero car. Needless to say, it was in need of a serious car wash once production ended.
Cinematographer Matthew R. Blute worked with Raju in tremendous detail to maximize the fleeting sunlight hours to film in January’s short winter days. Since the entire script is essentially one long scene, the trick was to make everything look like it happened on the same afternoon for the Singh family. Blute and Raju carefully mapped out their shots with diagrams, models, and storyboards. However, the single most important pre-visualization technique used by Raju and Blute was with a video camera. They convinced Cano and other friends and family members to perform the entire script, on location in North Edwards a month before production, while Blute filmed it. The two edited the scenes together and had a “rough draft,” so to speak, of the final film. It enabled Raju to better communicate with Blute and for both to see potential problems and come up with new or better ideas for the final production.
The production team planned to avoid having re-shoots for the film, so as to prevent having to return to the desert and pick up anything in the end. To ensure that, editor Scott Rosenblatt was present on set with an Avid editing system on a laptop. He cut together the images off the wiretap from the camera, making sure that the edits matched and that the scenes were flowing together. Everything worked – American Made did not have to return to the Mojave Desert for pickups.
One of the critical elements of the story was to convince the audience that the Singh family on the screen was actually a family that existed before the camera started to roll and would continue to live after the credits ended. Acclaimed casting Mali Finn searched Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere to find strong actors who could work together and feel like a family. Finn and Raju saw White perform in a play in Los Angeles, and he auditioned for American Made on the first day of casting. Raju knew he was right to play “Anant” and cast him immediately. Finding someone to play “Ranjit” was more challenging. After auditioning professional actors and amateurs alike, Raju cast Te’Amir Sweeney.
The actors rehearsed a few times before production began. However, the most work was done during the travel day on the way to the location. Scrunched into the trunk of the Jeep Cherokee hero car, Raju listened and took notes while the rest of the cast behaved like the Singh family on the way to the Grand Canyon – acting out everything that took place before the actual events of script began. The time spent was invaluable – the cast became a family in that trip.
The cast and crew, housed in the little desert town of Mojave, CA,
developed a family-like bond throughout the production. And despite
repeated aerial drills from nearby Edwards Air Force Base, everything
went relatively smoothly. American Made concluded principal photography
in early February 2003.
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