When approached to adapt the story of Richard Davis and the Second Chance body armor company into a dramatic film, Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, The White Tiger) was instead compelled by Davis’ own filmmaking to make a documentary instead.
Bahrani’s new film, 2nd Chance, made its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The documentary chronicles the story of a bankrupt pizzeria owner, Richard Davis, who invented the modern-day bulletproof vest. To prove it worked, he shot himself nearly 200 times at point-blank range, before launching a multi-million-dollar body armor company.
Davis became a popular figure among police and gun owners in the U.S., filming himself testing the effectiveness of his vests by shooting himself on camera. But the story of Second Chance, the company, also includes a recall of its products, the death of a police officer while wearing one of the company’s vests, and conflicting accounts with Davis’ story about his life’s work.
Bahrani was approached by factual media company The Vespucci Group, who were planning to make a documentary about Davis, in 2020. The Vespucci Group wanted Bahrani to make a dramatic adaptation of the story, because of the director’s interest in characters who are in search of some kind of American dream, which resonated with Davis’ self-made story. But upon seeing archival footage of Davis shooting himself, and other film that Davis had directed to advertise his vests, Bahrani became interested in making the documentary instead.
“I’ve been wanting to make a feature doc for a while, and when they said they were planning on making a doc, I saw that as an opportunity to have a chance to finally make a feature doc around themes and subjects that I thought would be interesting to me,” Bahrani told Realscreen .
“When I saw all these archives, and I saw the movies Richard had made, they were pretty intriguing. They were funny; they were very disturbing. It gave me the confidence that if I went up there and found the right people, there could be a feature film here.”
2nd Chance premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 22. Bahrani and executive producer Joshua Oppenheimer sat down with Realscreen to discuss the film.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Richard is challenged on the veracity of his story throughout the film. How did he respond to these questions, and what were his interviews like compared to what you expected?
RB: There was something about (Richard) I liked. He was very kind and generous to us. There were so many people we talked to that he had been generous to, that he had been friendly to, that he supported. At the same time, I don’t agree with most of his philosophies and he made some very serious mistakes.
You try your best as a filmmaker to go into stories and subjects with no expectations. That being said, I thought he would be more open to talking about some of the things he had done. There were certain things I didn’t even know until I got there and started talking to him, in terms of revelations that are in the film. There were others I knew already. I knew there was a recall of vests, I knew that a police officer had died. But [there was] his inability to accept certain truths and discuss them emotionally or psychologically, in terms of what it meant to him. I thought I was going to go talk to him about those things and he was going to be prepared, but he wasn’t at all. Either he wasn’t prepared to talk about them or he actually doesn’t, in his own conception of the truth, believe that those things happened, despite evidence saying otherwise.
What was the process like to comb through Davis’ archival footage for 2nd Chance?
RB: It’s called The Epic, which is comprised of shorter films, that (Davis) put together as an eight-hour film. The editor, Aaron Wickenden, and I think we’re maybe the only people that have watched all eight hours. Initially, you watch all eight hours, you take notes, you pull the parts where you’re like, ‘We’ve got to have this in the film,’ and then you’re trying to find places to use it. Joshua was really helpful in terms of encouraging us to find creative ways of using that footage, as opposed to archives from other sources.
Joshua, what struck you about this story that made you want to come aboard as an executive producer?
JO: [Ramin] showed me a rough cut and I felt there was an eloquent, dream-like, ultimately devastating meditation on self-deception, cognitive dissonance, how we [as people] know [when] we’re lying but get swept along and animated by the propulsion of those lies, and therefore come to depend on them and they sort of turn us into who we are. It immediately resonated with me, because those are themes at the core of what moves me as a filmmaker.
I never really had a conscious desire to come on board as anything, I just wanted to see this beautiful film become everything it could be. I remember, my primary feedback to Ramin was, ‘There’s an amazing, profound exploration of humanity in here.’ There was also a tension as there would inevitably be in the first cut of such a film of trying to tell the story chronologically, a more plot-driven piece, and I just said, ‘Ramin, I sense that there’s something deep that’s pulling you, and it’s being compromised by the need to tell the story chronologically.’
RB: Initially, when we went to make the film, based on what the producers had gathered, we thought it was going to be a rise-and-fall story. In the first cut, I was pulled between my interest in characters and the initial conception that was given to me, which was a rise and fall. There was a very long three-hour Zoom call that Joshua and I had, because the editor and I were like, ‘What are we going to do with this?’ There’s a lot of good material, but it wasn’t really working in that first cut. What was so helpful in that call was hearing what Joshua was responding to, and having the confidence to move forward in a way that was not as chronological, and not tethered to the rise-and-fall storyline.
Some major revelations about Richard Davis and his story are revealed throughout the film. What kind of impact do you think this narrative structure, as opposed to more chronological storytelling, will have on audiences?
RB: We started to re-arrange the film with what we had, which was an unreliable narrator. If Richard sat down and told you a story of his life, and then you went out and started asking other people questions and looking at documents from police reports, to speaking to investigative journalists, you would start to unravel that some of the things he was telling you weren’t true. As a storyteller, that just seemed to be a more interesting way of pulling into the film than to tell you everything upfront.
So we started to structure things like that, and it meant just giving moments of foreshadowing that everything is not what it seems. Because in the first parts of the film, there’s still a focus on the incredible thing that Richard Davis did do. He was extremely inventive, he created something out of nothing in his basement — that’s just one of the most American things you could do, like creating the computer in a garage in California. He created this concealable body armor in his basement when he was broke, and he was unbelievably brave to point a gun at himself to prove that it would work. He shot himself and he saved thousands of lives. The first part of the film, in many ways, is dealing with understanding who he is and the incredible things he did. We had to layer into those sections, just enough doubt that you’re wondering, ‘Wait a second, who is this guy?’
With discussions about distortions of the truth so prevalent in recent years, how timely is this film to release now?
JO: 2nd Chance is an urgent film. We live in a time when not only has the media environment and the political polarization of which that feeds led to an erosion of any consensus about what the truth might be, but it’s also led to a disintegration of any consensus of how we might define truth, how we might decide whether a statement is true or not.
There’s characters in the film who are sort of eloquent because they simply have the humility to acknowledge the truth that’s coming right at them, that’s really present and powerful in their lives. There’s something very hopeful in those characters and their presence in the film, and something very disturbing in their disempowerment, which is related to the impunity that the most powerful people in the film seem to seem to enjoy. I feel that there’s a whole question about what is cognitive dissonance when the truth can really be anything we say it is, and when you’ll always find an echo chamber for whatever story you tell yourself that may feel like truth, then you can even create that echo chamber for lies. I think that the film is urgent and timeless.