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Capturing an Honest Car Salesman

How do you explain what it is like to live in Detroit to someone who has never been here?

Jeffrey DeChausse spent six years trying to answer that question.

DeChausse is the filmmaker behind “American Auto, a car insurance story”, a documentary about Tom Rose, Brent Charnock and their used-car lot in Wayne, a suburb near Detroit. The lot, which sells inexpensive cars to people largely down on their luck, is located just a few miles from where the first Model T rolled off the assembly line.

It was a strange ride, filming a movie about cars during one of the worst periods for the automakers in their history. As DeChausse worked, General Motors' stock dropped from about $58 a share to less than 14 cents. (The bankruptcy came after filming had completed.)

DeChausse started the film while he was working in Chicago, driving the five or so hour between the two cities to visit Tom at the dealership. DeChausse was an advertising man, doing the creative work for huge companies that produced everyday products like soap and beer. The office setting was depressing to say the least, DeChausse said.

“I needed to be in touch with people,” he said.

To escape the hum-drum of it all, DeChausse signed up for a documentary class. (Film, it seems, is in his blood. His dad was a television man, working for Channel 62 in Detroit; they grew up in Warren). DeChausse had that “A-ha!” moment when he saw “The Saleman,” an internationally revered film made in the 1960s by directors Albert and David Maysles. The movie follows four salesmen as they try to sell Bibles door-to-door. A light bulb turned on in DeChausse's head.

“Making a documentary is like a dance. It's about building trust. You have to find the connection between two people,” DeChausse said.

For his first major work, DeChausse thought about following a white rapper (really!). Then, he consulted his brother, who also works at a car dealership. The boys' club mentality plus the challenge of selling a product seemed like an ideal setting for a film. His brother put DeChausse in touch with Tom, and the cameras began to roll.

DeChausse admits he struggled with what the story should say. He would practically bang his head on the steering wheel on every drive home. But then he fell in love with the people he was filming, and he realized the story doesn't have to hit you like a Tom Cruise thriller. Rather, it could be a long stroll through the life of a simple used-car salesman and the city he lives in.

Much of the film centers on how Tom passes the time waiting for customers. He keeps an eye on the lot while shooting the breeze with his co-workers, traveling saleswomen, anyone who comes through the door of his tiny office. He's got a mouth on him, hence the “R” rating. He checks out the female customers, many of whom he calls “Sweetie.” He heckles his staff. He rants at the camera. Repeat. (By the flim's end, Rose buys the lot from Charnock.)

Yet Tom is a good guy. He reads the Bible. He keeps his moral compass positioned right, trying hard to sell the right car to the right person. The goal, he tells the viewer, is to be able to stay honest, maintain a business and be able to sleep at night.

“I saw so much of Tom in myself,” DeChausse admits. “I don't want a house on the ocean; neither does he. He just wants people to think he's a good guy. He's trying to create a place where he feels good going every day.”

Tom is not a complex character – it seems he too is driven to succeed because he himself does not want to work in a traditional office. You cannot help but pull for the guy, hoping he can sell enough $1,000 beaters to keep the lot going. He may trip up a lot, but at least he has a soul at day's end.

Strangely, Tom's business thrives when the economy is sour. More people need cheap, semi-reliable cars when their money gets tight. So, Tom is still out there, chugging away and trying to earn a living. DeChausse said Tom is eagerly awaiting tax-refund season this year.

DeChausse is doing pretty well for himself these days – he is now making films for a living. He works in Los Angeles doing commercials and the like. So, are there any differences between Detroit and La-La Land?

“There is a sense of calmness to the people of Michigan,” DeChausse said. “Every day I wake up in LA, I remind myself to be a Midwesterner. I don't want to be afraid to talk to people. That's a reality here. …

“There's something about the energy of the people there, their spirit. People love Detroit, no matter what.”

Check out the trailer for the film at DeChausse's Web site. A formal screening will take place in LA next month and there are plans to show it locally in March. More to come!

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