Fall 2015

A Good Team

Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck started working together when they were still in film school. With their latest picture, Mississippi Grind, they continue their pursuit of regional stories.


Working It Out: Boden and Fleck agree being co-directors can sometimes require a bit of compromise, but after three features it feels organic to them. (Photo: Marcie Revens)

Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck cover a lot of ground in their films. Their three features together offer rich character studies rooted in regionalism, from Iowa by way of the Dominican Republic in the immigrant baseball drama Sugar (2008), to a New York psych ward in It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010), and down the Mississippi River to New Orleans in their latest film, Mississippi Grind (2015).

The story of a down-and-out gambler (Ben Mendelsohn) and his good-luck charm (Ryan Reynolds), Mississippi Grind was shot mostly in Louisiana, but Boden and Fleck took a small unit on the road to capture a certain small-town America, where bets are placed in backrooms and bars. "It was really important to us in a road-trip movie that you really feel the shifting landscape," explains Fleck. "I just loved that we were able to do that."

Shot on film, the movie is a visual throwback to classic Hollywood New Wave films like Easy Rider and California Split. "We shot it two-perf [two perforations per frame] so it has like a little bit more grain than your average 35 mm film would have," says Boden. "We really fought for that because it is much easier and less expensive to shoot on HD, and HD looks fantastic, but it just didn’t feel right for this movie that was really paying homage to films from the ’70s."

The journey of the film’s characters is also inspired by similar ’70s cinema. "The performances back then had this sort of unpredictable volatility [where] characters can be charming one minute and violent the next, and I think both [of these characters] have those qualities," says Boden.

Fleck’s and Boden’s interest in film started young. As a kid, Fleck was enthralled by the "big spectacle" movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Back to the Future. Boden, on the other hand, was raised on less kid-friendly fare. "My parents were really into movies and took me to [whatever] they wanted to see, so even as a kid, I was going to see some pretty adult films," she says. "I think I was 10 when I saw my first R-rated movie, Stand by Me, in the theater. I still watch that movie today and feel totally moved by it."

As a freshman in high school, Boden talked her way into an upperclassman film and television course in which she was introduced to the films of Robert Altman, a director who inspired Mississippi Grind. When Boden and Fleck met while studying film at Columbia University and NYU, respectively, the two bonded over "anything Altman," says Fleck, as well as other classic ’70s cinema. Says Boden, "When we started becoming friends watching movies together, these were just coming out on DVD. We were seeing a lot of these movies for the first time together, as we were figuring out what we wanted to be doing as filmmakers."

Around 2003, the duo started co-directing documentaries. "I feel like directorial teams aren’t quite as uncommon in documentary," says Boden. The pair then penned the 2004 short Gowanus, Brooklyn, with Fleck directing and Boden serving as editor and producer. After the film screened successfully at Sundance, Boden and Fleck spun the short into the critically acclaimed Half Nelson (2006), which again Fleck directed and Boden produced.

"We wanted that to all feel pretty documentary-like," says Fleck. "We really wanted that vérité doc-style objective look." To that end, the gritty drama, which starred Ryan Gosling as a teacher with a crack addiction, was shot almost exclusively handheld. The camera is on sticks in only a handful of scenes "when there were no actors around," explains Fleck. "These [are] stills of places where we’ve seen [the characters] before, but now nobody’s there, so there’s sort of a lifeless quality."

Winning Hand: Ben Mendelsohn (seated, center) plays a down-on-his-luck gambler who’s looking for better times in Boden and Fleck’s Mississippi Grind, a film inspired by ’70s road movies. (Photo: Patti Perret/A24 Films)

For their second feature, Sugar, a not-so-sweet immigrant drama about a baseball pitcher plucked from the Dominican Republic to play in the States, Boden and Fleck became co-directors. "We were both so much on the same page and expressing the same vision," Boden says. "It seemed like a natural progression for us to start doing every-thing together. We really wanted to focus on the entire creative process as a team."

One of the challenges of the film, which shot in the Dominican Republic, Iowa, Arizona, and New York, was casting the title character, since the directors wanted an experienced ballplayer, not an actor. "We interviewed 500 people off of a baseball field in the Dominican Republic for that part," recalls Boden. Adds Fleck, "We were sort of casting a person to really play a heightened version of themselves."

Boden and Fleck, who applied for a waiver and became a DGA co-directing team in 2009, have learned that tapping nonprofessional actors, which they also did in Half Nelson, requires a certain kind of care. "We rehearse a lot more," says Boden, adding that going off script with non-actors "can feel a lot more stilted and a lot more unnatural, whereas if they feel really comfortable with the words already going into it, then they can just be more natural."

Casting Mississippi Grind was much easier. It took just one look for Boden and Fleck to offer actor Mendelsohn the lead. "We were just so captivated by Ben," Fleck says of their first meeting to discuss the film. "Anna and

I looked at each other halfway through the meeting and just kind of smiled and offered him the part. It was a rare moment. Usually we discuss these things and even talk to our producers and financiers about it."

Instead of vigorous rehearsals to elicit the performances they were looking for, Boden and Fleck decided to prep the actors by having them "spending time together and getting to know one another, hanging out at the poker room and introducing them to that world."

Even the actors’ different styles of working didn’t prove a problem. "Ryan definitely likes to come prepared, and Ben’s a little bit more off-the-cuff," says Boden. "[But] those things really jelled quite well on set and I think made both of them better."

After working on four features, "we’re quite a lot alike in our process," says Boden of their teamwork. "It ends up feeling pretty fluid and pretty much like it would if there were one director."

That’s not to say there isn’t some compromise involved working as a co-directing team. "You give a little leeway in terms of ‘Well, I would have chosen the blue shirt’ or little details," says Boden of the pair’s working relationship. "[We] really conceive together and build an idea of what the inside of the movie is, what its heart, what its soul is. As long as we’re on the same page about what the important stuff is, then those choices we make together we can make separately, and it all feels like part of the same overall [project]."

"It really comes down to trust and communication," adds Fleck. "When we were younger, there was definitely a lot of ego battles that we had behind closed doors where we would really argue over our ideas, but I feel like we’ve gotten past all of that and we’re much more at peace with where we are as artists and individuals."

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