Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck: interview
Time Out talks to Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck about their new movie 'Sugar', a follow-up to 2007's 'Half Nelson'. Just don't call it a baseball movie...
You would think that any distributor who decides to release a baseball movie in the UK is as canny and in-touch with transatlantic sporting interests as the US distributor with his eye on a genteel film about cricket or bar billiards. Yet ‘Sugar’ – the latest work from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the pair whose ‘Half Nelson’ earned Ryan Gosling a Best Actor Oscar nomination in 2007 – manages to bridge that divide. It feels reductive to call ‘Sugar’ a baseball movie, lumping it in with such slabs of misty-eyed Americana as ‘Field of Dreams’, ‘Bull Durham’ and ‘The Bad News Bears’. Despite being a detailed account of an ace baseball pitcher’s rise through the ranks, from his slum village in the Dominican Republic to a professional team in Iowa, Boden and Fleck’s film uses the sport to tell a different story, one about ethnicity, social mobility and the immigrant experience in the US.
‘We became really interested in this world, because we knew there were a lot of Dominican players in the Major Leagues, but we didn’t exactly know why,’ says the softly spoken Fleck. ‘We discovered that every major team has an academy in the Dominican Republic where they can sign players for much less than they can an American one coming out of high school or college. I mean, what’s it like for these Dominican immigrants to come to one of these small towns where no other people speak Spanish? And be expected to perform to such high expectations? We became interested in that experience. So more than a sports or baseball movie it’s about a hugely unique immigrant experience. An outsider pursuing the American Dream.’
The outsider that Fleck is referring to is Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos played by newcomer Algenis Perez Soto, an up-and-coming pitcher who, despite a yearning to become a successful player, becomes conflicted about the things he wants from both his life and his career. It’s an impressive performance, generous and lively, but one that doesn’t give too much away. How did the pair come to cast Soto in the lead?
‘With great difficulty!’ says Boden. ‘It was probably the hardest part of making the film because we realised that there weren’t going to be that many 19-year-old black Dominican actors with great baseball skills. In the end, we went over there and found someone ourselves. We just pulled up in a van to a bunch of baseball fields with our video camera and said: “Hey, does anyone want to talk to us about being in a movie?” Most people came and talked to us. They didn’t all understand what the hell it was we were doing there, but it’s a very welcoming country, thank God. We interviewed about 600 of these guys and Algenis was number 452.’
It’s an unexpected and exciting choice of project for Fleck and Boden, who refused to capitalise brazenly on the commercial success of their debut by moving on to something more mainstream. ‘After “Half Nelson”, it didn’t really feel like we could do whatever we wanted creatively,’ says Fleck. ‘Even when we went to Sundance with “Half Nelson” we already knew that we wanted to make “Sugar” next. We had an outline for it, it just needed a little more research and for us to crank out a script’.
Though many have accused Sundance of pandering to celebrity whims and courting more conventional cinematic fare in recent years, the festival has been a key component in disseminating positive word about the directors’ work. Does Boden enjoy the festival? ‘Sometimes it can get a little overwhelming and stressful and I think there are certain expectations that people develop, especially if you’ve had success there in the past. The bidding wars over films as soon as they're screened are just totally insane.’
Have the pair ever been found themselves in the centre of a bidding battle? ‘No, not yet.’ Would they even want to? ‘Probably not.’ In a world where the Hollywood machine, big-name actors and unadventurous narrative structures mostly set the agenda, if the pair keep making films of the delicate tenor and subtle intellectual richness of ‘Sugar’, there won’t be many high-rolling studio execs knocking on their door any time soon.
One of the elements that the pair have carried over from their debut is the fascinating, ultra-realist characterisations they employ to tell their story, ambiguous individuals who are not easily pigeonholed as either heroes and villains. ‘We do make a concerted effort to make sure that we value and respect our characters,’ says Boden. ‘Even if it’s just a small side character, we make sure we understand him before we start making the movie.’
As well as displaying a clear-sighted focus on character, ‘Sugar’ also works as a film which offers insight into a sporting system which has no real feeling for what its players want. Baseball is presented more as a production line than a form of entertainment. ‘When we think of stories, we try to tackle the social and political context,’ says Boden forcefully. ‘We don’t see it as an advocacy film, in that the institutions are going to see it and are going to change. But there are advocates for these Dominican players who are working within these camps and they have made huge strides forward. I think that they are realising that these players are going to do better for them if they’re armed with a certain amount of knowledge. For many years they were given no support at all, and a lot of players didn’t live up to their potential. I think things are being done and I think things continue to get better, but I don’t know if our movie is really going to have an impact on that.’
Author: David Jenkins
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