With a mere two features (and several shorts and documentaries) under their belt, the absurdly young filmmaking team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have distinguished themselves as remarkably uncanny and empathetic artists who can find a whole world—spanning such lofty, weighted topics as idealism, race relations, class, America, sports, and immigration—through observing the lives of their finely wrought, ever-human characters.
They had their breakthrough in 2006 with their feature debut, Half Nelson, the story of an idealistic young Brooklyn teacher, Dan Dunne (played by Ryan Gosling in an Oscar-nominated performance), addicted to crack and falling into a friendship with the wise, wary, and hurting student who finds out. It's a complicated work that turns the inspirational teacher imprint on its head; the limits of good intentions in education are shown through the messy and real choices that the characters make. It's true to life, beautifully filmed, and wonderfully acted.
Boden and Fleck's newest work, Sugar, does a similar switch-up with genre expectations. While it is a baseball movie, following a young recruit from the Dominican Republic as he goes through a camp, spring training, A-ball in Iowa, and beyond, it's not a film that ends up at Yankee Stadium (as much as our main character Miguel "Sugar" Santos would like it to be). Rather, the route that Sugar (played wonderfully by newcomer Algenis Pérez Soto) takes through his beloved sport and career instead speaks volumes about America, opportunities, immigration, and what people go through and the choices they make to survive. It's an extraordinary follow-up, and Sugar is as lost in America as Dan Dunne.
In a recent appearance at the Regency Hotel, Boden and Fleck talked about their research process and filmmaking with a table of reporters. A real-life couple, they're strikingly sincere, earnest, and curious—which is why they're extraordinary filmmakers.
What was the inspiration for this film?
Ryan Fleck: It was actually right before we took Half Nelson to Sundance in '06. I read an article about some sports—I'm a baseball fan—and I had read some sports article that had a sentence about the Dominican camps for the Mets or some team and I didn't know what that meant. I knew a fair amount about the game, but I didn't know what that was, and I started to do a little research and I realized just about every major league team has one of these camps in the Dominican Republic where they sign players and they house them and they teach them a little bit of English in order for them to come to the United States and make money for their teams. We had heard of the big time guys, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, all these Dominicans playing in the majors, but what happens to the guys who never quite make it there? Hundreds of guys go through this process, so we started interviewing them, which led to some research, and that's where the story came out.
You weren't inclined to make it as a documentary rather than a fiction film?
Anna Boden: It never occured to us until we were telling people what our next movie was about. They were all like, "Oh, it's a documentary, right?" It didnt occur to us to approach [the story] like that.
Anna, are you a baseball fan?
AB: Am I a baseball fan? I appreciate the game, but I don't understand the whole concept of feeing good about yourself if your team wins or feeling bad about yourself when your team doesn't win. [Boden grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, near Boston.] So I guess I'm not officially a fan. But I like watching. What drew me to the story more was the American dream aspect of it: this young guy who's going after one thing his whole life, but he's still just so young and figuring out who he is and trying to figure out how his idea of the American dream changes along the way.
Was it a conscious decision to go with somebody who hadn't acted before for the role?
AB: We weren't against—if there had been some 19-year-old amazing Dominican baseball star/movie star, we would've been like, bring it! So we weren't against using an actor at all. It was just kind of what the role required. There was a much huger pool of young Dominican baseball players than young Dominican actors who could also play baseball. We wanted to keep it authentic. Eventually, [we thought] if we interviewed enough people, we'd find somebody who could act, and we got lucky.
Could you talk about the difference in shooting from Half Nelson to Sugar? In particular, what you dealt with visually, like the strong light over the Dominican Republic?
RF: There were a lot of challenges shooting in the DR. We were pressed for time and there's a harsh sunlight that created a lot of problems for our DP, but [shooting baseball scenes in the DR] we ended up laying down a huge white sheet between the mound and home plate so that any time we were in close-up shots there's a lot of reflection between the faces and the ground. In terms of shots, we watched a lot of baseball movies—we watched how they got it wrong—as a baseball fan, I felt like we wanted to capture a part of the game that hadn't been seen in movies before. We watched Raging Bull and those fight sequences for some stuff—there's a feel to some of those subjective sports moments that we were trying to capture.
You seem to be interested in the subject of alientation, in this and Half Nelson, with Sugar being more vast and colorful. How do you approach the subject?
AB: When we were approaching the structure for it—since it's split into four different parts, almost like four short films—we thought about the feel and look of each of the sections and really worked that around the idea of this alienation and isolation. In the first part of this movie—where he's in his neighborhood—we shot it a lot more similarly to how we shot Half Nelson. It's pretty much all hand-held. We tried to keep it loose and put in lots of sound design because there's so much life there. Then when he comes to the United States, we locked things down more in Arizona and Iowa—wide shots—a lot more of him in this space that feels very unfamiliar to him. That's how we approached it from a visual standpoint.
Can you talk about your manner of collaborating? How do you work on a script together and direct together?
RF: We usually come up with an idea, and we throw out ideas, we brainstorm, come up with some kind of very loose outline. Then we separate, write individually, share that work, rewrite together. We usually get out all our arguments at that point. Most of our big fights come during the writing stage, so when we're shooting, we're on the same page. It feels like we don't have any major argument on set. We've made two movies, but they've gone smoothly. And then we fight again when we're editing. Behind closed doors, we argue.
Why should the audience come out and see your film?
RF: Well, there are two reasons. I think sports fans will see an aspect of the game they've never seen on film before. They'll see a real, honest portrayal of the life of an athelete. And there's the other audience, people interested in immigrant stories, and this is a really unique immigrant story—again, one I don't think has been seen before.