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Focus from London Fest on Sugar: Interview with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck released their first feature, Half Nelson, in 2006 to critical acclaim, popularity and awards. Their next film, Sugar, is a beautifully realised study of the American Dream seen through the eyes of a talented young baseball player from the Dominican Republic.

Sugar is a coming-of-age story and an immigrant story set in the world of American baseball. How did you come up with it?

RF: Well in the United States, boys grow up being obsessed with baseball, and I was one of them. For most of my life, I was a big baseball fan. And I thought I knew a lot about the game, but only recently did I learn that every major league baseball team has their own private academy in the Dominican Republic where they sign players very cheaply in order to bring them over to the United States, come to the minor league system and eventually, hopefully, some of them become big-time superstars.

We became curious about all the thousands of athletes that go through that system, and maybe they’re lucky enough to make it to the United States, but what happens to the ones that don’t quite make it all the way to the big leagues and where do they go?

AB: Which is the huge majority.

The film felt as if it had done its homework. How much research did you do into that world?

AB: We did a lot of research. We started off reading as much as we could and once we got money to help fund part of our research stage, we flew down to the Dominican Republic and visited about a dozen of these academies, we talked to hundreds of players who were either in the academies or had been in one of these academies and hadn’t made it. You’d meet one person and they’d drive you around to meet some other people… We’d literally be driving to houses of people we didn’t know, knocking on the doors and asking if we can talk to people. It’s such a welcoming community of people, and they really want to tell their stories so, over time, between flying down to the Dominican Republic and travelling in the Midwest and going to some of the American leagues where these Dominican players were playing, we just learned so much ourselves. And the process of casting, because we didn’t cast actors, we cast all non-actors and baseball players out of the Dominican…

Like Half Nelson, Sugar depends on the strength of its central performance. How did you find your lead?

AB: We just talked to six hundred guys, you know. We pulled up to baseball fields throughout the country and took a video camera and asked if people wouldn’t mind talking to us… And in the process of trying to find somebody who had that compelling thing about them, that made them exciting, made you want to talk to them, made you want to look at them, we were also learning a lot about peoples’ experiences because we were just getting to talk to all these kids about playing baseball and what they’re lives are like and what they’re parents are like, and getting all these stories in the process. So it served us dual purposes… It was really exhausting and took a lot of time, but we found him and he was number four hundred and fifty-two.

It’s a really compelling performance by Algenis Perez Soto, with the character spending a lot of the film finding a voice, quite literally. He had never acted before?

AB: No, and he’d never even thought about it.

RF: He went to the Ryan and Anna internment acting class…

AB: We gave him movies to watch. The movies they get down there… They get a lot of American movies but they’re almost like a different medium from what kind of movies we’re trying to make so when he’s thinking about an actor, he’s thinking about, you know, Vin Diesel and Fast and the Furious, or whatever it is, he has this idea about what acting is. We had to kind of school him, show him some Taxi Driver. Movies that totally blew his mind, and I’m not sure that he necessarily appreciated it as art, but that got him to understand what a different kind of acting could be.

The film is set in three distinct locations, putting the story within quite specific contexts. How important were these places to the film?

RF: Yeah, it was hugely important. We definitely wanted to contrast the landscapes that we had, so we had the very tropical setting of the Dominican Republic. Then Baseball teams have spring trainings in Florida and in Arizona, either one or the other, and we could have set it in Florida but we thought that’s too similar to the tropical setting so we put it in Arizona where you get that flat desert landscape and then contrast that with the cornfields in Iowa, which are completely different – lush, green, rolling hills. And then, finally, with the concrete New York City, and the skyline there. It’s just I think every place has its own really unique look to it, and that was hugely important to us to get a sense of the scope of this guy’s journey.

AB: Right, and how that mimicked the emotional scope, you know.

The film touches on racism and religion in these places. Did you plan to address these issues or was it more organic than that?

RF: Yeah, I think rather than address them, I think every step of the way we just tried to depict the reality of each community, and the reality is based on research. The Dominican Republic is a hugely religious place. Whether they go to church every weekend – actually most people don’t – but they all talk about God in their every day conversations.

AB: You know, part of their language, everything is, ‘God wills it’ at the end of the sentence, or ‘Thanks to God’ at the beginning of a sentence, and it’s just part of the fabric of their community.

RF: And so even though this kid grew up with a spirituality to him, he goes to Iowa, and there’s a completely different way of filling that spirituality, the way the community revolves around religion is a much different way, and so it feels alien to him even though it’s sort of the same religion. That was interesting to us.

You are developing a distinctive visual style through both features. What are your influences?

RF: You know, it’s quite hard to say. There are definitely movies that we still love that were a big visual influence on Half Nelson, like Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries, and I think there’s an emotional influence, there’s something those documentaries achieve emotionally, that we still try to keep in the picture even if Sugar isn’t that visually related to a Barbara Kopple documentary, I think there’s still an emotional core developing. This is a much more formal movie visually than Half Nelson, and we’re still a pretty low budget movie, so we didn’t have all the tools, say, that Scorcese had in Raging Bull, but we definitely looked at that movie, looked at how he made the boxing sequences, tried to take a little piece here and there. Friday Night Lights has a very real approach to shooting sports…

AB: Friday Night Lights, even though it’s super slick. We use definitely two distinct visual styles in the movie and it was articulated as we were talking to our DP. It was very clear when we were shooting it like we shot Half Nelson, when he’s at home in his village and hanging out with his friends, everything’s very loose. Because we used the same DP on Half Nelson, that’s how we approached it, let’s shoot this like we shot Half Nelson and then, when we’re in the academy and everything’s much more rigid, or once we get to Iowa and things are less organic, we started to use this more formal style, and then back in New York, it’s handheld again and a little bit more comfortable.

Half Nelson was such a highly acclaimed debut. How hard is it to follow something like that?

AB: We’ve never felt any pressure about it until people started asking!

So, now for the third feature…

RF: Yeah, now we’re screwed!

AB: We never over-thought it. We wanted to make this movie the way that we wanted to make it before anybody had seen Half Nelson. But now, as we’re starting to talk to more people about it, we do get asked that question and it makes me a little nervous about the next! I’m a little nervous…

It’s great to have created such high expectations! How important are film festivals to your work?

RF: They’re great. We really love travelling to film festivals, we get to go to places… I’d never been to London until we came here with Half Nelson and that year, in 2006, we went to a lot of film festivals in the United States, but also throughout Europe. It was just great to go to places, I’d never really travelled much in my life until we made that movie, so we’re just looking forward to doing it again, seeing things and talking to people about the movie, getting different reactions around the world.

Do you find reactions to your films change in different places?

AB: Definitely. We haven’t brought Sugar to that many places, so we don’t know with that yet, but with Half Nelson, depending what country we were in, people thought the ending was total cop-out Hollywood bullshit happy ending, which shocked us because in America we showed people the film and people are like, ‘Why does the film have such a depressing ending?’. Totally different world views, you know. We brought it to Vienna and were told that our main character needed to die for his sins! Which was not the kind of reaction I was expecting to get anywhere, but definitely not a reaction we would ever get from the United States, or even London.

You must have some pretty good cultural insights by now…

AB: Somebody should do a study. Just bring around Half Nelson, show it to a bunch of people from different countries and somehow map out the social psychologies!

Are you hoping to see anything?

RF: We have a bunch of stuff we wanted to see actually, we’ve got to catch up on movies…

Katy Fife, BFI
Video Interview from AFI


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