Ryan Fleck‘s “Half Nelson” was a definite favorite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it quickly grabbed attention from audiences and critics alike. The film features terrific performances by Ryan Gosling as an idealistic yet troubled inner-city teacher who forms an unlikely friendship with one of his students, played by surprising newcomer, Shareeka Epps (who starred in the the short that was the precursor to “Half Nelson,” “Gowanus, Brooklyn,” which Fleck directed.) A relative newcomer on the scene, Fleck has received accolades along the festival circuit for the film, including a screenwriting award at the Nantucket Film Festival, shared with co-writer Anna Boden (who also served as a producer for the film as well as its editor.) In addition to its screenwriting nod, the film received the jury prize for best director at the Philadelphia Film Festival and a FIPRESCI prize at the San Francisco International Film Festival as well as a best actor nod from the Seattle International Film Festival this year. Fleck talks about the frustration that lead to “Half Nelson” and his stint peddling Backstreet Boys merchandise and other jobs along the way to filmmaking. ThinkFilm rolls out “Half Nelson” beginning in New York and Los Angeles on Friday (August 11).
Fleck recently responded to indieWIRE’s email questionnaire. His answers to our questions are published below.
Where did you grow up and what did you do prior and during making “Half Nelson”?
I was born in Berkeley, California, in 1976, and grew up in and around Oakland and the Bay Area. I moved to New York City in 1997 as an undergraduate transfer student at NYU. I’m currently living in Brooklyn with partner Anna Boden (writer/producer/editor of “Half Nelson”). After graduating college in 1999, I worked a variety of jobs around town: sold Backstreet Boys merchandise to teenage girls over the phone for Jive Records, edited commercial directors’ reels, “Entertainment Tonight” production assistant, writer for instructional “Safe Sex” videos. Working part-time and freelance jobs allowed us the time to shoot and edit our own short films (“Struggle,” “Have You Seen This Man,” “Gowanus, Brooklyn”) in our spare time.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker, and what other creative outlets do you have?
I was a big fan of Siskel & Ebert as a kid, so I originally wanted to be a movie critic. Seeing Spike Lee‘s “Do the Right Thing” got me excited about the potential of filmmaking. I have no other creative outlets, though I wish I could play guitar.
How did the initial idea for your film come about?
Not exactly sure. I think it came out of a frustration with wanting to change the world but not having any idea where to start. The character of Mr. Dunne was born out of this frustration, a flawed idealist struggling with his limitations and hypocrisy.
What are your biggest creative influences?
My family, Hal Ashby, Frederick Wiseman, Howard Zinn, Paul Auster, Gus Van Sant, the Andersons, the Bushes, the UC Theater in Berkeley (before they tore it down), John Lennon, Broken Social Scene, Brooklyn, and Anna Boden.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
Allowing other people into our process. Anna and I were accustomed to doing most aspects of filmmaking on our own. We had to learn to let other people do their jobs, which they usually knew how to do better than us anyway.
How did you finance the film?
We met Jamie Patricof (Hunting Lane Films) through our agent, Craig Kestel (William Morris). He and his partner, Alex Orlovsky, were the first producers/financiers to step up and say, “I want to make this film!” He had lots of help along the way, but his commitment was a big boost.
What are some of your all-time favorite films, and why, and what are some of your recent favorite films?
I’m a sucker for movies about uncommon friendships: “Midnight Cowboy,” “Harold and Maude,” “Scarecrow,” “The Last Detail,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Jules and Jim,” “Rushmore,” “Stand by Me.” Does “Taxi Driver” count as an odd friendship movie? Recent films: “Eternal Sunshine” blew my mind. Gus Van Sant’s recent trilogy. I’ve been into a lot of the recent political docs too.
What are your interests outside of film?
History (as it relates to the present). And baseball. Go A’s!
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
Anytime you actually finish a film, I think it’s a success. And to have that film seen and liked by audiences is the ultimate. I just hope to continue making and finishing films. And then get them seen.