Co-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden carved out a niche for themselves within the indie filmmaking community, releasing three features at regular two-year intervals from 2006 to 2010. Indeed, “Half Nelson,” their debut after a clutch of short films, was the kind of first go-round that any aspirant director might dream of. It was critically lauded as a serious-minded, socially conscious character piece on the one hand, and a launchpad for Ryan Gosling into a new, high-profile, Oscar-nominated “oh he can actually act,” phase on the other. Follow-ups “Sugar” and “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” received mixed receptions, but there has always been a sense of the pair being most at home with character-led dramas in that groove of low-budget, independent films that give character actors a chance to flex their muscles. Their latest collaboration, “Mississippi Grind,” which played at Sundance this year (our review) was different, as Fleck told us (Boden was back in LA having recently had a baby) when we spoke with him recently during the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
The loose-limbed ’70s-inspired down-at-heel gambling tale, which stars Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn, took longer than their other features to come together, and in some ways may be the last of its type from the pair. Here’s Fleck talking about the changing indie filmmaking landscape and its effects, as well as about the movie, starting with Mendelsohn’s (stellar) involvement and contribution.
I just spoke to/was totally charmed by Ben Mendelsohn [that interview will arrive soon], and he mentioned basically trying to seduce you guys into giving him the role of Gerry…
Really? If that’s the case it worked incredibly well and it was a very easy seduction…
Ah, you were an easy lay?
Ha, yeah! Anna and I met with Ben about this part years ago. We were meeting him for the first time and it was sort of last-minute, a general thing. I guess I didn’t know I was being seduced but that’s totally what happened, because he was so charming, so unique, so bizarrely fascinating that Anna and I — and this never happens — at some point just looked at each other and just smiled and nodded and offered him the part. Which I don’t even think we had the power to do.
Usually it’s like we leave and we talk about it and we’ll get back to the actor’s people… but we were just like no, this is the guy. This is the guy. And I think he knew it after that and he called when we were at the airport on our way back to New York, leaving this like 5-minute-long voicemail talking about the role and Anna and I are putting it on speaker, going “Wow! I think he actually wants to do it!”
But of course that was a long time before you actually started filming.
Yes. I think that next year maybe or not long after, Ben Mendelsohn’s name and face alone will be able to trigger significant financing. But at that time people didn’t really know who he was outside of Australia. He was just kind of that interesting character actor who popped up every now and then. So it wasn’t a slam dunk, but then thankfully Ryan Reynolds stepped up. And he is a movie star, he did trigger the financing. And he’s also terrific.
But also it’s how different they are that lends a particular flavor to the film. Did you find you had to negotiate their contrasting approaches?
Really there wasn’t much negotiating to be done. Ben is so loose and different from take to take that I think any actor who’s working with him just has to be on their toes — that’s the joy of working with him. For an actor, but also to watch as a director — because he helps us learn what the movie is even about. Sometimes it’s oh, this is what this scene was about and I didn’t even know it till I saw Ben find it and Ryan react to it. And Ryan did a terrific job of keeping up with Ben — once Ryan realized what Ben was doing he was like, “I can play this game too, and they kind of just one-upped each other in a way that I think works beautifully.
The film does have a looseness to it that comes from you as directors giving the actors space to find their own rhythms — that’s a very unusual thing, especially nowadays.
Well, I’m glad you think so. It’s the kind of movie that we like to watch as moviegoers. And we don’t only get to watch the finished thing, we get to see everyday how it got made — it’s like the ultimate film geek fantasy. Like we’re living a behind-the-scenes DVD extra.
You obviously share so much in taste, how does your working partnership with Anna [Boden] work?
We only talk through our attorneys.
Heh, no, we’ve been close for fifteen years. When we first stared she was a Columbia undergrad doing some school documentary project, and she asked for my help because I’d done the NYU thing, and so we were feeling this thing out together. And these were just silly short films we made back in the day, but we learned a lot from making those, about how to work together and get past our own egos. And now, fifteen years later we have a total shorthand and a trust and respect for one another.
Do you split up the duties on set as some other directing pairs do?
We don’t split it, it’s all very fluid. There might be an occasion where I’ll be like, “No, I got this,” there might be another scene where that works for her. Any conversation that’s happening between takes is usually just a technical thing. Basically in pre-production Anna and I have had all the debates, all the discussions, we kind of anticipate everything that could come up, so by the time we’re shooting there’s really little discussion. We trust each other to handle it.
And does that extend into the edit?
That’s one area where Anna does more because she is the editor. So she’s in the cutting room, putting together the first cut and I’ll come in in more of a traditional director/editor relationship after that point. It’s similar but reversed at script stage — I’ll start cranking out the first draft, and she’ll come in and start to give it some shape as we go. But I’m usually the one in front of the computer writing.
So I found a way into the film when I realized how much gambling was part of Gerry’s worldview — he’s trying not just to read the room, he wants to read the world. Like it’s a way to assert control over chaos, almost instead of a religion. Did you come to the story with a theme like that in mind or was it the world of gambling you were drawn to and the characters emerged?
God, I wish it was. What you just described is very interesting and I wish I could talk more on that — I’m fascinated too. I bet Anna could talk through that better. But no, really I think it started with the locations, with the world, not a philosophy.
When we were shooting “Sugar,” in a small town in Iowa that was right on the Mississippi river, they have these riverboat casinos, that are not the glamorous Las Vegas casinos that we’ve seen in big movies. They’re pretty depressing, sad places filled with really interesting characters and we thought there’s something here. Like a “Fat City“/John Huston thing, a really interesting Americana. I guess “Fat City” is to “Rocky” what we are to “Casino” or maybe “Ocean’s 11.” So we wanted to make that version of the gambling movie, in these real, down and dirty places, the dog tracks, the horse tracks…
Even the living rooms…
Yeah, we wanted to hit up that world. And we did that trip, kind of in reverse, we started in New Orleans and then went up to Iowa. At first it was exciting — we played poker for the first time, in a tournament, I was the guy at the table that everyone was looking at, because I was doing everything wrong. I had no idea what I was doing, so I wasn’t just playing badly, I was playing wrong, like they were all “no, thats not how you do that…”
“Your cards are the wrong way round”
Ha! Not quite that bad. But close. But as we worked our way through these locations they became more and more the same. You kept running into the same types of people–the everyday gambler.
Like, the rainbow theme in the movie, that came about because the first day of research in a casino in Mississippi, Anna was sitting at a table and she was the only woman and she was eavesdropping on the poker conversation. And the topic of rainbows came up and a guy literally said “I drove to the end of a rainbow once. Wasn’t nothing there.” And how great is that? Without any sense of the irony of what it means to be chasing a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And so we worked that into the movie.
The rainbow is of course the first shot and I so enjoyed the grain of that shot, the look. You shot on 35mm, with your regular cinematographer Andrij Parekh.
We’ve made all four of our movies on film, Andrij is a huge proponent, and I don’t know that we’ll be able to make another one. Just after we finished shooting the lab we used in New York stopped processing film, so there’s only one left, in LA, maybe one in London… So I’m really glad we could do this ’70s-inspired movie and have that real film grain, not the electro-added grain.
Because of the way movies are made now it was assumed we’d be doing it on the Alexa HD. But Andrij was adamant and with mine and Anna’s help, we found a way to convince the financiers that the added costs were minimal for shooting on film. That’s what you were paying extra for — the film developing — you were getting back with the ease of the shooting process. So we were able to work much faster.
That seems counter to prevailing logic about film vs digital.
Well, when you’re nitpicking every little detail… with digital, you’re seeing what the finished product is, right there on set, and that’s when you start to lose a lot of time. You lose time staring at that image trying to make it perfect. Film has a magical process to it. The dailies, and the thing you see on your little film monitor, that’s not the same thing that’s going to be projected. So there’s a magical quality to filmmaking that I think is thematically relevant to our movie too.
It’s a roll of the dice.
Exactly, and we were able to convince the financiers that it might seem a little more on paper, but we were gonna be able to get this done much faster.
It seems paradoxical, though given the “convenience” of digital.
I know, but the people that understand that film running through a camera costs money, the crews, there’s a certain kind of respect for that process. Nowadays when you’re shooting HD people will walk in front of the camera, it can just be rolling all the time — nobody cares. When there’s film rolling through the camera, there’s a heightened awareness of the importance of that moment, from the actors and the crew. It creates a much more old-school respectful atmosphere for the process.
And it’s romantic.
So your next project may not be on film. Speaking of, what is the status on “Hate Mail” a project that seems to have gone dormant?
It could come up again in some form. We had Philip Seymour Hoffman attached to it at one point and sadly that went the way it did…
And is the reason it’s off the table mainly due to Hoffman’s death?
That was particularly troubling, but really we started to put that film together when it was just different time for financing movies. It’s a big movie, sort of like a “Short Cuts” — a big New York City movie, and when we started writing it we perhaps could have made it. But by the time we’d finished the landscape for film financing had become so specifically star-oriented and it became very frustrating to try and do something so big and yet so intimate. Not many people are interested in financing that. I mean even with Philip Seymour Hoffman, they were like, “Well, ok, great but which part is Brad Pitt gonna play?”
And how about those rumors you were attached to “Guardians of the Galaxy”? Was there any truth to that at all?
No! None! That was one of those weird things. Craig, my agent, sent me the link that was saying that with a kind of “Did you know about this??” and I was like “What? No, did you?” So then a retraction was put out on whatever website, but then in the comments section — which I don’t normally read but I happened to here — they were all like “Yeah, likely story. They couldn’t book it so they’re covering their asses.” And I’m like, no, wait! That’s even worse!
But a move into that big-budget comic book territory, is that something you’d like to do?
I’m not opposed to it, I honestly just don’t know much about those movies, or the comics.
That’s a dangerous admission, these days.
Yeah, I mean, I don’t wanna say anything negative! Because who knows. One day when those are the only movies getting made, I’m going to need a job. So I’m not shutting anything down, but I am not aware of what it would be.
You’ve been doing a fair bit of episodic TV for other people’s shows, how has that experience been and would you think about creating your own TV project?
It’s just an excuse to keep the directorial muscles in shape and work with new actors, and to get outside the vacuum of your own process — and I haven’t worked on anything I’m not fan of. And to see how shows are put together, because, yes, Anna and I have something that we’re gonna try and get made, as creators. But it’s probably not that close to happening, and meantime we’ll do some more episodic stuff and try to figure out what this next movie is. We’re really not sure yet, we could return to “Hate Mail,” or it could be something else.
Finally, you called out “Fat City,” but tell us some of the other direct influences on “Mississippi Grind”
Well, an obvious one is “California Split” the Altman gambling picture, but “Five Easy Pieces,” and “Midnight Cowboy” is probably one of my favorite movies ever made. There’s a core to the relationship in that movie that I think a little bit of that sticks on everything I make — that strange male relationship. “The Last Detail,” and “Scarecrow” is one of our favorites as well. And the original ‘Gambler‘ — obviously we’ve that nod to James Toback in the movie [Toback cameos]. You know, basically all the ’70s Criterion stuff. Especially the BBS Collection — we feel like this movie could slide right in there on the shelf between “King of Marvin Gardens” and “Five Easy Pieces.”
“Mississippi Grind” opens in the U.S. on September 25th, and we’ll have our interview with star Ben Mendelsohn to you soon.