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In Depth

People In Film | Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden

First Meetings

Oakland-born Ryan Fleck and Boston-raised Anna Boden, writer-directors of It’s Kind of a Funny Story, met in 1999 on the set of a student short. At the time, Fleck was attending NYU Film School while, uptown, Boden studied film at Columbia. The two became a couple and, after Fleck went to Sundance with his NYU thesis film, Struggle, they decided to make a film together. Have You Seen This Man? was their first collaboration, a 2003 18-minute documentary short about an oddball artist/businessman who sold sundry items of negligible worth (a cracker, a thumbtack) across New York. The short premiered on PBS and was later broadcast by IFC. Of this period — and the next project that would consume them — Fleck told Filmmaker magazine, “After I graduated from NYU, I was doing just about anything to stay afloat. Then I met Anna, who was finishing up her undergrad work at Columbia University. We made our first documentary short, Have You Seen This Man?, and then we made another documentary in Cuba about hip hop music. At the same time I was playing around with this Half Nelson idea. Anna was giving me all these notes and her thoughts on it, and so we just started writing together at some point.”

Gowanus, Brooklyn

When Fleck and Boden finished the script that would become Half Nelson, originally set in Fleck’s hometown of Oakland, they soon realized that they might not have enough on their resumés  to convince financiers to back the film. Their story of a drug-addicted teacher and his friendship with a concerned African-American girl would take great performances and a sure directing hand to pull off. So, to convince potential backers, they transplanted their story to local New York and told it in a short, Gowanus, Brooklyn. Fleck, who directed the short, told Filmmaker Magazine, “We made the short as a tool to gain awareness for the feature. We shot it in the style very similar to the way we wanted to do Half Nelson. We ended up using the same lead actress, Shareeka Epps. And it worked out — we got into Sundance.” Commented Boden, who scripted the short with Fleck as well as edited it, to New England Film, “We had no resources to film it the way we wanted to — on film and as a feature — so we shot it as a short, on video for 800 dollars…. [We] kept the same mood, characters and tone of the longer piece.” Gowanus, Brooklyn won the Short Filmmaking Award at the Sundance Film Festival and immediately made the duo filmmaking talent to watch.

Half Nelson

By the time Boden and Fleck raised the money needed for their first feature, they had bonded deeply with their characters. Commented Boden to New England Film, “Living with the script and the characters for four years was invaluable…. We knew the heart of the film, even if a shot or an exact line changed; we knew the emotional center of the film." For Fleck, during this time the movie crystallized into a tale capturing a sense of post-9/11 civic frustration. Speaking to Filmmaker magazine, he said, “I was trying to get active politically but feeling totally powerless. That was where the seed of the character came from, this guy thinking he’s grown up, feeling like he needs to make a difference in the world somehow, and the more he tries, the more he kind of fucks things up. It comes from that emotion, that feeling of total frustration and powerlessness.” Shareeka Epps reprised her role from Gowanus, Brooklyn as the preternaturally wise student and Ryan Gosling stepped into the part of the drug-addicted teacher. During production, Fleck and Boden honed their collaborative way of working with more resources and a bigger crew than their short. “I’m on the set all the time,” commented Boden to New England Film. “We shot list together, we make all the decisions together. And when I’m editing, he’s in the editing room a lot.”

The Oscars

Half Nelson premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival to immediate acclaim. In Variety, Dennis Harvey hailed Gosling’s “terrific performance” and noted that the “scrupulously low-key drama builds to a powerful impact.” The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis called it “the rarest of marvels,” going on to pinpoint the political themes the filmmakers worked hard to express. She wrote, “But what makes Half Nelson both an unusual and an exceptional American film, particularly at a time when even films about Sept. 11 are professed to have no politics is its insistence on political consciousness as a moral imperative.” The film was released in the Fall of 2006 by ThinkFilm, which promptly launched an Oscar campaign for Gosling. Gosling and the film were rewarded when the actor was hailed by the Academy with a nomination for Best Actor. As for Boden and Fleck, they went back to work. Having quit their day jobs to make Half Nelson, they just wanted, as Boden told New England Film, “to sustain ourselves as filmmakers.”

To the Dominican Republic and Back

For their sophomore feature, Boden and Fleck picked subject matter that was both unlikely and accessible. Working in the classic American genre of the baseball movie, they traveled to the Dominican Republic to tell a neorealist tale of a player lured to New York by the dreams of joining an American team. While Fleck had directed Half Nelson himself, with Boden co-writing and editing, they decided to acknowledge their deeply collaborative process by sharing the directing duties for this next film, Sugar, which was financed by HBO Films’ now-defunct low-budget division. And as they had done in Half Nelson, the duo figured out how to enrich a simple, human story through a precise capturing of social environment. Said Boden to The Reeler, “We're following a very personal story -- kind of a coming-of-age story, kind of an immigrant story, kind of a baseball story. It's all those things. But as writers, we're really interested in not just the personal journeys people go through, but how their social contexts influence them.” Sugar, wrote Brandon Harris in In These Times, “may be the best American sports movie and the most touching immigration saga of the decade.” In the New York Times, A.O. Scott raved, “It is both sad and hopeful, but the film’s sorrow and its optimism arise from its rarest and most thrilling quality, which is its deep and humane honesty.”

Back to Brooklyn

For their third feature, Boden and Fleck have returned to their hometown borough of Brooklyn for It’s Kind of a Funny Story. It’s their first film based on another’s material — Ned Vizzini’s young adult novel about a depressed teenager who finds himself within a mental hospital. For producer Kevin Misher, Boden and Fleck were the perfect choice to write and direct. He said, “What this team did in [their earlier features] Half Nelson and Sugar was to take a world that a general audience may not be privy to, and give it a verisimilitude.” Comments Vizzini, “Right from the get-go it was clear that Ryan and Anna understood the book. They considered things in the story that I hadn’t. The script became this beast that they built, and I was so pleased with the results.” With this third feature, the filmmakers are discovering for themselves patterns in their moviemaking. Says Boden, “I think that we’re interested in people who have an opportunity to reinvent themselves. Teenagers have to reinvent themselves, because that’s what you do when you grow older, but even the characters in our movies who aren’t teenagers are going through a transformation.” Adds Fleck, “Anna and I were drawn in by this kid who is earnest and wants to get better and – so importantly – is open to the world around him…. We tried to make a movie that we would have wanted to see as 15-16-year-olds.”

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