Written by Denis Faye
Let’s say you make a little indie movie about a crack-addicted teacher, and it becomes the toast of Sundance. Then it goes on to win a plethora of other honors and finally gets nominated for an Oscar.
You’re golden, right? It’s time to cash in, Hollywood-style.
Apparently not, if you’re writing/directing/editing/producing team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who segued the success of Half Nelson not into a big mainstream paycheck, but rather into Sugar, an even more obscure film about a minor league baseball player in the Dominican Republic.
“We had this idea for Sugar long before Half Nelson came out,” explains Fleck, “so it’s not like we had people knocking on our door with offers or anything. We were just pushing ahead. In the meantime, we have done some rewrite work and that’s fine.”
So no Boden/Fleck popcorn flicks for us. Their rewrite work so far has leaned toward young adult, coming-of-age stories, so we won’t see their take on the Transformers 3 in the multiplex in the near future.
“I don’t think someone sees Half Nelson and then they’re like ‘Oh my God! Huge action movie! They’re the perfect team for it!’ says Boden dryly.
Added Fleck: “Yeah, it’d be a crack-smoking Transformer.”
Recently, the team talked with the Writers Guild of America,West Web site about Sugar, why you don’t need to “write what you know” and how, surprisingly, 19-year-old Dominican baseball player actors can be tough to come by.
Photo: © 2009 Sony Pictures Classics
Algeniz Perez Soto in Sugar.
I was thinking about the old adage, “Write what you know.” You two seem more about, “Write what you’re interested in.” Do you agree?
Anna Boden: I think that’s absolutely right. It’s great to write what you know, but it’s also such an interesting part of being filmmakers to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and learn about other people who we’re really curious about. So, that’s definitely part of our process and something we really enjoy about writing.
Ryan Fleck: When we start out, we don’t know much about the subject, but by the time we’re writing, we do know. We investigate and we learn. We become educated on the people and the subjects.
What about you two is actually in Sugar?
Ryan Fleck: People ask us about the connections between this film and Half Nelson because they don’t seem obvious on the surface, but they both have characters that are struggling to understand how they fit into the world and make sense of their surrounding and do something good for themselves and the world they live in.
So that’s you?
Anna Boden: No, I think we definitely can relate to Sugar in his trying to make sense of his place in the world and what he ought to be doing and pursuing one thing your entire life and then being at a point in your life where you have to start reflecting on that. It’s part of growing up. I think that’s something we really related to in the character, and I think that’s something that’s in the script.
Are you baseball fans?
Ryan Fleck: I am, but Anna is not really.
So, Anna, did that matter to you when you embarked on that subject matter? Did you become a fan as you were writing this?
Anna Boden: That’s not the thing that I was attracted to about the script. I didn’t approach it as a baseball movie. I approached it as a unique immigrant story, as a coming-of-age journey. The baseball elements were just a vessel and another thing for me to explore. But any time we had anything happening on the field, it was always in an effort to reveal something about the character and where he’s at in the moment, how the game is affecting him and how he’s affecting the game. That made it much less about the baseball for me and more about the characters.
When you cast Algenis Perez Soto, did you have to rework the script so he could do it, given he’d never acted before?
Anna Boden: The only thing we reworked about the script was specific language, and it wasn’t so he could do it. It was using him as an expert because he was the same age and from the same town as the character. We used him as an expert on language in terms of the Spanish translation and making sure that everything was modern and colloquial and made sense in terms of that particular character. We wrote the script knowing that we were going to be casting a non-actor, knowing that there aren’t a lot of famous 19-year-old Dominican baseball player actors to look at for this role. When we write for people like that, we tend to write them shorter chunks of dialogue so they’re not giving soliloquies. It’s not Hamlet.
What’s your writing process?
Ryan Fleck: Once we come up with an idea together, we throw out all kinds of ideas, we brainstorm, and we come up with a very loose outline. And then we’ll separate and write alone and share pages and rewrite together.
When you’re actually writing the physical script, is it pretty free and loose because you have a shared vision and you’re going to keep working on it through the process?
Anna Boden: We’re open to being flexible about things shifting as we go location scouting. But in a way, it makes us more specific in the writing because we know we’re going to be directing it. A lot of the places we’re imaging are places we visited during the research and hope to be actually shooting in.
Has Sugar widened how people perceive you as a creative team?
Ryan Fleck: Now it’s all sports. We get all the sports movie offers.
Ryan Fleck: No, I’m kidding. We’ve had a couple, but I think we want to continue to do diverse material if possible.