Screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver know how to get the party started and keep it lively.
Contrary to some art forms, film
does not exist without collaboration. And yet, despite filmmaking being a
collaborative effort, there are few directorial teams working in Hollywood
today. This makes Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the dynamic duo behind “Half
Nelson,” “Sugar” and “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” outliers. Since meeting over
15 years ago at NYU’s TISCH School of Arts, Boden and Fleck have cobbled together
a strong filmography—each film imbued with their signature,
wear-the-emotions-on-the-sleeve style. Their winning streak continues with
“Mississippi Grind,” a road trip movie about two gamblers (played by Ben
Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds) looking for their big break; the one hand that
will allow them to pay off their debts and start fresh. Shortly after the
film’s premiere here at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Boden and Fleck
spoke to RogerEbert.com about the
superstitions of gambling (and filmmaking), the research they did in
preparation for the movie and how their partnership has changed over the years.
From “Half Nelson” to “Sugar” to “It’s Kind of A Funny Story,” what’s the through line in the films you two choose to make?
RYAN FLECK: Through line: you know, I don't know. I see why you would look for it. I'm just looking for it too. That's not our agenda, but if there is one, you could say – this maybe even sounds a little trite – but most movies have someone searching, you know? Trying to figure out what it means to be a human being, and what it means to try and live together on this planet. And we tend to like complicated people that are not easily explained. So if there's anything, I think that's just what we're interested in seeing as filmmakers, and as an audience. And that's also what we're interested in making as filmmakers.
You two started working together in college, ten years ago?
ANNA BODEN: Longer now.
RF: Fifteen now.
AB: We don't want to age ourselves.
RF: Yeah, it's been about fifteen years.
It's a pretty incredible collaboration.
RF: Yeah, there are the Coen brothers, obviously, which are sort of the staples. The Dardenne brothers. And then there's us [laughs]. There are wonderful teams out there, like the "American Splendor" duo [Robert Pulcini and Shari Stringer Berman]. They've been making movies for a little while as well.
Has much changed over the past fifteen years?
AB: I think a lot's changed. I mean, television has really changed a lot, and changed the way movie people think about working in the storytelling business.
It’s changed your thinking, too?
AB: Not that much yet, but I think it's starting to certainly affect the way that we think about telling stories as we have to become more engaged in these long-form serials.
It’s now a viable option where you don't have to sacrifice your voice.
RF: Yeah. It used to feel like, "Eh, TV. What's good on TV?"
SF: Now it's the opposite. It's like, "What's good in the theater?"
RF: Hopefully "Mississippi Grind" will be good in the theater.
Are you two into gambling?
RF: The truth is, we weren't. And in fact, that was part of the impulse for wanting to make this movie, is I always wanted to learn how to play poker. It seemed like a cool thing. Guys that play poker. That's like a manly thing, right? I wanted to man up and learn how to play poker, so that was part of the fun of making this movie, was that we learned a lot about it.
But it seems you both are interested in diving into the darker side of gambling, which is always there but not always explored.
RF: Yeah, there are ups and downs for sure, as those who play poker know. And the more we learned about it, we became interested in seeing how — there are skilled players, there are really good players — but even the best players can play everything right and can be taken down by almost a draw of a random card.
The way your
screenplay taps into the superstitious nature of gambling is spot on.
AB: That's cool. I'm glad you said that. And I'm not a gambler, but I'm very superstitious. A lot of gamblers are, and that's something I really relate to in gamblers. I was deciding what little things I should wear on this trip that were going to make the movie do well or not.
Since neither of you are gamblers, what was your research process like in writing these characters?
AB: You discover the character a little bit as you write, and we weren't writing it based on a specific person. But we certainly did talk to a lot of people and spent time in these places while we were writing the story. I wouldn't say that we did anything based on any particular one, but we drew from a lot of different people we met as we were thinking.
And you two learned how to play?
RF: Yeah. We forced ourselves to — we did the road trip for research, from Iowa to New Orleans. And by the time we got to Tunica, Mississippi, we realized, "We haven't really played poker yet at a table full of strangers." So we entered a sixty-dollar buy-in tournament, and it was the first time I'd ever played.
How was it?
RF: Oh man, I was terrified. My heart was beating. And I still didn't know the rules. So there was one hand where I had two pair, and I was like, "I got this." When do you have two pair? I didn't even realize that that's not even really a great hand. But in any case, I was going all in. I put all these chips in, and people kept raising each other, and this other guy, he turned them over, he had a flush but I didn't even realize what that was. So I'm like, "Do I reach for the chips?” It was so embarrassing.
You should have reached for them just to see their reaction.
RF: (Laughs) No, then they shuffled over to him and I'm like, "What? Do they know the rules here? I got two pair, bro."
AB: I'm pretty sure that I was the one who did that. I’d always understood what the cards meant. I never had a problem with that. I'd played before, but just with friends. I think what I found most interesting and revealing about the process was sitting at a table with these same people for hours. And they're people you'd never otherwise meet and talk to.
All of them have their own reasons for being there.
AB: And also, I think being a female, it made people more talkative than they necessarily were on their own. Because being a female alone at a table, it definitely brought out a …
RF: She did not fit in with this group. She definitely looked like an outsider.