Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Auteurs #71: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck

Among the slew of independent filmmakers who had a lot of things to say in American cinema, the duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are among those who emerged from the world of independent cinema in making stories about characters not living in traditional society or dealing with issues that make them apart from the world. Although they’ve made five feature films so far including a massive commercial hit with Captain Marvel that is part of the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. The two haven’t strayed from their ideals to tell stories about real people whether they’re from the fringes of society or part of a cosmic world.

Both born in 1976, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck both met at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts where they were film students. Boden was Newton, Massachusetts while Fleck was from Berkeley, California as the two both had similar interests in film before they met. It was through the films of Robert Altman that they bonded as they became collaborators where Boden helped Fleck finish a thesis film. After finishing NYU, the two would make a few documentary short films that would eventually lead to a narrative feature entitled Gowanus, Brooklyn that starred an unknown in Shareeka Epps who plays a young girl that befriends a school teacher struggling with drug addiction. The 19-minute short film would be shown at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival in January of that year where it won a prize and gave Boden and Fleck the chance to develop their first film at the Sundance Writer’s Lab.

Half Nelson

Inspired by the work they did on their short film Gowanus, Brooklyn, Boden and Fleck uses their time at the Sundance Writer’s Lab to expand the story into a feature film as it would explore this unlikely relationship between a drug-addicted school teacher and one of his students in the inner city. Boden and Fleck would expand the character Drey who had been portrayed by Shareeka Epps in the short as she would reprise her role for the film while the film would explore a man struggling with his addiction as well as help this young girl who is poised to embark on a bleak future as he grows concerned for her well-being. The script would attract the attention of Canadian actor Ryan Gosling who had just gained attention for his performance in the 2004 romantic film The Notebook as the film would mark a different path for the young actor.

After gaining funding for the film with a budget of $700,000 as well as a cast that would include another up-and-coming actor in Anthony Mackie as the drug dealer Frank, production began in 2005 in Brooklyn with Fleck serving as director while Boden would take part as a producer and as the film’s editor though she wouldn’t receive credit as a director due to rules from the Director’s Guild of America. With cinematographer Andrij Parekh being a key collaborator for Boden and Fleck early in their career as well as production designer Beth Mickle and costume designer Erin Benach. Boden and Fleck wanted to maintain an element of realism into the story though their attempts to get Gosling to ad-lib wasn’t easy though a compromise was made as it eventually lead to a smooth production and trust between Gosling and the filmmakers. Boden and Fleck would also ensure that they get a realistic approach to the world of drugs as it play into the struggle that Gosling’s character Dan Dunne and the demons he is carrying which would hinder his attempt in trying to have a normal life.

Through Gosling’s suggestion, Boden and Fleck hired the Canadian indie rock band the Broken Social Scene to do the score as it would help set a mood for the film. The film made its premiere on January 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival where it was a major hit at the festival leading to the distributor ThinkFilm to buy the film as it got a limited U.S. theatrical release later that August where the film won rave reviews and grossed nearly $2.7 million and an additional $2 million worldwide. Following a successful home video release with help from Sony Pictures in February of 2007, the film garnered several accolades including an Oscar nomination for Gosling for Best Actor as well as winning three Independent Spirit Awards to Gosling for Best Actor, Epps for Best Actress, and Fleck winning Best Director.


After the success of their first feature film, Boden and Fleck wanted to do a film about the world of immigration in relation to baseball as well as players from the Dominican Republic and how they come into the system in America. Doing research about Dominican players coming to America and never making it to the major leagues prompt Boden and Fleck to create a film about the immigrant experience and how Dominicans come to America with dreams only to face some harsh realities. Retaining many of their collaborators including cinematographer Andrij Parekh, production designer Beth Mickle, and costume designer Erin Benach with Boden getting full credit as a director while also serving as editor. Boden and Fleck also decided to take some risks for the film.

Rather than get up-and-coming actors or someone on the rise, Boden and Fleck turned to casting director Cindy Tolan to get unknowns including Dominicans for the film as the lead role of the titular character is given to Algenis Perez Soto while much of the roles went to lesser-known character actors and other unknowns including Andre Holland as an American minor league player helping Sugar to understand American culture and the game. Much of the film was shot on location in Iowan towns of Davenport and Burlington as it is where much of the minor league system happens as it showcases how young Dominicans had to adjust to their new situations as well as having to learn English and the rules of the game. Boden and Fleck also play into the reality of what happen to those who don’t succeed in the minors and don’t make it to the majors as it adds to the pressure for players to succeed as they know they have a spot to protect. It also play into the pressure of Dominicans wanting to succeeds so they can help their families as Boden and Fleck would shoot on location in the Dominican Republic as well as parts of Arizona and New York City where many Dominican players would be at following their failures at the minors.

The film made its premiere in January of 2008 at the Sundance Film Festival where it was well-received but it would take a year for the film to get a theatrical release as it would be released by Sony Pictures Classic in April of 2009. The film would receive rave reviews and make over a million dollars in the box office due to its limited release. Yet, the film would make the American Film Institute’s list of the 10 best films of 2009 giving Boden and Fleck some clout as filmmakers that are willing to tell stories about people living on the fringes of society.

It's Kind of a Funny Story

With two back-to-back critical successes and some buzz from those films, Boden and Fleck were approached by producers Kevin Misher and Ben Browning about doing an adaptation of Ned Vizzini’s 2006 novel about a teenage kid who checks into a mental hospital citing exhaustion and anxiety over his future following thoughts of suicide. Vizzini’s book was a hit as Paramount Pictures and MTV Films bought the film rights for an adaptation to be made but development fell apart until Focus Features were able to secure the film rights as Boden and Fleck worked on the screenplay with Vizzini’s involvement as he would make a cameo appearance for the film. Retaining many of their collaborators for the film including cinematographer Andrij Parekh, production designer Beth Mickle, casting director Cindy Mickle, and the band the Broken Social Scene in providing the music score. Production would begin in November of 2009 in New York City and Brooklyn where the book was set.

The film’s ensemble cast would feature a group of up-and-comers and established stars as it would include Keir Gilchrist, Emma Roberts, Zach Galifianakis, Lauren Graham, Jim Gaffigan, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis, Zoe Kravitz, Thomas Mann, Aasif Mandvi, and Bernard White. For the production, Boden and Fleck would use Woodhull Medical Center as the hospital where the film is set as well as Poly Prep Country Day School as the school that the film’s protagonist Craig Gilner attends. It play into this need of wanting to succeed and be part of something where Gilner is tasked to finish an application to attend a prestigious summer school program with his father wanting him to attend this program. Boden and Fleck doesn’t just play into people having difficulty with the expectations of society but also unable to live up to what the world wants as well as the ideas of conformity. The film would provide Zach Galifianakis, who is known primarily for comedies, a rare dramatic performance as a man dealing with anxieties as well as uncertainty of where to go after he is to be discharged. Boden and Fleck would also infuse bits of style that has elements of surrealism as it relates to the ideas of depression and anxiety where Gilner would eventually find an outlet through drawing.

The film premiered at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival in September of that year as it would be given a wide release in the U.S. a month later with a release around the world to follow. While the film was well-received for its ensemble and dealing with the subject of mental illness, the film did received mixed reviews with critics feeling that it was lightweight and tried too hard to balance comedy and drama. Commercially, the film was considered a disappointment grossing only $6.5 million against its $8 million budget.

Mississippi Grind

Following the disappointing reaction of It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Boden and Fleck spent the next few years working on various TV projects for work while developing a project relating to the world of gambling. Inspired by trips to riverboat casinos in Iowa and in the areas of the Mississippi River, the film drew upon a primary influence for Boden and Fleck in Robert Altman. Notably his 1974 film California Split that was about two gamblers who team together to win money as Boden and Fleck both decided to borrow that scenario and update it involving two different gamblers in two different directions as they travel through cities on the Mississippi River and eventually go to a big game in New Orleans in the hope to win some big money.

The project was in pre-production and development as early as 2012 with Jake Gyllenhaal attached to play a role with Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn joining the project in early 2013. Yet with a lot of independently-funded films, financing would fall apart as Gyllenhaal left the project in the spring of 2013 until he was replaced by Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds in June of that year while British actress Sienna Miller joined the film in November as shooting began in January of that year with American actress Analeigh Tipton joining the film a week after shooting began. With the exception of cinematographer Andrij Parekh and casting director Cindy Tolan, Boden and Fleck would work with a new film crew as much of the production was set in cities near or around the Mississippi River with New Orleans as the film’s climax. Boden and Fleck didn’t just want to play up into this friendship between two different men where Reynolds’ character is a guy who always win and Mendelsohn is someone who always lose but both realize their worth for another but also have things they want that is more important than winning money. Boden and Fleck would get filmmaker James Toback to appear in a cameo as a famed gambler for the film’s climax as it would play into the fate of the film’s protagonists and what they want in their lives.

The film made its premiere on January of 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival where it was major hit at the festival followed by well-received screenings several months later at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic and at the Melbourne International Film Festival. The film would get a limited theatrical release through A24 and DirectTV in late August of that year where even though it didn’t make much money against its $6 million budget. The film would garner rave reviews from critics who saw it as a return to form for the duo following the mixed reaction of their previous film as it did help raise their profile in the world of independent cinema.

Captain Marvel

Following a break between projects including Boden’s own pregnancy as she had given birth to a child in 2015, Boden and Fleck were approached by studios about helming all sorts of films yet it was Marvel Studios that continued to court them. In April 2017, the duo agreed to work with producer Kevin Feige on developing a film project about Carol Danvers who would become Captain Marvel as part of Marvel Studios’ highly-successful shared film universe known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film had been in development since 2014 as it would be part of the MCU’s Phase Three slate of films as part of the Infinity Saga. While the film would be an origin story of how Danvers went from being a Kree soldier into going on her own as Captain Marvel, the film would be the first film from the MCU in which a female superhero would have her own solo film and origin story.

The film went through years of development that includes a script from Guardians of the Galaxy co-writer Nicole Perlman and Meg LaFauve writing a version of the script that would be re-tooled for years with Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet taking part in shaping the story. It would be when Boden and Fleck took part in the film as they worked with Robertson-Dworet and Jac Schaeffer to write the script as it wouldn’t just be based on the original comics created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan but also Danvers’ own comic storyline by Colan and Roy Thomas. While the script would play with the tropes expected in an origin story yet it is more about a woman who is dealing with images relating to what might be old memories as she finds herself on Earth and discovers more about herself. Boden and Fleck knew that it had a human story to tell but also play along with the conventions of a superhero film. Like many films of the MCU and under Feige’s watch, Boden and Fleck knew they wouldn’t have final cut yet Feige would give them some control in what they wanted to do making the collaboration an easy one.

In 2016, Brie Larson, who had just won an Oscar for Best Actress for the film Room months earlier, was cast in the titular role while the ensemble would include MCU regular Samuel L. Jackson reprising his role as a younger version of Nick Fury and Clark Gregg also reprising his role as Phil Coulson. With the aid of casting director Sarah Finn, Boden and Fleck would reunite with Ben Mendelsohn who would play the role of the Skrulls leader Talos whose shift-shaping alien race would also disguise themselves as humans where Mendelsohn would also play then-S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Keller. Lee Pace would make a small appearance reprising his role as Ronan the Accuser from Guardians of the Galaxy as the cast would then include Annette Bening, Gemma Chan, Lashana Lynch, Akira Akbar, and Jude Law as Danvers’ Kree mentor Yon-Rogg. The film would also feature a cameo from one of the comic’s creators in Stan Lee who would make one of his final cameo appearances for the MCU. Shooting began in March 2019 with a budget of $152-$175 million as it would be the biggest film that Boden and Fleck would make.

Though Boden and Fleck wouldn’t have their regular collaborators on board and Boden stepping back from the editing, the two were able to keep the production grounded as the film would be set in the mid-1990s where Boden and Fleck worked with production designer Andy Nicholson in recreating 1990s California. The film would also mark the first film of the MCU to be scored by a woman as Pinar Toprak would help bring in some orchestral flourishes with the music soundtrack consisting of music from the 1990s. Boden and Fleck also played into Danvers’ lost identity as well as insight into this conflict between the alien races the Kree and the Skrulls that has similarities to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though the film would share storylines that play into other things that would happen for other films of the MCU as well as how Nick Fury would become this somewhat-cynical head of S.H.I.E.L.D. The film would give Boden and Fleck not just a new energy to the MCU but also help introduce a new character that would become crucial to the cinematic universe.

The film premiered on February 27, 2019 in London followed a wide worldwide release a week later as it had so far as of May 2019 made over a billion dollars worldwide with over $425 million in the U.S. alone. While the critical reception wasn’t as high as other films of the MCU or some of Boden and Fleck’s more well-received films, it was still lauded by critics as a fun action-adventure film with praise for Boden and Fleck in grounding the story without emphasizing on visual effects. Larson, Jackson, Law, and Mendelsohn also received great notices as the film would also be popular with a female audience as female-lead superhero films hadn’t been successful until 2017’s Wonder Woman giving Boden and Fleck some praise for giving that demographic another hero to root for.

Additional TV Projects

Like many filmmakers who work outside of the Hollywood film system, Boden and Fleck would go to television not just for work but also to fund projects and go live without having to worry too much about money. Among the TV shows Boden and Fleck would direct include episodes for the shows The Big C, The Affair, and Billions for the pay-cable channel ShowTime. Fleck would direct episodes for a couple of shows for HBO in In Treatment and Looking while he and Boden would write and direct an episode for the horror-thriller anthology show Room 104 entitled Red Tent that would have the duo reunite with Keir Gilchrist who plays a young man trying to create a bomb to detonate for a political rally until an air condition repairman (played by Hugo Armstrong) keeps interrupting him making Gilchrist’s character paranoid about the man’s identity.

Fleck would also take part in directing an episode for ESPN’s documentary series 30 for 30 with Boden as an executive producer in the episode The Day the Series Stopped that was about the third game of the 1989 World Series between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants where an earthquake happened in the Bay Area that would stop the game during that terrible event. Fleck would interview players from both teams as well as survivors as they recall that terrible day in October as he would use mainly footage from not just the game but also news footage from various local affiliates covering the earthquake as the episode which premiered in 2014 was well-received by audiences and critics.

With five feature films to date so far and an upcoming TV project in Mrs. America starring Cate Blanchett as the controversial anti-feminist conservative writer Phyllis Schlafy in the works, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have already created a small body of work that all have to something say about individuals or a group of people who don’t fit in with the conventions of modern-day society. Whether they’re movies set in the inner cities, Middle America, a mental hospital, gambling, or outer space, Boden and Fleck continue to emphasize on bring a grounded realism to their films with characters that audience can relate to no matter how big or small the films are. They make films that are about people who deal with a real world but find ways to make their lives extraordinary.

© thevoid99 2019


Chris said...

Good breakdown of Boden and Fleck's career so far! I'm surprised there aren't more female-male filmmaking duos, though I guess it potentially could be problematic if there are partners at home who are jealous. Half Nelson is the only one of their films I've seen-a powerful story.

Brittani Burnham said...

Great post! Of these I've seen Captain Marvel, Half Nelson, and It's Kind of a Funny Story. I loved the first two while I had issues with the 3rd, but I still enjoyed it overall. I'll be interested in seeing what they do next.

thevoid99 said...

@Chris-They've have a solid body of work so far as I was surprised to learn that they're not a couple though they have dated once and it didn't work out. I think they'd rather be friends and collaborators than lovers. Might be for the best.

@Brittani-I would totally recommend seeing Sugar and Mississippi Grind as they're just amazing films as I'm also eager for what they do next. I'm just glad they got some big success and a big paycheck for Captain Marvel.

Alex Withrow said...

GREAT work. I think they'll always be best remembered for Half Nelson (rightly so) but man, Sugar and Mississippi Grind are really solid films as well, and I love the attention they got here.

thevoid99 said...

@Alex-Thank you. Half Nelson for me is still their best film as I'm glad they're doing well as I hope Captain Marvel can give them some clout so they can get funding for whatever they want to do next.