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Half Nelson - Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden interview

Ryan Fleck, co-writer and director of Half Nelson

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ANNA Boden and Ryan Fleck (pictured) talk about writing, directing and producing indie hit Half Nelson and its surprise inclusion in this year’s Oscar race.

They also talk about their career so far, working together and what they plan to do next…

Q. Did you think the success of Half Nelson could ever have been possible when you first made your prototype short film, Gowanus Brooklyn?
Ryan Fleck: No.
Anna Boden: We were just hoping that it would get some kind of distribution in the United States, we didn’t really think beyond that, just “please get a distributor”. We didn’t think much beyond that.

Q. Are you indebted to the Sundance Film Festival then, which helped to get the film noticed?
Ryan Fleck: Sundance has been incredibly supportive of this project through every stage, beginning with the short. We won the prize there so they invited us to the Writer’s Lab there, so we already had the script for Half Nelson. They invited us to come and get feedback from other professional writers who we worked with for a week. And that was really helpful and fun. And the feature played there again, so Sundance has been a really nourishing presence for this film.

Q. How important was attracting Ryan Gosling to the part?
Anna Boden: I think it probably had an impact in the fact that it got distributed. It’s already kind of a hard sell, just because it’s not an easily packaged kind of film with a great tagline. And because of that I think it was really important that it had somebody who was at least somewhat recognisable, that had somewhat of a fan base whether it was in the indie community going back to The Believer, or whether it was the 13-year-old girls and 40-year-old housewives that loved The Notebook.

Q. Was he easily persuaded?
Ryan Fleck: It was a big accident, I don’t know how he got a hold of the script. At the time we were looking for the lead for this movie. We had just started the process, and in fact we wrote the role for someone a bit older, we weren’t imagining a 24-year-old in that part. But somehow he got a hold of the script and they [his agents] contacted us saying he was interested. Our first reaction was: “Who’s Ryan Gosling?” And then the second one, after we’d figured out who he was, was: “Is he going to be too young for this?”

But once we met him, and it wasn’t like he was auditioning for us, we just met very casually and thought that there was something about his presence that felt much older about him than his actual 24 years. We thought it worked, that he could be in his 20s as long as it felt like that character had lived through some kind of troubled past, that he had been through something. That was the most important thing, and Ryan definitely feels – when you meet him – like he’s got some kind of secret past that he’s hiding.

Q. Isn’t it true that he really threw himself into the role, moving to New York and meeting with teachers?
Ryan Fleck: That was great. He can command a lot more money for a movie than we were paying him. It was great that he came out and it wasn’t about the money or the trailer or any of the perks that well known actors are used to on bigger movies. It was just about trying to make a good movie.
What was his relationship like with the class?
Anna Boden: I think that his relationship with Shareeka [Epps], his friendship with her, was a very important basis for his character’s friendship with her in the film. They’re still close, and by the time we started shooting they had really formed a friendship and she maybe had a little bit of a crush on him too. But in terms of the other kids in the class, I think there were varying degrees of interest in him.

They weren’t actors, a lot of them, they were just regular kids. It was hot and it was their summer holidays and they could be out playing but they were in a stuffy room with hot lights, hearing the same thing four or five times…
Ryan Fleck: Realising that making movies wasn’t as exciting as it first sounded when they first signed up………..
Anna Boden: Even with the guy from The Notebook! [Laughs]
Ryan Fleck: A lot of them hadn’t seen it. They didn’t get what we were doing and there’s a couple of shots we had of kids sleeping in the class, resting their heads. That was real, you know, we would sometimes shoot it without them knowing.
Anna Boden: One of the actors in the classroom kept snoring, he would fall asleep and start snoring right behind Shareeka. At some point, she would just start cracking up in the middle of one of her takes and we would go, “Shareeka!” and be really annoyed because we didn’t realise what was happening.

Q. Shareeka isn’t related to any other acting Epps is she?
Ryan Fleck: No, we asked her the same thing when we first met her.
Anna Boden: She said “no, but I wish I was though” [in reference to House star Omar Epps]. We met when she was 13 when we did the short film. That was in 2003.

Q. But she hadn’t acted before this?
Anna Boden: No, but she’s good.

Q. Did the fact that she’d already played the same part in your short film give her more confidence?
Ryan Fleck: I think having known the two of us, she felt comfortable making the short film, even though the scale of it was tiny, with a video camera and six people. I think she still knew the process, with “action!” and “cut!”. The fact that she had already gone through that was very helpful when it came to the feature.

Q. Were you ever concerned that you wouldn’t be able to capture the magic of the short in the feature?
Ryan Fleck: Yeah, sure, that’s a fear going into any movie, that the chemistry won’t be right when you’re rolling film and it won’t work. But we could tell after the first scene that we did between Ryan and Shareeka, where she comes up to his car and calls him an asshole and he calls her a bitch. That played after its first take, everybody on the set was like “whoaa”. They knew that this was going to be alright, and that these two had something cool going on.

Did Shareeka help him as much as he helped her – in terms of upping his game?
Ryan Fleck: Definitely, and Ryan talks about that all the time whenever you can get a hold of him. He talks about how it was working with Shareeka.
Anna Boden: She keeps him honest and she kept the other actors honest because if they didn’t say something that was going to make her laugh she wouldn’t laugh. She goes into a scene and doesn’t have something planned out like another professional actor might. One of the great things abut her is that she really listens and reacts. And when you have somebody who’s really reacting off you it keeps you really honest I think.

Q. Would the film have been different had Al Gore won the election?
Ryan Fleck: Absolutely, in fact we talked about that, even if John Kerry had got elected the climate for this kind of movie would have felt a little less immediate, a little less urgent. It’s not like we voted for Bush in 2004, because we were trying to make this movie back then. We actively tried to get Bush out of office. But I remember at one point I thought: “Well, it least it means our movie is still timely.” But I think there’s frustration over Bush’s leadership in the United States, and I think certainly around the world people are finally starting to shift.

Anna Boden: That was an important part, the impetus for writing this character who is just so frustrated with his inability to change things in his own life, but also in the larger picture. In 2004, we’d already written the script so it was a little bit different, but I think it kept that atmosphere, that just when you think it had gotten as bad as it could possibly get it just gets a little worse.

Q. Was the teacher character always so hip, despite initially being older?
Ryan Fleck: The hipster thing [smiles]... I just think that came with casting Ryan Gosling. He’s very much involved with his wardrobe, and the physicality [of the character] is very much him.
Anna Boden: But at the same time, I don’t remember what we said but when we were picturing an older character we were thinking 31, 32, we didn’t mean an 80-year-old.
Ryan Fleck: I don’t think we envisioned him being as hip as Ryan Gosling played him, but it kind of worked with the contradictory nature of his character.

Q. How did Broken Social Scene become involved with the soundtrack?
Anna Boden: When we were writing we were listening to a lot of Broken Social Scene and really loving their music. We felt it had that certain emotion that we really hoped that our movie would have too. So we wrote to it and wrote a scene around it… at least one of our scenes was written around one of their songs. We also played it on set when there wasn’t any dialogue for the actors in the scene, to set a mood. So, then we decided that we should probably ask them for permission to use their music at some point, since we had put their songs, 15 or 16 of them, in our movie. We flew up to Toronto, showed them a cut of our movie with all their music in it and I think they were very sceptical at first.
Ryan Fleck: I think they were offended and flattered at the same time, like: “Who do these guys think they are, putting our music into their movie? It’s a pretty good movie though….” Fortunately they liked it.
Anna Boden: They slowly, despite themselves, let us use more and more music. It was a little bit of a struggle, it’d be like: “But you’re definitely not allowed to use that song, I’ve licensed it too many times…’
Ryan Fleck: Or: “It’s too special to me, I’m not going to give it away.”
Anna Boden: But then we’d get a call a week later, saying: “You know, I thought about it and that scene’s really good with that song.”
Ryan Fleck: Yeah, it’d be: “I don’t want you to ruin that scene, use the song.”

Q. How did you react to the Oscar nomination?
Ryan Fleck: We were totally surprised but hopeful. We knew that ThinkFilm were spending a money on a campaign for him [Ryan Gosling]. But it was all new to us, so we didn’t really know anything about that. We knew that it was very much a long shot, that it had an outside chance of happening, but we were incredibly excited when it did.

Q. Were you at the awards?
Ryan Fleck: I was. It was bizarre, we actually weren’t invited at all. I got a call from our producer, who’s friends with Harvey Weinstein, who’s a mentor to him in some ways. He heard that none of us were invited to the Oscars, because they only gave Gosling a couple of tickets, and those were his for his family, of course. Harvey Weinstein suddenly got offended that none of us could go. So, he gave our producer two tickets intended for him and his wife. Anna and I flipped a coin and I won. So I got to go, and she insisted I go.

Anna Boden: He didn’t want to, he said: “I don’t want to go, that doesn’t sound fun. Aren’t we going to Lynette’s house for an Oscar party?” But I said he should really go and take one for the team.

Q. Are you partners in more than just writing?
Anna Boden: Yes.

Q. Do you find yourselves taking the work home with you?
Ryan Fleck: We don’t have rules about anything like that.
Anna Boden: We work such weird hours, and we work at home, so there’s no separation.

Q. How did you first get together creatively? Was it romantically or through work?
Anna Boden: We were dating first, and I was doing a documentary short for a film class and I just kind of asked him to help me out and hold the microphone, basically. But then he had all these suggestions, about how to edit the film. He started directing everything…..
Ryan Fleck: And I didn’t need you at some point, it was my movie.
Anna Boden: We ended up co-directing that and we liked working together.
Ryan Fleck: I had done some theatre, and I had more of a fiction film background and Anna had been more involved in documentaries, so I worked a little bit more with the actors in Half Nelson and stole the director credit while she was sleeping.

Q. What’s next for the two of you?
Ryan Fleck: We’re making a movie about a Dominican baseball player. It’s a great story set in the United States. He comes to a small town in the Midwest and struggles with the language and the culture, and the pressure of providing for his family back home playing baseball.

Q. Is it based in truth?
Ryan Fleck: It’s not based on one specific person, but yes, it’s based on a very common experience that many, many people have had over the years.

Q. Is there any more pressure on you after this? And perhaps some more money too?
Anna Boden: We’ll need more money to make this film, just because the scope is a little bit bigger. But aside from that it will be pretty much made on the same scale, even though the scope is bigger. It’s a hard sell.
Ryan Fleck: It’s all in Spanish, with no movie stars in it, and set in four different cities. The scope of the film is enormous and kind of risky. We don’t think there’s any pressure because we have already determined that the film is going to fail on one level or another.

Read our review of Half Nelson