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Half Nelson Q & A With Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden


By A Gent - Posted on 08 May 2007

And it has performed beyond their wildest dreams, winning several awards and earning an Oscar nomination for leading man Ryan Gosling.

He plays Dan Dunne, a maverick history teacher in an inner city school who is secretly battling a self destructive addiction. His crumpled idealism and low self esteem are momentarily challenged by a curious friendship that develops with a 13 year old student, Drey (Shareeka Epps).

This unlikely connection forms the basis of a touching and thoughtful story.

How important was Sundance to the development of your film?

Fleck: "It was 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. We already had the script for Half Nelson, but they invited us to come and get feedback from other professional writers who we worked with for a week. That was really helpful and fun. And then the feature played there again, so Sundance has been a really nourishing presence for this film."

How important was the casting of Ryan Gosling in the lead?

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 an easy 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 who loved The Notebook."

Was he easily persuaded?

Fleck: "It was a big accident, I don't know how he got a hold of the script. In fact we wrote the role for someone older, we weren't imagining a 24 year old in that part. But somehow he got a hold of the script and contacted us saying he was interested. Once we met him though we felt there was something about his presence that felt much older about him than his actual 24 years. We thought it could work if it felt like his character had lived through some kind of troubled past. He 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."

How did his relationship with the young actors playing his class develop?

Boden: "I think that his relationship with Shareeka, his friendship with her, was a very important basis for their characters' friendship in the film. They're still close, and by the time we started shooting they had really formed that friendship and maybe she had a little bit of a crush on him too. But in terms of the 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 done over four or five times."

Fleck: "They didn't get what we were doing, 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."

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."

Fleck: "It would be a serious scene, and the kids would be laughing and we'd be saying 'what is going on, why can't we control them?' and they'd say 'he's snoring!'."

Shareeka Epps presumably made up for her general lack of acting experience by having done the short film with you, didn't she?

Fleck: "I think having known the two of us, and having felt comfortable making the short film helped. Even though the scale of it was tiny, a video camera and six people, I think she still knew the process, with 'action!' and 'cut!', having gone through that was very helpful when it came to the feature."

Were you ever concerned that you wouldn't be able to capture the magic of the short in the feature?

Fleck: "Yeah, that's a fear going into any movie, that the chemistry won't be right when you're rolling film. 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, that these two had something cool going on."

Did she help Ryan as much as he helped her?

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 an experienced, 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."

There's a definite political aspect to the film, would it have been very different had Al Gore beaten George Bush at the 2000 election?

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 '04, because we were trying to make this movie back then. 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."

Boden: "That was important, 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 bigger 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."

We meet Dan's parents, faded idealists who seem to be battling addictions of their own, aren't they?

Fleck: "I think that's frustrating for Dan Dunne, especially because he kind of romanticises their generation a little bit. To hear his Mom say that she doesn't they made any kind of difference adds to his despair over his inability to do anything, and whether he should even try."

Did you intend that scene as some sort of wider statement?

Fleck: "You know, when we writing it we didn't think of any larger statements about what the movie might be saying in different scenes. I think we really wanted to focus on this character's dilemma, and the people around him and how they affected that dilemma. We're not quite sure what it all adds up to."

Boden: "I think that was a point in the movie where, typically in a movie like this, it would focus on his descent into the abyss with his addiction. But we wanted to veer off and go some place that we hadn't been yet and explore a new location and a new group of characters and maybe get a hint or two of where he's coming from. And also allow him to have his last attempt to grasp onto something because if you feel like you failed yourself and your community is failing you, the last thing that you can do is go home to your mother, right? She's got to be able to help you, and he kind of tries, but she's too tired. That moment is like his crossroads about whether he's going to hold onto the idealism that got him into teaching in the first place, that makes him admire his parents and their generation, or if he's going to give that up."

Has the success of the film prompted great changes in your situation as new filmmakers?

Fleck: "It's been such a slow process from the Sundance premiere a year ago to doing all the festivals. The film wasn't released onto 2,000 screens straight away, it was a slow, methodical release around the country. We've been writing another script, trying to get it off the ground, so the wheels were already turning on that so it was never like 'now you can make this movie', because we always knew which movie we wanted to make and we had enough people working on it."

Boden: "But before we made Half Nelson we would have done anything to get meetings with an executive at Miramax, or wherever. Now there's a little bit more access."

How did you react to Ryan's Oscar nomination?

Fleck: "We were totally surprised, but hopeful. We knew that [our US distributors] THINKFilm were spending money on a campaign for him. It was all new to us, we didn't really know anything about that. We knew that it very much a long shot, that there was an outside chance of it happening, but we were incredibly excited when it did."

Were you at the Academy Awards ceremony?

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. He'd 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 suddenly got offended that none of us could go so he gave our producer two tickets. Anna and I flipped a coin and I won so she insisted I should go."

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