“It’s hard to pretend you can make a sequel to the next Iron Man movie.”
In this 2009 interview with filmmaking duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the Captain Marvel directors struggle to imagine their own future.
Ever since Walt Whitman referred to baseball as “the American game”, it has been a useful conduit for exploring the development of the United States as a nation – so much so that even if baseball’s impenetrable terminology, bewildering reliance on statistics and, lets face it, tedious action leaves you feeling agnostic about the sport itself, as a cultural phenomenon it can be endlessly fascinating. John Updike, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Elaine De Kooning, Andy Warhol, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan are just some of the writers, poets, artists and musicians who have used its imagery and iconography to riff on what America means. And it’s not just creative artists who have used their love of the game in this way. In the mid-1990s, the populist documentary filmmaker Ken Burns devoted a mammoth ten-part television series (simply called Baseball) to exploring how the history of the sport has mirrored the history of social change in the United States.
In this spirit, then, the new film Sugar already differs from the majority of baseball movies preceding it (you know the type: underdog sports movie clichés; Kevin Costner optional). Written and directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the young filmmaking team behind Half Nelson, it uses the sport to examine the modern immigrant experience by focussing on an impoverished young baseball prodigy from the Dominican Republic. When a Major League team talent-spots and drafts 19-year-old Miguel “Sugar” Santos (newcomer Algenis Pérez Sotoas) he ships out to Arizona, then Iowa and later, New York, where he finds himself a stranger in a strange land where language, cultural and religious differences begin casting him adrift from the destiny he’s been groomed to believe was his for the taking.
“We were interested in telling the story of the guys you don’t hear about; the guys who don’t make it all the way to the height of success,” says Fleck, sitting alongside Boden in the public lounge of a central London hotel. “There are so many layers to baseball, more so than in other sports. The Dominican Republic guys are at the bottom. If they make it to the United States, there are still four more levels to get to the top and a lot of players never get past that first or second level. So we became curious to see what happened to those guys. What does it mean not to make it? How does that affect their family back home?”
“And also: what does it mean trying to make it and trying to go through that process when you’re still a kid?” adds Boden. “Most of these people have been pushed towards this goal for so many years of their life that they never get a chance to step back and think about what they’re doing.”
The film, then, has a social conscience; not least in the way it starts pitching narrative curveballs by homing in on the strange world of the Dominican Republic’s “baseball academies” – a plantation-like set-up through which the multi-billion dollar American corporations that run the game harvest new talent for the sport at greatly reduced costs.
“I’d been a baseball fan for most of my life, but I didn’t realise that every Major League baseball team has one of these academies in the Dominican Republic where they train players to become athletes,” says Fleck. “When I found out about it, I was like: ‘Woah, let’s figure out a way to work out what’s going on here.’”
Armed with a rough outline of the journey they wanted their titular character to take, the pair spent a lot of time in the Dominican Republic and the Dominican neighbourhoods of New York talking to the young hopefuls coming up through the system and those who struck out and returned back home.
“There were so many like that,” says Boden, “and it was really interesting just seeing how vastly different their reactions were when talking about it. Some guys just couldn’t talk about it; it was like this open wound. Other guys who had been back for a few years and had gotten over it were able to give a little perspective on it and tell stories about it.”
All this feeds into Sugar and the film is given extra authenticity by its star, Algenis Pérez Soto, a first-time actor who Fleck and Boden found while scouting out baseball fields in the Dominican Republic. “We thought it would be easier if we could find someone who could play baseball first and then figure out if they could act or not rather than the other way about,” explains Boden. “We’d just arrive with a camera and ask people if they wouldn’t mind being interviewed for a casting sessions. He was number 452 and immediately both Ryan and I were so relieved, because while we were rooting for a lot of the other guys, we didn’t know if they could carry a movie.”
“He just had confidence,” elaborates Fleck. “He was just at ease. He wasn’t trying to tell us what we wanted he thought we wanted to hear.”
The same might be true of Fleck and Boden. Long time before Half Nelson started picking up the Oscar buzz that would result in a Best Actor nomination for Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of a crack-addicted teacher, they had a meeting with HBO who’d seen Half Nelson at Sundance and told them they were interested in doing their second movie. Recalls Boden: “We said, ‘Ok, but it’s 60 percent in Spanish and there are no movie stars’. And they actually said, ‘Okay.’”
Such youthful tenacity (Fleck is 32, Boden 29) is increasingly rare in filmmaking circles and it’s perhaps a sign of how well they work together that they’ve already garnered such respect and support for what they want to do within the industry. The pair met when Fleck, a New York University film school graduate who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, helped out on a student documentary the Boston-bred Boden was making. They hit it off immediately and have been together ever since, both as a couple and a creative team. Fleck says their working relationship consists of a lot of batting ideas back-and-forth and writing and rewriting until they have a script together. “On set and in post-production it’s all pretty fluid,” chips in Boden. “Both of us working side by side.”
However it works, it does work. Too many young directors with a break-out hit under their belts either spend years trying to get another personal film off the ground or take on studio pictures they’re not yet ready for – not that Fleck and Boden haven’t been courted by Hollywood. “There are always a lot of meetings,” grins Fleck, “but there’s never anything specific. They show us scripts and gauge our interest, but you still have to fight to create a vision and argue why you’re the person that should be making that movie. Unless it’s coming from us, it’s hard to pretend you can, say, make a sequel to the next Iron Man movie.”
Currently two for two, whatever they do next, expect them to hit it out of the park.
A version of this interview appeared in The Scotsman