SUGAR: Interview With Writer/Directors Anna Boden And Ryan Fleck

Jason Wood: With your follow-up film to Half Nelson was there a conscious decision to extend your sights beyond American borders?

Anna Boden/Ryan Fleck: Not really, but filmmaking is an excellent excuse for travel. Generally, we are compelled by a certain character and go wherever that character takes us.

JW: What was the starting point for the journey that Sugar undertakes? I understand that Ryan was a big baseball fan and this then led to research concerning the thousands of athletes from the Dominican Republic that go through the minor league system.

AB/RF: That’s true. We started researching the character of Sugar right in our own city. We went up to the community baseball field in the Bronx where the last scene of the movie takes place and started talking to the guys who were playing there. So many of them are former professionals who had been through a very similar journey to the one Sugar takes in the film. The connections we made there led us to other players, both in the States and the Dominican Republic, who were at various points in their careers. We talked to prospective players just starting out, players who had spent a couple of years in the minors and failed, and players who made it all the way to the Majors and were back home now coaching young players.

JW: This is a project that must have required a great deal of diligent research. How long did you spend in the Dominican Republic and what findings and stories did you uncover?

AB/RF: Between researching and casting the film (which, in its own way, was part of the research, since we were interviewing hundreds of real baseball players for the role), we spent a couple of months there. 5-6 trips of 1-2 weeks each. We spent an additional 6 weeks there for prep and production.

Really, all the details of our story and character came from the people we met over our research and casting phase in DR. We combined bits and pieces from dozens of players’ stories to depict a common experience. Everything from the never-completed new house construction for Miguel’s mother to the scenes in which he tries to order food in the United States were stories gleaned from the players who were so open and generous with us about their lives.

JW: You resist the traditional arc of the sports drama and instead focus on the injury, disappointment and sense of disillusion that those that don’t make it and those that are far away from home often endure. Was there a sense that you wanted to take the audience on a different journey, one in fact that Sugar undertakes himself?

AB/RF: We had no interest in making a traditional sports movie. We wanted to explore this unique journey through the perspective of one of the players you’ll never hear about. The sports sequences in the film don’t focus on whether the team will win the game, but on how Miguel is experiencing the game at any given moment.

JW: The film is set in three distinct locations, putting the story within quite specific contexts. How important were these places to the film?

AB/RF: We actually shot in four very different locations: the tropical environs of the Dominican Republic, the dry Arizona dessert, the flat Iowa farmlands, and the urban jungle of New York City. Each place has its own distinct look and feel, which was crucial for mapping out Miguel’s internal and external journey.

JW: DOP Andrij Parekh strikes me as a key component of your work. How does the relationship work and in connection with the question above how did Andrij respond to the different locations?

AB/RF: Andrij is very much a key collaborator. Before shooting, the three of us sat down and discussed some general ideas for the look of the film. In terms of colour, Andrij wanted to de-saturate the bright colours of the Dominican locations in favour of a more subdued, natural look. As Miguel moves on to locations that are less familiar to him, the colours tend to feel more saturated and a little unreal. Kind of like a subtler version of The Wizard of Oz.

JW: There are various themes that you touch upon. The underside of the American dream, homesickness, cultural exclusion, religion and racism and yet you allow these themes to emerge in an organic fashion. Were you keen that the film avoid being led by the issues it touches upon and instead have its own natural space and rhythm?

AB/RF: Although we are fascinated by the social/political themes that are intertwined with the lives of the characters we explore in our movies, we always approach our stories from the perspective of character rather than theme. So while I wouldn’t say we “avoid” being led by the issues in the movies, I do think that our approach to writing scripts pushes the themes just a little under the surface of the story so that they don’t overwhelm it. We hope, anyway!

JW: I read previously that documentaries rather than fiction features exert an influence on your films. What qualities do you find in documentary that inspire you both and are there particular films or filmmakers that stand out for you?

AB/RF: A lot of verité doc filmmakers have really influenced our approach to making movies - Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles, Pennebaker. What fascinates us is how those filmmakers all share an intuition about when NOT to stop rolling the camera, when NOT to pan away to a new action, when NOT to cut to another shot. The patience with which they shoot and edit their films makes tiny moments so powerful.

JW: Having previously collaborated with Broken Social Scene you have now worked with Michael Brook. The score for Sugar is, much like the film, subtle and understated. What role did you want Michael’s soundtrack to play?

AB/RF: We love the way Michael Brook’s music conveys so much without over-dramatising. And that’s one of the reasons we were drawn to him as a composer. We wanted his music to work with the sound design of the film so that the sound effects didn’t feel like a separate element from the music. For instance, in the steadicam sequence when Sugar walks through the disorienting maze of hotel/bar/arcade/bowling alley in Iowa, we tried to blur the line between where sound design ends and music begins. We were very excited by the fruitful collaboration between Michael and our great sound team at Digit Audio.

JW: Finally, Algenis Perez Soto is phenomenal in the central role. How did you find him and had he acted before?

AB/RF: While casting in the Dominican Republic, we found Algenis on a baseball field in San Pedro de Macoris. He was playing with some friends and we asked them if they wanted to be interviewed for a potential role in the movie. In all, we conducted about 600 interviews this way - just rolling up to a field with a video camera and introducing ourselves. Algenis was number 452. It’s a number we remember well because we were so relieved when we met him. We thought this guy could be the one. He had never acted before, but we worked with him extensively in pre-production to prepare him for the role. We also showed him movies like Taxi Driver and Y Tu Mama Tambien to give him a sense of the natural performance style we were going for. We agree; he does a phenomenal job in the movie.

 

Jason Wood is a film programmer and writer whose work appears in Little White Lies and Sight and Sound. His books include The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema and 10 American Independent Films.

HALF NELSON and SUGAR are both available on DVD and VOD through AX1 Films.