Like A Baseball Movie, Minus the Sap: Half Nelson Filmmakers Pour Out Some Sugar

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's debut Half Nelson was one of the highlights of 2006, a nuanced look at a young teacher in an inner-city school who dismantled the inspirational teacher-movie cliches with just a toke of his crack pipe.

The writer-director team's next film, Sugar, gives the same hard-nosed, heartfelt treatment to the story of a young baseball player -- once again finding new ground in a genre so well-covered, you could put a monkey at third base and still make a "been there, done that" movie.

Sugar follows a 19-year-old Dominican pitching prospect as he leaves home and struggles through a season with a single-A minor league team in Iowa. The movie screened once during the AFI Dallas International Film Festival a couple of weeks ago, and it's opening at the Angelika Dallas today.

We caught up with Fleck and Boden last week for a deep, spoiler-riddled chat about baseball's recruiting operations in the Dominican, how the film came together, and how to make anywhere, even Iowa, look exotic.

The baseball world in this film is full of people who want Sugar to succeed, but there's the sense that this recruiting system just chews kids up and spits them out. You get that same feeling in Half Nelson, that idea of being an bad fit for this system that just kind of marches people through.

Anna Boden: It's always part of what we're thinking about, how people's everyday lives are affected by the social and political systems we live in. We don't set out to make movies that are about that, but it's very much present in our thoughts when we're trying to tell a story and trying to create a character.

Just one more Half Nelson comparison: the teacher in that film is so full of theory and he's very well read, driven by these big ideas. That's not how it is with Sugar: He's just like all these other kids being promoted, but somehow he ends up turning against that system too. Since he doesn't articulate those ideas as they're forming, how tough is it to show that transition happening?

AB: It's a gradual awakening. It might not be something he can articulate or explain to somebody. But he's sitting there watching a game and the rain's falling, or he's slamming a baseball bat into a water cooler. He's at home with an injury watching television, and he's got all this time to think about things he's never had time to think about before.

Ryan Fleck: Right, and he's also in a place where he can't articulate those thoughts -- whereas Gosling, you can feel his frustration throughout because he gets high and he starts to talk about all the things that are wrong with the world. But for Miguel, he's in a place where he has nobody to confide in.

AB: He can't even tell his mom on the phone, he can't tell his girlfriend, because he's scared of letting them down, so everything is very cooped up inside. But that's not to say it's a split second decisions. For us it's a very gradual awakening that is, somewhat of a political awakening, not with a capital P.

RF: If we didn't have such a strong performance from Algenis, then it'd be impossible. If he wasn't such a good actor, we probably would've found ourselves during production writing scenes where he was explaining himself more.

How much did you draw on baseball movies that are already out there, and how much did you take from just knowing the game well yourself? I know you, Ryan, you're a baseball fan. Anna, I don't know, did you grow up a Red Sox fan?

RF: She's not so much a baseball fan.

AB: I just consider myself a sane human being. Other people would say I'm just not a fan.

RF: Right, if you don't lose your self-worth when your team loses, these people who you've never met and never will meet - if you don't put your value as a human being in that, then you're not much of a fan.

AB: Right, I'm not a fan.

RF: I think my being a baseball fan influenced the shooting more than any other baseball movie that's been made. Watching hundreds of games over the years gave me more of a sense of what we were going than anything in The Natural.

AB: We did watch baseball movies together, but we didn't glean much from them. Ryan also went out and bought the A's World Series DVD.

RF: The highlights of the '89 World Series.

AB: We sat and watched that, and developed the ideas for certain plays in the movie. It was fun.

RF: I think the visual style in the baseball sequences was more influenced by movies like Raging Bull or Friday Night Lights, how they capture the visceral experience in a very subjective way, getting into the athlete's head. We were more intrigued with that than with how Kevin Costner steps out of the box in Bull Durham.

It's part baseball movie, and partly this immigrant-experience movie. Was that ever a delicate balancing act?

AB: We didn't ever approach it as a sports movie.

RF: You didn't?

AB: [laughs] I mean, we kept it entirely focused on the character and his experience. Even writing what happened in a game, it was always about, what does it reveal about this guy and where he's at in his life. There's never a sports moment in there just for the thrill of a sports moment.

When did you first visit the Dominican Republic, and how much of the film was in place before you set foot there?

RF: So, we started most of our research online and reading books, and kind of formulated a loose idea. Then we went up to the Bronx in New York, where we live, and we met the Dominican players there who were sort of at the end of their journeys. Once we talked to those guys, we realized that's where the movie's going to end. Now let's figure out what the story is that gets us there. So we kind of went backwards from there down to the Dominican Republic. We probably spent, including the shooting, about three months down there off and on.

AB: Our first trip was May 2006, just the two of us. We didn't know anyone down there. We had a couple names we had gotten from the guys in New York, and that was it. We just started building connections from there and doing research that was part location scouting, and part getting the idea for who this guy was and what his story was. Picking up all the little details that we couldn't have invented. Being there totally shaped who Miguel was. We had a very loose outline for where the story would go, but it wasn't set in stone at all. Everybody we met somehow influenced what this guy's life was like.

One thing really jumped out at me in the credits, when I saw the name of your baseball consultant for the Dominican Republic. I have to ask -- what was it like working with Jose Rijo?

RF: You know, we made our last movie and usually people were like, "What's it like working with Ryan Gosling." Nobody's yet asked us what it was like working with Jose Rijo. He's great, though. He's so charismatic and full of so many stories. He used to run the Nationals academy in the Dominican Republic.

How did you find him? He's become kind of a notorious figure in the Dominican scouting world, and at least until recently, was a big part of the recruiting operations.

RF: I grew up a big Oakland A's fan, and I remember him playing for them in the mid '80s. Then he played for the Reds, and beat the A's in a four-game sweep in the 1990 World Series, which was bittersweet -- more bitter actually, not very sweet as a 13-year-old kid. When we met him, we had steak with him and he gave us his rookie card. He just brought it to lunch.

Way, way better than a business card.

RF: It's better, yeah. It was fun. We haven't really been in touch with him since we made the movie a year and a half ago, though. I don't really know what's going on right now with him and the Nationals. His history's interesting though, because as a player, he was signed for like $2,000.

AB: At 14 or 15 years old. He was just sent right to the United States. They didn't have the academies back then to ease the guys into things at all. He was just dropped into it. His perspective is really interesting. I really don't know what's going on with things, but it's important to have guys like that in the system in the Dominican Republic, as advocates for these kids to try and make their transition into the United States easier.

What do you think about the Dominican recruiting system? For Miguel and for a lot of others, it kind of chews them up and spits them out. Is there a better way for it to be run?

RF: The only criticism that we have is that guys should be taught more off-the-field skills - so they don't only know how to say "line drive" and "foul ball" when they arrive in the United States. Teams are getting a little more savvy, and they're not just acting out of goodwill for the players as people. They're realizing athletes perform better if they don't have all these off the field stresses, if they can focus on baseball, if they know how to order food at restaurants, if they can check their email, if they have hands on skills in other ways. I think it is improving, though. I think a lot of teams are heading in that direction.

AB: I think it's sad that you go down there and you see all this money being pumped into these very enclosed private places, and then you step outside of there and there's such widespread poverty. Kids are dropping out of school at 12 or 13 to pursue a fairly unrealistic dream - even though it feels more attainable to them than becoming a doctor or whatever - it's hard to point a finger someplace specific, but it doesn't mean that you can't see that there's some kind of systemic problem, and that there's social costs to opportunities that are provided to a few people. It's not just about baseball. There are problems with how things are happening. I'm not trying to point fingers -- but you also can't just ignore it.

RF: It's a complicated issue, beyond just the players that are getting opportunities, each academy has a big staff of people coking and cleaning, so these teams make a lot of local job opportunities, but how do you make sure the huge amount of money being filtered into the country continues to flow into the communities? I don't know how to make sure that happens.

When we follow Sugar into Iowa, the American heartland ends up feeling like this foreign, dangerous place. Was it tough to make it feel foreign and create that distance?

AB: It was foreign to us -- we were just as unfamiliar with Iowa as we were with the Dominican Republic. But we did think about it. We thought about how we were going to shoot that part of the movie as compared with the Dominican Republic. When we're shooting in his neighborhoods where his family and his friends are, everything's handheld, a lot looser. I mean, we imagine that translates into him being more comfortable.

RF: Our cinematographer came up with this idea -- it's very subtle, but the color palette that's used, in the DR even though there's a lot of bright colors in the country we kind of muted them down and made them feel a little more natural. Then when he came to Iowa we pumped them up so they're a little more saturated - it's like The Wizard of Oz effect, like he came into this place that's a little more in your face. We might have gone the other way, just from a spectator's point of view, objectively. In the Dominican Republic, colors are everywhere and you might've been tempted to pump those and mute the ones in Iowa, but it was interesting to go the other way.

AF: Yeah, and then everything's locked down on a tripod, very rigid, so it feels like things aren't moving quite as naturally there.

So the ending, it's got this hopeful feel to it -- same as in Half Nelson. You're not sure exactly why, but it feels hopeful, short of any rational reason. He's still working a crap job, he's still illegal. Can you articulate why you want to leave that hope at the end?

RF: No, and in fact, now that you say it like that ...  what are we doing?

AB: He's found a community. It's like whether or not his life is perfect, whether or not he achieved the dreams he set out to have in the beginning of the movie, it's like we track him throughout Arizona and throughout Iowa, and he's reaching for connections with people, he's reaching for a community, and he's thwarted every time. He forms a friendship with Brad on his team, and he gets sent up, forms a friendship with Jorge on his team, he gets sent back. There's a big relief to being someplace and just having a group of people who you can connect to, where you understand where they're from and they understand where you from. I think if there's hope at the end of the movie, that's why we're feeling it. It's human connection.
RF: Nice. I get it now.

Part of that is the bit you do at the end, where you're looking at one player after another, and they introduce themselves to the camera on the ball field. Did that idea -- you've used that technique in Half Nelson as well -- does it come from one of you in particular?

RF: I think stylistically, we try to stay out of the way with the filmmaking, we tend not to draw too much attention most of the time we're telling the story. But occasionally we like to step outside of that for just a second, and remind people that they're watching a movie, and to think about how they're relating to it in a different way. In that sequence in particular, people are looking at the camera and they're saying their names to us, and you start to wonder, who are these guys? You realize they've all gone on some similar journey to Miguel.

Were any of those players guys who you'd met out on the field before?

RF: Yeah, most of them. Those are the real guys.

AB: That's the idea, it's kind of like, this isn't just one fictional story. These are real guys and they all have real stories. Even if you're not sure, you wonder if they're the real players, and that's why we chose to do that there.

How common is it for players to make the choice Miguel does, to break from the team?

RF: I wouldn't say it's the common experience, but it's certainly happened to a handful of players out of the dozens we talked to. That was very interesting to us, when someone would take that decision into their own hands, we became really fascinated by what leads to that decision.

All those reasons Miguel had for making that decision, were those the common reasons? Not being able to connect, looking at baseball like a dead end?

RF: Yeah, 19-, 20-year-old kids who might have a problem with authority, might be sick of the isolation, sick of the pressure, they can't -- they just kind of crack on some level, don't want to play anymore. They go move to Chicago if they're playing nearby, a lot of them go to New York. The more typical experience is that the season ends and they fear that if they go home, they won't be called back to spring training if they had a terrible season. It's more out of fear of not being able to come back. When we wrote the first draft, that's how it played out. But as we met more people, we became fascinated with somebody who -- again, this is only a week or so before the season ends -- but he just decides not to take that last road trip.

Lastly, just to geek out a little more on baseball: Roberto Clemente becomes a major figure in the movie, as Sugar learns about him. Sugar wears No. 21 at the start of the movie and at the end of the movie, but he's just got these other scrub numbers in between. Was that a conscious decision you made to tie him to Clemente?

RF: Yeah, definitely. In the research, Clemente seemed to be such a huge figure -- this is a guy who figured out, in the quotes that Miguel has at the end -- essentially, this is a guy who figured out that baseball was just a tool for him to be a better human being, and really it's off the field where he thrived, helping Latino communities. He died making a trip down to Nicaragua after the earthquake. So he was a real advocate not just for ballplayers, but immigrant rights - a really outspoken leader. That's why he's in there for us.

AB: You know, Sugar says that thing, if you have the opportunity to help somebody and don't, you're wasting your life. I think that that's something that he struggles with, as do we all. There's one scene where he's listening to a fight happening outside his hotel door, and he goes to the door and like, he can't do it, he's scared. I think that a lot of people struggle with that, trying to be a good person and help people, and not always being able to do it.
For us, it's not the person who always does the right thing that's interesting, but somebody who's striving to be that kind of person. That is his awakening, his coming of age, when Sugar starts trying to become that kind of person.

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