Chatting With Mississippi Grind Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden are a filmmaking duo best known for 2006’s Half Nelson. They’re latest collaboration, Mississippi Grind, is a character driven story exploring addiction and redemption, starring Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn and Sienna Miller. The Credits talks to the pair about recapturing the aesthetic of seventies classics and cracking that elusive on-set chemistry.
What originally drew you to making this film in the south?
Ryan: We'd always loved New Orleans. My mom retired and moved down to Alabama and so I would go visit her and Anna would come down sometimes too, and we would go through New Orleans. So we'd spend time there, so we knew that city a little, but the real start of it came when…
Anna: We actually started in Iowa, which is where the story starts, further north in the midwest. We were shooting a film there in 2007 called Sugar about a Dominican baseball player, a baseball immigrant, who was kind of put down in Iowa in the middle of the country. We ended up spending a lot of time there and discovered these little riverboat casinos that are docked on the Mississippi, so that it's legal to gamble on them. They have to be on a body of water. We would spend weekends there just playing blackjack and there was something about the location that just really stuck with us. These are not the glamorous casinos of Las Vegas and Atlantic City that we'd been to before and that we'd seen on film before, they were something that was like the anti-Vegas.
Right, and there’s almost a lost quality I guess, when you think about casinos like that with a bit of character and seedy glamor…
Anna: Yeah, and also these places aren't like the high stakes kind of places, these are working class people who are going there for fun or grinding it out in the poker room for twelve hours a day. All different kinds of people, and so it's like these places haven't been updated and they're stuck in the seventies. We're revisiting our favorite American movies from the seventies like Scarecrow, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, California Split and Fat City. And thinking about making something in the tradition of those films with that kind of looseness and those character driven pieces and here we are with this location that's kind of stuck in our minds, that's stuck in the seventies and literally hasn't been updated since then. So it just felt like the perfect place to revisit, when we were starting to think about making this movie.
I understand that originally you were thinking of making it a comedy, is that right?
Ryan: The first draft leaned much more silly, it was kind of more jokey. Then the more that we worked on it, the more our true sensibilities crept in and pushed that out a little bit. But there's still, I think, a fair amount of humor in the movie, but it starts to lean a little more dramatic.
When you're dealing with something like gambling addiction, how do you toe the line between not making it into sort of a preachy after-school special and also not overly glamorizing that world? Is that something you consider at all?
Anna: I think that what grounded us in it was just exploring these characters and following them on their journey. And their journey certainly deals with some self-destructive behavior from a gambling addict, and it also deals with the excitement of winning, but from the perspective of a gambling addict. And so as we're grounding ourselves in these characters and exploring them, and following them on this journey, I think that our sensibility doesn't particularly lean in one of those directions or the other. I guess the point is that it wasn't as important to us whether in the end they win it all or whether they lose it all, it was about how they react to either one or the other. And having a reaction to one or the other that surprises them, even.
What was it about the combination of Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds that attracted you? Their chemistry is obviously an important part of what is essentially a buddy road trip movie, albeit quite a dark one.
Anna: I mean, we imagined that they would have good chemistry, but we hadn't ever seen them together until we'd cast them both and we were a couple weeks before shooting and got them together. And luckily, they absolutely loved each other and it was like electricity between them. I think they did have quite unusual chemistry on set. Just really, really special.
But part of what drew us to them and what made them feel right for the character is just how different they are. They're really different actors and these characters are from really different worlds, and then they meet and just kind of have this certain energy between them and it's partly that they seem like they're from such different worlds that draws them together and ultimately, we discover that maybe they're not so unalike.
Which is kind of what happens with the two actors, getting them together. They do come from very different backgrounds in terms of the types of movies they've done, the types of movies they're associated with. But ultimately, they're just two really wonderful actors who are just great at playing off each other.
You write and direct together: how does that relationship work?
Ryan: We really do it all. We start brainstorming ideas in the beginning and kind of just see what both of us get excited about. See what sticks. And then we just talk through maybe what could happen in a story. Then we separate to write. We'll write separately and then just share pages, and it evolves from there. And we prep everything together, so when we're on location scouting, when we're shot listing, we go over it all so that we're really on the same page by the time we're shooting. If we do disagree on set we tend to do something two ways. That's still pretty rare. I mean, I think the biggest fight we've ever had recently is, when we shoot locally, is who's going to get dropped off at home first.
And how did you start working together?
Anna: I took a summer class at NYU. We were children. I think he had just graduated and was working there. We had mutual friends and ended up working on a student film together, hanging out, watching movies together, and just starting from making short films together because we were getting excited about the same types of movies and types of stories.
What’s up next for you?
Ryan: Usually we try to have something lined up, but in this case we're actually excited to just go from one stage into the next. So we're going to just start writing again and see what sticks.