Following the screening of their new film, Sugar, at the recent Bahamas International Film Festival, I had the good fortune to spend some time with Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the acclaimed moviemaking team behind Half Nelson. While we spoke outside the theater in the gentle Bahamian night air, we saw a rat nosing through an old popcorn tub. It occurred to me that its presence in this unpretentious, un-touristed sliver of Nassau was a strikingly real contrast to the opulent, resort-based festival we were attending, and somehow it all seemed very appropriate.
Fleck, 32, and Boden, 29, are a savvy, passionate and talented duo. Partners in life, of the pen and behind the camera, the two met, appropriately enough, on a student film set in 1999, when Fleck was a student at NYU and Boden at Columbia.
In 2003, Fleck’s thesis short, Struggle, about an incident of racial tension in the life of a Black Panther party member, went to Sundance. Shortly after, he and Boden notched their first collaboration with the documentary short Have You Seen This Man?, which toured the festival circuit and showed on both PBS and IFC. They then began writing Half Nelson, the 2006 indie hit that made an Oscar nominee of star Ryan Gosling.
They wrote the feature length script together and decided to start production on a short version called Gowanus, Brooklyn in order to attract investors. It was a decision that paid off when the truncated project won the Short Filmmaking Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and was then accepted into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.
From there, they launched into production on the feature-length film, which Fleck directed and Boden produced and edited. In addition to Gosling’s Oscar nod, the film won two Independent Spirit Awards, three Gotham Awards and critics awards from Boston to Dallas.
Sugar marks Fleck and Boden’s second feature collaboration. Once again they worked as a team to write the script, and this time to direct; Boden is also credited as editor and executive producer.
Throughout their short but productive careers, Fleck and Boden have proven they have a razor sharp read on reality and a steady commitment to skillfully reflecting it in their art. Half Nelson was a gritty depiction of a teacher’s life in inner-city Brooklyn and Sugar continues the moviemakers’ exploration of the toll that poverty and desperation can take on a dreamer’s optimism.
In the case of their latest offering, this theme is set against the backdrop of professional baseball and the life of Miguel “Sugar” Santos, who tries to lift his family out of poverty by working his way up from the dusty Dominican sandlots to the American minor and major leagues.
Although Sugar is fictional, there are obvious truths in every moment, which slowly and meticulously unfold through gorgeous cinematography (courtesy of Andrij Parekh, whom they previously collaborated with on Half Nelson) and careful storytelling, revealing a world where life struggles to survive just outside of our sightlines, just around the corner from the marquee.
The narrative follows Sugar as he signs with an American minor league team and leaves his home in the Dominican Republic for the first time. The neighborhood celebrates, toasting Sugar’s future as he says goodbye to his family, his girlfriend and the unfinished house that he has been building on weekends for his single mother and elderly grandmother.
Sugar ends up on a minor league team in Iowa, where he is housed with an embarrassingly naive yet endearing older American couple who speak no Spanish. He is introduced to their granddaughter, who tries to befriend him, but her strict Christian values and middle-class, suburban, white friends prove too much of a cultural barrier for a relationship to blossom.
Stranded on a completely foreign cultural island, Sugar soon learns that although he is talented, his talent alone doesn’t guarantee him a future in Major League Baseball.
Sugar is an American story about immigration, major league competition, coming of age and struggle. As in real life, there is injustice without any tangible antagonists; life unfolds with drama, but without fights, showdowns or other clichés. This is original storytelling in that it reflects truth and artfully tells a tale with attention to detail and integrity. The result is an example of finely crafted, lyrical, moving cinema.
Berkeley, California native Fleck is himself a longtime baseball fan and was intrigued by the extensive training camps in the Dominican, where major league teams sign players for a fraction of what they pay players from U.S. colleges and high schools.
Fleck and Boden’s interests were piqued when they met a whole community of near-pro talents playing at a field in the Bronx. Many of these players had been through training academies and the American minor leagues, and Fleck and Boden were riveted by their stories. From the players, and from the moviemakers’ own research in the Dominican, the script for Sugar was born.
Fleck and Boden spent about a year writing the screenplay, which was originally written in English, although much of the dialogue is spoken in seamless Spanish. Neither moviemaker felt comfortable translating, so they worked with a native Dominican speaker in New York during the writing process. To create further authenticity, the native Spanish-speaking actors were encouraged to refine the script by using modern, teenage, Dominican slang.
“We occasionally would find that something just wasn’t translating,” Boden recalls. “For instance, in the movie, Sugar makes fun of a friend while they’re all drinking, and for some reason, even though the words were translated perfectly, the humor just wasn’t coming across. So we brainstormed together, threw some ideas around and came up with a better joke that really made the actors laugh out loud. I’m not sure American audiences will get the nuance of the joke, but it was more important to us to have the scene feel real and natural for the actors.”
In further pursuit of realism, Fleck and Boden cast the role of Sugar themselves from the multitude of young ballplayers they met in the Dominican. They drove from baseball field to baseball field with a camera and interviewed somewhere north of 600 young men.
“We’d roll up on a baseball field in the middle of nowhere and ask kids if they wanted to talk to us and potentially be in a movie,” says Fleck. “Just to set the stage, it wasn’t unusual for a couple of cows, goats or chickens to be lingering nearby, watching us with the same fascination the players had by our presence,” he laughs. “We’d ask the guys simple questions about their lives, favorite players, movies, music, etc. If we liked them, we’d hand them a scene and ask them to come back and read it for us the next day. Before we learned to prep them better, the players would literally read everything on the page—including stage directions, character names and both parts. It reminded us just how far away from New York and L.A. we were.”
Algenis Perez Soto was lucky number 452 in the audition process; he landed the lead role despite no previous acting experience. Trained as a shortstop and second baseman, Perez Soto needed to learn to pitch in the two months before filming began. His natural skill and previous training made this transition possible, and the resulting baseball scenes are thrilling and completely believable.
“The most important thing was to cast real ball players in all those roles,” Fleck explains. “Every player in the Dominican Republic, Arizona, Iowa and New York scenes is a baseball players. We held tryouts in Iowa to make sure they all knew what they were doing out on the field. We also watched a lot of real games to get a feel for how games are shot for television, and we looked at Raging Bull for the more hallucinogenic sequences that really capture what’s going on in Miguel’s head.”
Sugar was shot in 43 days over four months on 35mm film. Many of the key crewmembers had worked with Fleck and Boden on Half Nelson. One of the most compelling technical aspects of the movie is the division of sound and silence.
“The Dominican Republic is an incredibly loud place,” explains Fleck. “Everywhere you go, there is always music, motorcycles, trucks, laughing, fighting. We wanted to contrast that bustling energy of Miguel’s home with the isolation and quiet of Iowa’s farmlands.
“We tried to do the same thing on the baseball field,” he continues. “When Miguel is playing well, the sound and images tend to feel relatively natural and realistic. But as that changes, we tried to get inside his head a bit more, strip away the crowd sounds and really isolate him on the mound.”
Fleck and Boden report that finding financing was easier the second time around, with HBO Films providing the $5 million budget. While cash was still tight for a movie shot in the Dominican Republic, Arizona, New York and Iowa, all with baseball stadiums full of extras, the young moviemakers know they were lucky to find capital for a largely Spanish language film with no name actors.
“Maud Nadler immediately got excited about what we were trying to do,” Boden says of their experience pitching the film to executives at HBO Films. “We didn’t have to convince her that Tom Cruise shouldn’t be playing a 19-year-old Dominican ballplayer,” laughs the native Bostonian. “Her division at HBO Films had made movies like this before—Maria Full of Grace, for example.”
Fleck and Boden found a lot of support in the Dominican, too. “The small communities we were filming in really got behind the movie,” says Fleck. “The whole block came out to dance at the party scene we were filming. People lent our art department pictures and lamps and tables from their homes for the set.”
“There were some challenges to making a film in a place that doesn’t have a well-established filmmaking community,” admits Boden, “but our crew jumped in and got resourceful, and I think the film was better for it.” MM
Sugar is in theaters now.