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CHECK YOUR HEAD
Two years after his short film about a drug-addicted inner-city teacher won Sundance, Ryan Fleck returned with his feature-length adaptation of that story, Half Nelson.

BY MATTHEW ROSS

RYAN GOSLING STARS IN RYAN FLECK’S HALF NELSON.

It’s fitting that we’re covering Half Nelson in our summer issue, the time of year when we publish our annual 25 New Faces survey. That’s because the film’s writer-director (Ryan Fleck), writer-editor (Anna Boden), star (Ryan Gosling) and cinematographer (Andrij Parekh) have all appeared on the 25 earlier in their careers. Fleck and Boden (who are also an offscreen couple) first got our attention after their short Gowanus, Brooklyn took home the short-film Jury Prize at Sundance 2004. (Their feature-length doc about Cuban hip-hop, Young Rebels, screened at New Directors/New Films last year.) Parekh, also selected in 2004, was, at the time, the eye behind just about every great short that came out of NYU. And Gosling, now a bona fide movie star, made it on thanks to his astonishing performance as a Jewish neo-Nazi in Henry Bean’s 2001 drama The Believer.

Shot on location in Brooklyn, Half Nelson — an expanded version of Gowanus — is a story of idealism and defeat, which both find expression in the form of the film’s hero, Dan (Gosling). A history teacher at a public school in a poor neighborhood, Dan’s a force in the classroom, inspiring his African-American students with charm, passion and a deep commitment to civil rights. In his off hours, Dan’s a wreck. Addicted to coke and alcohol, flat broke and bereft of any meaningful personal relationships, he has abandoned his children’s book on Hegelian dialectics and quietly resigned himself to imminent ruin. When one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps, who also starred in Gowanus), discovers his secret and then becomes his friend, Dan sees a chance for redemption. But while he and Drey manage to develop an intense bond, Dan’s tenuous grip on sanity continues to loosen.

Co-starring Anthony Mackie as a local drug dealer who’s taken Drey under his wing, Half Nelson is a withering indictment of life in Bush’s America (never have the ’60s seemed such a distant memory) as well as a sensitive character study of a troubled soul at war with himself. After premiering at Sundance 2006 (where, despite winning no prizes, it was frequently cited by respected critics as the festival’s best film), Half Nelson opened New Directors/New Films and will be released by THINKFilm in August.

HALF NELSON CO-WRITER-EDITOR ANNA BODEN AND CO-WRITER-DIRECTOR RYAN FLECK.
PHOTO: HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.

First of all, congratulations on the film. It seems both familiar and unfamiliar, which I think is always a good sign. Can you talk a bit about what inspired you, what was behind it? About four years ago I was feeling very frustrated with the state of the world. 9/11 had happened, and I knew Bush was just going to fuck it all up. And then we went after Iraq, and I was just like, “Fuck!” I was trying to get active politically but feeling totally powerless. That was where the seed of the character came from, this guy thinking he’s grown up, feeling like he needs to make a difference in the world somehow, and the more he tries, the more he kind of fucks things up. It comes from that emotion, that feeling of total frustration and powerlessness.

It’s interesting how the drug abuse in the film is both a very real thing while also functioning, for me at least, on a metaphorical level. I don’t know what it was consciously. Anna and I wanted to make this character as complex as possible. We knew he was going to be a teacher, and we wanted him to be a deeply flawed idealist. We decided to make him an addict and go all the way with it, to play with those kinds of stereotypes that people have about drugs — who uses them and who sells them. Just play with all the black and white of everybody. Nobody’s perfect, nobody’s good or bad, everybody serves a purpose in some way, both good and bad.

How did the film take shape from there? After I graduated from NYU, I was doing just about anything to stay afloat. Then I met Anna, who was finishing up her undergrad work at Columbia University. We made our first documentary short, Have You Seen This Man?, and then we made another documentary in Cuba about hip hop music. At the same time I was playing around with this Half Nelson idea. Anna was giving me all these notes and her thoughts on it, and so we just started writing together at some point. When it was done, we said, “Well, we don’t have the resources to make the movie the way we want to. It’s probably going to be a million-dollar movie, shot on Super 16mm, and we’d love to have some kind of recognizable actor in it because the odds of people seeing it are a little bit better if you have that.” We made the short as a tool to gain awareness for the feature. We shot it in the style very similar to the way we wanted to do Half Nelson. We ended up using the same lead actress, Shareeka Epps. And it worked out — we got into Sundance and won the short-film prize there, and then got into Filmmaker magazine’s 25 New Faces. We also did the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and that was really helpful. But then we got a lot of passes on the project from independent financiers and production companies before things started coming together.

How did you find the financing? About a year and a half after Sundance, Jamie Patricof at Hunting Lane got involved, and at that point things really happened quickly. We met Jamie in March of 2005, and we were shooting in June. He was the first person on board to commit to funding, and he got involved right around the same time Gosling got the script, so everything at that point just took off like an avalanche.

SHAREEKA EPPS IN HALF NELSON.

I’d seen the short, and when I heard that you had gotten Ryan Gosling attached to play the lead, it gave me a little bit of pause, because the thought of a recognizable name made me think the naturalism that made the short so strong would be compromised. But it isn’t, thanks to Gosling’s remarkable performance. How did you approach working with the actors? I know there’s a combination of professional and non-professional actors. We tried not to overthink things too much, and when we rehearsed, we just hung out and talked a little bit about the script, where it came from, and got people’s thoughts on it. And then we just trusted their instincts. They always had the freedom to try new things. We just kept things relaxed and had fun with it. With the kids, we hung out a lot, went bowling and had little parties where everybody got to know each other. And Shareeka and Ryan, they sometimes hung out without us. I think that was the main approach. Andrij Parekh, who shot the film, is also a director, and he was really sensitive to the actors’ process. It was very important to us that we lit [the scenes] in a way that didn’t constrict the actors from moving one foot this way or that way — they always had the freedom to move about in the space that we were shooting in. And we didn’t want to spend too much time lighting; we just wanted to be working and shooting as much as possible, so we shot a lot of film in a short amount of time.

How long was the shoot? We shot in 23 days.

The camerawork seems quite intuitive. How did you cover your scenes? We did have a shot list with certain very specific things that we wanted to do, but we would also usually have one sort of roaming master where Andrij had the freedom to go with whatever was happening. A great example of that was the scene in the street where Ryan confronts Anthony Mackie’s character about staying away from Drey, and Ryan’s cat has just died. And at the end of that scene, there’s a stray cat that’s running around. It burst its way into the scene and we didn’t know whose cat it was — it was just standing there. Ryan picks it up and tries to bring it into Anthony’s house, and Anthony’s like, “Man, don’t bring that shit in my house,” so Ryan puts it down and the cat runs away. Andrij just followed the cat, and it was this beautiful moment where the camera pans off of them and we stop on the cat, and then we cut to Drey on her bike. Thematically, that shot says a lot, I think, about where the people are in the movie. It was just a great accident.

Were there any specific directors or films that inspired you? Yeah, definitely. I don’t know if you can pinpoint specific similarities to his films, but Hal Ashby was a big influence. Emotionally, his characters are so flawed and screwed up, and yet you really root for them because their humanity just shines through. The feelings I feel when I watch his films I hope come through in some way in our film. I also love the feel of Fred Wiseman’s documentaries, when he cuts and when he zooms.

There’s the strong naturalistic element to the film, but there’s a few other techniques that are more stylized, more imposed on the storytelling, specifically the use of music as well as the use of archival footage in the scenes where the students present their history lesson. I saw your fingerprints a little bit more in those moments. Is that something that you had planned to do going in, or was that something you discovered in the editing process? We wanted the film, like you said, to be very naturalistic, but I also like movies that have moments that don’t necessarily take you out of the film but add another dimension, another color. Broken Social Scene is a favorite band, and Anna and I listened to some of their music when we were writing. We wrote some of their music into the scenes, we played some of their music on-set when we were shooting to set a vibe, and we used it as temp when we were cutting it. Then we flew up to Toronto and showed the band the movie, and we were fortunate enough that they liked it and let us use a lot of their music. In terms of the archival stuff, I was a big fan of Do the Right Thing when I was a kid. I still think it’s a great film, and I love some of the more stylized moments in that film where characters are talking to the camera. I have to give Spike Lee some credit for those moments in the movie. But yeah, we thought it was nice to sort of step outside and show what Ryan’s character is teaching and how they’re taking it in, and that they really are learning historical moments. Because otherwise the stuff in the classroom is kind of heady, it’s very philosophical, and when we see how that actually applies to the reality of what’s going on in the world, I think it’s key, it says a lot about his character and his relationship to the students.

ANTHONY MACKIE IN HALF NELSON.

One of the things about the storytelling that impressed me was the fact that it’s quite restrained in terms of the motivation of the characters. You never spell out a lot of the backstories. We were definitely aware of all the sort of drug movie clichés, and we sort of float around some of them and walk the line. We didn’t want to say, “This is the reason why [Gosling’s characters] is the way he is, “but we hang out with his family and get little hints. Some people, I think, simplistically just say, “Oh, well, they’re alcoholics and they’re fucked up, so that’s what he is.” But if you look at what’s going on in that sequence with their political histories, what they’re talking about at the table, and the music they’re listening to, there are all kinds of hints about lost idealism. All that stuff that plays into it. It’s so much more complicated than just a genetic predisposition to addiction, you know.

There’s that one great line in that scene, where the parents say that they’ve failed, and Gosling says something to the effect of, “Well, yeah, but you ended the war.” Right, that’s key, because he thinks of his parents’ generation as really almost having created a revolution, having created serious changes. Here they are, and they don’t even believe it themselves.

You’ve made one feature-length doc, one feature-length fiction film, both of which have done quite well. The doc’s still looking for a home. But yeah...

Are you going to continue to work in non-fiction as well? I hope so. But I have learned that documentary filmmakers need so much more patience. I’d love to do a Hoop Dreams, but that took, what, 10 years to make? I just don’t know that I have the patience to make those kinds of films. But hopefully we can make another doc again that is more contained in terms of the time frame.

Can you talk a bit about your upcoming film? Anna and I are researching a movie about a Dominican baseball player who comes here to play and has a bad experience. We’re also writing something for Paramount, an adaptation of a book called It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which is a young-adult novel about a guy who checks himself into an adult psych ward to get away from the pressures of high school. That’s definitely going to be different from Half Nelson. It’s going to be funny.

Is that something you might direct? Yeah, hopefully.

You and Anna share a lot of responsibilities. How does that work? I know that she edits, you direct and you both write together. We’re actually going to co-direct this baseball project. Because the relationship is so fluid, she’s on the set as the editor as well, and it’s so great to have her eyes next to me, when we’re getting coverage or when we’re just examining a scene that we’re about to tackle or about to get out of. And she and I know the characters better than anybody else, so when she edits, she maintains the through-line.

Is it almost like a Coen brothers type of thing? Yeah, I think so. We’ve said that before, and I think I got a little greedy with the director credit on this one. [laughs] She probably deserved a co-director credit. So we’re co-directing the next one.

Anything else you want to talk about? No. This is the first interview I’ve done without Anna, so I feel a little bit naked [laughs] — a little bit more nervous than usual.

I should have asked her to join us. That’s all right. It’s nice to do one alone.

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HOW THEY DID IT

PRODUCTION FORMAT: Super 16mm.

CAMERA: Arriflex SR3.

FILM STOCK: Kodak Vision2 Expression 500T 7229.

EDITING SYSTEM: Final Cut Pro HD.

COLOR CORRECTION: Performed at PostWorks in New York. Selects were scanned in 2K on a Spirit and conformed in the Quantel iQ; final color grading was done by Scot Olive on the Pandora Pogle color corrector with Freeflow while applying FilmLight’s Truelight look-up tables; all color grading was done to a 16-ft.-by 9-ft. screen in the DI Theater using the NEC iS8 DLP projector.


GO BACK AND WATCH...

JONAH WHO WILL BE 25 IN THE YEAR 2000: Swiss director Alain Tanner’s 1976 ensemble piece visits a post-’68 generation, including a schoolteacher who teaches a dialectic theory of history.

PERMANENT MIDNIGHT: David Veloz dramatizes the real-life addiction of comedy writer Jerry Stahl (Ben Stiller) as he goes from writing episodes of Alf to freebasing.

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE: Ronald Neame’s 1969 drama about a Scottish teacher (the irrepressible Maggie Smith) with a penchant for Mussolini remains an endearing portrait of an inspirational yet flawed teacher.