Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, Mississippi Grind

Screen International, January 26, 2015 | Go to article overview

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, Mississippi Grind


The veteran Sundance co-writer-directors tell Tiffany Pritchard about their return to Park City with the Premieres selection about gambling pals on a trip to a high-stakes poker game in New Orleans.

The Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden short films - Struggle and Gowanus, Brooklyn - debuted in Park City in 2003 and 2004, the latter tying with When The Storm Came for the Short Filmmaker Award.

The partners and longtime collaborators graduated to features and brought Half Nelson to the festival in 2006, followed two years later by the Dominican baseball drama Sugar.

Now, after a seven-year detour that saw them branch into television, the duo are back at Sundance with Mississippi Grind starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn as gambling buddies who take to the road to pay off debts.

Regardless of how many times their names have graced Sundance marquees, Fleck says it doesn't get easier when it comes to watching their films in front of an audience for the first time.

"You can never gauge how people will respond," he says. "Every time it's a surprise. But even if they don't like it, at least we're pushing buttons."

The easy part, says Boden, who shares an editing credit on the film, was the idea for the story. When shooting Sugar in towns around Iowa, she and Fleck visited riverboat casinos, which for Boden are "a world of gambling unlike most of what you see on screen - they were no Vegas or Atlantic City."

She instead equates them to tiny places stuck in another time, where locals like the characters depicted by Reynolds and Mendelsohn sit around all day, gambling away what little money they have.

"Those casinos and the fascinating community within them helped influence the development of Curtis and Gerry's relationship. You would hear people talking about the funniest of things. They weren't the high-powered card sharks I had imagined."

The rainbow motif referenced throughout the film was one example of inspiration drawn from a local gambler waxing poetic.

"I remember overhearing a guy tell his table, 'I drove to the end of the rainbow once - right to the end of the trees,' and I couldn't help laugh," says Boden. "I knew we had to include the rainbow somehow."

The co-directors - who met at film school in New York - unexpectedly took to a bit of poker-playing themselves.

"We weren't great, but we certainly had some fun moments just hanging out and learning more about the wonders of poker and its players," says Boden.

The experience helped mould Mendelsohn's character Gerry, a down-on-his-luck middle-aged guy who desperately wants someone to latch onto, as well as the charming Curtis played by Reynolds, who is the answer to all Gerry's problems.

"Curtis is that guy who walks into a room and spreads magic like a leprechaun," says Fleck. "And let's face it, who wouldn't want to latch on to Ryan Reynolds? I certainly would."

When asked about the interplay of addiction issues, Fleck and Boden immediately insist Mississippi Grind is not another Half Nelson, explaining that the earlier film was not primarily about addiction. …

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