Half Nelson was among the most extraordinary debuts of the past decade, perhaps more so given that its singularity was the product of two writer/directors, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. Sugar, their follow-up, is in some regards even more assured, more stylistically and tonally distinctive than its predecessor. It follows the titular Dominican pitcher (vividly embodied by first-timer Algenis Perez Soto) as he journeys from Boca Chica to play in the minors in an Iowa town.
[See Jason Gargano's review here.]
Sugar eschews the customary ascent-to-triumph tactics of the sports genre for something far richer and more attuned to the vagaries of immigrant experience. Fleck and Boden discussed the film at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.
CityBeat: Where did the idea for Sugar come from?
Ryan Fleck: I’d read an article somewhere about a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic and eventually discovered that every major league baseball team has an academy there, where they sign players for a fraction of what they sign them for when graduating high school or college in the U.S. We became very interested in the kids who go through these programs, especially the ones you don’t hear about. We started our research up in the Bronx at that field that ends the movie where there’s this whole community of guys who’ve been through these programs and eventually, when they’re let go or decide to leave early, head to New York to start over.
Anna Boden: Then we went down to the Dominican Republic, interviewing guys, tooling around, going to as many academies as possible, going into towns and finding players who’d been released or had gone to the U.S. The character of Sugar and his journey is a composite of all the different stories we heard and people we met during that time.
CB: Do either of you have friends or family with analogous experiences as immigrants?
RF: Not in our lifetimes. Maybe three generations ago.
AB: This didn’t come from that sort of personal place. We just saw this story as a vessel to explore themes we were interested in: What it means to have an American dream, then have that dream shift, to rediscover who you are, how you might fit within this system.
CB: The film handles its politics in a lovely, understated way. One subject that I thought was dealt with especially elegantly was heartland religion. In the small town where Sugar ends up, there seems to be a strong undercurrent of people wanting to wed every part of their lives to their sense of belonging to a religious community. I wonder if you felt at all anxious about dealing with this subject.
RF: We’re both very non-religious, so we kind of surprised ourselves with this gentle portrayal of these religious families. I guess it’s just that when you’re trying to tell an honest story, you have to listen to what’s happening around you. All through our research we kept encountering religion — most players thank God numerous times when talking about their talent — so we knew we had to work it into our movie in a way that felt organic.
AB: We were as surprised as anyone at just how much of a spiritual journey we were telling.
CB: I actually found myself wondering if there wasn’t some spiritual, or rather mythic corollary to Sugar’s story. I understand Spanish, and found it interesting that you subtitle virtually all the Spanish dialogue in the movie with one notable exception, this Icarus-like story Sugar shares about how he got his scar as a baby, trying to grasp something beyond his reach. And of course he has this considerable hubris, this arrogance to match his talent, so the story naturally assumes allegorical dimensions.
RF: That scene was written later in the process, simply because we realized we cast somebody who has a scar. That’s Algenis telling the actual story of how he got it. What you’re saying is really interesting. Honestly, I never made that connection.
AB: I did.
AB: I thought it was really important. And for me the decision to not translate it was about not necessarily having the audience make that connection — though I think it’s really lovely that you did — but rather letting this guy who’s been stuck in this place where he can’t communicate for so long finally be able to speak his own language, seeing how that changes who he is, how the process of coming to this place has changed him.
RF: Plus, it puts you in his shoes for a second, giving you some idea of what it’s like to have all these people talking and understanding almost nothing.
CB: I love how this story of self-actualization coincides with one of language acquisition — so much of how we identify ourselves has to do with the minutia of self-expression. I also thought that Algenis, who I guess spoke more English than the character, did a knockout job of playing a guy who understands very little.
AB: I think Algenis shared a lot with the character. He understood this feeling of having to smile and nod your head a lot to get through uncomfortable scenarios.
CB: Your films possess such a distinctive style considering your sharing of writing and directing duties. Do you have a process in which you have to delegate certain elements of the work?
RF: We’ve used the same key crew both times, and when you’re working with the same people they contribute to the same part of that vision. But between us it’s actually pretty fluid. We pretty much do everything together.
CB: So often in movies the more voices you have competing for control the more fights that arise and the more diluted a distinctive voice can become.
AB: Yet it’s so much easier to fight those fights when you have a partner fighting alongside you. Making Sugar we actually felt pretty supported by our team and our producers, but with Half Nelson we hadn’t worked with any of these people before and they didn’t have the confidence in us they have now. So I found it incredibly helpful to have someone there who I knew trusted me and who could give unwavering support and who could help to decide which fights are worth having.