Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the co-directing team behind Ryan Gosling’s Oscar-nominated breakthrough in their debut feature Half Nelson, are up to bat again with the immigrant baseball story Sugar. These Brooklyn-diehards decided this time to jump from the lower borough, exploring cultures and people far outside the walls of their beloved city. Their new film, a tribute to the sports film seen through the eyes of a Dominican baseball player brought over to play in the United States, reveals an alternate, more realistic take on making it in the big leagues—shining a light on all those unknown players who never quite slugged a homer in the majors. Slant caught up with Boden and Fleck at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills and discussed with them the challenges of finding a nonprofessional actor in a foreign place who could skillfully play baseball, as well as how they steered clear of sports genre clichés and how they’ve managed so far as a directing pair. Also, they are great at finishing each other’s sentences.
Are you based in New York?
Ryan Fleck: Yeah, Brooklyn.
How do you feel about L.A. when you come out here?
Anna Boden: It’s warmer, better weather.
Fleck: We drove by a disco gas station on the way from the airport.
Boden: We were like, “Only in L.A.” It was so weird. You know, instead of the names of the gases, it had: “Regular, Better, Best.” Have you seen those things? [laughs]
I’ve seen unleaded and premium.
Boden: Yeah, but no…
Fleck: It was like disco…
Boden: It was like premium, but some premium was, like, better.
Fleck: It felt like a bar when you pull up.
Boden: So, yeah, it’s interesting. Definitely different.
I know that you’re a fan of baseball, Ryan. Anna, what brought your interest into baseball?
Boden: It wasn’t the baseball. I was more interested in the immigration, coming-of-age-journey aspect of the story. You know, being fascinated by all these young people who are coming to the United States, and instead of having their first experience in a major city with a big immigrant population, they end up in a small town in the middle of nowhere. That journey really captured my interest.
What was the first spark of the story? Was it the baseball story? The immigrant story? Was it all just fleshed out at once?
Fleck: It was a combination of those things. First, it was something that we felt like would make a good movie; it was a story we hadn’t seen before—combining this unique immigrant story. Like Anne was saying before: the poor people that sneak across the border or they came over in the early 1900s, Godfather-style. We hadn’t seen something where an athlete comes over to play a professional sport—so combining those two genres was interesting to us in a way we hadn’t seen before.
When you got to the Dominican Republic, how did the story shift and change? And why did you pick the DR?
Boden: Do you mean when we got there for research?
Boden: Fifteen percent. This was a stat from a few years ago. And I’m sure it has changed, but when we started doing research it was 15% of the major league was Dominican-born and 30% of the minor league. It is definitely the country from where most major league players come that aren’t North American.
Fleck: I think the main reason it was the DR…because every Major League baseball team has an academy in the DR. Because of the relationship with Cuba, it can’t operate there and sign players, unless they take a raft.
Boden: Yeah. That would be an interesting story too, but it just wasn’t the specific one that we were…
Fleck: We were interested in this big huge industry, which is Major League Baseball. This little economy in the DR, they started operating there because they sign players for a fraction of what they would sign high school or college graduate baseball players in the United States.
Boden: And what we were really interested in was, you know, there are huge Dominican baseball stars in the United States, like Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez, and David Ortiz. But we were interested in the fact that there are hundreds of people who come to the United States each year that you never hear of, because they never make it to the majors and they’re toiling in the minors for $1,000 a week. When you think of baseball players and stars and lots of money, but this was a story about a much more common experience that we don’t see or read about in the papers.
Were people welcoming to you in the DR?
Boden: People were surprisingly welcoming.
Fleck: When we were doing research, we would go to these baseball academies and talk to these guys—they would go home for the week—and we’d say, “Hey, can we come see where you live?” They would be, “Sure, come on over.” We would drive three hours to some small village, and they invited us into their homes. Yeah, people were really welcoming and they wanted us to get the story right.
In the DR—when you were meeting the former baseball players, trainers, and coaches—before you met who would play Sugar, how did their words help shape the narrative?
Boden: Whether it was an anecdote of someone trying to order food in the United States when they first came here, or the detail of building the bigger, nicer house next to the smaller, run-down house for your mother [in the DR], which a lot of people had done and later abandoned due to loss of funding. All those details found their way into the story some way. One of the major things that changed from the initial conception of what Sugar’s character arc would be was we initially thought he would leave the team at the end of the season and would be released. We talked with so many people who had left without being kicked off the team—had some kind of tension with the manager—and we thought this is a much more fascinating decision to explore: somebody who leaves before the end of the season, and you would have to question why they did it. That was something that definitely changed the script.
How did the casting experience differ from Half Nelson? Ryan Gosling was sort of embedded in the Hollywood system, so did you find everyone in the DR?
Fleck: Everyone in the DR we found down there. But on Half Nelson, Ryan acted alongside Shareeka Epps, who had never acted before. So we had some experience looking for nonprofessional actors. We just went around to Brooklyn schools and auditioned kids for the role of Drey. [Sugar] was a lot trickier.
Boden: I think that experience on Half Nelson, finding Shareeka, totally gave us false confidence about finding a non-actor to play this role.
Fleck: We found her so quickly.
Boden: It was like the third person that we had auditioned for the role of Drey in Half Nelson. So we were, like, “Oh, it’s not that hard to find somebody with that spark.” Then 600 people later in the DR: “What are we doing here?” We did it the same way as Ryan was saying we did with Shareeka: Looking for a young African-American student from Brooklyn, we’ll just go to schools; looking for a young Dominican baseball player from San Pedro, we just drove around to fields and talked to people, searching for that kind of natural charisma. Algenis was number 452 and we remember that number very, very well—because we were so relieved that we finally found the guy. As far as working with non-actors and professional ones, I don’t think it’s that different. We had confidence he could carry the movie.
What was the training process like for Algenis Perez Soto? I’m guessing that was a large portion after the casting—placing him on the pitching mound.
Boden: Yeah, he had started out as an in-fielder, so he had never pitched before. We knew he was athletic and he could throw a ball and he looked good on the mound, but he really needed some pitching training. We had worked a few times a week with the pitching coach for the Astros. When we got closer to production, Jose Rio, who is an MVP all-star pitcher…
Fleck: All of those things, yes.
Boden: …an all-star pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds in his past; he was a consultant on the movie. He worked with Algenis, taught him how to curve the ball. Algenis became an all-star pitcher before we started shooting, that’s pretty impressive. He was so determined to do well. If we had someone with slightly less of a work ethic, it would have been a total disaster.
How would you describe your relationship on set?
Fleck: I think we’re still figuring it out as we go, but I think on this movie and the previous movie too, we spent a lot of time on the script together. By the time we’re shooting, we’re pretty much on the same page. And with this movie, it was a natural movie to start co-directing on—because Anna’s Spanish is excellent and mine is sort of mediocre. She really worked with the Spanish-speaking actors and crew and I worked more with the English-speaking actors. The little details-we don’t obsess over like what color shoes [Sugar] will be wearing in any particular scene. If somebody makes a decision without consulting the other because it needs to be made in a hurry, we aren’t going to freak out about it. And if somebody does freak out about it—“It’s the wrong colored shoes!”—then we’ll just change it. It’s not a big deal.
Boden: When you’re working on set, you can’t always have a little conference on the side before making a decision. One of the nice things about co-directing is that we can really be in two places at once, but we have to trust each other to make decisions that are going toward the same goal.
What was the process like picking the small town in America where Sugar plays in the minor leagues?
Fleck: We spent time. We drove all over Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. I wouldn’t say we covered the whole States but we looked at the ballparks. We really wanted to find the whitest town with the least Spanish-speaking population/demographic. We wanted to isolate [Algenis]. The town—we don’t call it Burlington in the movie—but it’s kind of based on Burlington, Iowa, which is a great, old small town on the Mississippi River.
Boden: It was a little too far out there and too small to make shooting there a realistic possibility, just from a production standpoint. We ended up shooting in a bigger town, Quad Cities, and was actually a more diverse city. We still wanted to set it in a place as if it were Burlington—so we kind of created a fictional town called Bridgetown that was a mix between the two.
I really liked the portrayal of the Higgins family in terms of religion. I’m Jewish and don’t know much about Christianity, but I thought it was really honest in trying to get their characters right.
Fleck: Religion was a big part. I’m not Christian either—I was raised Communist. [laughs] And Anna is Jewish, as well. But, I think we just found objectively, as researchers—starting in the DR—religion is just huge there. I think it’s practiced differently than it is in Iowa, but it’s also huge in Iowa. The church is everywhere you go, based on the people we met.
Boden: [Religion] was impossible to ignore as an aspect of either culture. I don’t think we set out to make a movie where religion played a big role. But as we started creating our characters and locations, it automatically became a part of it. We just tried to stay as objective as possible as we did with every aspect of the cultural differences between the places. And we were interested in the different way people expressed their religious feelings, and tried to pepper that through.
Because you are working within certain genres, what was one place you didn’t want to take this story?
Fleck: Well, I think we didn’t have a list, per se. But we knew right away this was not going to be the rags-to-riches story, the movie wasn’t going to end with him getting the call to pitch in the major leagues, like The Rookie—that Dennis Quaid movie—which is not a bad movie. It’s just a different story. We’ve seen that story and didn’t want to retell it.
Has it screened in the DR?
Fleck: Yes, I couldn’t go, but it opened the Dominican Film Festival when Anna went.
Boden: At the national theater in Santa Domingo, 1,400 people came out, including entire little league teams and huge baseball stars were there: Pedro Martinez, Robinson Canó, David Ortiz. The president of the country presented the movie. I sat there, and watched it with an audience for the first time. People are laughing so hard, there is so much energy in the room, people are yelling at the screen, clapping through the plays. It was really great to see the reaction of the people who really understood the experience of this player from a first-hand perspective.