With longtime collaborator Anna Boden, filmmaker Ryan Fleck has made four narrative features, including Half Nelson, Sugar, and now the lovely, funky caper Mississippi Grind, all marked by a humane interest in characters struggling along the edges of the American dream. An homage to the gamblers, ruffians, and confidence men of the Hollywood Renaissance, Mississippi Grind, largely filmed in New Orleans, also bears the imprint of The City That Care Forgot—its seedy dives, its threadbare venues, its slightly off-kilter hospitality. When Gerry (the excellent Ben Mendelsohn), in debt and divorced, meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a charmer always on the lookout for his next game, the two embark on a topsy-turvy road trip downriver, stopping in other unremembered outposts of middle Americana: St. Louis, Memphis, Tunica. It is, like all of Fleck and Boden’s films, admirably scratchy in stretches, not unlike the world in which it’s set, or indeed the movies to which it pays tribute. On a cool, cloudy French Quarter morning, I spoke to Fleck about learning to play poker, his love for “old-school American characters,” and his work on the HBO series Looking.
We traditionally associate gambling movies with Vegas, or maybe California. Why the Mississippi River? What was interesting about that for you and Anna?
We hadn’t seen it before, first of all. Maybe there’s something out there that we haven’t seen. I haven’t seen every movie, obviously. When we were making Sugar in 2007, we spent a lot of time in Iowa, in the Quad Cities, which is right on the Mississippi River up there, and we stumbled across these riverboat casinos, which, just like you said, were sort of the opposite of Vegas, the opposite of glamorous, and didn’t even seem to be trying that hard to be glamorous. We were just fascinated by the locations. We had a good time playing blackjack, and off in the distance there was always a poker room that felt very mysterious, felt very unknown. I didn’t know how to play poker. It seemed like something was happening in there, and I wanted to learn what was going on. We finished making Sugar, filed that location away in the back of the brain, and then a few years later popped up again and said, “Hey, remember those poker rooms? Remember those riverboat casinos? What if two guys meet in one of those poker rooms right on the Mississippi and decide to take a road trip, in an old-fashioned, romantic, Old West kind of way?”
I read that you all did a road trip of your own, starting in New Orleans and then going upriver. It seems like in the process you fell in love with this kind of tattered, post-industrial landscape, with the montages that introduce each city.
That was important, to get the feel of the road trip, because, as you probably guessed, we shot most of the movie here in New Orleans. But we did take a little trip to get those locations, which were important to the film, to make audiences feel like they were on the road with these guys. We’re really proud that we were able to make that happen, because it’s not the most efficient way to make a movie. We got the crew up to St. Louis. We got the crew to Memphis. We went to Tunica. We had small units go up to Iowa and get those exterior locations. You see snow on the ground at certain points. It’s nice to sort of feel the landscape shift as you move south. When the guys leave St. Louis, and the two of them are in a car driving south from St. Louis, that’s the actual highway you would be driving on from St. Louis heading down to New Orleans. It’s a small thing, but it’s something I’m proud of.
You and Anna have talked about being influenced by films like California Split and Fat City, among others. What about those movies is so attractive to you?
I don’t know if the people have changed, or if it’s just that the movies about the people have changed, if that makes any sense, but the characters back then just felt so much more unpredictable and volatile and spontaneous and of the moment than they do in movies nowadays. The movies didn’t dwell on backstory. The stories didn’t try to tell you everything about the characters. They were loose. They were freewheeling. Not every movie, but the movies we gravitated to, like Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, The King of Marvin Gardens, Scarecrow. Have you ever seen Scarecrow? Gene Hackman’s character in that is telling jokes one minute, punching somebody in the face the next. There’s a scene where he and Pacino are sharing a little motel room, and he starts disrobing, getting ready for bed, and he takes off about 10 shirts. I don’t know if you remember, but it’s such a weird character trait. There’s no reason for that, and it’s not explained in the movie. He’s just a bizarre character. I struggle with the idea of, have people changed? Have people become less idiosyncratic and less like real, old-school American characters? Have we become sort of corporatized, or is it just the movies? And I don’t know the answer. But I feel like when we took this trip, we were still meeting really interesting characters and hearing stories, and we tried to put a piece of that in the movie.
It’s funny that you bring up Gene Hackman in Scarecrow, because I would say that Ben Mendelsohn is almost a kind of Hackmanesque actor. There’s a grizzled quality to him, but also, as Gerry in Mississippi Grind, he brings a warmth that you only see in flashes in his performance in Bloodline, on Netflix. How do you craft a character who experiences such quicksilver changes of not just mood, but also goals, ambitions, interests?
Ben brought a lot of that. I think the character was actually written as a little more uptight, a little more still, and Curtis is the one who’s supposed to come in with all the energy and movement. But Ben Mendelsohn is anything but still. I mean, this guy is just a mountain of energy, and I think he brought that sort of unpredictable, volatile thing to the character, and I like that you compare him to Gene Hackman. I’ve heard other people compare him to Dustin Hoffman in Straight Time. I love hearing these comparisons. Somebody else compared him to young Pacino. He’s one of those great ’70s character actors, only he happens to be living in the present. I forgot the original part of your question. I don’t know if I even touched on it.
It was about how you structure the direction so you get that kind of looseness without losing the thread of the story. Because, to me, one of the most important things about the movie is that the story beats have to hit at the right moment for it to build your expectations, and then, in most cases, to undercut those expectations.
Listen, I wish I could take credit for it being some master plan, but I think it’s really just encouraging the actors to put as much of themselves into the parts that they play. So you’re seeing pieces of Ryan Reynolds, and it’s not just the charismatic side. He’s got a really thoughtful, vulnerable, gentle side, too, that he’s not able to put on display in movies that often—he’s not asked to—and we wanted that to come out. Ben, like I said before, was written as a much more still character, but we wanted him to bring everything that he has as a human being to the part. And so just encouraging that on set and letting the guys have fun and play was, I think, crucial to the chemistry they have on screen.
It was interesting to me, watching Mississippi Grind and then going back and watching Half Nelson, Sugar, and It’s Kind of a Funny Story. It seems like you and Anna are attracted to characters, mainly men of varying ages, who I would describe as being poised on the edge between success and failure. That, to me, is a pretty clear through line.
Then you found it. Because I don’t pretend to know that there’s a through line. But that makes sense to me. I don’t think we’ve thought it through. I think maybe we’re attracted to those stories, and you’re right, they do tend to focus on men. I don’t know why. I think we’re going to try to shift into female territory for our next thing, just because we asked ourselves, “Why are we doing this? Why are we focusing on men? Let’s focus on a woman.” Maybe we’ll learn why we don’t focus on after focusing on a woman. We’ll say, “Oh we’re not very good at telling female stories.” But I’m getting lost here. I don’t really know. I though you put it pretty interestingly.
You said that you didn’t even know how to play poker going in. I’m not much of a gambler myself, but I bought into the kind of seedy, garishly lit backwater casinos and private games that Gerry finds as they go down the river. What kind of research goes into getting that right?
A fair amount. Anna and I took the trip, basically, that the guys take in the movie, and so we stopped into these places along the way and took pictures and made notes. We knew the places we wanted our guys to be in. And we had a poker consultant here because we didn’t know much about poker. We had a guy named Anthony Howard, who’s a professional poker player. He hangs out in the Harrah’s. He was there any time we were shooting a poker scene. He was there helping make sure it all looked right, and he helped with casting so that the guys at the table, who were all experienced poker players, knew how to hold their cards, knew how to raise a bet, knew how to fold. Because we were fairly new to it, we weren’t able to say exactly how it should be. Sometimes we’d have a table that had a few extras that weren’t experienced, and he would sort of whisper to us, “These guys don’t know what they’re doing,” and we would swap them out for somebody from another table that did know. Everybody who’s playing on a featured poke table in the movie knows what they’re doing. Hopefully that adds to the authenticity on screen.
How’s your poker game now?
I haven’t really played since we finished making the movie, but I think I got pretty decent while we were doing research. I started from awful, like literally just not understanding how the game was played, to the point that people were sort of whispering and laughing at me at the table. But people couldn’t read me and I was making strange decisions that were out of the ordinary, and basically winning quite a bit because of that. And then people learned that I was a novice and they started to take their money back.
Do you have an obvious tell?
I don’t think I do, but I’ll tell you, Anna, she is the worst, because when she gets a good hand, she giggles. You would think that was misdirection. You would think that she couldn’t possibly have a good hand because she’s acting like a person who’s so pleased with their hand that it can’t be the case, but sure enough—she has trouble with the lying aspect. A game that’s inherently about misleading people, I think that doesn’t come easily to her.