The creators of Half Nelson talk to TF...

So far, Ryan Gosling's got all the Half Nelson press - what with his Oscar nom and all - but Ryan Fleck (director, writer) and his partner Anna Boden (writer, producer) have their fair share of things to say about the flick. So Total Film handed them the mike...

Did you think when you made your short film, that it’d bring you here to meet us, in the UK , talking about a feature that’s been critically acclaimed?
Ryan: This moment motivated all of the rest of the hard work.

Anna: We were just hoping that it would get some kind of distribution in the United States , we didn’t think much beyond that. We were like ‘please get a distributor’.

And that’s why you entered Sundance…
Ryan: Yes, Sundance has been very supportive of this project throughout every stage, beginning with the short, we won the prize and they invited us to the writer’s lab there. We already had the script for Half Nelson, they invited Half Nelson to get feedback from other professional writers who we worked with for a week up in the mountains, and that was really helpful and fun. Then the feature played there again, so Sundance was a real nourishing presence for this film.

How important was Ryan Gosling in getting the film sold for distribution – does his name carry particular weight, even before the Oscar nomination?
Anna: I think that it probably did have an impact, in that it got distributed. I think it’s already kinda a hard sell, just because it’s not an easily packaged film with a great tagline, so because of that I think it was really important that it had someone who was somewhat recognisable, that had something of a fanbase, whether it was in the indie community going back to The Believer, or whether it was from the 13-year-old girls and 40-year-old housewives that loved The Notebook.

How was he approached? Was he an easy sell?
Ryan: It was a big accident, I don’t know how he got hold of the script. We’d just started the process of looking for our lead, we’d wrote the role for somebody a bit older, we weren’t imagining a 24-year-old for that part. But somehow he got hold of the script and they contacted us saying he was interested, and our first reaction was who’s Ryan Gosling, and then after we’d figured out who he was, was he going to be too young.

But once we met him – not like he was auditioning for us or anything – we just met very casually and we felt that there was something about his presence that felt much older than his 24-year-old age, so it’s not that he’s going to be in his thirties, but we thought it worked that he could be in his twenties. As long as it felt like that character had been through some sort of troubled past, that he had been through something, that was the most important thing. Ryan Gosling definitely feels like he’s got some sort of secret past.

He’s quite a hipster character in the way he dresses, obviously that wouldn’t have been the case if it had been an older character, how did that shift affect things? Also, when did Broken Social Scene become involved, and were those two things linked?
Ryan: The hipster thing came with casting Ryan Gosling, he’s very involved with his wardrobe and his physicality. I don’t think we envisioned him being has hip as Ryan played him, but we were interested to see how it worked with the contradictory nature of his character.

Anna: When we were writing we were listening to a lot of Broken Social Scene and really loving their music. It had an emotion that we really hoped that our movie would have too. We wrote a scene around one of their songs, and we played it onset for the actors when there wasn’t any actors onset to set a mood. We decided that we should probably ask them to use their music at some point, because we’d put 15 or 16 songs in our movie. So we flew up there to Toronto to show them a cut of our movie with all their music in it, and I think at first they were very sceptical…

Ryan: I think they were offended and flattered – ‘Who do these guys think they are putting our music into their movie, but it’s a pretty good movie.' So fortunately they liked it.

Anna: They slowly, despite themselves, let us more and more music. But it was a little bit of a struggle, it’d be ‘But you’re definitely allowed to use that song, I’ve licensed it too many times…’

Ryan: 'It’s too special to me, I’m not going to give it away!’

Anna: And we’d get a call a week later saying, ‘You know, I thought about it, and that scene’s really good with that song.’

Were you impressed with Ryan’s dedication, he moved to New York four months before shooting began…
He can command a lot more money even at that stage for a movie than we were paying him certainly, so it was great that he came out and it wasn’t about the money or the trailer or any of the other perks that well known actors are used to getting on bigger movies. It was just about trying to make a good movie.

What was Ryan’s relationship with the young actors in the class – did he have them enthralled?
Anna: I think that his friendship with Sheerika was a very important base for his character’s friendship with her in the film, and they’re still close. By the time we started shooting they had really formed a friendship, and she maybe had a little bit of a crush on him too. I think in terms of the rest of the kids in the class, there were varying degrees of interest in him (laughs). A lot of them weren’t actors in the class, most of them were just regular kids. They were hot, it was their summer and they could be out playing, but they were in a stuffy room with lights, hearing the same thing four or five times…

Ryan: Realising that making movies isn’t as exciting as it first sounded when they signed up.

Anna: Even with the guy from The Notebook it’s not as exciting…

Ryan: A lot of them hadn’t seen that movie, they were ‘what is this thing we’re doing, I don’t get it’. There were a couple of shots of kids sleeping in the class, resting their heads, and that was real, we’d sometimes shoot it without them knowing.

Anna: One of the actors in the classroom kept snoring, they’d fall asleep and start snoring and they were right behind Shareeka and at some point Shareeka would start cracking up in the middle of one of her takes, and we’d be like ‘Shareeka!’ and we’d wonder why because we didn’t realise what was happening…

Ryan: There’d be a serious scene and the kids would start laughing and I was like ‘What is going on, why can’t we control the room?’ and they’d be like ‘She’s snoring!’

Shareeka’s not related to any other famous Epps is she?
Ryan: No, we asked her the same thing when we first met her.

Anna: She said, ‘No, I wish I was though.’

Which one, Mike or Omar?
Anna: Omar.

Ryan: We didn’t know who Mike was at the time.

Anna: We met her when she was 13, when we did the short film, so that was in 2003, we didn’t know about Mike.

You wouldn’t guess that she hasn’t acted before this – did the short give her confidence to work opposite Ryan?
Ryan: I think having known the two of us, and feeling comfortable making the short film, even though the scale of that was tiny, it was just a video camera and six people. I think having gone through that was very helpful for the future.

Were you ever afraid that you wouldn’t be able to capture the magic of the short film, especially with her performance?
Ryan: That’s a fear going into any movie, that the chemistry won’t be right when you’re rolling film, that it won’t work, but we could tell on the first day. The first scene that we did with Ryan and Shareeka, when she comes up to the car, and she calls him an asshole and he calls her a bitch, and as soon as that played after the first take, everyone onset was like ‘Woah, this is going to be okay’. We all got that these two had something cool going on.

Often we’d ask ‘did the older actor help the younger actor?’ but in this instance do you think that Shareeka helped Ryan up his game?
Ryan: Definitely. And Ryan talks about it all the time whenever you can get hold of him, he’ll talk about how great working with Shareeka was…

Anna: She keeps him honest. She kept the other actors honest, because if they didn’t say something that was going to make her laugh, she wouldn’t laugh. She goes into a scene and she doesn’t have something planned out like another professional actor might, where she knows how she’s going to say this line. One of the great things about her is she really listens and she reacts and when you have someone who’s really reacting off you, it keeps you honest, I think.

Ryan acted when he was a kid – did he have a sense of where the kids where coming from and what they needed perhaps?
Ryan: That’s a good question, maybe, I never thought of that.

Would it have been a very different film if Al Gore had got elected?
Ryan: Absolutely. We talked about that too – but even if John Kerry had got elected the climate of this kind of movie would feel a little bit less immediate, a little less urgent. Not that we voted for Bush, because we were trying to make this movie back then. I remember having a conversation, because we actively tried to kick Bush out of office, and we were very depressed, but I remember at one point having a conversation and saying, ‘Well it’ll still keep our movie relevant.

Anna: That was an important part of the impetus for writing the film, in terms of writing a character who was so frustrated with his inability to change things, in his own life and in the larger picture.

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