Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sweet Baseball

By Jonathan Jackson
Artistic Director, Milwaukee Film

It’s amazing how early in the summer everyone in Milwaukee is talking about baseball, but it’s not just because of the Brewers recent hot streak. Screening in Milwaukee now at the Landmark Downer Theatre is the must-see, widely acclaimed drama “Sugar.”

“Sugar” follows Miguel Santos, a talented Dominican youth who is discovered by MLB scouts and travels through several development leagues in an attempt to make it to the big leagues and rescue his family from extreme poverty.

“Sugar” is the second feature from the writing and directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, whose remarkable debut film “Half Nelson” also screened to great acclaim and even earned an Oscar nomination for its lead actor Ryan Gosling.

Film festival fans in Milwaukee might remember Ryan Fleck, as he attended the 2004 Milwaukee International Film Festival with his short “Gowanus, Brooklyn.” I caught up with Ryan this week on Facebook to ask him a few questions and try to get inside look at the process of making “Sugar.”

Algenis Perez Soto is magnetic in the title role of ‘Sugar.’ Where and how did you find him?
We found him playing baseball with friends while casting for the movie in San Pedro de Macoris. He was number 452 of about 600 interviews we conducted during the process.

The ‘Ryan and Anna Internment Acting Class’ sounds pretty interesting… how did you prepare Soto for his first film appearance?

I’m pretty sure we’d be terrible acting teachers. Once we found Algenis (which is the hardest part of directing a movie like this) we spent a lot of time with him and his family just hanging out. And once our crew arrived to the Dominican Republic, they got to know him too. So by the time we were shooting, he felt super comfortable with all of us. We also gave him movies like Taxi Driver and Half Nelson to give him a sense of the understated style of acting we like in movies. Most of the movies they see in the DR tend to be big action movies or broad comedies.

The cinematography by Andrij Parekh, who also shot “Half Nelson,” is crucial to the intimacy between Sugar and the audience. How did you prepare for the photography of the film and what is your onset relationship like with Parekh?

Andrij is extremely sensitive to the acting process. He will never sacrifice an actor’s needs to the lighting. He understands that everything in a movie like this or “Half Nelson” revolves around the actor’s performances. That said, there is a significant amount of baseball in the movie that none of us were familiar with shooting. Once we created a shotlist, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to rehearse some of the baseball sequences on video and have Anna edit them on her laptop to see if they were working. That was a very helpful experience.

Being that “Sugar” is such a close, intense character study, I find it amazing that it also provides the viewer with an authentic look at three very distinct communities, as well as the MLB farm system. I am guessing the authenticity on screen has a lot to do with research, so please describe your and Anna’s research process for the film.
Yes, research was huge. We traveled to the Bronx, the Dominican Republic, Arizona, and Iowa to interview as many people as we could. The story and character details really came together based on our experiences during these trips. For example, in Iowa we learned about the host families that foreign players stay with to ease their financial burden while playing in the U.S. The Higgins family were based on a combination of families we met during the research.

Collaboration with a crew is a necessary part of any film production, but you and Anna take it to the next level by sharing writing and directing duties. There must be plenty of high and low points in your collaborative process, how about sharing one of each from “Sugar?”
The great part of any collaboration is sharing ideas and building upon them until a third idea emerges, which is hopefully better than the original two. The bad part of collaborating is private. Sorry.

I love the eclectic selection of music used in “Sugar,” tell me about process of selecting the songs, in particular the choice of ‘TV On The Radio’s’ “Blues From Down Here”?

We worked with a great music supervisor, Lynn Fainchtein. She came down to the DR and met with record labels and gave us hundreds of songs to sift through. We essentially handpicked the ones we liked. I believe she told us she had a connection to TV on the Radio and we’re fans so we went through their music and found “Blues from Down here” for the montage sequence.

Follow-up: Knowing that you share zip codes with ‘TV on the Radio,’ would you promise to tell them that they have a huge following in Milwaukee and it is borderline criminal that they have not played Milwaukee on their last two album tours?

We don’t know them, but if we ever meet, we’ll let them know. Perhaps we’ll meet at their show in Brooklyn this June. Sorry again.

As a MLB fan, what do you think of the NL Central leading Milwaukee Brewers and their chances this year?

Don’t know much about the Brewers, but I suppose it’s been awhile since they were good, so I’ll be pulling for them.

So an adaptation of “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” by Ned Vizzini is up next. What drew you to the material?

The novel was given to us by a producer and we thought it was fun. It’s very different from “Sugar” or “Half Nelson,” but there are some serious ideas, despite the story’s comic tone.