They may not get the headlines of some of their flashier colleagues, but Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are two of our most interesting young directors working today. They broke through with one of the best debuts of the last decade in the masterful Half Nelson and completely disproved the theory of the sophomore slump with the spectacular Sugar. After Ryan did a stint directing several episodes of HBO's excellent In Treatment, he reunited with Anna for this week's It's Kind of a Funny Story, starring Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, and Emma Roberts. Gilchrist plays a young man who admits himself to a mental hospital after a disturbing number of suicidal thoughts. Stuck there for minimum of five days, he makes friends and falls in love, but not in the cheesy way the previews for the film might have you believe. Boden and Fleck recently sat down with MovieRetriever.com in Chicago to discuss their third collaboration and the two couldn't be nicer or more interesting.
By Brian Tallerico
MovieRetriever: Did either of you have a personal connection to the issues of teenage depression addressed in the film?
ANNA BODEN: I definitely relate to the character. I was never admitted to a hospital and didn't go through depression as severe as Craig but I really related to this character who feels like everything is coming down on him and he doesn't know if he can handle it any more. Even if it's something that's fleeting, pretty much every teenager can relate to that. I think that's what attracted us to the story – this kid who's so open and honest about that. There's this honest voice that treats everything with a lot of respect but is also able to find the lightness and humor in it. That's what really attracted us to this story.
MovieRetriever: How is it different from the book?
RYAN FLECK: I think that ultimately fans of the book will watch the movie and say, "That's different and that's different, but they really got the spirit of the book right." That's what we were going for instead of a true page-for-page adaptation, which really never exists anyway. We were going for the spirit of this character and wanted to capture that in the movie. Specifically, Bobby, the Zach Galifianakis character, doesn't exist that way in the book. There's a guy name Bobby who's a fairly-significant character but the Bobby we created was a combination of several characters. There's not one central friend that Craig meets in the hospital besides Noelle. It's this whole ensemble of characters. We wanted to focus more on one of those characters.
FLECK: Those are the stories we really respond to. That's what we focused on [in] our first two movies. There's always a central relationship that can transform … I feel like it's easier for us as filmmakers and the audience to get drawn into the story if they know who we're following.
BODEN: And there's less time in a movie to spend developing each relationship, so I think you need to be selective about what relationships we really chose to develop so they had some depth to them.
MovieRetriever: So, you write Bobby and then you cast Zach. Does casting someone with such a unique rhythm change the character you conceived?
BODEN: I don't remember specifics that we re-wrote but I think that … First of all, whenever you cast, it becomes something different and unique. Until you cast, it's a little bit amorphous even in our own minds after we've written it. There's something about Zach's comedy that's a little bit "When is he joking and when is he serious?" We think that added a lot.
MovieRetriever: And how much improvising does he do? I know you've encouraged a lot on your first two films.
FLECK: We encourage the actors to always have the freedom to go off script a little bit. The script's always there. The scene's always about what it's about but they have freedom and out of that freedom come occasional gems that we may use in the final cut. More often than not, we come back to the script. There's something about the quality that when the actors have that freedom they're then allowed to say the words as-written with more believability … when they feel like they don't have to say them. In this movie specifically, sure, if you're not allowing Zach to do what he does best then you're not taking advantage of all of his talents.
MovieRetriever: It sounds almost like you use improvisation as a rehearsal tool – to get them comfortable where they are. Would you say that's true? Do you guys do a lot of background rehearsal as well? Like improvisation involving scenes that aren't even in the film?
FLECK: We did that more in our first movie. We did that in rehearsals for Half Nelson. On Sugar, not as much, due to the nature of that movie. On this one, not so much. The rehearsals were going over the script and making sure we were on the same page.
BODEN: If anything, between Keir and Emma we did a little bit of that. During auditions: We have a very-extended auditions phase that kind of ended up feeling more like rehearsal at some point. It got pretty deep.
FLECK: We do those kind of games where they meet each other for the first time at a bus stop.
MovieRetriever: To assess and build chemistry?
FLECK: Yeah. And to have fun.
MovieRetriever: One of the things I liked about the piece is the balance of fantasy and reality? How do you maintain that balance between the two so it's not weighted too heavily to either side?
BODEN: We really tried to find ways to make the movie a subjective experience – to get into the head of our character in the way that a novel can, which is obviously more of a challenge when you're doing a film because you're not reading the character's thoughts. That's why we introduced the fantasy scenes. I don't think that we thought about the balance too much. When there was an opportunity, we took it. It would have to come in naturally and feel like what was happening in the present led us into it. So, it would always be like something was happening that would set something off in Craig's mind that we would then be able to get into.
MovieRetriever: How much research did you do into mental illness?
FLECK: We did some but mostly used the book, which is semi-autobiographical. That was really our main guide: His experience. We did go to a hospital very much like the one in the movie: Took a look around, talked to some doctors. At the end of the day, it wasn't like we were trying to do a gritty expose.
MovieRetriever: It seems to me that an essential element is casting Keir. Can you speak a little bit about why him and what he brings to the role?
BODEN: We were interested in finding someone who really felt like a teenager. That was our number one thing. There are a lot of 22 or 23-year-old actors who play high school. It works for some movies but we felt that authenticity was really important. That was an immediate limit and narrowed it down. We looked at a lot of audition tapes and his really stood out. He played it really natural but you really felt a lot of emotion from him in his tape. And then we met him and he was like a punk kid in a hoodie and he wasn't sucking up to us and wasn't pretending to be a sophisticated Hollywood actor. He was just a kid. He was just himself. The more we saw him … his own real-life energy into it, the more charismatic he became as Craig. There was a long audition process and every step of the way he was more this character.
MovieRetriever: How did your work on In Treatment change your directing?
FLECK: It's a different experience – directing for TV. It's the first time I had ever worked from somebody else's script. It's much more like theater; especially that show. Really, the writers and producers rule television. You have some input but it's really job-for-hire. I thought it was really fun: Great writers, actors. It was an excellent experience. It's really fast.
MovieRetriever: Do you think that experience changed you at all?
FLECK: I don't think so.
BODEN: You became a lot better at "crossing the line" because it's all about coverage on that show. It changed how facile your mind was about coverage.
FLECK: It was the first time that I had worked with two cameras, so I suppose that trained my mind [in a new way]. It introduced my mind … it's kind of like a puzzle. So, yeah, I guess so. [Laughs.]
MovieRetriever: Any advice for upcoming screenwriters?
FLECK: Assuming that they have a script … What is the advice? That's good. People ask us for filmmakers and it's about making a film.
BODEN: But a screenplay isn't anything until it becomes a film.
FLECK: It's harder to show that, to get that script seen. I don't know. We approach everything as filmmakers, as writer/directors.
BODEN: Maybe if you're just a screenwriter, make friends with a young director who's also aspiring. Then you can … A lot of directors don't want to be writers but feel like they have to write their own stuff. Find somebody to work with. You're more able to find out what works and what doesn't after it's been put on the screen and edited. You're more like "I didn't need that and this is why."
Check out It's Kind of a Funny Story when it opens on Friday, October 8th, 2010.