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Sweet Success: Boden And Fleck On 'Sugar'

Hailed as "the best baseball movie ever," Sugar follows one young man's journey from a village in the Dominican Republic to a minor league baseball team in Iowa. Filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck talk about creating the film.

26:38

Other segments from the episode on April 8, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 8, 2009: Interview with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; Interview with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

Transcript

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The 'Remarkable Life' Of Liberia's 'Iron Lady'

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia
Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

When a new president was inaugurated in Liberia three years ago, the
ceremony was attended by First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice. That’s because Liberia’s new leader, Ellen Johnson
Sirleaf, is the first woman ever elected an African head of state, and
because her election represents a new hope for peace in the West African
nation after years of civil war and economic devastation.

Hundreds of thousands died in the factional strife that gripped Liberia
for more than a dozen years. Much of the chaos is blamed on Charles
Taylor, the former warlord known for drug-addicted child soldiers and
gruesome atrocities.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a Harvard-educated economist who spent much of
her life in United States working for private banks, the World Bank and
the United Nations, but she spent enough time in Liberia and criticized
its governments often enough to land in prison more than once.

She beat a crowded field of candidates to win the presidency of Liberia
in 2005. She’s written a new memoir, called “This Child Will Be Great.”

Well, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, welcome to FRESH AIR. When you were
inaugurated as president in early 2006, the country had had many, many
years of war. Describe the condition of the country as you found it.

President ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF (Liberia): We inherited a devastated
country after what you might call two decades of economic freefall, 14
years of civil conflict that resulted in the death of a quarter of a
million people, with one million additional people displaced, many of
whom resided in refugee camps in neighboring countries and other
countries abroad, infrastructure ruined, all institutions dysfunctional,
civil servants, army hadn’t been paid for years, foreign missions, in
fact, under sanctions by the U.N. for the misuse of resources to fuel
the war, a people with hopelessness, a people destitute, a people
impoverished as a result of all of this.

We were classified as a failed state. Nothing was working - lights,
water, basic infrastructure, basic services for the people just did not
exist.

DAVIES: No electricity in the capital of Monrovia, right? Dark after
nightfall, unless you had a private generator?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: That’s correct. The capital city and the rest of
the country was dark, except, as you say, those who had private
generations. So it was really a sad situation and something that, wow,
the needs were so vast, the things that we addressed so enormous, where
do we start?

DAVIES: You know, Liberia has a unique history in Africa, you know,
established in 1847 by freed slaves from the United States, and, you
know, over the years its population nourished by emigres from the United
States.

And you write in your book how there grew up this interesting social
division within the country of a settler-class people from the States

who tended to be the social and political elite, called Congo people at
times. Tell us about your own ethnic background in this context.

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, let me say that I don’t form part of what
is called the settler groups or the Americo-Liberians or the Congos, as
they are called.

My background is essentially indigenous, although there’s one-fourth
part of me that comes from a German background, as my maternal
grandfather was a German trader in one of our rural counties who took a
native wife.

But, you know, the rest of me and the rest of my family basically come
from those who represent what was called the native population. However,
let me quickly say that there was a system in our country that persists
even today where poor families living in rural areas gave their children
to families of the settlers to enable them to get an education, and both
of my parents benefitted from that.

My father, who was the son of a Gola chief, you know, was given to one
family. My mother was given to another family. So they were educated
and, in a way, they became, over time, part of the elite class.

DAVIES: You have this fascinating course of your life where you spent a
lot of time in the United States and in other countries, working for
private banks, for the World Bank, for the United Nations and then at
various times were in Liberia, either working in the government or
criticizing the government and getting into trouble for it.

And you were in prison several times, and I wanted to ask you to tell us
a little bit about one of them, and this was the time in 1985 when the
then-President Samuel Doe, I guess there had been a coup attempt, and he
had, in reaction, had come down hard on all of his internal critics. How
were you arrested?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, at the time when the coup failed and the
announcement came that President Doe was back in charge, all of us who
had sort of been on the streets swiftly went back into our homes.

I was in my mother’s house when a group of soldiers came and surrounded
the house and, you know, and were shooting into the air. I feared that
they would enter the house and perhaps shoot and my mother could get
killed. So I simply went outside and said you’re looking for me.

And they knew they were looking for me and said yes, and come with us,
and that, I hope, saved my mother. And so I got into the Jeep with them,
and they wanted me to take them to one of our other party leaders.

I knew if I had done that, and they had taken the both of us to the
executive mansion where President Doe was, that something bad could’ve
happened. So I said I didn’t know where he was and pointed them into the
other direction.

We went. And as we were going, another group of soldiers came in another
jeep, and they said I was their rightful prisoner because they came from
the military barracks where I was to be taken and jailed, and so I got
into their jeep.

And along the way, you know, they were taunting and acts of terror, you
know, taking a match and striking it and putting it close to my hair and
saying we’re going to burn your hair off. And so I would plead with them
and say, you know, would you - what if somebody were doing this to your
mother, you know, or your sister?

And I think I got to their conscience, and we went, and there was - as
we drove along, at one point they went off the road and to a place where
they said that was the place I was to be buried alive.

And again, I went into the same stance of saying you can’t do this, you
know. Just think again of your mother. And once again, they turned
around and said okay, we won’t kill you today. We’ll kill you tomorrow.

DAVIES: And then where were you taken?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I was taken to the barracks. It was called the
Shufflin(ph) military barracks. The barracks are still there today. As a
matter of fact, those barracks are where our new army is now being
trained with U.S. support, a brand new army.

The little two-room shed where they took me is still there today,
although it’s been improved. But I take people there from time to time
so they can see where I went into prison.

In any case, I was taken there, and there were about a dozen men in the
jail cell that was there. They put me in the cell with them, and you
know, taunting me and taunting them and calling them rebels and calling
me rebel, too.

And they took the men out and left me alone in the cell. There was
shooting in the background sometime later. The men never came back, and
I remained in that cell and went through some very difficult experience.

DAVIES: This wasn’t the first time you were arrested, but I believe you
said this is the one time that you really feared for your life. What was
different about this one?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, here I was, going to – in a military camp,
you know, all by myself in a cell surrounded by soldiers, many of whom,
you know, were on drink and drugs. And it’s coming after the end of a
coup attempt against their leader, their commander-in-chief, and I’m
taken as one of those, you know, who are being accused of being part of
the rebellion.

You know, just getting into the prison cell, I think, was itself a major
achievement, and it was the one time when I knew where I was, anything
could’ve happened because things happened to others. And why I escaped,
like I say, maybe prayers, God, luck.

DAVIES: Eventually, you were released and made your way out of the
country, back to the States, where you really could’ve had a comfortable
life. I mean, you, you know, you were - you had an established
professional background in finance and international economic matters.

Did you ever think maybe you would just say goodbye to Liberia and live
inside the Beltway in Washington as a, you know, as a well-regarded
African expert?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: No. I’ve always felt that I was part of the
processes of change. I represented, like many others, an agent of
change, and I wasn’t about to run away from it.

So even though circumstances dictated from time to time that I leave the
scene, go into exile or go into a professional life, I always knew
within myself that I was going to go back.

DAVIES: Our guest is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She is the president of
Liberia, and she has a new memoir called “This Child Will Be Great.”
We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, our guest is the president of
Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She has just written a new memoir called
“This Child Will Be Great.”

You know, in 1989, you were living abroad - that is to say, not in
Liberia. And Samuel Doe was the president, and his regime was
characterized by corruption and the suppression of all internal
opposition. And then in - a rebel military leader arises in the
countryside, leading rebel forces opposed to him, by this man Charles
Taylor.

Did you know who he was at the time? Tell us about Charles Taylor.

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, I knew who he was because he was a part of
the Liberian student movement, Liberian leaders here in the United
States that had also challenged the Tolbert administration, of which I
was part, had also demonstrated in times when President Tolbert and his
delegation, of which I was a part, came to the United Nations.

So - and he was one of those in the student leadership here that was
invited to Liberia to come and discuss and dialogue with what was going
on in the country, to face what may have been considered the realities
that they were unaware of.

And so I knew him in that sense, but it was the first time I met him, or
once he returned to Liberia with that leadership group. That was
sometime in 1979.

He then was in the country when the coup took place in April, 1980, and
he was appointed a member of the new government in charge of public
services, general services. And I must say, at that time, I was in exile
here, and there were many of us - given what was going on with the Doe
administration and the repression and our own inability to move it
toward more democracy and free elections.

So many of the things that Mr. Taylor and his people represented were
endorsed and supported by many of us, even though we were not part of
their group, as such.

But all the right things were being said about change, but the whole
thing ended up getting very ugly because it was very clear several
months into - after the invasion of the country that there was no intent
on the part of Mr. Taylor to be a part of change, but it was just a
quest for power, and the nation has paid a price for that.

DAVIES: Early on, in July of 1990, you made it clear that you would not
be able to support Charles Taylor and his rebel movement, but, of
course, fighting escalated in the country and went on for many, many
years.

Tell our listeners what made Charles Taylor’s methods and role unique.
What as the impact he had on Liberia?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Oh, it was a very, very major impact because it
was very clear that the main motive of Mr. Taylor was to take power, and
anybody who he felt stood in the way of that would be eliminated, and
people close to us were. You know, the head of our political party,
Jackson Doe, who had won the 1985 elections, according to our results,
and whom we thought would be protected was, in fact, killed.

The same applied to so many who Mr. Taylor may have felt was a threat to
him. And so once he took power, it was clear that the singular objective
was to amass wealth, and he also - you know, he also had territorial
ambition.

It seemed like he - that’s why the war went into Sierra Leone, that he
wanted to have, to own the resources not only of Liberia but the
resources of the sub-region and was willing to advocate and promote
rebellion anywhere that would give him that kind of power.

And so our own country was devastated. People were impoverished.
Institutions became dysfunctional. I mean, dictatorship - I mean, he was
a clear dictator with no conscience. Many people died.

DAVIES: And what about his use of children in war?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, that’s very known, again, in all the
reports that have been made. I mean, young children were turned into
killers. They were put on drugs. They were put on drink, and, you know,
they were taught to kill. The - what they call the small boys’ brigade,
these young children deprived of an education.

Today, we have young people in our society, 20 years old, teenagers
who’ve never been to school, never had the opportunity because they were
fighting and because most people left the country into refugee camps or
displaced.

The schools all closed down, and so, I mean, it has taken a whole
generation away from us and, you know, the - and made the rebuilding of
our (unintelligible) so difficult in just the 10 years or 12 years or so
that Mr. Taylor ruled.

DAVIES: And, of course, he intervened in the civil war in neighboring
Sierra Leone, backed a group there that was known for hacking the limbs
off of their opponents.

And, you know, I wonder, as you looked at this country – which, you
know, before 1980, had not seen this kind of violence, and you saw so
many factions engaged in this brutality. I wonder, what did you make of
that kind of savagery taking over the country that you had known for so
long? How did you explain it?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I can’t explain it. It’s a savagery to which I’m
not accustomed, not many Liberians. What took place outside of Liberia
is very sad. Until today, it pains us.

DAVIES: Charles Taylor was eventually driven from power. The other West
African nations intervened, and there were a series of peace
initiatives, and then in 2005, elections were held, and you emerged
victorious.

So you arrive in 2006 and have to unite a country which has been
fractionalized for so long, and you had a real issue on your hands in
bringing some peace and reconciliation to a country that had been torn
by armed factions for so long.

Charles Taylor - I mean, the despot who had ruled the country and
inflicted such misery – was, I believe, in asylum in Nigeria. Is that
right?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: That’s correct.

DAVIES: Tell us what you decided to do about those who demanded that
Charles Taylor be brought to account for his crimes and then the issue
in general of people wanting retribution for atrocities which had been
committed in the years of war.

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, let’s put it this way. Charles Taylor was
indicted not by a court in Liberia, but by a United Nations Special
Court for Sierra Leone. And that court had been wanting to make sure
that indictment was carried out and that Mr. Taylor would face trial for
that.

So the fact that he was in asylum in Nigeria, and Nigeria had said that
they would keep him there until there was a new government - but at the
same time, we were very clear that we had to respect the decision of the
United Nations. And so we worked with Nigeria to make sure that their
own condition were met, but at the same time, the international
conditions were met.

DAVIES: So he’s now on trial in the International Court in The Hague. Is
that right?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: That’s correct. He was taken from the Sierra
Leone court to The Hague.

DAVIES: I wanted to ask one question about the country and its
connection to its history. You know, other African countries fought
against colonialism or apartheid, and that in some ways kind of defined
their natural character.

Liberia didn’t. I mean, it was independent since the 1840s, and I wonder
how you think that may have affected Liberia’s development and
Liberians’ sense of their national character.

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: It’s something that we’re grappling with, and I
tried to deal with this in the book by saying that because we never had
this common cause that bind us, because we lacked a national identity -
you know, the fusion between the settler class and the indigenous class,
the failure to get the assimilation that would have made the nation one
and that our own experience has maybe undermined our ability to have
moved ahead as a unified people with a common cause, I think that still
is an issue that we have to deal with today.

Who are we? We are Africans. There’s no doubt. We’re part of the African
scene. But our history is still so tied to our relationship with
America, and much of our values, tradition, have been transmuted by
those who, you know, who return, we’re still - we’re finding the way to
bring all of this together in a way that helps our nation not only to
find itself but to reach its potential and to make all of its people
know who they are.

DAVIES: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, I want to wish you the best of luck in
continuing to bring peace and development to Liberia, and thanks so much
for speaking with us.

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Thank you.

DAVIES: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the president of Liberia. Her new
memoir is called “This Child Will Be Great.” I’m Dave Davies, and this
is FRESH AIR.
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Sweet Success: Boden And Fleck On ‘Sugar’

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. As Major
League Baseball gets underway this week, roughly one out of every eight
players on the field are from the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean
nation has become such a fertile breeding ground for baseball talent
that every major league team now has a baseball academy there. And
thousands of Dominican teenagers dream of being signed to an American
team’s farm system and eventually making it to the States.

The Dominican baseball world is the setting for the latest film by Anna
Boden and Ryan Fleck, the young filmmaking team who wrote and directed
“Half Nelson,” a widely acclaimed independent film starring Ryan Gosling
as a Brooklyn school teacher. Their new film is called “Sugar.” It’s a
baseball story, but also an immigrant tale and a coming of age drama
centered on an aspiring young pitcher named Miguel Santos. In this scene
from “Sugar,” Santos and other players at a baseball academy are
practicing some English phrases they’ll need if their talent takes them
to the United States.

Unidentified Man: I got it, I got.

Unidentified Group: I got it.

Unidentified Man: Fly ball.

Unidentified Group: Fly ball.

Unidentified Man: Line drive.

Unidentified Group: Line drive.

Unidentified Man: Ground ball.

Unidentified Group: Ground ball.

Unidentified Man: Ground ball.

Unidentified Group: Ground ball.

Unidentified Man: Home run.

Unidentified Group: Home run.

Unidentified Man: Home run.

Unidentified Group: Home run.

Unidentified Man: Home run.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: I asked Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck how they got to know the world
of Dominican baseball and its American academies.

Mr. RYAN FLECK (Filmmaker): We actually, you know, to take a step back,
we start – we live in New York and we started our research journey in
the Bronx, where there’s a very large Dominican population. And we went
up to this field - Roberto Clemente Ballpark in Crotona Park in the
Bronx - and we met – there’s a league where players play on weekends -
and we met a lot of the guys that had been through a very similar
journey to Miguel, who’s featured in the movie. and we just heard their
stories and they introduced us to other players. And they gave us
contacts in the Dominican Republic. And we kind of worked our way
backwards from there.

And we kind of said, oh this is – we know the end of our movie. This is
the end of the journey. Now, let’s go figure out where the story begins
and how they get here. So that led us to the Dominican Republic where we
would go to these academies. We would get there really early and eat
breakfast with these guys, go watch them train until about noon. They’d
play a game. And then they’d go eat lunch.

They’d have their English lesson. Then they’d watch American horror
films until lights out.

DAVIES: And I guess what’s fascinating about this - and we see some of
this in the film - is that you have a kid who’s 16, many of them from
poor backgrounds, who suddenly has, you know, $10,000 or $20,000 in
American money - may never set foot in even a minor league park in the
United States. But suddenly, at this tender age, is the, you know, the
big bread winner in the family and the embodiment of the family’s hopes
and dreams. And that must really change their lives.

Ms. ANNA BODEN (Filmmaker): Yeah, absolutely. And there’s so many of
these guys who start, you know, building houses for their parents so
that everybody can live a little bit more comfortably. A lot of these
constructions are never finished because you have money to start them,
and then things don’t pay enough quite the way that these guys expected
them to and the constructions are abandoned. And you’ll see that all
over the Dominican Republic when you drive around these houses that are
half built.

DAVIES: I want to talk about Miguel’s journey to the States. But first I
wanted to ask you about finding the actor. I mean, the guy who plays
Miguel, whose name is Algenis Perez Soto, was not an actor, right? He
was a ballplayer. Is that right?

Mr. FLECK: Yeah. No, that’s true. Algenis, when we met him - basically
when we were casting the movie, we would drive around the Dominican
Republic in a van. And we had a guide who would take us to different
fields and we’d break out a video camera and invite kids to interview
with us. And anybody who had a spark or any kind of charisma or could
tell a story or a joke and feel comfortable with us, we’d invite back
and - to read a scene from the movie. And that’s how we found Algenis.
And he was number 452 of about 600 people we interviewed that way and we
were really excited…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLECK: …to meet him when we did. But we weren’t sure we were going
to find anybody up until that point.

DAVIES: You know, it struck me as interesting that you have this whole
structure of Major League Baseball, which is down in the Dominican
Republic, constantly finding talent, recruiting talent, promoting some
of it, leaving others behind. And here you’re filmmakers also coming
from the United States bringing, you know, some money and opportunity to
people. Did you feel in anyway that you were sort of recreating that,
kind of, world of engaging and developing talent - maybe raising hopes
but sometimes not fulfilling them?

Mr. FLECK: No. Because if we were coming down there and offering a
baseball scholarship on these baseball fields, you know, I think that
would be one thing. But there is no acting community in the Dominican
Republic and we looked for it, believe me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLECK: So, I think when we come down there saying, you know, we’re
going to make a movie - nobody had ever had a dream or aspiration to act
in a movie before. And I think they were very confused, most of the
people we met, about what we were up to.

And even Algenis. Once we met him and we had him come to multiple
callbacks and we put him through this process, we offered him the part.
And he was still – he didn’t show much enthusiasm because he didn’t
really believe that he was going to be in a movie, you know – that’s
just some made up Hollywood thing. It’s much more attainable for these
guys to become superstar baseball players in their heads than it ever
was to act in a movie.

DAVIES: We’re speaking with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Their new film is
called “Sugar”. We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, our guests are filmmakers Anna Boden
and Ryan Fleck. They made the film “Half Nelson.” The new film, which
they wrote and directed about Dominican baseball and a ballplayer’s
journey to America is called “Sugar.” Well, the character in your film,
Miguel, is finally selected to come to the – invited to spring training
in the United States, which is the dream of these guys who were in these
- Dominican players - who are in these academies run by big league teams
in the Dominican Republic. And there’s a big party before he leaves and
discovers there that there are friends and relatives who approach him
that he can’t even remember…

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: …was this a common experience?

Ms. BODEN: Yeah, we heard a lot of stories about that. You know, as soon
as you start to have some success, people come out of the woodwork. And
that was really interesting because we watched this movie in the
Dominican Republic with a Dominican audience to open the Dominican
Republic Film Festival back in November. And at that moment in the film,
there was so much laughter in the theater. I mean, it was like the
entire - you couldn’t even hear what was being said. And we’ve watched
it many times with American audiences and you’ll get, like, a few
chuckles here and there, but I don’t think that it’s as visceral for
American audiences as it is for the Dominican audiences because it feels
so familiar and so real to them.

DAVIES: The central character in the film, Miguel, this young pitcher,
is finally invited to go from the Dominican Republic to the spring
training camp of a Major League team, the one whose academy he was
attending. And it’s an immigrant journey of course and there are these
classic, you know, images we know of an immigrant’s journey to America:
The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island. I mean, clearly, these were a
different set of images. Tell us a little bit about how you wanted to
depict his experience of coming to America?

Mr. FLECK: Well, you know, it’s interesting because here’s a guy, he’s
from a very small town. And he – when he comes to the United States, he
comes to another very small town. He’s not coming to the Statue of
Liberty at - in New York City and finding community there and people
who’s, you know, every - in New York, you know, there’s so many
neighborhoods, where you can really - no matter where you’re from, you
can find people who speak your language. He comes to a small town in
Iowa where most people are white and very few people speak Spanish. And
he has to interact with these folks and so I think that was what was
unique about this immigrant journey for us and what we wanted to
explore.

Ms. BODEN: It is true, though, that before he goes to Iowa he does comes
through Arizona. And there was something - and when he’s in Arizona,
he’s with a bunch of his friends who we saw him with in the Dominican
Republic who are also stepping up to the next level with him. And
Arizona does have a large, you know, Mexican-Spanish speaking community
there. And so it was kind of like a nice way to ease into American
culture in a way - at least there was something familiar. He had a group
of friends to go out with and they were all trying to order food
together for the first time. And then it’s almost as if, as he then
moves on to the next level in Iowa, things that are familiar to him are
kind of slowly stripped away and he’s becoming more and more isolated as
he goes.

DAVIES: And there’s a clip I want to play from the film that really I
think captures some of this - his experience in confronting a world
that’s totally different. And that is when he is at the home of the
couple that’s going to host him. This is Anne and Earl Higgins, an
elderly farm couple who are big boosters of the Minor League team that
he is assigned to, the Bridgetown Swing they’re called. And I thought
we’d play this cut where they are taking him around and acquainting him
with the house.

(Soundbite of movie, “Sugar”)

Ms. ANN WHITNEY (Actor): (As Helen Higgins) This is your new cuarto -
bedroom. You do with it as you please, except no girls. Chicas, no
chicas.

Mr. RICHARD BULL (Actor): (As Earl Higgins) No drinking. No cervezas in
the casa. No chicas in the bedroom.

Ms. WHITNEY: (As Helen Higgins) I already told to him that one.

Mr. BULL: (As Earl Higgins) Ok. What about quiet time?

Ms. WHITNEY: (As Helen Higgins) Oh, right. There’s no real curfew but
you must be quiet after 10.

Mr. BULL: (As Earl Higgins) Diez. Shh, after diez. Eh?

Mr. ALGENIS PEREZ SOTO (Actor): (As Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos) Bien. Okay.

Ms. WHITNEY: (As Helen Higgins) Si. That’s all we ask. It’s our job to
keep you healthy and focused on baseball.

Mr. BULL: (As Earl Higgins) And we take pride in that.

DAVIES: And that’s a scene from “Sugar,” which is written and directed
by my guests, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. It’s just such a wonderful
scene. I don’t want to tell too much of the story here. I mean, we’re
really - one of the things we’re fascinated with, as we watch it
develop, is how far Miguel’s going to get and whether he’s going to make
it in the big leagues. But it’s clear that when he first has to take the
mound in the United States, even in a minor league game, it’s a
different world. He was a guy who told his friends, there’s nobody
better. Just tell us a little bit about how you wanted to tell that
story of him facing a whole different kind of pressure in competition.

Mr. FLECK: Yeah. Well, I mean, the competition is so fierce in
professional sports, it’s really - it’s - the odds of making it and
succeeding are so small. And for these guys who were playing down in the
Dominican Republic - and there’s so much riding on their success, to
pull their families out of poverty and there’s all these pressures - and
then, you know, they may be playing really well on that level. But when
they have to come over and compete with a whole new level of competition
and have that - those pressures on their shoulders, I think it’s a lot
to ask of any young athlete.

Ms. BODEN: And he’s performing in front of crowd a people for the first
time, you know. In the Dominican Republic and the Minor League games at
spring training, more often than not, there are a very few if any people
watching you. And to be on that mound for the first time and have, you
know, an opening night crowd all around you and, you know, every time
you throw a ball, people are making upset noises

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BODEN: I think that that really – and he sees the Higgins, his host
family, watching him from the stands. The pressure really mounts and we
wonder whether he’s going to be able to pull through that first game.

DAVIES: Well, you know, it’s – and it’s not telling people too much to
say that when he first takes the mound, he’s clearly nervous and he
walks the first batter on four pitches - pitches are high, which is
often what happens when a pitcher is nervous and overthrows. And then,
the catcher comes out – or was it an infielder – and speaks to him in
Spanish, right?

Mr. FLECK: Yeah, yeah. His third baseman, his Dominican friend.

DAVIES: And says what?

Mr. FLECK: He says calm down. You know, it’s the same game we played
back home, you know? And I think, for some reason, that has a big effect
on him, you know, it’s just the same game, you know. And these guys -
and then there’s another Dominican player that comes up to bat next and
it just feels instantly familiar to him again.

DAVIES: You know, there’s one other moment at which he goes through a
tough stretch and as - eating at the table of the Higgins, his farm
family that are hosting him in this Minor League team. And he apologizes
and weeps and is embraced by Mr. Higgins. It’s just such a great little
moment. You want to talk a little bit about that scene?

Mr. FLECK: Yeah, that scene, you know, is really powerful. And it was
powerful to shoot too and difficult for Algenis. I think he was nervous
coming into that scene because he really has to make himself vulnerable
as an actor…

DAVIES: And he’s not an actor, let’s remind the audience.

Mr. FLECK: …and he’s not an actor, no. But he really pulls it off. And I
think, you know, he takes – towards that end of the second act in the
movie, he takes a pretty drastic step before one of the games. And he
really has, kind of, a meltdown. And he feels like, not only has he let
himself down and let his family down back home, but he really – I think
he’s in a lot of pain. And he feels like he’s let down this family
that’s been really kind to him up until this moment. And I think that
the Higgins as well, they see a really vulnerable boy in front of them
for the first time and it’s not just an athlete there to make their team
good but he’s a human being who - with feelings.

DAVIES: You know, after you made the film this spring a scandal a
erupted over the alleged skimming of signing bonuses from young
Dominican players. And it’s most affected the Washington Nationals where
the general manager has resigned. This, I guess, particularly involved
the signing of a young prospect who was signed under a false identity
with the wrong age making him appear to be younger then he really was.
And even Jose Rijo who was in the National’s front office and who I
believe was a consultant and appeared in your film…

Ms. BODEN: Yeah.

DAVIES: …was fired. Were you surprised when this scandal erupted, how
did it affect you?

Ms. BODEN: Well, you know, we were definitely surprised that Jose Rijo
ended up being so involved and that he lost his job, you know, he was a
very good consultant and we really enjoyed working with him. On the
other hand, having a false identity and making it seem like you’re
younger then you actually are and, you know, people taking advantage of
these young players who are in poverty is nothing new in the Dominican
Republic and has been happening for quite a while. And everybody’s been
aware that all the way up the line. I think that - I’m not sure exactly
why this particular case got so much attention.

But, you know, I think that most people that are working down there and
that are working with these young players are, you know, well
intentioned, good people. And, you know, more often than not,
everybody’s on the level. But it’s a place that’s been fairly
unregulated for a long time and is just starting to be more regulated
and looked at and this stuff has been happening.

Mr. FLECK: Yeah, I think the players are being signed for more and more
money now. You know, in the early days, I believe Sammy Sosa and Jose
Rijo himself, they were signed for about $2,000 in the ‘80s. And now I
think this kid involved with this scandal is, you know - is one and a
half million dollars, two millions dollars. I think now they’re starting
to be scrutinized a lot more now that there’s more money involved.

DAVIES: Right. With that kind of money there’s certainly more temptation
for mischief. Our guests are Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Their new film
about a Dominican baseball prospect who makes it to the United States is
called “Sugar.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we’re speaking with filmmakers Anna
Boden and Ryan Fleck. They’ve just written and directed the new film
“Sugar.” I wanted to talk a little about your film from 2006, “Half
Nelson,” which just got great reviews and a lot of awards.

And it’s a story of this idealistic, politically conscious, young white
man who’s teaching in a public school - in an inner-city public school -
with mostly black students. And has a - takes an interest, develops a
friendship with a girl who I guess is 13. He also coaches her in
basketball. And one of the things that develops is that he is concerned
that she may be falling under the influence of a neighborhood drug
dealer, who is a guy who had a relationship with her brother. But of
course, the truth is that he himself is struggling with a serious
cocaine problem which extends to smoking crack. And I thought we’d
listen to a scene here. And this is a scene in which Dan Dunne, this
teacher who is played by Ryan Gosling, decides he has to go and confront
this drug dealer and get him out of this kid’s life, the drug dealer is
played by Anthony Mackie. Let’s listen.

(Soundbite of movie, “Half Nelson”)

Mr. RYAN GOSLING: (As Dan Dunne) Can I talk to you?

Mr. ANTHONY MACKIE: (As Frank) What is up?

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dan Dunne) Okay, look, I hate to be this guy right now,
all right?

Mr. MACKIE: (As Frank) Mm-hmm.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dan Dunne) But I need you to stay away from Drey.

Mr. MACKIE: (As Frank) Excuse me?

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dan Dunne) You heard me, okay? So, just do me this
solid, all right man? Please?

Mr. MACKIE: (As Frank) Do you a solid?

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dan Dunne) You know what I’m saying, you understand me.

Mr. MACKIE: (As Frank) Oh, so this is like, stay away from the girl,
she’s too precious, kind of (Censored)?

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dan Dunne) I’m not kidding.

Mr. MACKIE: (As a Frank) Oh, I know.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dan Dunne) So, you understand?

Mr. MACKIE: (As a Frank) Look man, Drey is my family. She’s my friend,
man. All these cats? These are my friends. Would you like to be my
friend, man?

Mr. GOSLING (As Dan Dunne): (Censored) is this, the “Romper Room”?

Mr. MACKIE: (As Frank): (Censored) the “Romper Room”?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dan Dunne) Are you (Censored) listening to me?

Mr. MACKIE: (As a Frank) Why you are so (Censored) angry man.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dan Dunne) Because you are not listening to me.

Mr. MACKIE: (As a Frank) Look, I’m right here, baby. Tell me what you’re
talking about?

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dan Dunne) I’m telling you to do something good.

Mr. MACKIE: (As a Frank) Oh.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dan Dunne) Are you capable of that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACKIE: (As a Frank) Oh, so now we back to the point of what is
white is right, right? So is, so…

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dan Dunne) This has nothing to do with that.

Mr. MACKIE: (As Frank) No, no, no. It’s good for Drey to have somebody
like you looking out for, Mr. model A-1 (Censored) citizen.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dan Dunne) I don’t know. I don’t know.

DAVIES: And that’s a scene from the film “Half Nelson,” written and
directed by our guests Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. I just love that
confrontation and it’s just so fascinating that we have this white
middle-class teacher here wanting to protect the kid from the drug

dealer and, in fact, it’s the drug dealer who has his life much more
together. It’s, sort of, you know - one of the things that I liked about
the film is that, you know, there are plot elements here that are
familiar to a lot of things - you know, the kid of the single parent
struggling in a world of poverty and crime. And then the high - you
know, the teacher who develops a relationship and an interest.

But these characters aren’t simple. And it would have been so easy to
just push things a little too far in the characterization or the plot
developments. That…

Mr. FLECK: Yeah.

DAVIES: I mean, let’s talk a little about some of the choices you made
in that way.

Ms. BODEN: I think that the process of writing this movie was in a lot
of ways stripping away the things that - those things around what you
might imagine the movie to be that aren’t really what the movie is
about. And I think what you’re talking about, like the overriding
characters, or making them too stereo typical - that was something that,
you know, I don’t think was necessarily part of the first draft, but I
think elements of that were. And, kind of, rewriting it was stripping
those elements away and getting at the humanity of everybody in the
movie.

DAVIES: The visual style is interesting. I mean, there’s a lot of
documentary like, kind of, was it – were they handheld cameras? I mean,
it had, sort of, a documentary feel at moments. What…

Mr. FLECK: Yeah, yeah…

DAVIES: Did you…

Mr. FLECK: …in “Half Nelson”? Yeah, sure. I mean, it was all handheld.
There’s this one - there’s a couple of sequences that we used a tripod
for it. But we very rarely brought out that tripod from the truck. And
it was a big deal when the word would come down, that the grips had to
bring that tripod out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLECK: Because it was - they didn’t know where it was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Well, is that because you wanted to give it a documentary feel,
like you’re really…

Mr. FLECK: Yeah.

DAVIES: The intimacy of it?

Mr. FLECK: Sure. We studied a lot of Fredrick Wiseman documentaries: you
know, very observant, always handheld, the camera sort of lingers on
characters for a while, uncomfortably long sometimes - when you want to
get away from them, you get closer and you stay on them longer, And that
was kind of the vibe we were going for.

DAVIES: You – you’re a couple, right? And met - both of you were in film
school in New York, is that right?

Mr. FLECK: Yeah, we were in film school. I was at NYU and I was at
Columbia and we met on a student film there that we helped each other
out on.

DAVIES: Well, let me ask the ridiculously trite question of what it’s
like to have your personal and professional lives so welded? I mean, I
can imagine that it’s great because you share each other’s passions but
you kind of also maybe, you never get away from each other and never get
away from your projects.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BODEN: Yeah, that’s true. We spent a lot of time on, you know, going
out to dinner and ending up talking about our work or whatever. But it’s
also really nice, I think particularly in a business where you have so
many collaborators and so many people with different opinions about what
you ought to be doing, to have that one person who you trust entirely
and who you know their intentions and your intentions are exactly the
same, and to kind of fortify you with all the other, you know, opinions
and thoughts coming at you.

DAVIES: You know, I noticed that in “Half Nelson,” Ryan, you had the
directing credit and in “Sugar” that it’s co-directed. Do you guys have
defined roles? Do you feel like you need to define them? Or are you both
just collaborating on everything?

Mr. FLECK: You know we work together on all aspects. And even on “Half
Nelson,” even though I was credited as the director and I was there on
set everyday, we wrote it together and she cut the film. And I think we
were still kind of feeling out how we were going to work together. And
we thought, you know, I had kind of a fiction film background, even if
it was short films. And I hadn’t worked that way before so it just kind
of the logical - those were the logical roles and we didn’t want to
confuse the actors. You know, we weren’t sure how we were going to work
together as co-directors yet. But on this movie it really made sense.
You know, Anna’s Spanish is way better than mine and…

Ms. BODEN: And we were working with somebody who had never acted before.
And one of the really great things about working with non-actors is they
have no expectations of what things should be like. And people often ask
Algenis, what was it like working with two directors? He’s like, I don’t
know what’s it like working with one director, you know? It’s his only
experience. And we didn’t come into this movie as concerned that, you
know, actors would have expectations about having only one person talk
to them or, you know, everybody was so open and willing to work in a new
way. And that was a really nice way to start this process of co-
directing which we might continue in the future.

DAVIES: Alright well we’ll look forward to more great stuff from you.
Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. BODEN: Thank you.

Mr. FLECK: Thank you.

DAVIES: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, they wrote and directed the new film
“Sugar.”
..COST:
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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