The writing-directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck made a considerable splash with their first feature film, “Half Nelson,” in 2006. It won awards three Gotham Awards and two Independent Spirit awards as well as a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Ryan Gosling as a charismatic inner-city teacher who befriends a student with troubles at home but has personal problems of his own. Now they return with “Sugar,” about a talented young baseball player from the Dominican Republic brought to the United States to be groomed for a possible big-league career.
But it’s not a conventional sports story by any means, being as concerned with the hopeful recruit’s difficulties in acclimating to life in a strange environment as it is with charting his struggle to succeed on the mound. And it eschews the sort of rah-rah ending so common is such pictures in favor of something quieter and more real.
In a recent Dallas interview, Boden and Fleck explained the film’s genesis.
“I’ve been a pretty big baseball fan most of my life,” Fleck said. “I’m an A’s fan, grew up in Oakland. And I’d seen a lot of Dominican players come through the league over the years, but I didn’t understand why. I didn’t realize that camps existed down there, where every major league team essentially has their own camp, where Dominican players are signed, they teach them a little bit of English, and the good ones come over here to spring training and the better ones go up the ranks and occasionally make it to the major leagues. Hundreds of guys go through this journey every year. Once we started to do a little research, we found that this was an incredible immigrant story that very few people know about.”
Asked whether they ever considered telling the story as a non-fiction film, Boden replied, “We really love documentaries, and we have a documentary background, and admire the way that really great documentary filmmakers observe the world. And the thing that we try to do is to incorporate that into our filmmaking. But we always perceived this as a fiction film. I think we liked the idea of being able to hear dozens and dozens of stories from different people who had gone through a similar experience and be able to pick and choose and craft that story into something that was a fiction, but representative of a very common experience. With a little bit of ourselves thrown in, here and there.”
Regarding the trajectory of the plot, Fleck said, “We knew he wasn’t going to make it to the big leagues. We knew that instantly. We feel like we’ve seen that movie before, and we had no interest in telling that story. We knew the movie was going to end with that final scene at Roberto Clemente Field in the Bronx. We sort of worked our way backward to see how he was going to get there. And that was all based on research with people we met and the stories that we learned about really led us on that journey.”
Boden added, “It’s him changing his dream at some point. That’s what it was for us. Somebody who’s been pushed so much—this dream is not just his, it’s his whole family’s, and really his whole community’s. And at some point his confidence is shaken just a little bit, and he has to start reevaluating who he is and what he should be doing with his life. And we don’t see it so much as somebody giving up their dream but somebody readjusting their idea of what the American dream is into something a little more common—not becoming a superstar of baseball, but just having a life where you can earn enough money to support yourself and send some money home to your family, without all the pressure of everybody’s dreams on your back.”
The two discussed filming much of the picture in Iowa. “Davenport’s a pretty cool city, actually,” Boden said. “We’d just been shooting in the Dominican Republic for two months, and everybody was so happy to see a Starbucks again that Davenport seemed like a very exciting place.”
Fleck added, “The cornfields are beautiful visually, and that’s great to have. But I think that when we demographically, given the story we were trying to tell, which is about the isolation this guy feels on his journey, Iowa was pretty much the best place we found in the country. There are certainly [other] rural places around the country, but not as white and as specifically English-speaking. There’s not a big Latino population there. We really wanted to isolate this guy as much as we could.”
One of the locations of special importance is the farm of an elderly couple where Sugar stays during his Iowa training. Boden said that they drove around the area looking at places until the found the perfect one. “We said to our location director, ‘You’ve just got to get us that house,’” she recalled. And Fleck added, “The people really didn’t want us to shoot there. I don’t know what happened. I think we made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.” Boden continued, “So we said okay, we won’t shoot inside, we’ll just use the exteriors. And most of the interiors are shot in a totally different house, because they didn’t want us to shoot inside.”
Not only the house, but Sugar’s hosts there are remarkably true-to-life. “They [Ann Whitney and Richard Bull] were actors,” Fleck said. “But they felt very authentic, they fit into that world very easily.”
And so does Algenis Perez Soto as Miguel “Azucar” (“Sugar”) Santos. “He hadn’t acted before at all,” Boden said. “But as soon as we met him we knew he had that natural ability that you can’t teach somebody, you can’t learn, in acting. He had a quiet confidence that he was able to express himself without saying what he felt—you could see it on his face, feel it in his vibe. And…that was probably the hardest part of making the film, finding him—we interviewed six hundred people on baseball fields in the Dominican Republic, to finally get to this one guy. But once we cast him, we just let him do his thing—we urged him to draw from his own experience, to bring that to the character. He went to Iowa to shoot the film, he’d never been on a plane before, he’d never been outside the Dominican Republic, he’d never been apart from his very tight-knit family. He barely spoke any English, and the food was a little bit strange to him. So he had plenty of personal experience to draw from, to bring to this role. And we urged him to do that.”
“He hadn’t pitched before,” Fleck added, “but he was a very good shortstop and second-baseman. He’d tried out and made it to several teams when he was younger. But once we cast him, he worked with Jose Rijo, who’s a very famous Dominican-born pitcher, MVP in the 1990 World Series, and he taught him some pitching skills.”
One of the most notable things about “Sugar” is that while there are a few gruff characters and disagreements along the way, most of the characters the pitcher meets are genuinely nice and helpful. “Maybe it’s our optimism about people,” Boden said. “But when you’re telling a story about someone who’s going through a really difficult journey, it’s too easy to just make it all the harder with nasty people who aren’t well-intentioned, to stick those kinds of stumbling-blocks along the way—‘Oh, isn’t it sad to be a Dominican baseball player trying to make it in the United States?’ We didn’t want to tell that story. We felt that having artificial struggles along the way would take away from the real human struggle that he was going through internally. So we kind of planted his past with kind people.”
Fleck agreed that the picture represented a change of pace from the grittier “Half Nelson,” but when asked whether that was a deliberate choice, he said, “Not so much. We just got excited about seeing a movie that we hadn’t seen before. I think every time we start a story, we ask ourselves, ‘Is this something we’d want to see?’ And if it is, it needs to be real original, not feel like we’re going through territory that’s already been mined before.”
And as to working together as directors, Boden said, “We try to get on the same page as much as possible before we start shooting. We have plenty of time to argue while we’re writing the script, while we’re coming up with the shot list in the privacy of our own apartment or hotel room. Any fighting we do on the set happens very quietly in our eyes only. You know the look that you have between your very close friend or your wife or your husband. Only you two know that it’s happening.”