“Mississippi Grind” opens in New York on September 25th. Expands nationally October 2nd. Available now on DIRECTV.
Ever since releasing their critically acclaimed feature debut, the Ryan Gosling-headed drama “Half Nelson,” filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have made quite a splash on the indie scene with their meticulously crafted and keenly observed character studies. Berkeley natives who met on the set of a student film while attending New York University, the talented duo share virtually every aspect of the filmmaking process, from the writing stage all the way through post-production.
Although their previous picture, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” a slightly more mainstream effort, failed to reach a sizable audience, their latest entry, “Mississippi Grind,” starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn, is their best and most accessible film to date.
A gambling drama inspired by the road movies that emerged from the American New Wave movement of the 1970’s, “Mississippi Grind” tells the tale of Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), a degenerate gambler whose compulsive tendencies land him in steep debt with a local loan shark (the incomparable Alfre Woodard). When Gerry is befriended by a charming gambler named Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), the pair set out on a bourbon-fueled trip along the Mississippi in search of a big payday. As they jump from riverboat casinos to backroom poker games, meeting a range of memorable characters along the way, the film offers a layered look at the lives of these small-town hustlers.
While in Los Angeles to promote “Mississippi Grind,” I sat down with the filmmakers to discuss their latest film and collaboration process.
“Mississippi Grind” is this wonderful combination of gambling drama and road movie. The final result feels perfectly honed but I’m curious if you initially set out to make this sort of genre-hybrid.
Anna: I don’t know if we approached it like that but we were certainly aware of both genres while we were writing it. We tried to be aware of the conventions of those genres so we would know what audiences might expect and then choose to play into that or against it.
There’s such depth to the screenplay. Even the peripheral characters like the escorts played by Sienna Miller and Analeigh Tipton come across as fully realized. Did you put a lot of thought into the characters that Gerry and Curtis meet along their journey?
Ryan: What’s fun for us about the road movie genre are the people your protagonist encounters along the way, whether it’s “The Wizard of Oz” or “Mississippi Grind,” so we definitely wanted them to engage with a well-rounded cast of interesting characters. Speaking of Sienna Miller, we were so lucky to get her in this movie; she’s wonderful in it. When we first started showing the movie, people would ask us, ‘Who is that actress that played Simone?’ That’s such a huge compliment to her that she can disappear into a part like this and just feel so lived-in and authentic. And it’s not just her – Analeigh Tipton does the same thing, as does Alfre Woodard and Robin Weigert.
Anna: I’m so glad that you mentioned the supporting characters. Some of that has to do with the writing and trying to imagine people with histories, but a lot of it has to do with casting and just having actors who bring so much to their roles.
Sticking with the writing, although the screenplay follows a fairly traditional three-act structure, it hits the beats a bit more quietly and thoughtfully than a more mainstream film might. Was that intentional?
Anna: We were inspired by the American movies of the 70’s – films like “Scarecrow,” “The Gambler,” “California Split,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Last Detail,” and “Midnight Cowboy,” which was a little before the 70’s but we’ll throw it in there too. These are movies that have structures but they feel really loose and you don’t know when the characters are going to detour. Whatever journey you have in mind for these characters, they’re going to somehow sweep away from that and then come back, and we hope it has some of that looseness and spontaneity structurally as well as within the scenes.
The American South figures prominently in the film, which is great since it’s such a unique location. Your cinematographer, Andrij Parekh employs a washed out look to the film that really compliments the setting’s rugged beauty. What films served as inspiration for the look of “Mississippi Grind”?
Ryan: The color palettes of those films Anna referenced are kind of washed out; they tend to be into the browns and the grays. But one place we deviate from that, to reference the Wizard of Oz again, is during this sort of magical moment that happens towards the end at the casino where you’re not quite sure if this is even a dream or not. In post-production we really pushed the colors. We wanted them to really pop and be vibrant and dreamlike and almost magical in that casino finale at the craps table.
Anna: We also shot on actual film, which is a rarity these days.
“Mississippi Grind” features an excellent blues soundtrack (the two-volume collection is now available). Were you fans of the blues prior to making this film?
Ryan: Once we wrote the script and knew it was about a road trip to New Orleans, we knew pretty quickly that it was going to be a blues heavy soundtrack. Not just blues – there’s some old school country in there, soul music – but predominantly blues, and we didn’t have a lot of knowledge of the genre. Luckily, a good friend of Anna’s happens to know a lot about music, so we asked him for suggestions and he sent us a playlist of hundreds, maybe even a thousand songs, and we were just blown away by this old Delta Blues sound.
Anna: This was our friend Erik Duerr. He really is responsible for enlightening us to most of the music that ends up in the movie. And Jim Black, our music supervisor, we shared this music with him and he helped us fill it out with similar musical styles for times where we had songs we couldn’t afford or needed an extra cue.
What an extraordinary cast you’ve assembled here. I think Ryan Reynolds’ performance is a career best. It’s a brilliant casting choice really, but not necessarily the most obvious one, given that his resume is mostly populated with action and comedic roles. What was it about him that made you feel he was right for the part of Curtis?
Anna: We think he’s great. He has a certain natural charm and charisma that we thought was really right for Curtis. But you’re right, we haven’t seen a lot of that kind of soulful vulnerability that Curtis needed and that Ryan really delivers on in this role. When we sat down with him, it became obvious to us immediately that he could nail this role and it would be exciting to see him open up in ways that we hadn’t necessarily seen, or that he hadn’t been given the opportunity to play. And he’s also the kind of guy that walks in the room that you’re just like, ‘This guy is not gonna lose. He’s not a loser.’ And that’s what Gerry needs to feel when he walks in the room, that this guy is going to be his lucky charm. We wanted to crack that open and see if maybe he’s a loser underneath it all, if he shares some of the loserness that the rest of us humans share.
Between the Netflix series “Bloodline,” last year’s prison drama “Starred Up,” and now “Mississippi Grind,” Ben Mendelsohn is in the midst of quite the hot streak. Gerry is such a perfect role for him. Did you write the part with him in mind?
Ryan: We didn’t write it for him but when we started the casting process his name came up pretty quickly, even though we didn’t really know his body of work. The only thing we had seen him in was “The Place Beyond the Pines,” and we didn’t realize that he was a well-known actor. We thought he was just some local guy that lived in upstate New York! Because we know Derek Cianfrance a little bit – the director of that movie – and he likes to populate his movies with real people, so I just assumed he was some guy Derek found on the street and put in the movie. And sure enough, we did a little research and realized this guy is a major acting force in Australia. We met with him and basically offered him the part within five minutes. There’s such a volatility and sweetness to him – one minute he’s making a joke and the next minute he might stab you!
Filmmaking teams are few and far between. Naturally one would think that having two people at the helm would create disorder onset, and yet all your films are very precise and coherent. Could you talk about your process of collaborating?
Anna: We do work on every aspect of the movie together. It starts with just us two in a room writing. It’s a very safe place to have two voices, and also a very common place to have two voices. There are a lot of writing teams even though not a lot of directing teams. Out of that work together on a script and really understanding what the movie is, what the heart of it is, we build a completely aligned vision of the movie so by the time we get onset it doesn’t feel so much like there are two voices. It feels a little bit more like a single voice.
You’ve made films about an inner city teacher with a drug addiction (“Half Nelson”), a Dominican baseball prospect struggling to acclimate to American life (“Sugar”), a depressed teenager who checks himself into a psychiatric ward (“It’s Kind of a Funny Story”), and now two gamblers who form an unlikely bond on a road trip along the Mississippi. Is there a common thread to your films?
Ryan: This may sound generic, and it could probably apply to many movies, but our films are about characters who are seeking something. They’re seeking something out that’s larger than the world around them and looking to understand how to relate to the world and fit into it.
Anna: I’d also say very simply that they’re just about real people. We’re interested in real people that have all the flaws and confusions that real people do, and exploring people in worlds that we’re not as familiar with. That’s really the only criteria – just to make movies about interesting people.
Do you have another project lined up yet?
Ryan: No, unfortunately not. Nothing to jump into right now. We’re just going to start writing again and see what sticks.