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Interview with filmmaker Ryan Fleck

East Bay native has directed an impressive string of indie films, including the new "It's Kind of a Funny Story"

East Bay-raised filmmaker Ryan Fleck broke onto the movie scene in a big way when he directed the 2006 drama, Half Nelson. The independent film about a drug-addicted high school teacher received rave reviews (check out Kevin Smith and Richard Roeper’s review here), and catapulted Ryan Gosling onto Hollywood’s A-list (well, his turn in the sappy smash The Notebook didn’t hurt), for his Oscar-nominated performance.

Fleck and his writing/directing partner Anna Boden followed Half Nelson with Sugar, a 2008 drama about a Dominican baseball player trying to make it in the Major Leagues. Though Sugar did not find the audience that Half Nelson did, it was a poignant, unsentimental character study that has grown in reputation since its release and is now considered to be one of the best baseball films ever.

Fleck and Boden are back in theaters this weekend with the comic drama It's Kind of a Funny Story. Based on the semi-autobiographical book of the same name by Ned Vizzini, It's Kind of a Funny Story follows Craig (played by Keir Gilchrist of the United States of Tara), a stressed, depressed teenager who checks into a Brooklyn mental ward after feeling suicidal. In the hospital Craig encounters a range of fellow patients and patient therapists—an impressive cast included Zach Galifinakis (The Hangover); Viola Davis (Doubt); and Julia Roberts' niece, Emma Roberts (Nancy Drew). The film is funny, touching, and carefully observed—a smart movie that should play very well to teens and adults. It's Kind of a Funny Story opens October 8 at Pleasant Hill's CineMark Dome, Livermore's Vine Cinema, Berkeley's California Theatre, and Oakland's Piedmont Theatre.

Knowing that Fleck grew up in Berkeley and Oakland, graduated from Castro Valley High School, and attended Diablo Valley College, I had been eager to interview him since his astonishing Half Nelson breakthrough. I had the chance to sit down with Fleck and Boden recently n San Francsico to talk about their films.

Ryan, before we get into It's Kind of a Funny Story, I wanted to ask about your days at Diablo Valley College. Can you talk about your experience there, and where you were at that point in regard your filmmaking aspirations?
Ryan Fleck: I very much wanted to be a movie director. I went to Castro Valley High School and I wanted was seeking a community college because I did not have the grades or the money to go to a four-year school right out of high school. DVC had a terrific theater program. So I took science and math, but my focus on theater, acting, writing and directing. My experience there was superb. The instructors there were fantastic. I learned more there than I did about acting at NYU.

DVC runs an outstanding film series on Wednesdays and Fridays—Did you go to those?
RF: Yes, I did. I took a film class in the big auditorium. Watched a lot of movies there, which was a lot of fun.

OK, let's talk about this movie. How did the material for It’s Kind of a Funny Story come your way?
Anna Boden: We had just made Half Nelson and premiered it at Sundance. That led to some meetings with some folks, one of whom was the producer on It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Kevin Misher had read this book by Ned Vizzini and thought we might be a good fit for it.

I took the book home and read it really quickly and thought it was wonderful, very funny. I gave it to Ryan and told him to take a look. We both saw an opportunity to make a movie in the tradition of the movies we loved when we were teenagers—the John Hughes movies of the ‘80s.

It had that same feeling of dealing with teen issues with seriousness and humor and without belittling or condescending. We started writing it back in 2006, made another movie in between, and got back to it in 2009.

This movie is more stylized than Sugar and Half Nelson in that it has some fantasy sequences and animation—but it is still a much more focused character study than most big Hollywood films. Can you talk about your approach throughout your films in presenting these solid character studies?
RF: Even though the approach to this movie was trying to reach a younger audience, and we have some pretty outrageous stylized sequences, we still wanted to keep these very grounded nuanced performances between the patients in the hospital. That’s just the style of acting and storytelling that we are drawn to.

Zach Galifanikis gives a terrific dramatic performance in this film. His comic skills are on display as well, but its kind of a surprising choice for him to take just after he had this huge hit film, The Hangover.
AB: Yes, we loved The Hangover and just told Zach, do the exact same thing in this movie. (Laughs) No, we met with Zach and he was so charming and intelligent and down-to-earth, and he clearly wanted to try something different for his next role. He was really open to doing a character who was grounded and more like himself.

There will be a lot of reviews comparing the movie to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—there’s even a basketball scene in both movies—since both films are set in a mental institution. But in Cuckoo’s Nest, the institution is an oppressive force, and in this movie, the system is there to be more helpful. In that sense, this movie reminded me a little more of Precious—last year's film about a troubled teenager in New York who is able to escape her hellish homelife in a supportive school environment.
RF: I would be careful to compare this to either film—but the obvious comparisons to Cuckoo’s Nest because there aren’t a lot of movies set in mental institutions. And the Precious comparison is an interesting one—that is such a dark film—but I see what you are saying about the oppressive institution. We really wanted the character to go through a supportive and helpful institution—again, the inspiration, film-wise, was really The Breakfast Club. But it really stems from the book that Ned wrote, which is a semi-autobiographical account.

I’m curious about how you see your independent movies existing in the bigger Hollywood game. For instance, Half Nelson got great reviews and reached an audience in its initial release. But when Ryan Gosling received an Oscar nomination it really raised the movie’s profile.
RF: Oh, that was huge, there is no question about it. It was huge for Ryan’s career and the movie, but for us as well. It kind of legitimizes you to the entire industry, beyond whatever box office the movie did. But it affected that as well—it made a couple million in theatrical, which is fair because the movie only cost about $1 million. But on video it was a huge success, and that’s because people heard about the movie from the Oscar nomination.

It was an eye-opening experience, because we were able to see all the political campaigning that goes into the Oscars—all the interviews the actors need to do and all the promotional materials that need to be sent to the voters…it's an elaborate process, that is run like a political campaign. When someone is nominated for an Oscar, it is never by accident.

Ryan, what theaters here in the East Bay you went to when you were growing up. Where did you first spark the dream of being a filmmaker?
RF: In high school, the UC Theater on University Avenue in Berkeley. It’s not there anymore unfortunately. They would publish this three month calendar and I would put it up on the wall and circle different dates and say’ I’m definitely going to these. It was my film school before film school. I learned so much from going to those movies.

A really pivotal experience was a double feature of feature of Slacker and Stranger than Paradise. The Stranger Than Paradise experience, in particular, was so cool. To see Jim Jarmusch’s first film on the big screen was amazing