Directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden made a name for themselves with the Sundance hit and Ryan Gosling tour-de-force “Half Nelson,” about a history teacher/drug addict who attempts to help a troubled student, but ends up receiving the help instead.
The film was powerful and affecting, and expectations were high for whatever would end up being their sophomore effort. The team decided to throw everyone a curveball, literally, as their next film “Sugar” followed the rise and fall of a Dominican baseball player chosen to play in the American minor leagues. Employing non-actors and beginning with a superficial tone that fizzles into realism towards the end, they proved to be the some of the smartest filmmakers in the country.
While the two films were very different from one another, it was assumed that they would continue to tackle these dark subjects, each with distinct sensibilities. Color us surprised when it turned out their next film would be a teen comedy in the vein of John Hughes, starring Keir Gilchrist from “The United States of Tara” and featuring the likes of Zach Galifianakis, Lauren Graham and comedian Jim Gaffigan. “It’s Kind Of A Funny Story,” based on the novel by Ned Vizzini, chronicles a brief stint at a mental hospital by 16-year-old Craig, who attempts suicide after crumbling under the pressures of life.
We caught it at TIFF and thought it was decent, albeit a little disappointing considering how much we normally love their work, but chances are audiences in its age demographic will thoroughly enjoy it. The movie manages to be funny while also refraining from the hipness that often plagues recent teen efforts. We sat down with both directors and actor Galifianakis to talk what drew them to the project, how they work together, and their take on modern medicine and depression.
There certainly are more directing duos than there ever were (Duplasses, Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris, Coens, Dardennes, etc.), but it’s understandably a very delicate relationship which requires maturity and patience. “We started out just making movies on video, just the two of us. We’re not gonna pretend it’s always rosy, but we try to work those things out early in the process, in the writing and the pre-production so we don’t have people watching us bicker. It’s behind closed doors,” said Fleck. It seems like the partnership is working out for them, now with three feature films under their belt and numerous documentaries and shorts also out there. Boden elaborated, speaking of the intense work that comes before shooting commences: “By the time we get to set, we’ve written the whole script together for years, we’ve gone through shot listing together, we’ve had all the meetings with key collaborators, we’ve had rehearsals, it’s like if we’re not on the same page by then, we’ll never be on the same page.”
As for what drove them to the project, it may have been the fact that their next project, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” was caught in Miramax hell, and they were eager to do something new. Why the book specifically? Boden says the idea of telling a story through the eyes of a teen, one that dealt with serious issues but in a light way, got them excited. “It just felt like it had the spirit of the John Hughes movies that we loved when we were growing up and that were really meaningful to us,” she said. And that influence is apparent in its ensemble nature and its realistic and non-juvenile teen performances. Fleck spoke a bit more on why the drastically different direction and audience, with ‘Funny Story’ being almost a gateway drug into their earlier work. “I read a book somewhere when Coppola made ‘Rumble Fish,’ not that this is ‘Rumble Fish,’ but that he wanted to make a Fellini movie for teenagers. That sentence alone is like, mind boggling, how is that possible? This isn’t an art film, but we wanted to make a movie that had serious dramatic moments and was also playful and fun and people will hopefully remember as they grow older and hopefully go back and look at some of our earlier work and get excited about that too.”
Aside from being more commercial and aiming at a different audience, there were also new areas for the team to explore, such as working with visual effects. There are often animations that take place in the protagonist’s head; drawings that take a life of their own and become centerpieces in the film. “There’s a big learning curve, I learned a lot on this movie, there’s a lot that’s out of your hands. You have people that are running the visual effects and you’re just sitting back and thinking… ‘I hope they know what they’re doing!'” Boden said, laughing. Most likely a liberating and trust-building exercise, the effects turned out perfect and added another layer to a picture which could have felt overly-claustrophobic given the singular setting.
Galifianakis spoke about his decision to join the film as the more grounded character of Bobby, as opposed to what he often plays, one that is more exaggerated for comedic purposes. “This character to me was the most similar in nature to how I am in real life which doesn’t speak very high for him,” he smirked, “… but it just is. I think that this reality we live in is a joke, and funny, and I think Bobby probably felt that too. That this world that he’s in, his world outside of those walls, is hard for people to adapt. For example, you’re sitting in a cafe, I can take a picture of you and download it on my computer, and because of your facemap, I can find out whatever I need to about you. Given all that, if you think about it too much, it can fuck with you. And I do that.” While Zach hasn’t had a breakdown as serious as Bobby’s, there’s a level of truth he brings to the performance (towards the end of the film, his subtle performance is nothing short of impressive) which should open new doors for the comedic actor.
He wasn’t the only one to find something personal to relate to, either. Boden nudged Fleck to speak of a certain scene which he pulled from his own experience. “There’s a scene with the Sanders music playing under the flashback of Craig and Aaron riding their bikes around the city. There was a day where I was just riding around in the city and ended up at a record shop and was just in the jazz section, and said screw it, I’m going to buy a jazz album I know nothing about, and I bought it based on the album cover work. ‘Journey to the one’ I think is what it’s called by Sanders, and that song is what plays during that sequence, one of the songs from the album, it’s one of my favorite albums, just the spirit of those carefree days.” The carefree spirit, regardless of the setting of a mental hospital, rings true for the rest of the score, done by indie-rock Canadians Broken Social Scene. The band had previously worked on “Half Nelson,” and Boden spoke of their desire to use a non-traditional score and thought the band would be a good fit for the movie. “They’re our favorite band, and it felt like a good opportunity to work with them again, we called them up and felt them out and they were interested.”
Though the film is relatively lighthearted, it does tackle weighty topics and issues, such as a society hopped up on drugs and depression. “I know people close to me that are on things, they need it to get through the day, make them focus. I think it can have a tranquilizing effect, it might put you in focus but it can zone you out. Obviously there are people with major problems that benefit from these things. But I think sometimes we’re over-medicated. You’re supposed to be fucked up,” noted Galifianakis. Maybe there is a tendency to request medication for problems that could be overcome otherwise, but Boden again stresses the fact that some people need these things to overcome. “I do think there sometimes is over prescription of medication, but that said, I do not think across the board that psych medicine should never be used.” More so, the filmmakers seem to be tackling the issue of secrecy while on depression medicine, where people seem to be ashamed for being on them. “An important part of the book says that the use of it is not something that children or adults should be embarrassed by, depression is not something people should be embarrassed by, medication and therapy is something that a lot of people go through and getting help for it isn’t a bad thing.”
Most importantly, is the author happy with their adaptation? “Yeah, assuming he’s not lying to us, he loves the movie,” joked Fleck, “which can be a little nerve-wracking at first because he was not involved with the script, and when we presented him with the film, we made a lot of changes and he was really supportive, and got that he made his book and now it’s inspiring this movie.” With the author’s seal of approval, a strong cast and a big push by Focus Features, the movie might be the indie hit everyone involved is hoping for. Dealing with issues that most teen films tend to ignore or over-dramatize, “It’s Kind Of A Funny Story” is a welcome addition to the genre and a new, fresh step for Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. The film opens this Friday, October 8th in limited release only (ed. note, the film was set to go wide then suddenly shrunk to limited, late this week. Unfortunately, the middling reviews, probably didn’t help).