Finding the End of the Rainbow with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Paste talks magic and superstition with the directors of Mississippi Grind.

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After four movies together—Half Nelson, Sugar, It’s Kind of a Funny Story and now their latest, Mississippi Grind —writer/director duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have an easy collaboration. It took them all of 20 minutes to agree on casting Ben Mendelsohn as hard-luck loser Gerry, one of the leads in the Altman-esque, ’70s-inspired road movie (although anyone familiar with Mendelsohn’s work might be surprised it even took them that long), and both can speak to the magical effects of his co-star Ryan Reynolds, who plays a charming, itinerant gambler named Curtis.

In fact, the only subject the two filmmakers seem to have a difference of opinion on is both gamblers’ penchant for looking for signs—Boden is a true believer, Fleck, not so much. But that superstition is partly what first drives Gerry and Curtis together, as the two bond over bourbon and rainbows before embarking on a road trip from Iowa down the Mississippi in order to take part in a fabled New Orleans poker tournament. For Gerry, it’s an opportunity to get back in the black and wipe his considerable debts clean, and in Curtis he’s finally found his lucky charm.

With Mississippi Grind playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, Paste sat down with Boden and Fleck to talk about superstition and magic, poker tells, and why Ryan Reynolds doesn’t get more respect.

Paste: The places Gerry and Curtis are going in this movie—the home games, the small-time casinos—this isn’t really your typical Hollywood depiction of gambling. It’s probably more what it’s like for serious, everyday gamblers. What was it that first got you interested in exploring that world?
Anna Boden: It was when we were shooting a movie called Sugar back in like, wow, years ago…2007. We were shooting in Iowa and we visited this casino that’s on the Mississippi River. It’s this small casino that is just the opposite of everything that we had experienced with casinos before and gambling, the glitz and the glamor and everything. But we were just really intrigued by the texture of the space itself, this dive-y, smoky, dark little place, and also the characters who inhabited it. And we filed that away in our minds, like this is a place we want to revisit at some point in a story down the road. And then this idea came up and it felt like “Alright, it’s time.” Let’s explore these locations and the characters who inhabit them.

Paste: What was your research like for this? Did you spend a lot of time in those kinds of places?
Ryan Fleck: The research was fun. It was sort of the opposite of what the guys in the movie did. We started in New Orleans and we drove north and we stopped in all the places that the guys stopped along the way. That’s how we figured out where we wanted them to go, like, “Oh, they should go to Tunica and they should go to Memphis.”
Boden: And when we ran out of money, we were in Iowa so we were like, “I guess this is where it starts.” [Laughs.]

Paste: Was there anything you picked up on during that trip that ended up making it into the movie?
Boden: So much. I think the most specific thing is we were both doing this [poker] tournament in Tunica, Mississippi. We were at separate tables and I was at a table with this really interesting character. And he said this thing that just kind of stuck with me, and I immediately wrote it down. He said that he drove to the end of a rainbow once, and “There wasn’t nothing there, it just faded out into the trees.” And for some reason, it just felt like such a perfect metaphor for this story in general. So the whole rainbow theme emerged from that line that some guy randomly said to a poker table in Tunica, Mississippi one day.

Paste: Gamblers have a reputation for being superstitious, looking for signs—like that rainbow—and I feel like there was an opportunity to be really cynical about that. But you guys definitely weren’t; there’s almost a certain magic to this movie. Was that a point of emphasis for you, to not look down on these characters?
Boden: I mean, I totally believe in magic and superstition. [Fleck laughs.] I believe that Curtis is magic in this movie, and I don’t think that anybody shouldn’t. Except he might have a different opinion…
Fleck: I believe Ryan Reynolds is magic. He’s a magical human being.
Paste: For whatever reason, I don’t think Ryan Reynolds gets enough credit as an actor. And he’s so good in this. Are we on the verge of a McConaughey-style Reynolds-sance?
Fleck: I hope so. I think he’s great. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why he doesn’t get the sort of serious credit that some of his peers have gotten over the years.
Boden: He’s too damn good-looking, that’s why.
Fleck: Maybe it’s just that he’s been associated with the rom-coms and the action movies, and maybe he hasn’t quite done enough of the little independent films, but he’s terrific in this movie.
Boden: But I would cast him in anything. Both of these guys. I would love to just make a whole franchise off these two so we could keep working with them.
Fleck: Yeah, let’s do a sequel. They keep making their way south, they’re in Central America for Part Two. Then they actually make it to Machu Picchu.
Boden: Oh, I like that… That’s kind of good.
Fleck: Well, now it’s on tape, so we just ruined it.
Paste: So I just broke that story, right? Mississippi Grind 2.
Fleck: Spoiler alert! [Laughs.]

Paste: It’s so nice to see Ben Mendelsohn in a lead role like this. He’s such a great character actor, but how’d you guys find him for this?
Fleck: He was recommended. The only thing we’d ever seen him in was Place Beyond the Pines. Our producers actually produced that, Jamie Patricof and Lynette Howell. And when we were throwing names around for the part of Gerry, Lynette was like, “Well, what about Ben Mendelsohn?” And I was like, “…Who’s that?” And she was like, “He’s the guy in Place Beyond the Pines.” I’m like, “That guy? I love that guy! I thought he was just some dude that you cast locally in upstate New York.” Because I, embarrassingly, hadn’t seen any of his other roles. So we went back and looked at some of his other movies and were like, “Oh my God, this guy is like a superstar in Australia, he’s been acting for years.” [Laughs.] And we met with him and we just fell in love with him instantly. And basically offered him the part within about 20 minutes of meeting with him. Which we never do. We usually have to go back and consult privately.
Boden: But once you sit across from him, you realize he’s a leading man. He’s got that kind of energy about him.
Fleck: Yeah, he’s a star. He’s a movie star. Maybe not in the U.S. yet or in Canada, but I think it’s coming.

Paste: Do you see any correlation between gamblers and filmmakers? I mean, you’re both essentially looking for someone to stake you, right?
Fleck: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s a good point. There’s risk involved, sure.
Boden: I mean, do you have a filmmaking addiction, Ryan?
Fleck: That is probably true, yeah. I think that filmmaking is very addicting and risky, and it gives you a high, for sure. Not as lucrative as gambling can be, if you’re lucky… [Laughs.]
Boden: Same as the other way around. It depends on who you are, and who’s talking.
Fleck: That’s right. J.J. Abrams probably has a different view on that.

Paste: I loved seeing James Toback pop up in a cameo. Was The Gambler a big influence for you guys with this movie?
Fleck: Yeah, the original Gambler is a terrific movie, which he wrote. And we wanted that part to be a cameo referencing that time period. The only other person we considered for that part was Elliott Gould, and we actually had an hour-long conversation with him trying to convince him to do it. And he was just like, “I’m too old. I can’t punch anybody anymore.” But he told us stories for like an hour about that era of filmmaking.
Boden: It was pretty amazing.
Fleck: Yeah, and then after that, we knew it was James Toback. Because we actually know James a little bit, and we were like, “Okay, if we can’t get Elliott, we’re going to Jim.” And he was great. He was like, “Yeah, of course!”

Paste: What are some of the practical challenges with making a road movie like this?
Boden: I think it’s just about balancing your desire to be in every location and make it as authentic as possible with the practical realities of shooting a movie. And for us, it was about choosing what are the places that we really need to go. And what are those locations that feel really important to experiencing this journey that they take from Iowa to New Orleans, and making sure that we went to those places. And we did end up bringing a small crew and our actors to St. Louis and Mississippi and made sure that we were filming in a bunch of places along the way, but most of it we shot in New Orleans. So it just had to be about being very selective about where we were going, where we were bringing people.

Paste: One of the great recurring bits for me in this movie is Gerry listening to that CD of poker tells in the car. But I’d imagine being able to read people is a good skill for a director to have too. Have you developed any strategies for reading your actors over the years? Do they have tells?
Fleck: That’s an interesting question. And I feel like the answer’s yes. I wish I had a specific anecdote to tell you about that, but I think all directing is watching and reading and just looking for the honest moments. And constantly asking yourself as a director, “Do I believe what’s happening in front of the camera? Is this working? Do I believe this?” And it’s not always about getting the lines right or lighting the scene in the most beautiful way, it’s just about, “Okay, I’m believing this, this could be happening.” And that’s really what we’re looking for as directors in our movies.