Exploring the Anti-Vegas: A Conversation with filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a talented, but struggling poker player about to be swallowed up by his unshakable gambling habit, when his luck begins to change after he meets the young, charismatic Curtis
(Ryan Reynolds). Gerry convinces his new lucky charm to hit the road with him, towards a legendary high stakes poker game in New Orleans. The highs and lows unveil the duo’s true characters and motivations, and an undeniable bond forms between them.
Five years since their last feature outing, and ten years since the release of the massively-acclaimed drama, Half Nelson, the writing and directing partnership of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden are back with another tale of addiction and unlikely friendships.
Following in the footsteps of such classics as California Split and The Gambler, ‘Mississippi Grind‘ is the story of downtrodden gambling addict, Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), who cannot seem to do anything but lose. Until, that is, he one day crosses paths with a charming and enigmatic nomad, Curtis (Ryan Reynolds). Believing his new friend to be his lucky charm, Gerry convinces Curtis to join him on a road-trip to New Orleans, in the hope that what has been lost can be reclaimed.
The Fan Carpet‘s Jay Thomas, in association with Acting Hour, was lucky enough to catch up with the creative minds behind the film; Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and discuss with them their inspirations, the experience of exploring the “Anti-Vegas”, and how, when casting the roles, luck was as big a part in real life as it is in the film…
For those yet to jump on the bandwagon, can you tell us a little bit about Mississippi Grind in your own words. Without spoilers, obviously.
Ryan Fleck: Well, it’s a lot of things. One thing, the Mississippi is a river that cuts from north to south through the middle of the United States. It has a kind of mythical quality that goes back to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It’s where all the steamboats went up and down the river, and is hugely historical in this country. Also, it works a little bit as a reference to the title, ‘California Split’, a film we love and which was one of many we tried to reference and emulate in the film. We were kind of playing with that a little bit, taking the title of the state and kind of spinning it into our own little world.
You definitely seem to have achieved that. It is very much a polar opposite to the traditional high-rolling gambler films. Was that part of the appeal to you, to explore a more down-to-earth and relatable human side of that world?
Ryan Fleck: Yeah, I think because of the locations, because we’re in the Midwest and in these kind of dingy and dirty and grimy locations – these riverboats, and dog-tracks, and horse-tracks. We got to shoot in these real locations. It’s not the glamous Las Vegas venues that a lot of us are accustomed to seeing in those very flashy, Hollywood sorts of movies. It was sort of the Anti-Vegas, which was fun to explore, all up and down the Mississippi River.
Did you yourselves do much research into the journey?
Anna Boden: Yeah, we did our fair share of research. To tell you the truth, we didn’t know that much about poker going into writing the project. Before we even put pen to paper, we actually took the journey that our characters take. We had the idea for this journey, and we drove from Iowa to New Orleans, stopping to visit all the horse-tracks and dog-tracks and casinos along the way. And we met with people who spend a large part of their lives in the poker rooms and the various tracks around there. We got to talk to people, and started to pick up information and little pieces, little textures for our story as we took that journey.
So how much of the film was based on your research, as opposed to your own combined imaginations?
Anna Boden: [Laughs] There was a fair bit from our imaginations in there, but there were pieces that we pulled directly from our research. I remember one of the first times that we played poker. We’d played a lot of poker amongst friends, but not a lot in casinos, where you are placed at a table with a bunch of strangers. There is a lot of ettiquette and rules that are specific to casino poker, and it was a little bit intimidating to do that, not knowing much at first. But we pushed ourselves to do a few tournaments, and I remember this one early on that I bought in to, in Tunica, Mississippi. Being the only woman at a table of strangers, I think, got the people talking a little more than they otherwise would have. There was all these great and interesting characters. One in particular, a really interesting guy, said, “I drove to the end of the rainbow once, but there was nothing there”. I wrote it down immediately, because I thought it was such an interesting metaphor for the journey that our two characters are taking. That they were essentially trying to get the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So the emblem of the rainbow became a huge part of the movie as we wrote and shot it.
That’s awesome! I was actually going to ask about the recurring rainbow theme. On the subject of stories, I have to ask whether the story of the man, the Arabian prince and the tiger was real? Please tell me that that was a true story you overheard?
Ryan Fleck: [Laughs]
Anna Boden: [Laughs]
Ryan Fleck: You know, we could tell you that, but it might not be an honest answer. That, in fact, came solely from the imagination of Ms Anna Boden.
Aw, well, whatever the case, it was a element to the film that I really enjoyed. Speaking of colourful characters, those of the loveable loser variety are noted as very difficult to cast. Was it a difficult process, finding an actor to walk that line, or did you have your own Curtis-style lucky charm helping you?
Ryan Fleck: You know, it’s interesting. Once we had written the script, very early into the process, we met with Ben Mendelsohn and just fell in love with him instantly. We basically offered him the part on the spot. So he was essentially the first person we went to with that role, and fortunately he said yes. We were very lucky in that respect. He had no problems walking that line. if you ever get a chance to meet him, you’ll see that he’s a guy that has no trouble walking the line between that really likeable, loveable everyman and also sort of a despicable and scary kind of guy. He can play both aspects almost with ease and really well. Yeah, he had no problems. He dived right into this and right into the research, and he does a great job in the movie.
Indeed, he did a truly fantastic job. Moving to the other character in the film, was it a similar process in finding Ryan Reynolds for the role, or did that prove slightly trickier?
Anna Boden: Despite the fact that Ben Mendelsohn had a huge body of impressive work before we met with him, we weren’t too familiar with it. Whereas we were quite familiar with Ryan Reynolds and his work. And, you know, we have always been fans him. He has this certain kind of old-school charm that not a lot of actors have these days. So, that is initially what we were attracted to and what gave us the inkling that we might really like him for the role. Then, once we sat down with him – as you do with all actors when you are considering them for parts – he just absolutely convinced us at that very first meeting that he was right for the role. He just has that kind of Curtis-style energy… that feeling that when he walks in the room, you just want him to be rolling the dice with you, because he has that lucky leprechaun energy about him. Also, he’s a guy that tells a lot of stories, that is just very charming and funny, but has a certain soulfulness as well. It was everything that we were looking for. It’s not that easy to find, someone that’s charming and witty and funny and handsome, but also has that little window of vulnerability. Yet it was obvious, when we first met, that he definitely had all of that.
Yeah, playing somebody handsome, charming, and witty is no doubt something Ryan Reynolds could do in his sleep these days. It was good to see a softer, deeper side to him, more of a soulfulness as said.
Ryan Fleck: Yeah, it was fun to have him inhabit a role that we had written, one that allowed him to play on that side of things a little more.
Speaking of all things good in the movie, one of the greatest achievements was the amount of tension that hangs over many of the scenes. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was on the edge of my seat on numerous occasions throughout the runtime. Was it a challenge, creating that level of tension or was it a happy combination of great writing and phenomenal acting?
Anna Boden: I think it might have been that we had the right audience member watching. [Laughs]
Ryan Fleck: [Laughs] Yeah. Not everyone has that reaction, so I’m glad that you appreciated that aspect of the movie.
Anna Boden: Without giving anything away, there are moments in the film where things are really riding on the roll of the dice, and it is really fun to watch that in a theatre full of people. We didn’t experience it until we finished the movie and watched it in a big screening at a film festival premiere. It is really fun to experience the tension of that first-hand, the sharp, communal intake of breath at the crucial moments. As a filmmaker, you aren’t sure you are going to achieve that. You hope and you try, but until you present it to a bunch of people, you never really know for sure.
Exactly! Again, without spoilers, it was actually the scene with the safe that really had me tensed. I had both fingers crossed, because I was really hoping that what it seemed was going to happen wasn’t actually going to happen.
MISSISSIPPI GRIND IS OUT NOW ON DVD AND DIGITAL DOWNLOAD