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Interview: Ryan Fleck And Anna Boden of It's Kind of a Funny Story

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 29, 2010 5:20PM

2010_09_FunnyStory.jpg Ten years after meeting on the set of a student film, the filmmaking duo Anna Bolden and Ryan Fleck is on a roll. Their first feature, 2006's justly acclaimed debut Half Nelson, received the recognition it was due when star Ryan Gosling was nominated for an Academy Award. 2008's Sugar earned more plaudits for its portrayal of a young Dominican's pitcher's journey through Minor League Baseball. The latest from the co-directing and co-writing couple is It's Kind of a Funny Story, a light-hearted adaptation of a comedic young adult memoir about a suicidal teenager who checks himself into a mental health clinic, starring Keir Gilchrest, Emma Roberts and Zach Galifianakis.

We sat down to talk about Galifianakis, John Hughes, brain maps, Broken Social Scene and the how you make the anti-Cuckoo's Nest.

Chicagoist: The movie being about what it is about, you probably get some comparisons to or questions about earlier films on the topic of mental illness and its institutions. But watching the film, the only thing it seemed to have in common with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the phrase “bird-dogging chicks.”

Ryan Fleck: Nice!

Anna Boden: You’re the first person to notice that.

Ryan Fleck: There should be confetti that comes down. You’re the first person who’s ever noticed the only homage to that movie.

C: Is that really the only homage?

Boden: Yeah. And then somebody pointed out the basketball, which wasn’t on purpose.

Fleck: That’s stretching.

Boden: People play basketball in real life.

C: For Cuckoo’s Nest, a pretty standard interpretation of the mental institution is it’s more about spiritual freedom than about mental illness.

Fleck: Yeah, that is such a beautiful book and the movie is equally spectacular, but it’s about this cold, oppressive institution that is weighing down the individual and stripping away his freedoms, and those weren’t things we were interested for this movie. We wanted it to be a warm place, a place for healing, and really sort of the anti-Cuckoo’s Nest.

Boden: He gets opened up in this place, and he re-finds the spirit for life, or whatever.

C: I had read that you screened The Breakfast Club for the cast, and last night you mentioned John Hughes as well. It’s a totally different register to take to the movie, but once you said it, it was quite apparent.

Fleck: His movies were hugely influential to us when we were just little kids. It wasn’t even until they had all come out that you realized that there was one guy responsible. Then it’s like woah, that’s John Hughes! That’s amazing, he did Pretty in Pink and Ferris Beuller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club, all those seminal movies. We weren’t so much studying those movies when we were making this, but when we read the book there is something about the spirit of those movies. To deal with serious themes and treat teenagers with dignity and respect, and not to belittle them or to condescend to them.

Boden: But at the same time do it with such humor, and in such an entertaining way. To appreciate the gravitas of what these kids feel like they are going through but at the same time find humor in it.

C: It is a delicate balance there, to treat the serious issues with humor. The role of Bobby that Zach Galifianakis plays embodies it. When I have enjoyed his comedy, especially his stand-up, there’s an energy he gets from not knowing exactly when to laugh. This plays out really well in this film, and in the context of the mental hospital. I didn’t know if this was something you had in mind.

Fleck: That’s interesting that you bring that up. The first time we met him we mentioned this, we haven’t talked about it much since, but there is that element to his comedy of “Is this guy for real? Is this guy fucking with us?” and I think there’s an element that crosses over into the movie. Like in the scene where he really breaks down and loses it, he first shows up with the shirt on his head. That gets a lot of laughs in the theater because it’s Zach being silly and it’s like “Oh what’s he up to?” but then it really sticks once you see how vulnerable he becomes for that scene.

Boden: When, after we cast him, we looked at the script we really noticed that. Particularly about that one scene, how it’s going to play. We struggled with that but if he doesn’t pull off the dramatic moment later and you already have people laughing, so they’re set up to be laughing, then the scene could totally fall flat. But he put so much of himself into it, he does such a good job that he does pull it off to the point where by the end it’s pretty silent in the theater usually. At least at the screenings we’ve been to.

C: About the writing, the project of adaptation introduces, at least notionally, the potential idea of staying true to the text that isn’t there if you’re writing it yourselves. How was that process for you?

Fleck: Ned Vizinni who wrote the book was really supportive. And he got that this was not his medium, filmmaking. He had written his book the way he wanted it, and he wrote a great book. But he really handed it over to us to make it personal to ourselves, which was great. We screened the movie for him when we finished and he loved it which really felt nice because it would be awkward if the guy who wrote a semi-autobiographical account didn’t like the movie. But I think in terms of staying true to the book, there are a lot of scenes that are different. There are characters combined, like you said. There’s no such thing as a true adaptation but I think when people say “Oh that feels like such a good adaptation,” they’re responding to the spirit of the book. I think that fans of will see a lot of differences but they’ll think “Oh they really captured the spirit of that book quite well.” That’s the hope at least.

C: One of the things that stood out to me in this movie as new for you were the animations and musical numbers of Craig learning to express himself, which I thought were pretty powerfully done and almost experiential. He didn’t even realize he was expressing himself until the audience did.

Boden: We’re adapting this book where such facility goes into the mind of your character and so we wanted to take any opportunity we could to introduce that sense of subjectivity. And this seemed like such a fun, beautiful way to do that. It was from the book, when he draws these things he calls “brain maps” and what more wonderful way to get into his brain than to enter through the brain map. And it seemed like a great opportunity to experiment with some new cinematic stuff for us to get us into a flashback and explore that kind of world.

C: This movie is unambiguously a happy ending. I have a very strong memory of watching Half Nelson and really enjoying but also saying “This movie is such a downer.” Is telling a feel-good story a different project for you?

Fleck: Definitely. We approached this from the very beginning as “Let’s make a fun movie that people are going to be entertained by. We’re not going to push all their buttons and make them angry at us for some things by the end of it. We’re really going to allow people to have a good time at this movie and have fun with it, and not be embarrassed by it or too proud to do something like this.

Boden: Yeah and we want the audience to feel uplifted in the same way that Craig is at the end of the movie, even though there are characters, like Bobby, that you’re not so sure what’s going to happen to them.

C: The music in the movie seemed to work really well. Tell me about having Broken Social Scene involved again.

Boden: It’s pretty great having your favorite band collaborate on your movie. They were our favorite band before Half Nelson and we just used their music when we were putting together a cut of that, and we’re just so grateful that they allowed us. They are just such cool guys, because very few other artists would allow us to do what we did on that movie, which is use a ton of their songs for practically no money just because they responded to the movie so positively. And on this one we said “Hey, maybe we should get them paid something more like what they deserve.” Sort of payback for Half Nelson. So we got them a gig and they did a fantastic job, it was fun.

C: Have you had much of a chance to get out in Chicago?

Fleck: No, we just got here last night.

Boden: You guys went to some cheeseburger place. It’s famous.
Fleck: Where did we go last night? Billy Goat Tavern!

C: Okay, I guess I approve.

It's Kind of a Funny Story opens in Chicago next Friday, Oct 8.