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Ryan Fleck on “Half Nelson”

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By Michelle Orange

IFC News

[Photo: Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling in “Half Nelson,” ThinkFilm, 2006]

When “Half Nelson” opened last summer, it quickly brought Brooklyn directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck to the forefront of the independent film scene. They were rewarded with three Gotham Awards in November, including Best Feature — the first of many honors, as it turned out. The performances of star Ryan Gosling (nominated last week for an Academy Award) along with newcomer Shareeka Epps and actor Anthony Mackie elevated a strong but spare and risky story into a strikingly unique portrait of one of Fleck’s favorite themes, an “uncommon friendship.”

“Half Nelson” was also a slightly unwieldy addition to a larger canon, that of the Teacher Film; there is at least one a year these days, and if “Half Nelson” sufficed for 2006 (along with an assist from “The History Boys”), last month’s “Freedom Writers” already has a lock on 2007’s star entry. The Teacher Film is generally an inspirational drama, as often as not based on a true story, about a teacher who manages to motivate and educate his or her students against all odds. In the case of “Half Nelson,” one of the main “odds” just happens to be the teacher’s crack addiction.

Released on DVD this week, it seems fairly unlikely that Half Nelson will join the list of “Top 10 Teacher Movies” as voted by the teachers of America, a roster of DVD stalwarts that includes “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Stand and Deliver,” “Dead Poets Society,” “To Sir With Love” and “Dangerous Minds.” I spoke with Ryan Fleck about the influence of that list (if any) on “Half Nelson,” and how their various depictions of alternative teaching methods proved to be either inspiration or anti-inspiration in creating the character of Dan Dunne, and his uncanny, symbiotic relationship with one of his students.

How familiar were you with the Teacher Film genre before making “Half Nelson?” Did any of the archetypal films make a formative impression on you, as a filmmaker or otherwise?

In writing the script for “Half Nelson,” we were well aware of the clichés of the inspirational teacher drama, and tried to move around them in unexpected ways. We never really studied those films. We just didn’t think of “Half Nelson” in the tradition of those movies. The movies we watched to help us establish the mood of the story were more along the lines of Hal Ashby, “Midnight Cowboy” and early Altman.

[Of the films on the Top 10 Teacher Movies list], I have only seen “Stand and Deliver,” “Dangerous Minds,” “Teachers,” “Dead Poets Society” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” And I don’t remember them very well. I recall seeing “Teachers” on TV when I was about ten years old and thinking it was really interesting. I think Nick Nolte smokes pot at some point. It was pretty shocking for me at the time, but I don’t remember much else. I liked “Dead Poets Society” very much.

You have mentioned that a lot of your favorite movies deal with “uncommon friendships” (“Rushmore,” “Harold and Maude”), was there one in particular that was a key inspiration in making “Half Nelson?”

There was no one specific film that influenced “Half Nelson.” But we did derive a lot of inspiration from the films of the 1970s, especially some of Hal Ashby’s movies: “Coming Home,” “Harold & Maude,” “The Last Detail.” There’s something about the rebellious nature of the characters mixed with political insights that seems to be missing from most American films today.

Most of us don’t seem to be paying enough attention in life to take advantage of potential uncommon friendships. Why might that be?

I’m not sure why we don’t take advantage of potential uncommon friendships in our lives. I think most of us spend too much time alone in front of our computers and not enough time interfacing with people in the real world. Just a guess.

Have you gotten any interesting reactions from teachers who have seen the film? Or addicts?

Yes, teachers’ reactions to the film have been all over the place. Most of them really appreciate the film, but we occasionally get some angry reactions. I think some people are very disturbed by Mr. Dunne’s teacher-student boundary issues and accuse us of disgracing the teaching profession, which is pretty silly. For the record, we think public school teachers have one of the most underpaid and under appreciated jobs in this country. That is a true disgrace. But our film just isn’t about that issue. But, again, most teachers have been incredibly supportive of the film.

We’ve had even more support from former addicts who have seen the film. In fact, one person came up to us after a recent screening in shock. This person told us they were a former drug-addicted school teacher who had a very unique friendship with one of her young students. She thanked us for making the film and said it was almost therapeutic for her to watch. And we’ve talked to others with similar stories. Very interesting.

In talking about staying true to the story of Mr. Dunne and Drey you have said that the effect wouldn’t have been as dark if you had gone “the ‘Dangerous Minds’ route.” Can you explain that a bit more?

By “dark” I probably meant to say “real.” The truth is I don’t really remember “Dangerous Minds” very well, but the pieces I’ve seen seem pretty silly. I think the “true story” it was based on was about a black woman’s experience teaching in a tough, inner-city school. Why did they change it to a white woman? I mean, I know why, but to do that stinks of racist bullshit. I don’t inherently have anything against the inspirational teacher genre, but I just thought it would be interesting to switch it up a bit. Teachers are human too. And some of them are even drug addicts. Why not explore that?

“Half Nelson” comes out on DVD February 13th.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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