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.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.