By Michelle Orange
[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.