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TSR Exclusive: ‘It’s Kind of A Funny Story’ interview with writing/directing duo Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck

Grunge-god turned martyr for the adolescent Kurt Cobain once said, "teenage angst has paid off well/now I'm bored and old." There are no filmmakers that reject this statement other than Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, two warming young filmmakers who have featured teenagers and their pressures prominently in their critical successes Half Nelson and Sugar. This defiance against the darkness of teenage angst is refuted by their latest movie, It's Kind of A Funny Story, a new comedy about a young man named Craig (Keir Gilchrist) who thinks his depression and suicidal thoughts merit a trip to a psychiatric ward. Once he learns that he can't leave the ward once he has signed himself in, Craig attempts to make the best of his experience. He learns about the things we really should be "crazy" about in life, especially with the wisdom of his friend Bobby (as played by Zach Galifianakis).

I sat down with Boden & Fleck in a roundtable interview to discuss teenager turmoils, the usage of that random Pixies cover, what The Hangover's Zach Galifianakis is really like, and more. It's Kind of A Funny Story opens this Friday, October 8th.

Do you think teens today are too overdramatic about depression and suicide? Is teenage angst a terminal disease?

Anna Boden: I think that the short answer is no. I think that teen angst has always been a disease. I think that you can look back on those yers and have a different kind of perspective on what those problems are, but when you’re going through it it’s really hard. We tried to make a movie that respected that while still having a character who goes through and meets all of these people that change his perspective. That’s really important. It’s not until he meets all those people and sees where they’re at that he’s able to approach his own life differently.

Did this story come from either one of your lives or background? People you knew?

Ryan Fleck: No, I think other than having been teenagers who felt very dramatic at 16-years-old, when we read the book the voice of this character who just feels like overwhelmed by everything going on. Not just in school, and with the pressure that his parents are putting on him, which I think a lot of people can relate to. But today it’s a very complicated world. I guess it always has been. But I think because everything has been so visible, with the technology, the wars that are going on, the environment, oil spills, the economy – for teenagers who have the pressure to go to college and get a good job it’s really daunting and somewhat scary. And scarier than it did when I was a teenager.

When working with characters who are in psychiatric ward, do you usually let actors have free reign, or do you give them more precise characteristics?

Boden: Yeah, it was really important for us to not have people who act what they think is crazy. We have been to one of these places, and there’s usually a couple people who are very typical crazy looking, they are what people think of when you they think of “looney bin.” But there are also epoeple who are pretty sedate, and look pretty normal most of the time. So we met with all of our extras ahead of time, and told them what we were expecting, which is not to act distractingly crazy in the background.

So people were more like Bobby than [Craig’s odd roommate] Mugtaba?

Fleck: Yeah. Most of the time. The characters in the book that we wanted maintain in the book, like Jimmy, who juts out, “It will come to you!” every now and then. He is certainly one of the more unhinged.

Boden: Solomon … who is very subdued and quiet. And there’s something that’s interesting about those people.

Zach Galifianakis has been called a mix between “Jonathan Winters and Jack Nicholson.” What was it like working with him in this nuthouse situation? Did he have free reign?

Fleck: Yes, and no. We had a conversation before the movie, and he literally asked us, “How crazy is Bobby?” And we said, “Listen. You’re in a place that is inherently odd and a little crazy. That’s already working for you. You don’t need to play crazy on top of that. Play it normal. There will be scenes where you’ll be able to go a little nuts.” Which he does, when he has a sort of emotional breakdown. But for the most part, “Go against what people are expecting. Play this grounded and real.” I think it’s the first time he’s done that in a movie before. He brings a lot of himself to the role. You’re seeing Zach Galifianakis in this movie, not so much the oddball characters that he’s played in his other movies.

Boden: It was interesting that the first movie that he plays in a mental institution, he’s playing less crazy than he has in any other movie.

Did he have any goals when taking on this particular character?

Fleck: Oscar nomination. [Laughs]

Boden: He wanted to try something different, and it would be easy because he’s so funny and he’s so good in The Hangover, which was an incredible success. It would be easy for someone to keep playing that character, and make a really good living at it. But he is someone who wants to do different things, and loves all different kinds of movies. He came to us as a fan of our first movie, [Half Nelson], which was not necessarily what you would think of when you think of the guy from The Hangover. But he loves all kinds of movies, and was interested in experimenting.

Are there are lot of outtakes?

Fleck: There are incredible outtakes, which will hopefully be on the DVD, which will have people laughing for a long time. Not just from him – from all the supporting characters. I don’t think we did so much tone him down. He came in, and kind of got it. Once we encouraged him to play more of himself – we met at a bar and we were all talking together, he was such a friendly guy – he didn’t need to play a character so much. He could play Zach Galifianakis in this movie. It’s not to say that he’s not acting, he’s doing some incredible acting, but he’s also being the warm and generous guy that we met.

I read that your biggest assets is correcting each other in the screenwriting. How does that work with the directing? Any pans been thrown at his head?

Boden: We get all of that stuff out in the writing. In the two years that we’ve spent working on the screenplay, off and on, and done pre-production, location scouting, and talked about how we’re going to shoot the thing, we’re pretty much of the same mind about how it should be. It’s very important for us to be on the same page before we get on set, so that things never end in confusion about “Are we going to do this or that?” And of course complications come up. But I do think that if you know that you are making the same movie, the little decisions that come up spontaneously are easy to figure out.

Recently, Zach Galifianakis said to MTV News that you [Ryan] “did most of the talking” and that you [Anna] “were in the background a little bit.” Is that true?

Fleck: I think it goes back and forth. I think maybe with Zach, I might have talked to Zach a little more, and I think that Anna must talked to Keir a little more. I think that’s interesting that different actors might have a different response to that. On the first movie, I was credited as director, and did pretty much all of the talking to the actors for the most part. And then on the second movie, which was mostly in Spanish, which Anna is fluent in, she did most of the talking with the actors. This one was much more balanced. We would never go up to the same actor, which I think would be very intimidating for most actors. But we tend to after a take talk to each other not that much. After a take we’ll circle lines, and one of us, in which we were fairly split, would go talk to the actor.

Is the billing of Half Nelson like a Coen Brothers thing, where Joel Coen is only credited, but the directing duties are really shared by both Ethan and Joel?

Fleck: Yeah. I think because it was our first movie, we weren’t really familiar with co-directors. No Country for Old Men I think was the first movie that they were listed as co-directors on. I think they were sort of a model for us. Even though we both worked pretty closely as equal directors. But I got all the credit, got to travel and meet the girls. [Laughs] But now that’s over now. We both meet the girls.

How did you get Broken Social Scene to do the soundtrack? Did you have much of a say what would be on the soundtrack?

Boden: Yeah that was the most important part for us. We love choosing music. We start doing it right at the very beginning of the scripting process. We start listening to music and thinking what song might go well in a scene. Usually we’re wrong in the end – we change our minds. But there are some things that very early on we have an idea about. For instance the song that ends Sugar, in the script stage I think we knew we wanted to end with that song. Same with this movie, even though we went back and forth with it. I think we told Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene like three years ago that we wanted to end this movie with that song. [We’ve been friends with] Broken Social Scene since Half Nelson, because we used a lot of their music. They didn’t compose for it, but we basically borrowed existing music for the soundtrack. When we got into the edit room [on this film] and realized that the soundtrack was going to be so important, there weren’t that many places that we needed composition. In those places, we didn’t want an orchestral, traditional score. So we thought they’d be perfect for it, and maybe this time we’d have a little bit money to offer them than Half Nelson. We gave them a call, and it was amazing to collaborate with them.

Where did the idea of using the Pixies piano cover of "Where Is My Mind?" come in?

Fleck: I was just listening to Santa Monica Public Radio, and they play all kinds of cool new music. I heard that come on one day, while we were shooting. It was a weekend, and we had the day off. And I just thought, “Wow, this is gorgeous.” It was only in the editing stage where we needed something serious but had a lightness to it. There’s something humorous about the song when you know what it is. It’s heavy and dramatic, but once you know what it is you think, “Oh, this is kind of fun.” It treats a potentially heavy moment, and over-dramatic moment, and gives it a little lightness.

Boden: The same way that the penis drawing did. It felt like they played off each other.

Who takes directions better – teenagers or adults?

Boden: Adults at better at pretending to take your direction when they don’t want to do it.

Tell us about the “Under Pressure” music video sequence.

Boden: It was very well planned. We only spent one day shooting it, but we spent the entire pre-production and production, it was our second to last day of shooting, all of tahat time planning it. We had rehearsals where we choreographed it. All of the departments were so excited about it, and put so much energy into doing their most outstanding work. From costumes to make-up designs to set design to camera.

Was that sequence in the book?

Boden: It came from a spark of something in the music therapy scene.

Fleck: The musical therapy scene is in the book, but it’s a different song. It’s interesting. I think we had an advanced copy [of the book] and the song was Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” I think in the subsequent versions they removed that reference. I don’t really know why.

What interests you about working with teenagers, and not making movies just for adults?

Fleck: I don’t know.

Boden: Immaturity.

Fleck: We still feel like kids. We’re not sophisticated enough to move on.

Boden: We’re still trying to deal with that moment of being a teenager when you can reinvent yourself. We’re just constantly trying to go back there.

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