Reporting from New York — — Film directors are a notoriously individualistic bunch, and exes rarely make simpatico work partners. So it's surprising to meet Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, co-directors of the new dramatic comedy "It's Kind of a Funny Story," and find an uncanny harmony.
The 34-year-olds refine each other's concepts, tunnel into each other's thoughts and anticipate each other's wants. And that's just at lunch.
"After a take, we typically wouldn't need to consult each other. We'd just look at each other," Fleck says, sitting down next to Boden at a back table in a bistro in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, as they talk about their film that opens Friday. Adds Boden: "It's nice to have worked with someone for so long that you're always on the same page."
That might be an understatement. But then, Fleck and Boden specialize in understatement.
Since they shook up Sundance in 2006 with the gritty drama "Half Nelson," the New York duo's films have won plaudits for their authenticity and emotional restraint. Their movies, which they write, direct, edit and shape down to the last detail, capture human existence in all its messiness.
In "Half Nelson," they probed the character of an idealistic teacher who happens to be a crack addict. In "Sugar" (2008), they examined a young Dominican baseball prospect who comes to the United States and finds the road rockier than he imagined.
"Funny Story" — their first under the auspices of a film studio, the Universal Pictures specialty division Focus Features — marks a step up in budget and star power. Based on Ned Vizzini's young-adult novel, the movie, set in New York, finds 16-year-old Craig ( Keir Gilchrist) buckling under the weight of academic and social pressure.
Stressed and suicidal, Craig checks himself into a psychiatric institution, where he encounters colorful characters including a depressive huckster ( Zach Galifianakis) and a teen rebel who's also a cutter ( Emma Roberts). As he engages with people he wouldn't have met in his life on the outside, Craig absorbs lessons that are, under Boden's and Fleck's light touch, neither pat nor telegraphed. With a little more money to play with, the directors also get to show off some visual trickery (the film's pièce de résistance is an extended fantasy scene set to the Queen and David Bowie song "Under Pressure.")
But if the production scale of "Funny Story" is larger than before, their psychological canvas remains as intimate.
Fleck and Boden "seem to work in this subtle tone that is very refreshing in these days of in-your-face movies," Galifianakis said in an e-mail. (Alluding to their unusual tag-team directorship, he added jokingly: "It was difficult, because usually you have to sleep with only one director, but in this case I had to sleep with two.")
Those who worked behind the camera, however, say Fleck and Boden are two people in the physical sense only. "It's like they're a seamless unit," said producer Kevin Misher. "If you said something to either Ryan or Anna, it was somehow like you had said it to the other one even if you never saw them speak about it."
After meeting as film students in New York nearly a decade ago, Oakland native Fleck and the Boston-bred Boden dated for a number of years, through a few shorts as well as "Half Nelson" and "Sugar." Fleck comes off as thoughtful, quietly confident and slightly opaque; Boden reads as nurturing and more gentle, although those who work with her say that she is capable of striking a forthright posture on set. They broke up just before they began shooting "Funny Story" — a turn either fitting or ironic for filmmakers who traffic in the tenuousness of human relationships. (They plan to continue working together, although the history of exes in Hollywood foretells a difficult path.)
Those who've worked with the pair describe an attention for detail and a kind of immersion that a Method actor would admire. For "Sugar," the directors interviewed hundreds of current and former immigrant baseball players to understand their experience. On this film, they went through the script line-by-line with Gilchrist to gauge whether their words were something a teenager might say.
Tapping into adolescent existence, they say, was essential on "Funny Story."
"I still feel like a teenager sometimes," Boden says. "I still deal with so much of that vulnerability and self-consciousness that it didn't feel that hard to do that." She flows right from that thought, without missing a beat, to remind the waitress that she hadn't brought Fleck's order; Fleck, having forgotten he placed the order, thanks Boden and fluidly picks up where she left off.
"And I said let's go back and make a movie about growing up that reminds us of John Hughes movies — not about the jock interacting with the nerds but about 'My God, I'm living in a world where there's two wars going on, my dad might lose his job at any moment and I have to get into a good school,'" Fleck said.
But the pair say they also wanted to make sure hard-edged truths were tempered by moments of whimsy. "What we loved about Ned's book is that there's a mind-world that's totally grounded and authentic, but there's also hyperbole and exaggeration," says Boden. Fleck adds, "After making two movies that were taking place beginning to end in a certain reality and didn't stray into the subjective world, we were able to do it a little differently" — Fleck interrupts himself and turns to Boden. "What am I trying to say?"
She answers: "I think that's what you're trying to say."