6 Filmmaking Tips from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

The filmmaking team behind 'Captain Marvel' talk momentum, misunderstandings, and the importance of good extras.

Anna Boden Ryan Fleck
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If you ask any filmmaker they’ll tell you: directing is hard. Which is perhaps why some of the biggest names in filmmaking to arrive on the scene in the past few decades have not been individuals but teams—the Coens, the Russos, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. The two met as students, both nascent filmmakers with no inkling that they would still be working as a team twenty years later. They made a handful of shorts together before making their feature film debut with Half Nelson (2006), about the friendship between an inner-city middle school teacher and one of his students, which earned buzz at the Sundance Film Festival and earned star Ryan Gosling an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The followed that up with baseball drama Sugar (2008), book adaptation It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010), and gambling road trip movie Mississippi Grind (2015). They then catapulted from the indie world into the mainstream with Captain Marvel (2019). With five features and more two decades of collaboration under their belts, Boden and Fleck have plenty of great advice to share, including the following six tips:

Keep Momentum Going on Set

Back in January 2016, Boden and Fleck were guests on The Moment podcast hosted by Brian Koppelman, where the duo discussed the trajectories of their filmmaking careers from childhood to present as well as the ins and outs of their creative partnership. As Newton’s laws tell us, an object in motion stays in motion (unless acted upon by an external force), and Fleck shared a great strategy for applying this same basic principle to keeping things active on set:

“I find the momentum means so much in film and TV that we try to just go right into the next take, and not have a big discussion about, oh, it needs to move here on this line, or needs to… whatever it is, with the camera or the performance, we often just, ‘let’s go right and do another one’ […] We learned that as we went. We learned that, when people are looking around, waiting for you to decide on what to do next, it’s often best to just say, ‘hey, let’s go again’—people start setting up, then you have enough time to discuss, if it doesn’t go well on take 2, what the strategy is for take 3.”

You can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. The featured quote starts at 38:50.

Appreciate Your Extras

Boden and Fleck did an excellent breakdown of the Captain Marvel train fight scene for Vanity Fair posted online in March 2019. Throughout the breakdown, the two frequently point out the importance of the extras acting as bystanders to the fight scene. Boden, for instance, pointed out a “favorite” extra shown reacting to Captain Marvel first punching a Skrull disguised as a sweet old lady in the face and explained how test audiences would only start laughing at the somewhat uncomfortable sight of a grandma-type being sucker-punched after seeing the extra’s reaction. Ultimately, she summed up the importance of good extras as follows:

“I can’t stress the importance of having good extras [enough]. They’re not people that you get to cast beforehand and have read for you, so you really rely on your extras casting and getting lucky on the day, having your AD move around the people who aren’t quite nailing it, because they add so much life to a scene like this.”

You can watch the full breakdown below; the featured quote starts at 7:00:

Take it One Step at a Time

The Philippine Star interviewed the stars of Captain Marvel along with Boden and Fleck for an article published in March 2019. One of the questions they posed to the filmmakers regarded what advice they would give to an indie director about how to take on a $100+ million dollar behemoth for the first time as they did with Captain Marvel. Here’s what Boden had to say:

“I’d say [take it] ‘one piece at a time’ because it’s true, thinking about the whole big thing can be really overwhelming, but it’s actually — it can be just like prepping and getting onset for any movie. It’s just one little piece at a time. And once you’re there it’s just actors in a room, whatever that room is: maybe it’s the biggest that you’ve ever seen in your entire life, maybe it’s more film equipment than ever, but it’s just doing what you know how to do and also just trusting the amazing, talented team that you have and embracing them and learning from them.”

Share the Load

Blackfilm.com had the opportunity to visit the set of Captain Marvel while the movie was filming on location in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they interviewed Boden and Fleck about a variety of subjects including their partnership. In the interview, posted online in March 2019, Boden had the following to say about her partnership with Fleck, which also doubles as some great advice regarding the merits of sharing directorial responsibilities:

“We take turns. When somebody gets too tired, we switch. Yeah, I think particularly on [Captain Marvel], I’ve found it so helpful to have a partner. I’ve talked to a lot of directors who direct solo like most directors. And they’re always like, “Oh, man I wish I had somebody I could direct with because it’s a lot of work.” And also, particularly on a movie like this where there are a lot of voices and a lot of opinions and a lot of strong presences, I think it’s really nice to have somebody who you can come together with and remember what’s important, what’s the heart of the story, what’s the heart of this movie. And just somebody who you can touch base with so that it doesn’t get overwhelming.”

Two Perspectives are Better than One

While doing publicity for It’s Kind of a Funny Story, their 2010 film adapted from a novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini, they did an interview for Boston University’s student-operated station BUTV10, where they spoke with student Diego Luna-Victoria. Again, the two addressed their partnership, with Boden giving this great take that can be applied to any collaborative creative effort:

“I think there are probably certain things that I do a little better, and certain things that he does a little better. We don’t specifically separate tasks, but we might come to the same thing from a different perspective and it’s nice to have two perspectives that can kind of come together into a third perspective that’s a little bit greater than either one of those would have been alone.”

You can watch the entire interview below; the featured quote begins at 6:50:

Misunderstandings Can Lead to Inspiration

The great thing about a partnership is that the other person can also come up with great ideas. However, a far less often appreciated benefit is the ideas that come about through misunderstanding the other person. Fleck explains in Fandango interview published in January 2019:

“So many great ideas come out of a misunderstanding. If I hear Anna say something, and I completely misheard her say it, and she goes, “That’s not what I said, but that’s a great idea.” Whose idea was it? It was nobody’s idea. It came out of thin air, but it was a misunderstanding. That’s really what’s fun about having a partner to throw ideas off of. Sometimes you get those good accidents.”

What We Learned

Filmmaking is fundamentally a collaborative endeavor, yet the role of director is most often considered a solo gig. Duos like Boden and Fleck make the compelling case that such standards are worth reconsidering—and importantly, their long-term creative partnership goes to show that you don’t have to be lucky enough to be born related to your future partner-in-crime, like the Coens or the Wachowskis or the Russos, or married to them like Dayton and Ferris. It’s entirely possible to simply find someone who works on the same wavelength that you do and make a lasting, successful creative partnership.

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