Filmmaking duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck ("Half Nelson," "It's Kind of a Funny Story") have something of a '70s throwback on their hand with charming, shambling "Mississippi Grind," a tale of two career gamblers (Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds) who team up to work their way through casino after casino to a high-stakes poker game in New Orleans. And yes, the references to Robert Altman were intentional.
Where did this idea come from?
RYAN FLECK: It started with the location, because when we were making our second movie, "Sugar," we were shooting in Iowa and spent a bunch of time there. And on weekends, just for fun, we'd get some of the crew together and go to this riverboat casino they had on the Mississippi River. We'd never been to any place quite like it. We would just go there for fun and play blackjack, and it was sort of the opposite of the glamorous casino world that we see in movies like the "Oceans" movies or "Casino." And we were like man, this is really interesting. This is a fascinating world, the people who hang out in those locations.
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How much card-playing or gambling experience did you have before this?
ANNA BODEN: Going into it, we didn't have that much experience, but whenever we start a new project that explores a new world that we're not very familiar with, we use it as an excuse to learn something. When we were writing the script, we kind of took that road trip, and we went to all the casinos along the way and taught ourselves poker, forced ourselves to play in tournaments even though we were pathetically terrible, horrible losers. (laughs)
What little time I've spent in casinos, I've always been surprised at just how depressing they are.
RF: Despite all the effort. They're trying to make it the opposite of that. They're trying to make it the most exciting environment you can be in, which is interesting about these places. They're doing the same thing, these little riverboat casinos, but the people in them are anything but cheery and hopeful.
AB: They're not fresh. "Mississippi Grind" is like this is their daily grind, where they come every day and just kind of grind out a living.
So would you consider Ben Mendelsohn's character a gambling addict?
RF: Oh sure, definitely. This is a guy who's been doing it for so long — the movie deals with it in a very subtle way — but this is a guy who's gotten accustomed to losing. It defines him. It's always his excuse to not do the other things in life that responsible adults start to do — take care of his children, his ex-wife, move forward in life. It's like, "If I could just get blank," and I think we can all relate to that, whether we're a gambler or not. "If I could just have this amount of time off from work, then I would do all these other things." Or, "If I could just get X amount of dollars, I would go do this." But what happens when those excuses go away?
There have been a lot of Robert Altman comparisons with this, particularly for the shooting style — lots of zooms, long takes. Was that intentional?
RF: Yeah, we embrace that. This is very much inspired by Altman and a lot of other movies from that '70s era of wonderful films. But that zoom, yeah, it's just lifted straight out of the Altman playbook.
You use Ryan Reynolds in an interesting way, playing with his natural charm.
AB: Ryan Reynolds walks into the room and sits down next to you and you feel like you could win a million bucks with this guy next to you. He's like the guy who you want on your team. We already had Ben Mendelsohn as our Gerry, and it was like, who's the guy who's going to walk into the casino that Gerry's going to say, "Hey, you're my lucky charm. You're my handsome leprechaun who I want to come on this journey with me and help me win a million bucks." Ryan has that energy, and not that many people do.
Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter: @nedrick