Anna Boden ’02 Wins with Half Nelson
By Katarzyna Kozanecka ’07
From left, actress Shareeka Epps, producer, co-writer and editor Anna Boden ’02 and co-writer and director Ryan Fleck at the Spirit Awards on February 24, where Epps was honored with the Best Lead Actress award for her work in Half Nelson.
PHOTO: LES BODEN
For Anna Boden ’02, the 2007 Film Independent’s Spirit Awards, held as a luncheon on the beach in Santa Monica, Calif., on February 24, were a happy reunion. “Most of the filmmakers nominated for the awards had been traveling the same festival circuit as we had for the past year, and it was amazing to hang out with them again,” she says.
The Spirit Awards, the premier awards event of the independent film community, are produced by Film Independent, a nonprofit organization dedicated to independent film and its makers. Its members vote on the winners. Boden’s film, Half Nelson, was nominated for six Spirit Awards and won two: Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling were recognized for their lead roles. Gosling also was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Male Lead, but lost to Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland).
Boden co-wrote Half Nelson with Ryan Fleck, her boyfriend and the film’s director. She also produced and edited the highly acclaimed feature, which critic David Edelstein of New York Magazine called “a genuinely inspirational film — a terrifically compelling character study and a tricky exploration of the links (and busted links) between the personal and the political.”
Boden, who majored in film studies and concentrated in English at the College, came to Columbia from Newton, Mass., a Boston suburb. “I always loved watching movies,” she says, “but I didn’t know then that I wanted to be a filmmaker. It grew into that.”
Boden took a year off from school after her junior year to participate in an AmeriCorps program in Seattle, where she worked with a teacher who was a documentary filmmaker. When she returned to Columbia, Boden took a nonfiction filmmaking class, for which she shot her first short film, Have You Seen This Man? “It’s about a Brooklyn artist with a unique way of distributing his art,” says Boden, who calls the film “a collaborative effort” between herself and Fleck, whom she’d met at a summer filmmaking course at NYU. He had just graduated and was working at the editing desk at NYU, where students check out editing equipment. They worked together on a couple of student films, started dating and eventually began writing and directing together.
After Boden’s graduation, the couple traveled to film festivals across the country to screen Have You Seen This Man? and hold Q-and-A sessions. In 2003, the film was shown on the Independent Film Channel and included on the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival’s DVD compilation, Full Frame Documentary Shorts Vol. 2. Boden and Fleck then co-directed Young Rebels (Jovenes Rebeldes) (2005), a documentary about hip-hop in Cuba.
All this time, Half Nelson was in the works. Boden traces the script to 2002’s anti-war protests. “There was all this energy in the country,” she says. “People were talking about revolution. We decided to make a film about an idealistic person who wants to change the world, but is frustrated by his limitations.” Gosling (The Notebook) plays Dan Dunne, a young, inner-city junior high school teacher who speaks passionately about dialectics in the Civil War and the civil rights movement; he even arm-wrestles a student to convey a point about struggle. When his student, Drey (Epps), discovers his crack addiction, it’s the start of a moving friendship.
As they lacked the resources to shoot the film as a full-length feature, Boden and Fleck decided to rewrite the script as a short film, Gowanus, Brooklyn. They shifted the focus from the teacher to the student. “We used the short as a way to workshop our characters, but also to help get attention for the original feature-length script,” Boden says. Gowanus, Brooklyn, premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, where it tied for the Grand Jury Prize for Short Filmmaking. A year-and-a-half later, the cameras were rolling on the feature-length version. Half Nelson premiered in competition at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and was released theatrically on August 11. It made dozens of top 10 lists nationwide.
Boden describes the casting process: “We went to local Brooklyn schools and put the word out. Shareeka was one of the first students we saw at our open audition, and though she had never acted, she had a raw honesty and thoughtfulness that you just can’t teach. After her great performance in the short film, we were really excited to have her act in the feature.”
Half Nelson was shot in 23 days, after which came the solitary work of editing, which Boden calls a time to “get recentered. Editing is one of my favorite parts of the filmmaking process. It’s a time to bring the film back to the script.”
That script was originally set in Oakland, Fleck’s hometown, but because their producers were based in New York, the couple shot the feature in Brooklyn. “But a viewer might never know where it’s set,” says Boden. “There are no Welcome-to-Brooklyn signs, no subways and no Statue of Liberty.” Boden and Fleck felt that the environment they sought existed in many cities, and they enjoyed exploring new neighborhoods in order to find it in New York, where they have lived for 10 years.
Boden fondly recalls her years at Columbia, especially a seminar on film noir with Ann Douglas and her senior seminar with Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies, who calls Boden “by far one of my best students. I last saw Anna in January at the NY Film Critics Awards dinner, where I was able to congratulate her in person.”
“Two good friends from film classes at Columbia, Tze Chun ’02 [see here] and Stacy Wu ’02, are two of my closest confidantes when it comes to getting feedback on a rough cut of a film or on a new script,” says Boden. “Tze even painted our poster for the release of Half Nelson.” Boden runs into classmates on trips to Los Angeles, at film festivals and parties. She and Fleck screened Gowanus, Brooklyn, and Half Nelson to Columbia film students in spring 2006, as part of the ongoing Carla Kuhn Guest Speaker Series at the School of the Arts.
Boden loves working with Fleck. “I always have somebody on my side, fighting for what’s best for the project, even when we don’t always agree what’s best,” she says. “On the other hand, work mixes into our personal life. When we go out to dinner for our anniversary, we talk about our projects.” But because filmmaking calls for so much travel, it would be taxing for their relationship if they weren’t also artistic partners.
“Ryan and I have been away from home more weeks than not for the past year,” says Boden. That pattern promises to continue: This summer, the couple hopes to shoot a new feature in the Dominican Republic and in the United States.
Katarzyna Kozanecka ’07 majored in comparative literature and society and edited The Columbia Review. She is a paralegal at the Manhattan DA’s Rackets Bureau.