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  • Interview: The Team Behind Sugar

    Mon, 06 Apr 2009 13:50:20

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    Sugar is not a sports film in the vein of The Rookie, Rudy, or Rocky, inasmuch as there is no redemptive dénouement in this story of a Dominican minor league baseball player. That’s not to say that Sugar isn’t uplifting, but it does intelligently avoid the clichéd trappings of your typical rags to riches story. Written and directed by the duo behind Half NelsonAnna Boden and Ryan Fleck—the movie is about a Dominican youth named Miguel “Sugar” Santos, who is armed with a killer pitch and filled with aspirations of attaining a better life for himself—and by extension, his family—by making it in the major leagues.

    Boden and Fleck auditioned around 500 young men for the role of Sugar, and it was in the Dominican Republic that they discovered newcomer Algenis Perez Soto, the movie’s talented lead. Despite never having professionally acted prior to shooting, he does a phenomenal job with the weighty emotional material that Boden and Fleck committed to page and translated onscreen. The talented trio spoke with earnestness about the project, a passionate labor which was recently released to movie theaters.

    On the genesis of the project:

    Ryan Fleck: It started with...reading an article that referenced the Dominican academies that every major baseball team has. I did a little bit of research online and thought, “Well, this is an interesting story.” We’d heard of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz—all these Dominican superstar baseball players—and we became curious about the guys that you don’t hear about, the hundreds of guys that go through the journey every year and don’t make it. What do they do?

    Anna Boden: We started doing our research, which basically consisted of talking to as many people who had been through a similar experience, as we could in the Dominican Republic, in the Midwest who were currently playing in the minor league system, and up in the Bronx, where the end of the movie takes place. It’s not based on one particular person’s story, but we took details from a lot different people’s stories and tried to mesh them together [into] what we thought was a common experience.

    On the casting process:

    Algenis Perez Soto: I was in San Pedro playing baseball, but I was told before I met [Anna and Ryan] that there was some audition for a movie. I was going to go, but I realized that there was a baseball game at the same time [as the auditions]. I went to play baseball. The place where I was playing and where they were having their auditions were very close, so they went to the field we were playing [at] and invited us to audition. I did, and Anna asked me if I wanted to be an actor, and I said, “yes,” but I [really] wasn’t interested. I said it because I [assumed] it’s what she wanted to hear [laughs].

    RF: We did have a casting director, Cindy Tolan, working in New York. She started our search once we started looking for Algenis, basically. We started looking in New York because there’s a big Dominican population there, but it became apparent very quickly that we needed to go down [to the Dominican Republic]. We needed a real Dominican baseball player because there [are] a lot of cultural differences between Dominicans living in New York and down there. Anna and myself did that and interviewed about 500 people. Alguines was number 452—the number we’ll never forget.

    'We took details from a lot different people’s stories and tried to mesh them together in what we thought was a common experience,' says Boden

    On the film's message:

    AB: I don’t think it is a message [film] or a cautionary tale, per se. I think we were trying to give a more realistic portrayal. There are kids growing up in the Dominican Republic who have expectations that they’re going to be the next Pedro Martinez. That’s a much less realistic dream than what is more likely to happen with somebody’s baseball career. Even if they do get signed and they do become a professional, it’s a much more common story to not make it and not be in the major leagues at all. I don’t think we were approaching [the film's message] as lessons to be learned, but exploring what somebody’s life was and what their choices were.

    On the film's reception in the Dominican Republic:

    APS: I think it was great. At first I was a little bit nervous, because I didn’t want [to think] that people weren’t going to like it. I was a little afraid about that. It was the first time that my parents and my brothers and my friends were going to see the movie, so that got me a little bit nervous about it. We got there, it was really nice, there were many people there and they were very excited to see the movie. I think it was great; they loved it.

    AB: [The reception was] so positive. We had the opportunity to talk to a lot of those guys that were at the premiere in the Dominican Republic after they saw the film. Their stories end differently, but a lot of the trials and tribulations along the way, they went through. It was so nice to hear them say, “You got it exactly right.”

    —Heidi Atwal

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    Tags: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Algenis Perez Soto

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