“Mississippi Grind” is a classic gambling movie, in the best sense of the term, filled with rich Midwestern iconography and the sort of beautiful loser performance by star Ben Mendelsohn that is hard to shake off.
Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (“Half Nelson”) spoke with amNewYork about writing and directing the drama, opening Friday, about a down-and-out gambler (Mendelsohn), who finds his luck changing thanks to a mysterious stranger (Ryan Reynolds) over the course of a journey down the Mississippi River from Iowa to a tournament in Louisiana.
This feels like a naturalistic ’70s Hollywood movie. Were you inspired by the period?
Ryan Fleck: There were actually two extremely important movies for us as a guide when we were making this movie and they both came out in 1974. One was “The Gambler,” written by James Toback, who makes an appearance in the film, and the other one was “California Split,” which is Robert Altman’s movie with Elliot Gould and George Segal.
Why those movies in particular?
RF: We just love those movies. There’s a sort of carefree way the characters roam through the world; certainly more in “California Split” than “The Gambler.” There’s a looseness to them, a volatility and an unpredictable nature that the characters have in that era of filmmaking that we really wanted to pay tribute to.
To capture that spirit you need the right actors. When did you know Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds were it?
RF: We did the research and we wrote the script and it came time to start sending out to actors, there’s the usual list of names that comes up. But one outside-the-box idea that came up, that was suggested by a producer of ours, was Ben Mendelsohn. And I said, “Who’s that?” He produced “The Place Beyond the Pines” with Ryan Gosling and [Mendelsohn] played a bike mechanic in that movie. My first reaction was, wait, that guy’s an actor? I thought he was just some local dude in Upstate New York. Sure enough, not only is he an actor, he’s a legendary actor in Australia and was just sort of on the scene in the U.S.
Anna Boden: Of course, this was before “Bloodline,” before “Killing Them Softly,” before a whole stash of American movies that he was in. For Ryan, he is not that outside-of-the-box an idea. Particularly for this role, he has a certain kind of charisma and charm that not a lot of actors do these days. That’s really what [the character] Curtis needed for the role.
Do the sort of low-rent casinos depicted here really exist in 2015?
RF: They’re alive and I guess you can call them well. I don’t know how well the people inside them are doing. The truth of the matter is the seed for this idea came in 2007, when we were shooting our second movie in Iowa, called “Sugar.” We spent some time on weekends going to these riverboat casinos that are sitting there on the Mississippi River. You walk in and it just feels like the anti-Vegas, the anti-Atlantic City. They’re anything but glamorous. And the folks in there are just real working-class folks, there to try to earn a buck or have a good time. Whatever it is, we were really drawn to the people and the place itself. And that created the seed for the idea a few years later.
Why don’t more filmmakers shoot these great Midwestern locations?
RF: It’s a good question. As New Yorkers, we love working here. Our first two movies — even though “Sugar” was a road movie, it went all kinds of places, it ended up in New York. There’s no city like New York. That said, we like to get out of our hometown every now and then. There’s just so much out there. These places get shot to death. There’s a great industry here and we want to keep it alive and flourishing, but at the same time it’s great to get outside of your backyard and go explore new places.
AB: It’s the age old question of what should you write about? Should you write about what you know, or should you learn about something new in your writing and use it to expand your horizons?