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Marvel Directors Head Back to Sundance — and Their Indie Roots

In recent years, a lot of ink has been spilled about the Sundance-to-studio pipeline, where talented independent filmmakers are plucked out of festival lineups to direct the latest Warner Bros. monster movie, Marvel installment or season of prestige TV. Less documented is the journey back.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck will find themselves at Sundance a decade after their feature Mississippi Grind sold to then-little-known distributor A24 in 2015 and 18 years after the 2006 premiere of their feature debut, Half Nelson, starring a then-little-known Ryan Gosling. (He would receive his first Oscar nom for the role.) More recently, Boden and Fleck have been ensconced in the studio system with Marvel’s Captain Marvel and big-budget TV projects like Apple’s upcoming World War II drama Masters of the Air.

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Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Fleck has long harbored an ambition to make a film inspired by the Too Short track he was obsessed with as a 10-year-old, “Freaky Tales.” “He kept pitching me different ideas for Freaky Tales: The Movie over the past 20 years, and none of them were very good,” says Boden. After chipping away at the idea during the pandemic, Fleck had an epiphany: “We can do away with all the nuance that we have in our other movies and just go hard-core on good guys versus bad guys in a popcorn, comic book adventure.”

Scripts were sent around to studios but, as Fleck points out, “I think, on paper, it’s a different risk for them.” Indeed, on paper, Freaky Tales is an anthology film told in four chapters set in 1987 Oakland and combines sci-fi, Blaxploitation and action-adventure, with a corrupt-cop subplot thrown in for good measure. There are punk rockers fighting neo-Nazis, rap battles featuring real-life pop star Normani, Pedro Pascal as a soon-to-retire fixer, and an entire plot centered on Golden State Warrior All-Star Sleepy Floyd’s performance in the 1987 playoff game against the “showtime”-era Lakers. Studio comps and quadrants need not apply.

The film was backed independently by Macro and eOne, allowing Fleck and Boden creative freedom within strict budgetary bounds, of course. They filmed on location in Oakland, including at the city’s famed Grand Lake Theater and the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, while working with longtime collaborators like Ben Mendelsohn (he has starred in three of their six films.)

Despite all this decidedly indie spirit, for their Sundance return the duo say they leaned heavily on the skills gained during their studio tenure, everything from VFX to working with stunt coordinators and directing action-heavy set pieces. Says Boden: “It’s an amazing thing to have gained from our studio filmmaking experience, and bring back to a movie that is a little weirder and more indie.”

In his THR review, chief critic David Rooney noted: “If it takes doing an MCU movie, with all the corporate constrictions that entails, to plunge into the kind of exhilarating creative exorcism that Freaky Tales represents, then bring on the superhero as stepping-stone.”

Freaky Tales is heading to the fest as a top sales title, with a splashy premiere set for the Eccles Theater. Appropriately, the audience will hear Too Short narrating the film. “People should have fun,” says Fleck of the opening night screening. “If the room is silent, then you know there’s a problem.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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