The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Mississippi Grind.
What was it about the riverboat casinos in Iowa that compelled you to write this story?
Ryan Fleck: In 2007, Anna and I were making our second movie, Sugar, which was a movie about a Dominican baseball player who spends some time in Iowa for a farm team in the major leagues. When we were shooting, on weekends, running out of things to do in Iowa, we discovered these riverboat casinos that don’t move—for legal purposes they have to be on a body of water. They’re these kind of old classic steamboats that have slot machines and poker rooms. So we would go play blackjack. We had never been to place like that. We’d been to Vegas; we’d been to Atlantic City; we’d been to the big, fancy casinos that are trying really hard to be glamorous. These just weren’t pulling it off. It was really interesting to see the anti-glamorous version of a casino. There was a story in there somewhere that we hadn’t seen on film before. We were also very inspired by films from the ’70s. It’s like John Huston’s Fat City. We always thought that this is to the casino as that movie is to boxing. It’s about that sort of underground gambling world.
“It was really interesting to see the anti-glamorous version of a casino.”
Anna Boden: We made another movie after Sugar, and then came back to, “What are we going to do next?” That location stuck with us. We decided that it should be this road trip and it should start in Iowa and go to New Orleans. The first thing we did was we took the road trip ourselves and explored all the places from Iowa to the south. We met people, took notes, and kind of created the textures of these two characters. It was from observation, and then invention on top of that. Then we went and cast our two actors. That was the final thing that brought it together and brought the two characters to life.
Can you talk about the preparation for the role?
Ryan Reynolds: The preparation was easy. It was really just to spend time as much time as possible with Ben [Mendelsohn] at the tables and keep him out of as much crippling debt as possible. Ben, he’s in it, in some sense he’s a method actor, and working with method actors can be interesting at times because their process suddenly becomes your process, and you’re kind of held hostage by it. But Ben has this unique ability to be method but also inclusive and incredibly generous with his work. We just hit it off from the moment we met. To be totally frank, I was kind of in love with Ben. I still am. I’m fascinated by him. He’s such an interesting creature. We spent days at these tables and it was very easy—the poker part was very easy—but what I loved the most about it was just those characters. You think these people who sit at these tables for twelve hours a day are the real grinders. That’s their job is to sit at a casino with that fucking slot machine sound behind them for twelve hours a day and never see the sunshine. You think they’re not going to have anything to say or any kind of opinion, but they’re fascinating. They’re there to talk as much as they are to play, these guys love sharing stories, and they each have their little kind of succinct wisdoms they want to impart, these little effervescent witticisms. It’s nonstop entertainment. You had to drag us away from those tables. We loved it, we loved learning about it, we loved being in their world. You go down to the Deep South and sit at these riverboat casinos, and these aren’t people who have a tremendous interest or access to pop culture. I swear to god Tom Cruise could have sat beside them and they’d have no idea who he was.
It can be hard to hold down a conversation during poker because you have to focus, but the more you do it, the more adept you become at it.
Reynolds: That’s the game though. They want to talk to you, they want to see what you are, who you are, and what your tells are.
Boden: We didn’t know anything about poker when we started researching this project, but when we were on our research trip we had to force ourselves to sit down in a tournament. You pay like $65, and you play until your chips run out, which is the cheapest way to be a bad poker player in the world. I would play extremely conservatively, so I was slowly bleeding my chips the entire time, but I got four hours at the poker table with these people for $65. The whole theme of rainbows came out of one of those trips. One of the guys at my table kind of said to himself, but also kind of to everyone, “I drove to the end of a rainbow once, there wasn’t anything there, it just faded out into the trees.” It felt like it was this beautiful little metaphor for Curtis and Gerry’s whole journey, but also gambling in general. It was just this beautiful weird piece of wisdom that one of these guys said and it stuck with us, it stuck with the writing, and influenced the whole script.
Fleck: A bunch of stuff that Ryan says in the movie we learned from people on our journey. In St. Louis, there’s a guy that actually appears in the movie on the steamboat. Ben beats him in the hand where they’re kind of one-upping each other and he ends up folding. That guy, Paul Harris, told us a story about the disassociated person, the person who puts on a disguise, goes into a casino, ends up winning a ton of money, and has to sneak away.
What were some of the biggest challenges and how did you deal with them?
Reynolds: I can speak to one. We shot in three states in one day. If I remember correctly, the driver motorcade was driving around. I thought it was really charming and funny. Ben and I would just jump in that Subaru. When he was driving, I could only see death on the horizon, because he’s Australian—he’s just not a big driver, certainly not a big driver on this side of the road. But I found that so refreshing and so much fun for all of us to travel around like a family, just like a big gang slugging our way up to Mississippi or back down.
Fleck: And we mounted two cameras on the hood of the car in a very old school way, 35mm film cameras, driving on the highway, the same stretch of highway from St. Louis to Memphis. It was really nice to not have to worry about faking the landscape in Louisiana. We primarily shot mostly in New Orleans, but we took this trip to St. Louis and Memphis and Tunica so we could have those shifting landscapes be accurate as they’re driving in the car.