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Sugar: Baseball’s Less-Than-Sweet Side

When Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck first learned about the Dominican Republic baseball camps, they knew there was a story there. The baseball camps are military-like facilities that groom young boys into major league American baseball players. Many view baseball as the only hope they have to rise above poverty and provide financial security for their families.

“After we read an article about the baseball camps, we started reading books and doing internet research to learn more,” said Boden. “Once we understood the background, we wanted to learn about the guys first hand. We went to the Bronx to visit the Roberto Clemente Baseball Park thinking we’d find one or two players from the camps. Instead, almost every guy playing there went through that experience.”

“Sugar” follows the journey Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) makes after he’s pulled from a Dominican baseball camp to play in the American minor leagues. With a limited command of the English language and completely on his own, Sugar is shuttled to a rural Iowa town where he’s placed with a foster family. As he adjusts to a foreign lifestyle and the demands of a competitive sport, Sugar makes some life altering decisions.

To discover the more personal aspects the rookies experience in pursuing their baseball dreams, Boden and Fleck spent time in the Dominican Republic where they met many young players.

“After visiting the Bronx, we knew how Miguel’s story would end. We went to the Dominican Republic to learn how his story should begin,” said Boden. “We talked with a lot of people. Some of the kids even allowed us into their homes on the weekends, where we met their families and saw first-hand how they lived. Through these experiences we were able to develop a unique, diverse story.”

Like so many of the other Dominicans in the movie, Perez Soto had no previous acting experience. “It was very different, performing the game in front of a camera. We had to stop so frequently to change the camera and the set up. We’d play again and then it was ’Cut! Change camera!’ It was so different.”

“It wasn’t challenging working with so many non-actors on set,” said Boden. “We met so many members of the supporting cast along the way as we were casting Miguel. We had pizza and beer nights and made all the guys feel comfortable together, so that during takes it wouldn’t feel like they were performing in front of a bunch of strangers.”

“It was very cool to be working with different actors,” said Perez Soto. “Most of them were baseball players or, like me, used to play baseball, who were acting for the first time. This made me feel comfortable.”

Perez Soto’s initial baseball training was at the position of shortstop. “I had a dream to one day become a baseball player,” said Perez Soto. Aside from gaining acting skills, Perez Soto received pitching instruction by onset technical advisor Jose Rijo. Rijo was a three-time Major League All-Star and 1990 World Series MVP who began his career in a Dominican baseball camp. In a statement made to Sony Pictures Classics, Rijo said “I thought the script for ’Sugar’ was awesome. It’s about my life. To be acting and consulting for this movie, it was just an outstanding opportunity.”

In addition to co-writing and co-directing “Sugar,” Boden also took on the role of film editor. She found it necessary to spend more time in pre-production to prepare for both her role as co-director as well as an editor in dealing with the baseball action sequences.

“Editing this film was a real challenge,” said Boden. “I had editing experience but never for action or game sequences. Although the script was more about what Miguel was going through, we ended up developing a storyboard, which we hadn’t done before, because the game was just so different from the movies we’d shot previously.”

Boden and Fleck decided to video all rehearsals prior to shooting. They took their shot list and ran through each scene. Boden would take the day’s footage to her hotel room and download it into Final Cut Pro. She would then practice editing the sequences. Boden would review the edits with the question “What does it say about the main character?” in mind. This allowed her to delete extraneous game footage and find the best pacing for the character’s story.

“By the time we finished the rehearsals,” said Boden, “We knew how we wanted to shoot and edit the movie. What we ended up cutting was not like what I edited in the hotel. The practice edit really helped me make the best choices for the story.”

The locations used in “Sugar” were authentic fields and baseball camps that Boden and Fleck visited when writing the script. “We already had all those locations in mind,” said Fleck. “They became part of the fabric of the story. We just needed permission to shoot.” Borden and Fleck provided the names of all the people they met while doing research to their location managers. “We were able to acquire permissions for all the fields we had in mind. Making connections early in the process really helped us in getting the locations we needed.”

Making “Sugar” marked Perez Santos’ first visit to America. “I never thought I would be doing this. I thought my first time in America would be through playing baseball. But, making this movie was my first time.” He’s extended his visit to improve his English and pursue his new passion: acting.

“I took Basic English in the Dominican Republic, but I’m trying to improve,” said Perez Santos. “I’d like to become marketable and continue working in the American movie industry. Of course, it would be O.K. to work on movies made in any country.”

Boden and Fleck’s last feature, “Half Nelson,” earned lead actor Ryan Gosling a Best Actor Oscar nomination. For now, Perez Santos is hoping that his performance in “Sugar” will provide more than just background extra work.

“I’m waiting for the movie to come out and for people to see the movie and get to know me