When Ron Shelton wrote and directed Bull Durham, he created one of the most realistic baseball movies ever made because he’d live the life of a minor leaguer. He’d played in the Orioles organization and managed to take that experience and use the details to capture what life was like in the minor leagues.
Ryan Fleck never played minor league ball, and as you would expect, fellow writer/producer/director Anna Boden didn’t either. But the creators of “Sugar” have managed to match Shelton detail for detail and even surpass him in many ways, because they showed how well they could listen.
Not far from where Fleck and Boden live in New York City, scores of Dominican ex-minor leaguers play in a weekend pick-up league. By going down and watching some of games and talking to the players, Fleck and Boden realized that they had the genesis of a movie.
“We knew where the story was going to end. We met all of those guys first,” Fleck said. “So many of the guys who play in that league had all been through this journey.”
It was a movie that the players wanted to be told, so they were happy to share any and every detail they could remember of what was like to adapt to playing and living in the U.S. While there are countless baseball movies, there hadn’t been a story explaining the fish-out-of-water feeling that Latin players experience when they come to the U.S. for the first time, not knowing the language, not knowing the culture and having to figure out where to live and even how to order dinner.
So as Fleck and Boden kept listening they started writing a script for their second movie (they released the indie film Half Nelson in 2006). After seemingly finalizing the script, they headed to the Dominican Republic to scout locations for the movie as well as search for someone to play the title role of “Sugar” Santos. They would go from field to field talking to hundreds of teenagers, many of them baseball players looking to be spotted and signed to a pro contract.
But as they were interviewing more players, they realized that they were continuing to get the details that would make Sugar authentic, so they delved into the world of the Midwest League, Cactus League complexes and host families.
“We relied on the hundreds of guys we talked to to tell us their stories,” Boden said. “I wasn’t allowed in the clubhouses, but Ryan hung out in the clubhouses in Iowa and the Dominican Republic to talk to players.”
Eventually, they found Algenis Perez Soto, a teenager who had spent two years attempting to get noticed by a scout. He never managed to convince a pro team that he had what it took to sign him to a contract, but he quickly convinced Fleck and Boden that he was a natural in front of the camera.
Because Soto had spent years playing baseball, the physical demands of the role were not too taxing, even if Jose Rijo had to teach him how to throw off the mound—Soto was an infielder himself.
And the role proved to be right in his wheelhouse as well, in part because he was experiencing many of the same adjustments that his character was supposed to adapt to.
“When he came on a plane to come here to shoot an ended up in small town in Iowa, just like the character,” Boden said. “He definitely went through the emotional journey that his character went through. We really encouraged him to use that.”
Throughout the film, Fleck and Boden relied on people inside the game to lend it authenticity. Rijo, who also plays a small role in the movie, helped ensure that the baseball scenes in the Dominican mimic reality, and a clubbie at the Diamondbacks Dominican complex also helped to confirm what was right and what had to be changed about scenes on and off the field.
The result is a film that makes you feels like you’re watching a real Midwest League game, with the realism that is missing from most baseball movies.