Shorts that inspired features: Part four

27 October, 2011 12:04pm

It’s time to return to the world of short films transformed into fully fledged features, and this time we’re taking a look at the short that went on to become Half Nelson, starring man-of-the-moment Ryan Gosling.

In 2004, director Ryan Fleck and writer Anna Boden made Gowanus, Brooklyn, a 19-minute short about a young girl taking an interest in her school teacher’s mysterious life. The film received critical acclaim after premiering at Sundance and went on to win awards at the Boston Independent Film Festival and Aspen Shortfest. The story begins as the quiet and lonely Drey (played by Shareeka Epps who then reprised her role in the feature length adaptation) catches her teacher Mr. Dunne (Matt Kerr) smoking crack in the changing rooms after school. When her ride home doesn’t turn up, she asks Mr. Dunne to do the honours - and gets a Big Mac out of it, too.

The short was written when the pair realised they lacked the resources to shoot their feature length script for Half Nelson, and used Gowanus, Brooklyn to explore the key characters and gain attention for the full version. While Half Nelson focuses more on Mr. Dunne’s personal problems, Gowanus, Brooklyn pushes the teacher to the background in favour of the young Drey’s home life - growing up in Brooklyn, hanging out with the wrong crowd and living with her hard-working mother, played by Karen Chilton (who also reprised her role in Half Nelson).

Matt Kerr’s teacher was promptly replaced by the young and attractive Ryan Gosling, fresh from his success in The Notebook, so it’s no surprise that Fleck and Boden wanted the character front and centre for the feature – a decision that rewarded Gosling with his first Oscar nomination.

Gowanus, Brooklyn focuses on Mr. Dunne’s paranoia and how he copes with having a student aware of his drug problem, and Drey seems to struggle with having such a big secret on her young shoulders. While this builds an uneasy relationship between Dunne and Drey in Gowanus, Brooklyn, eventually culminating in a low-key finale between the two, it has the opposite effect in Half Nelson and brings them closer together – perhaps because, with fresh faced Gosling in the seat, Dunne’s character is no longer as gritty and unsettling as originally written.

When they wrapped on Half Nelson, Fleck and Boden returned to Sundance to premiere their new feature . We’ll assume Matt Kerr didn’t attend.

Rob Young

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