Some Web sites say that Half Nelson is an expanded version of Gowanus, Brooklyn , a short that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival two years ago. The connection is right, but the relationship is all wrong.

The short grew out of the full-length film.

“We had the script for the feature but didn't have an agent and didn't know how to go about realizing it,” director/co-writer Ryan Fleck says. “So we rewrote it as a 20-minute short and took that to Sundance.”

The whole chicken-or-egg question became moot when Fleck and editor/co-writer Anna Boden went back to Sundance this year with the full-length version, which blew away the festival crowd. With critics raving and fellow filmmakers applauding, plans for a very limited release were replaced by a nationwide opening in 120 cities.

“We've finally been able to give up our other jobs,” says Boden, who had been working as a secretary while Fleck served as a production assistant on TV commercials.

Not all the reviewers have gushed though.

But that's OK, Boden insists. The story about a friendship between a drug-addicted teacher and a junior high student was intended “to push the bonds of what the audience would accept. When you watch the movie, the relationship makes sense, even if part of it makes you feel uncomfortable.”

Because of this intentional discomfort, investors were leery. Even with the trophy the short won, a lot of producers weren't ready to write a check unless changes were made.

The challenges “gave us the confidence to know which compromises were OK to make,” Boden says. “And which ones weren't. It showed us the soul of the story.”

Investors eventually ponied up $1 million. That allowed Fleck and Boden to hire an established actor, Ryan Gosling ( The Notebook ) to play the teacher, and to shoot on film stock.

Asked what they would have done with, say, $10 million, Boden says that she likely would have fretted more. But Fleck says he could have found one good use for the extra money.

“I would have paid us more,” he says with a laugh.

© 2006 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)