Retrocon 2024

Interview with Ron Shelton, writer & director of 'Bull Durham' & many more films

(This interview was originally published January 20, 2012 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Ron Shelton. He achieved fame as the writer and director for 1988’s Bull Durham, certainly one of my favorite films of the decade. His screenplay (which was amazingly his first draft done without any notes or outline) deservedly earned him an Oscar nomination and firmly planted him on the Hollywood map. The former minor league baseball player would go on to write and direct many more films including White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup among others and is still very active to this day. Though many of his films take place with a sports backdrop, I think they have proven to transcend sports and be relevant on many additional meaningful levels. You’ll find out more about all of that as we get on to some selections from my interview with Ron Shelton…

Q: First, what is the story of how a minor league baseball player ends up becoming an esteemed screenwriter and director?

Ron: I was an English Lit major in college and liked to write a bit, but had no thoughts beyond that. In the minor leagues I used to go to movies everyday on the road because we didn’t have to go to the ballpark until about 4 in the afternoon–and I really fell in love with movies. I also had a college professor who introduced me to the French New Wave, which intrigued me, and Ingmar Bergman was quite popular when I was in college (along with other foreign directors), but mostly I just found my own way. I remember seeing The Wild Bunch when it came out. I was in Little Rock, Arkansas playing against the Travelers, and the movie knocked me out. At that moment I wanted to know more about how to make movies, but I was still playing ball.

Shelton played minor league baseball in the Baltimore Orioles organization from 1967 through 1971. In 1972, Major League Baseball went on strike and Shelton, who was 26 years old at that time, was forced to make a tough decision about his future. He was married and had a kid, so he could not afford to wait it out. Shelton quit the game, but he did not just jump right into film-making. He went back to graduate school and for the next couple of years focused on his passion for the arts. This would lead him to move to Los Angeles which would later eventually lead him into screenwriting and film-making.

His first script produced into a motion picture was 1983’s Under Fire which starred Nick Nolte and Gene Hackman. His second was 1986’s The Best of Times which starred Kurt Russell and Robin Williams. But it would be a fantastic film set in the minor leagues of baseball which he wrote 15 years after leaving the sport himself that would really put Ron Shelton on the map. That film is, of course, 1988’s Bull Durham which he both wrote and directed.

Q: How long did Bull Durham take to write? Were you attached to direct it from the start?

Ron: I was attached to direct 'Bull Durham' before I wrote it. The pitch was “Lysistrata in the minor leagues” – in those days pitches were about the reductive essence of a narrative idea. [Lysistrata is a play, written by Aristophanes and originally performed in Greece in 411 BC, about one woman’s mission to end a war by persuading the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace.] I wrote it quickly, without an outline, and we pretty much shot the first draft. There are lots of additional bits and scenes in the script that didn’t survive the edit, which is a good thing. It probably took about ten weeks to write it, not that there’s any significance in how long something like that takes. I’ve written scripts much quicker and taken years on others.

Bull Durham was released in June of 1988 and was considered a huge success eventually grossing over $50 million in the U.S. It deservedly received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (but lost out to Rain Man). Sports Illustrated has ranked Bull Durham as the greatest sports movie of all time, but it is much more than just a sports movie. Bravo has ranked it #55 on its list of the “100 Funniest Movies” in 2003 and AFI included it in its top 100 funniest movies of the last 100 years in 2000. It transcends both sports and comedy even landing at #5 on Entertainment Weekly‘s list of the “50 Sexiest Movies of All Time”. There is a little something for everyone in the film, not to mention some outstanding lead characters portrayed by some outstanding actors. In fact, all three of the lead actors would later go on to win Oscars for other roles. Here is a trailer for Bull Durham

Q: How much of Bull Durham‘s baseball parts were taken from your actual experiences? Did you see a pitcher hit the mascot with a pitch? Did your manager ever scold the team while they were in the shower and call you “lollygaggers”? Did you ever turn the sprinklers on the night before a game and cause a “rain out”?

Ron: All of Bull Durham was from my experience, although jokes like the “lollygagger bit” are made up–I always liked the word. Our manager, Bill Werle at Stockton, once threw all the bats we had in the shower because we had a no-hitter thrown at us that night. And yes, we did occasionally flood the field in order to get a night off. There were almost no scheduled days off in the Texas League, and at times we were desperate for a break. Problem is, once we did it in Amarillo only to find we were stuck with a night in Amarillo.

Here is a clip of one of my favorite scenes when Skip throws the bats into the shower and tries to scare the team into playing better…

Q: I love a good sports movie, but its multiple layers are something that, to me, makes Bull Durham extra special. You have the baseball of course; you have the comedy, the drama, the sexy, the silly, the happy, the sad, the crude, the sensitive, the fantasy and the reality. And it all ends on a hopeful note! It’s truly a movie that most men AND women can watch together and enjoy. Did you intentionally set out with all those layers in mind when you started? As well as to appeal to both men and women?

Ron: I don’t think any writer or director is consciously trying to “layer” things rather than just make sure the characters are not one-dimensional and that their flaws are exposed along with their desires. I was certainly conscious of making a movie that might appeal to women, from the opening speech, and the fact that it is a woman who tells the tale of her journey in this male world is, I hope, what makes the movie different. There’s a strong woman character at the heart of all my sports movies.

Q: Speaking of that strong woman character, let’s look at “Annie Savoy” played by Susan Sarandon. She plays a great protagonist and her character complicates the whole story in a good way. Did she get her character name from the “Annies” being an old term for baseball groupies? Where did her last name come from? What process did you use to create this character and construct a woman’s point of view? Did you always feel that Annie deserved to have a happy ending to her story?

Ron: I’m not sure where in my psyche Annie came from, but her name was a tip of the hat to “baseball Annies.” Her last name was on a matchbook by my computer from the Savoy Bar–which is a question nobody’s ever asked. Writing her character was a fairly unconscious process, but I did believe that she and Crash deserved each other at the end of our tale.

Q: Then we have “Crash Davis” played by Kevin Costner. Who or what inspired this character? What convinced you that Costner was right for the role?

Ron: Crash Davis is everyone who loves something more than it loves him back. He’s also everyone who stays too long at the party, because he loves the party desperately. Kevin wasn’t yet a star when I cast him but he’s a terrific athlete and actor and he embraced the part perfectly.

Q: How many takes did you do on the “I believe…” monologue that Crash delivers at Annie’s house?

Ron: I did two takes on the “I believe…” speech because I had no time for anymore, plus I don’t like to do a lot of takes anyway– though I do a lot more camera coverage now than I did then.

Q: Last, let’s look at “Ebby Calvin LaLoosh” played brilliantly by Tim Robbins. Is “Nuke” based on anyone in particular? What makes the player with the “million dollar arm, but a five cent head” likable?

Ron: Nuke was based on a lot of guys I knew who had major league arms and nothing to back it up. A few figured it out, most didn’t, and those who didn’t blew their opportunity for success and perhaps greatness. Some of these guys who inspired Nuke, however, weren’t tragic at all. There was something in their insouciance and inability to be embarrassed that I found winning. As Annie says regarding Nuke after he’s left, “The world is made for those who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.”

The chemistry between these three lead characters is tremendous. It is interesting especially for '80s fans to note that Shelton really had to fight to get the studio’s approval to cast Tim Robbins. The studio wanted Anthony Michael Hall in that role! Not that Hall would’ve necessarily been bad, but I have a hard time picturing anybody other than Robbins as “Nuke” though it took Shelton threatening to quit to assure he received the role.

Here is another of my favorite scenes when Crash and Nuke have a confrontation on the mound because Nuke wants to “announce my presence with authority” (such a classic line!)…

Q: Was this a “fun” film to make? Was the cast close during filming? Do you keep in touch with the cast?

Ron: The film wasn’t much fun to make, though it’s fun to watch. We shot in winter in Durham, it was very cold, and I was in and out of the Duke Hospital with bronchitis. The cast was great, however, and very supportive of each other and me (as a first time director) and, yes, we all stay in touch with each other.

Q: Have you ever even considered a sequel?

Ron: Regarding a sequel, I have a story line in mind, but everyone’s getting a bit too old, I fear.

Q: I assume Bull Durham holds a very special place for you? What changed for you after the release of this successful film?

Ron: Of course it’s special, but mainly because it meant I could work again and make another movie. At the same time I got labeled a “sports director” which is a mixed blessing. When you make a hit movie, people answer your calls and things get financed. When you don’t, they don’t.

Q: I was born and raised in Milwaukee. I had a blast attending several days of filming at old County Stadium for Major League and then years later at Miller Park for Mr. 3000. I was able to see first hand some of the challenges of working with that many extras. You have had that challenge on many of your films, so how do you deal with it?

Ron: You know, of course, that my hero was Eddie Mathews who is from Santa Barbara, CA, my home town [and who played most of his Hall-of-Fame career for the Milwaukee Braves in the '50s and early '60s]. When I won the batting title at my high school, the “Eddie Mathews bat” was the trophy. I wrote an obituary for him that the L.A. Times ran and it got picked up around the country. As for handling crowds-it’s slow and tedious but if you have great A.D.’s (assistant directors) as I am blessed with, they get the wrangling done.

Q: Did you first meet your beautiful wife Lolita Davidovich when she was cast to play the outstanding role of “Blaze Starr” in your 1989 film Blaze? Was it “love at first sight” for either of you? How soon after that film were you married?

Ron: We met on that movie and fell in love later. We’ve been married ten years, together longer.

Blaze starring Paul Newman and Davidovich was released in December of 1989. The film was again both written and directed by Shelton based on a 1974 memoir. Davidovich plays a stripper that Newman’s character, a governor, falls in love with. As mentioned above, Davidovich and Shelton would later be married and now have two children together.

Q: Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes shared their first film together in 1986’s Wildcats. You brought them back together 6 years later for White Men Can’t Jump which I absolutely loved. They had tremendous chemistry together in your film, is that why you cast them? Rosie Perez was also a strong female protagonist similar to “Annie.” Any favorite memories of working with Woody, Wesley and Rosie?

Ron: This was a very fun movie to make. I cast these three actors because I felt their chemistry would be special–and it was. Screen chemistry is critical and we don’t always get it, but it starts by having cast members who don’t occupy the same emotional turf. That is, Woody can do a lot of things but he can’t be a cool black dude. Wesley is a terrific, versatile actor–but he can’t do what Woody does. And Rosie? Well, there’s only one of her–but she’s so strong and funny and pursuing her own narrative arc so that she’s never defined in terms of male narrative or personal needs. Woody won a big bet from Wesley by actually dunking a basketball during a night shoot (the “white men can’t jump” scene)–but Wes didn’t realized that we kept lowering the basket and he actually stuffed it on a 9 foot hoop.

White Men Can’t Jump was both written and directed by Shelton being released in late March of 1992. Yes, I know that this is not an '80s movie, but it is still a film I have always enjoyed and admired. Film critic, Roger Ebert gave it 3 1/2 stars and gave the following high praise: “It’s interesting that this is not simply a basketball movie. Shelton knows all about sports that are played by adults for adult reasons; about how the appearance of boys at play can obscure the reality of men at work. And in White Men Can’t Jump, he has given both Harrelson and Snipes women who want their men to be more responsible than they know how to be. Here is a comedy of great high spirits, with an undercurrent of sadness and sweetness that makes it a lot better than the plot itself could possibly suggest.” Here is the original trailer for White Men Can’t Jump

Q: You were able to work with Kevin Costner again in 1996’s Tin Cup. Did you create that character specifically for Costner to play?

Ron: The Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy character was not intended for Kevin but after John Norville and I wrote the first 20 pages we looked at each other and said, “This is perfect for Kevin.” And it was. His serio-comic performance in this picture is really under-rated. He basically is playing Nuke at 40.

Tin Cup was directed and co-written by Shelton and released in August of 1996. Again, obviously not an '80s movie, but still a very entertaining romantic comedy. It is another Shelton film that uses sports (in this case golf) as its backdrop, but is much more than simply a sports movie. Tin Cup stars Kevin Costner as the title character, but features strong supporting roles played by Cheech Marin, Renee Russo and Don Johnson. Here is the trailer for Tin Cup

Q: What screenwriters and/or directors inspired you early on in your career? Any today that you particularly admire?

Ron: I love Sam Peckinpah, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers. I love westerns as well. I’m not particularly interested in special effects and computer generated movies as much as movies based on human behavior. Contemporarily, there are many writers and directors I admire but I won’t mention them because I’ll forget someone.

Q: I read last year about a new TV series you were working on called Hound Dogs. Sounded like it was in the same minor league baseball vein as Bull Durham and something that I personally would enjoy watching. What happened with that?

Ron: I wrote and directed a pilot called Hound Dogs for cable TV but it was not picked up for series.

Other than the films mentioned already, Shelton’s other work includes Cobb (1994, director & writer), Blue Chips (1994, writer & producer), The Great White Hype (1996, co-writer), Play It to the Bone (1999, director & writer), Dark Blue (2003, director), Hollywood Homicide (2003, director & co-writer) and Bad Boys II (2003, co-writer). Shelton also directed the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary which originally aired in August of 2010 titled “Jordan Rides the Bus” covering Michael Jordan’s brief career as a minor league baseball player.

Q: I know you have been busy. What else is Ron Shelton up to more recently?

Ron: I have two mini-series, three features, some TV pilots and a musical in the works — no names yet.

I am honored that Ron took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. He has helped to create some pretty amazing films so far and I am looking forward to see what he will bring us in the future, whether that does or doesn’t include a Bull Durham sequel. Annie quotes Walt Whitman at the end of the film, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.” I feel that many of Shelton’s films are also a blessing to us which I am quite thankful for. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Ron Shelton for his wonderful contributions to '80s pop culture especially through Bull Durham and, even more, for taking a walk down memory lane with us here for a little while as well.

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