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Director Ron Shelton talks ‘Bull Durham,’ the film that announced his presence with authority

In baseball, they say that numbers don’t lie. But former minor league ballplayer Ron Shelton learned how different Hollywood was when he directed his first film, “Bull Durham.”

Today, “Bull Durham,” which starred Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon and launched the career of Tim Robbins, is recalled as an instant hit and an immediate classic, perhaps the greatest baseball film ever. but it was not an obvious home run. As Shelton recounts in his new book about making the movie, “The Church of Baseball,” he had to overcome indifference and interference from studio executives only to run into one final obstacle when the movie started screening for audiences: “The numbers were a disaster.”

In the book he notes that audiences laughed and cheered but then gave poor ratings, potentially endangering the film’s release. Fortunately, the studio head, Mike Medavoy, liked the finished product and the movie went on to be a box office and critical All-Star. “The numbers don’t lie, except when they lie,” Shelton said in a recent phone interview discussing the film and the book.

The story is not just about the difficulties with the “Unnamed Executive” who made life difficult (and caused the firing of Shelton’s cinematographer as a sacrificial lamb), but also about the joyous moments of movie magic and the strange interludes in between: There’s Kurt Russell playing a prank on Shelton, the real Crash Davis showing up on set after hearing a fictional character shared his name and cameos by Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter who each made last minute contributions to the score.

Shelton, who is looking to make another baseball movie, says he learned not to trust screening numbers. “The only movie I made that tested high was ‘White Men Can’t Jump,’ which tested great in a Black theater but did terribly in a white theater in Woodland Hills. But the head of marketing said that if it’s a hit in Black theaters then white theaters will sell out because it will be a hip thing to do,” Shelton says. “That’s exactly what happened.”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q. In the book, you detail the casting process, which could conceivably could have resulted in Kurt Russell as Crash Davis, Charlie Sheen as Nuke LaLoosh, Laura San Giacomo as Millie and J.T. Walsh as the the team’s manager. If you still had Susan Sarandon to center the movie, would this cast have worked? 

A. I never thought about that. Those are really good casting ideas. It just would have been a different movie. Charlie was a really good baseball player and had that craziness before it got really crazy. Laura’s a really good actress and Kurt is one of the great American actors and I think unrecognized for that. Plus he’s a really good baseball player.

Walsh would have been great — Trey Wilson, who played the manager is more hot-blooded, but J.T. would have been the manager who never got worked up about anything even when the team is playing terribly.

Kevin Costner waves to fans as he arrives for a 2008 concert with his band Modern West at a July Fourth celebration at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, North Carolina, marking the 20th anniversary of the film “bull Durham.” (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

Q. Costner was not only great as Davis, you paint him as a true partner and an advocate behind the scenes. 

A. Kevin was was very supportive of me from the beginning and was a critical partner. When Kevin is in, he is all in. He gets in the trenches with everybody. He stays till 3 in the morning to do an off-camera line for another actor; he’s very generous.

Q. “The Natural,” with its Hollywood finish — Robert Redford’s homer and the exploding scoreboard — came out a few years before you made your film. Did you see your film as a gritty and realistic antidote?

A. I was not trying to compete with it, it was just so far from reality I just ignored it. Barry Levinson’s a good director but I thought nobody making this movie actually played baseball.  And the character strikes out in Malamud’s story.

A buddy who is a filmmaker and former junior college baseball player called to say he worked with Redford on that and that Redford just called to say he hit one out in batting practice. And I said, “I played at War Memorial in Buffalo and that’s only 240 feet down the line.” But he’s a movie star so let him have it.

Despite having to overcome a number of obstacles, "Bull Durham" became a hit and is today regarded as a classic baseball movie.
Despite having to overcome a number of obstacles, “Bull Durham” became a hit and is today regarded as a classic baseball movie.

Q. You note in the book that certain scenes, like Crash’s “I believe in …” speech, strained credulity on the page. Yet it’s a memorable moment on screen. Why did it work?

A. Sometimes you don’t know if something’s going to work but there are risks you take. I was nervous about it. But I shot it casually — I didn’t backlight him beautifully like in “The Natural,” or use music and a close-up. I just let him just throw it away and walk out the door. And I didn’t shoot an extra take. That’s why it works.

Q. Another fan favorite is when the players are gathered on the pitcher’s mound and Robert Wuhl as Larry comes out to find out what’s taking so long. When Crash mentions the debate over a wedding present for a teammate, Wuhl improvised his response: “OK, well, uh … candlesticks always make a nice gift, and uh, maybe you could find out where she’s registered and maybe a place-setting or maybe a silverware pattern. OK, let’s get two! Go get ’em.”

A. I loved the scene. I was a little serious when I said this is why I wrote the script. These are the moments that I love about baseball. That was just one take and I knew it was going to be in the movie.  Robert was surprised I kept it because directors can be territorial about who wrote what but I don’t care — you come up with a great line, it’s in the movie. He’s very inventive.

Director Ron Shelton says he loves the scene in "Bull Durham" where players gather for a meeting on the pitcher's mound to discuss buying a wedding gift for a teammate. (Photo by Valerie Macon, AFT via Getty Images)
Director Ron Shelton says he loves the scene in “Bull Durham” where players gather for a meeting on the pitcher’s mound to discuss buying a wedding gift for a teammate. (Photo by Valerie Macon, AFT via Getty Images)

Q. You talk in the book about the rules of writing and how a good screenplay should have three acts but then you wrote a great movie with no real third act. Did that change how you felt about rules?

A. It’s good to have rules, then break them when you can. Structure matters especially in screenplays. Then you can throw one of the lintels out and the foundation will cantilever but hold up OK.

Q. You devote a chapter to a scene that got cut. It is too long but do you wish you could have kept parts of it in?

A. I would have played with it longer if I was allowed to because there’s really touching stuff in there. I would have test screened it three more times in variations on the edit. But we had one more shot.

Q. You have lots of great minor league stories in the book. Could you have included more?

A. I didn’t want to dwell on my modest career. But I have a lot more stories. If we have a couple of drinks, I’ll loosen up and share them. Actually, I have another baseball picture I’m trying to get made and there’s room for some of my other baseball stories in there.

The movie is about a pitcher who ends up in the Latin American leagues or in Colombia and is trying to get back to the majors. We have a wonderful script about that fish out of water experience. It’s a different vibe, it’s less corporate there, but these American guys are fighting for their baseball lives still. It’s excruciating but it’s also thrilling because they’re still playing the game and keeping the dream alive.

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