Ron Shelton Q&A
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Bull Durham. To mark the occasion SI.com caught up with writer-director Ron Shelton from his production office in Los Angeles. The film was Shelton's directorial debut --he received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay -- and became one of the top-grossing films of 1988. Before beginning his movie career Shelton was a minor league second baseman in the Baltimore Orioles' organization.
SI.com: Does it feel like 20 years since Bull Durham?
Shelton: No, I feel like I shot it last summer. I know when we made it I wanted it to feel like a period movie even though it was contemporary. Now Durham is a really happening city, but at that time Durham was kind of shut down. We don't make any reference in the film to who the major league team is. In fact, they are so far from the major leagues they might as well be in the French foreign legion. And that's how you feel in A ball sometimes. There is no big game in the film. The movie starts after the season started and it ends before the season is over. And the two guys we are following are not even there anymore. I think that's more what baseball is about. We follow it every day and it becomes more of your life. As a player, that was the hard part. There was never a day off. I don't think any sports movie had ever approached it like that.
SI.com: Why did Bull Durham resonate with the public?
Shelton: I think that it might be first sports film ever made by a guy who actually played as opposed to sat in the stands. I think as a player you see the game differently. As a kid I grew up hating sports movies and I thought if I ever get to make one, I'll at least make one that I like. What I tried to do was concentrate on the moments between the big plays and leave the big plays for television. I think that's why perhaps people responded to that movie and my other sports movies -- they get to see the drama that they can never see on television.
SI.com: What is the last time you watched it in its entirety?
Shelton: I watched it a year ago and I was delighted to enjoy it. It's hard to watch the movies you make. When you finish them, you put them away forever because you have seen them 10,000 times in the making. But I found myself smiling through the whole movie and was very happy my name was on it.
Shelton: I think they stay together. They had lived so many lifetimes before they met each other that I think that's why it worked. Once in awhile the right man and woman find each other. Very rarely, but in this case they were right for each other and they were in their late 30s. Presumably, they had 20 years of mileage on them. They were waiting for each other and did not know it.
Shelton: He would be great manager, no question about it. He understands human behavior, he understands the game and he was a catcher. He'd be a Hall of Fame manager.
SI.com: What's your favorite scene?
Shelton: Like most of the general public, I liked the meeting on the mound because I had to fight to keep it in the movie. The studio kept saying the scene did not advance the plot. I said: 'There is no plot. It doesn't matter.' When we screened it for audiences, it was always the audience's favorite scene. But I like a scene that doesn't always get talked about it, when Crash baits the umpire by using the word c---------without calling the umpire c---------. It's a wonderful kind of dance between umpires and athletes and he gets thrown out of the game. I'm fond of that because when I played, umpires did not have the short triggers they have now. They throw guys out right away. The argument used to be more of an honored ritual when I played. You knew when it was time to shut up or you would get thrown and the ump would usually let you do that. You'd run into him at the hotel bar later and you would either be pissed or laugh and buy him a drink. I think a lot of umpires today want the spotlight on them which is slightly pathetic.
SI.com: How did you come up with the city of Durham for the setting?
Shelton: It was probably one of the only leagues I had not actually played in. I drove around down there before I had written the movie. I wanted to see if things had changed in the minor leagues since I had played because in the major leagues they had changed dramatically. Big money had entered the big leagues and players who used to be very accessible major leaguers were now becoming prima donnas in many cases. We can all remember when ballplayers were more like us -- then they became rock stars and unapproachable. But I discovered the minor leagues had not changed a bit. They were still close access to the stands and guys sending notes into the stands, guys hanging on for dear life for their careers. It had a [foundation] that I wanted to make a movie about. I drove all around the Carolina League and the old Sally League [South Atlantic League], and all those towns. I kept coming back to Durham because it had a great old ballpark in the middle of tobacco warehouses. It was right in the middle of town and residential. It was what baseball was supposed to be.
SI.com: It must be gratifying to see how Durham has since become a booming baseball market.
Shelton: They recently honored the movie and had several big events. I was just stunned. The city is booming. The downtown has shops, restaurants and all the tobacco warehouses have been converted to condos and luxury apartments. The new ballpark is still very close to downtown. It had a major turnaround. The city likes to give me credit. They honored me and I kept saying, 'Folks, I just shot a movie here and I wasn't the reason for the economic turnaround.' They said, 'Well, you believed in us.' But it is really gratifying to see that. It happens once in a lifetime. You put a phrase like "tin cup" into the lexicon of sports or "white man can't jump." You usually don't be part of the renaissance of the city. It felt like the icing on the cake for me. And now minor league baseball is moving its national headquarters to Durham.
SI.com: How good an athlete was Costner?
Shelton: You can get away with Tim Robbins being a goofy right-hander, a Dean Chance meets Mike Scott. But Kevin Costner is a terrific athlete and all of the infielders and players were high school, college or minor league players.
SI.com: Give us a scouting report for Ron Shelton the baseball player.
Shelton: A very good glove, arm and range. I didn't have a lot of power but I was a tough out. I didn't strike out much. I was a better one or two hitter in the lineup with doubles power. I took all my years in the minor leagues and winter ball and I added them up and I hit .264. I might make a lot of money with that today.
SI.com: Is there a current athlete that resonates with you as a filmmaker?
Shelton: I have not seen the new documentary with Mike Tyson but I know Mike a bit and I have always felt that some day long after he was gone there is almost a Shakespearean quality about him. He's such a complex guy. He's more complex than he gets credit for because his demons are so real and exposed and his madness is out there. But cradle to grave, the Mike Tyson story is the stuff of a great drama. Tiger Woods, I can't get my head around on how good he is and how he handles the scrutiny in his personal life to the standard he's set. I've had meals with him and played golf with him a few years ago and he is the most impressive guy. I tell you, depending on how it plays out, Bill Belichick may turn out to be a far more complicated character, if his genius was enhanced by cheating.
SI.com: Do you ever think about a sequel to Bull Durham?
SI.com: What's the plot?
Shelton: It's about a pitcher for the Yankees who ends up in the Mexican League. He's one of these contemporary athletes who has a really bad rock band, the Paris Hilton girlfriend and drives a Ferrari in Manhattan. They send him down to the minors and he refuses to report. Because of his attitude issues, no other team wants to take a chance with him and he ends up in the Mexican League. I went down there last year to spend some time researching it and it's fantastic. So the film is about what happens to him there. It's the education of a ballplayer. He changes quite dramatically and he ends up preferring the Mexican League and goes back there. It's kind of fun and irreverent and sexy and another odd love note to baseball. The script is done and we are putting the financing together. It's my first attempt to go after baseball in 20 years. I think it's time.