The history of the creation of the “Bull of Durham”

It’s tempting to ask the directors of classic films if their life-changing film can get a green light at the studio today. The often embellished reality is that these photographs were hardly even taken at the time.

1988 scriptBull Durham“, an unconventional comedy set in the world of minor league baseball, has been broadcast by every studio in Hollywood. Twice. The second time screenwriter Ron Shelton appeared on screen, he was joined by Kevin Costner, who was to play the aging catcher Crash Davis. Nothing yet.

They had a 30-day window set by Costner’s agents to convince the studio to fund the film or Shelton would lose his star to Warner Bros. project. At 3:00 pm on the day of the deadline, Shelton received a call. Orion Pictures was on board. What Shelton didn’t know at the time was that Orion had just received a boost in Costner’s credibility. That morning, the political thriller with the participation of Costner “No Exit” started. rave review from Vincent Canby in the New York Times.

“Any other review and Durham Bull might never have been done,” Shelton writes in Baseball Church: The Making of Durham Bull, out this month from Knopf.

"baseball church" Writer/Director Bill Shelton

The close combat is one of many poignant anecdotes in Shelton’s book, which is in turn a memoir and guide to Shelton’s creative process, detailing how he soaked his own minor league baseball experience into the script and fought. with studio executives throughout production. The studio didn’t like Tim Robbins’ performance as a wild-handed young pitcher yearning for the big leagues. They didn’t think Susan Sarandon would look good as Annie Savoy.

But the film was a hit, grossing around $50 million, which would be over $120 million in today’s dollars. Shelton was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay and went on to write and direct White Men Can’t Jump and The Tin Cup (Costner also starred in the latter). Today, Bull Durham would probably be made for Netflix or Amazon Prime, perhaps as a limited series. Orion Pictures, once independent, is now a label for MGM, a subsidiary of Amazon.

The Times spoke to Shelton about the current state of sports films, the anguish of studio notes, and why third acts are overrated. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Now let’s talk about the state of sports films. There was Way Back with Ben Affleck, King Richard with Will Smith, and then Hustle. with Adam Sandler. But before, it seems, there were at least a couple of them a year.

I think algorithms are choking us. I think a sports movie hits the computer and the computer doesn’t know what to do. The algorithm says “This is not sold on Bulgarian TV” or something like that. Sports films tend to target domestic audiences because we don’t make films about sports other than the ones we play in North America. And I don’t think studios or networks are run by river players anymore. They are managed by a committee. These kinds of films are instinctive films. They go against the grain because they don’t meet all the requirements of an international audience. That’s why no one wanted to do Bull of Durham. They said that there is no foreign business. Well, I’m still getting residual North American rights checks.

The Queen’s Gambit is about chess, but in the format of a sports film. I’ve seen the argument that “Top Gun: Maverick” essentially a sports film with F-18. Has the genre just been redesigned and incorporated into other types of films?

Yes, it has. I don’t consider Top Gun to be a sports film, but I understand the paradigm behind it. Interesting stories are not stories about winning the Super Bowl or the heavyweight championship. It’s about everyone else trying to win the Super Bowl. If Rocky wins, no one will remember the movie. Rocky goes the distance and loses, and thus the franchise was born. And this is the right ending. If Woody Harrelson ends up with Rosie Perez in White Men Can’t Jump, I would be disrespectful to the character of Rosie Perez and the whole idea of ​​the movie. And if Crash Davis makes it to the big leagues, it’s a fake ending.

A man in a baseball uniform sits in a chair with a baseball bat over his shoulder.

Kevin Costner stars in the 1988 film Durham Bull, written and directed by Ron Shelton.

(Images of Orion)

Part of what’s interesting about Bull of Durham is that it doesn’t have a third act. There is no big game. In fact, there are not many sports in it. But that’s how the movie can end so naturally. It is a feeling of inevitability that cannot end otherwise.

Yes exactly. When Tim Robbins’ character Nuke is removed from the movie because he’s going to the big leagues, it removes the barrier to Crash and Annie meeting. But it’s not a good break because that’s what just happens. This is not what the main character does. So this is indeed an obstacle removed; it’s not a break in the act. So guess what? I have two acts. Who cares?

You write that every studio has gone past the Bull of Durham. What took this film to the next level for Orion Pictures?

Happy accident. On the morning of the last day I could hold onto Kevin Costner, his film No Exit opened in New York and drew rave reviews in The New York Times that Kevin Costner was going to be a great movie star. “No Way Out” was released by Orion Pictures, to whom we gave the script the night before for the third time. They woke up to this review and they have Kevin Costner’s next film if they want to. If “No Way Out” hadn’t opened that morning to rave reviews, this film would never have been made. The irony is that the only reason No Way Out opened in August was because Orion didn’t know what to do with it. That’s where you sent films to die. But it was a hit and it made for an even bigger hit, “Bull Durham”.

Black and white photo of a woman and a man standing outside.

Susan Sarandon (left) and Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, 1988.

(Joel Warren/Orion Pictures)

There are many funny stories about the film’s casting. Anthony Michael Hall appears as Nuke and admits he never actually read the script. Susan Sarandon wasn’t even on the studio cast. How did she get into the casting?

She lived in Italy. She flew from Italy to Los Angeles with her own money with her 2-year-old daughter and nanny and actually insisted on auditioning. And she got the part. But I’ll save the details for the book because it’s a great story.

There are many stories in the book about disagreements with studio suits. They thought Susan Sarandon didn’t look good as Annie. They didn’t like Tim Robbins.

They said it wasn’t funny or sexy.

You hear about studios these days that are so exhausted that they don’t even bother to take notes. Is there a moment when the quality control pendulum swings too far the other way?

I would disagree on one thing. They don’t have to take notes. Most of their notes don’t make sense. In defense of the leaders, I will say that they were not brought up in the apprenticeship system. They came straight from USC film school or NYU and now they’re making judgments about something they have no idea about. Notes were minimal. “Tighten the hole. The ending is still unclear.” It was a note. Now you get pages and pages of stuff that you honestly can’t figure out what they’re talking about. They may be thin. Perhaps there will be too many films and TV shows. But they are being made because a huge amount of money is being generated. So hire more of these guys, but let’s take less notes.

In the book, you show little patience for movie companies as theme park losers. Now they’re making them the biggest losers in toilet paper and iPhones. Does it have a negative impact on the industry?

I am not dissatisfied with the fact that many films are being made that do not interest me. When they sell tickets, it’s good for everyone who makes movies. I love everything to be a hit. It’s just that films about human behavior are becoming less and less part of anyone’s schedule. But when they finally make it to theaters or streaming, everyone loves them. I just think that human behavior is the most interesting thing to make films about. Audiences are desperate for films about human behavior. Funny, tragic, inspiring, whatever.

What do you think people will take away from this book about a movie that was made and released some 35 years ago?

First of all, I am open with my criticism of the business. At the same time, I love and accept business. I am part of this world. I think there is a lot to learn in the creative process, in its premeditation and intuition. That’s why I have a small part of the memories in the book, because everything I share ends up in the script and on the screen. It is the link between life and art. Perhaps that is the point of the book.

If someone came to me – for example, from the LIV Golf league, but not with Saudi money – and said: “We are going to give you $ 100 million to write films, but they must be about the Death Star or the Andromeda galaxy,” I would have to say, “Sorry, I can’t take your money.” I’m not good at some kinds of storytelling, but I’m really good at other things. I just write what I know. That’s all I can do.