Broad Green Pictures
Filmmaker Ron Shelton began his career as a screenwriter but made an effortless transition into directing with 1988’s Bull Durham, starring Kevin Costner – that movie is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary with a new Broadway musical set for next year. After that, Shelton made a name for himself with a string of sports movies, reuniting with Costner for Tin Cup and directing Woody Harrelson in White Men Can’t Jump and Play It to the Bone and Tommy Lee Jones in Cobb, a biopic about baseball great Ty Cobb.
14 years after his last theatrical release Hollywood Homicide, Shelton is reunited with Jones for the comedy Just Getting Started, out on Friday. It has Jones playing Leo McKay, a new resident at the luxury Palm Springs retirement resort Villa Capri, who butts heads with the resort’s manager Duke Diver (Morgan Freeman). Shelton has assembled an amazing cast around them that includes Renee Russo, Glenne Headly and Joe Pantoliano, and while the movie is mostly a light comedy, there are definitely a few surprises for those who think they might know what to expect.
The Tracking Board got on the phone with Shelton over the weekend for the following interview.
This seems like somewhat of a departure, only because you’ve done so many sports movies and cop movies. What kind of motivated you to write what’s basically a buddy comedy between Morgan and Tommy Lee Jones?
Well, you know, I’ve got a number of scripts out there that are moving slowly through the financing pipeline. A number have fallen apart in the last decade, which is why I haven’t made a movie in a while. That and some other projects I’m involved in, and the other projects are moving along. I just think of the six or seven scripts that I have in various stages of development. Some are sports, some are not. This is the worst golf ever, so we don’t call this a sports movie, but it’s supposed to be.
All I’m interested in really is just human behavior, when it’s funny or dark or whatever. This idea came to me, and I wrote two or three drafts of it, and I got Morgan and Tommy jumped in, and they liked the material, they liked the twists and turns it took, and that it was kind of an off-center Christmas in Palm Springs. That’s what Palm Springs Christmas is like. Everybody’s in shorts and somebody’s singing “Let it Snow” over the loudspeakers. It just kind of evolved, then I realized the process when it’s cast and everybody’s over 60 that it’s about people wanting to look forward, not backwards, just like all of us. It maybe resonated in a way that I didn’t think when I was writing it.
You worked with Tommy Lee before. I’m not sure if you’ve worked with Morgan, but have they ever worked together before?
They have not. They wanted to work together. I had a really good relationship with Tommy, ever since Cobb, which was a very dark film and never really opened outside of 40 theaters, but we were very proud of it. We stayed in touch. When Morgan, who I didn’t know, said “yes,” I called Tommy and he said, “I’ve always wanted to work with Morgan. I love working with you. Send me the script.” So that’s how it came together.
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Were they generally looking for more comedic type stuff to do or do you think that helped get them interested?
Morgan says that he just looks for a character he likes and a script he likes, just ’cause I sat with him during his interview yesterday. He liked the character and before we were shooting, when I met him I didn’t know him. I’ve always admired him. A couple weeks before the movie, we met and then I met with Tommy. I said, “How do you feel about not playing god or the chief justice of the supreme court?” He said, “It feels so good I can’t tell you.” He’s got some lovable rogue in him, and he’s a charmer, as we know. Then, he just embraced the part. I just got out of his way.
Are you generally writing for yourself to direct to direct or are you writing scripts for others as well?
I’ve got these five or six projects for me to direct. I’ve got a Broadway musical, hopefully, opening next fall in New York. We’ve been on it eight years. We’ve already done our out-of-town run. I’ve got a couple TV things in the pipeline, so I’m very busy.
I assume you didn’t write this specifically for Morgan and Tommy, but when you bring them on board, is there a lot of adapting the characters to them?
I make little adjustments, ‘cause I know Morgan’s a great talker, so I would maybe expand on his features a little bit. Tommy can be funnier when it’s a little more haiku or a little man of few words. So tiny adjustments that you wouldn’t notice, but that serves them well.
The holidays were always a part of the script from the beginning, that it was set in Palm Springs during the holidays?
Yeah, yeah, because I grew up in Southern California, so I grew up with warm weather at Christmas. I know people from the East and other climates who they’re always sort of appalled, when they’re out in California at Christmas, because there’s supposed to be snow. I go, “Why?” I make the speech that Morgan made: “Well, Bethlehem is exactly the same latitude that Southern California is, so probably the original Christmas was more like Palm Springs.” That’s my silly speech, but it’s actually true. The greeting card companies and marketers and merchandisers are the one who turned Christmas into this snow-filled thing. Perhaps, the word “Christmas” means “go to the beach.” I’m just having fun with that.
Where’d you end up shooting the movie? Did you shoot all of it in Palm Springs?
We only shot two days of second unit in Palm Springs, and every one of those shots is in the movie. The rest was in New Mexico.
I thought maybe the road trip section of the movie might be somewhere else, but I couldn’t tell.
Well, if you get out of Palm Springs. I don’t know if you’ve been to Palm Springs, but once you get outside of it, it just sort of looks like Albuquerque. That’s why every time, the opening sequence and the mid-century architecture and every time there’s a drive by and I can look at what is really Palm Springs, I have a shot of Palm Springs. If we’re outside of Palm Springs, it’s really rugged, once you get outside the wells and the oasis of Palm Springs.
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I was surprised by the amount of action in the movie, especially in the last act. I think the trailer only shows the first 15 minutes of the movie, so you have no idea where it’s going to go, which I guess is a good thing? How do you feel about that? (Note: potential spoilers in the next two responses)
Here is the trick on the trailers, and I think, they did it right. Usually, directors don’t think they do it right. Do you give away the fact that Morgan’s in witness protection and has got a secret? In the movie, when we tested it, it was such a surprise to audiences that they were thrown off, so we went back in the editing room and made sure that his moments about “I’ve got a secret. Everybody’s got a secret” were loud and clear. So when suddenly the golf carts blow up, it doesn’t completely come out of left field. They put the golf cart blowing up in the trailer. Normally I’d say not to do that, but I think it helps the audience, so it’s not like a completely different movie in the third act. The movie just takes a left turn. What we didn’t show in the trailer was all that cowboy Western stuff. So I think the trailers do a reasonable job of saying, “Here. You wanna see this movie? It’s kind of fun, and this is the set-up.”
Am I allowed to include that response in the interview? I don’t know if people who might go see this movie will care much about spoilers.
I agree. I agree. The golf cart blows up with about 27 minutes to go in the movie, and it’s only a 90-minute movie. so then it becomes a shaggy dog stalking of the bad guy movie, but I do like movies that surprise me in the third act. Because I write and direct, and you’ve probably been told this by others, but after the first five minutes of a movie, you know what’s gonna happen at the end in the last five minutes. I don’t like that. So, I like when a third act maybe takes me a little bit to a place I didn’t expect to go.
As somebody who does write your own stuff, how precious are you on set, when you’re working with such caliber actors, and they go off script. I assume you work with them in some part of the development phase to make sure everyone’s comfortable with the dialogue, but how precious are you about the words?
I’m not precious at all. They will tell you. I’m not precious at all. I’m for whatever works. It just so happens that these actors learn the lines. They don’t like to change the lines. They don’t like to ad lib. If they have an idea for a scene or a line isn’t working, they’ll discuss it, before we shoot the scene. I’m very good at listening to actors and trusting their instincts. The movie you saw was the movie that was on the page, pretty much. That’s true of White Men Can’t Jump, too. There’s very little improvising. The trick is to make it feel improvised, but not be improvised.
When my editor heard I was talking to you, he wanted me to ask if there’s any potential for a Bull Durham TV series. Is that anything that’s been thrown out there as something to do?
I can’t get anybody interested in a minor league TV series. I’ve tried and tried and tried. There is the musical coming out in a year.
That’s a Bull Durham musical?
Oh, nice. There’s so much going on with TV right now, so have you found yourself transitioning to write more television?
I’ve been trying. I’ve got a couple of things in the pipeline. I would be happy to have a mini-series or an ongoing on cable. Everybody’s terrified of minor league baseball, of baseball. I think they’re dead wrong. That’s why it was so hard to get Bull Durham made. The feature, nobody wanted to make it. Everybody turned that thing down two times with Kevin Costner attached, and they’re all wrong. Then you go back with another baseball movie and they go, “We don’t want to do baseball.” I said, “What do you mean, you don’t want to do baseball?” I invented it. I invented the movie versions of sports. It’s still very hard to get them made ’cause they don’t have big foreign sales. That’s all they want is foreign sales.
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It seems like studios seem to be skittish about doing sports movies. They’re rare these days with maybe one or two a year tops.
You need Brad Pitt attached. It took seven years to get Moneyball made, and it was a five-year bestseller on the New York Times’ bestseller list. It’s really hard, because there’s no foreign… I have a baseball movie I’m dying to get off the ground. My first real baseball movie since Bull Durham. You’d think that people would be jumping at it. It’s cheap. It’s inexpensive. It’s about a pitcher for the New York Yankees or the Mets, I have written both versions, who ends up in the Latin American leagues. Then he comes back to New York, and he goes back to Latin America, because he likes it more. I think it’s smart. I think it’s art. I think it’s commerce. It’s 12 million dollars, and we can’t get it made, because there’s no foreign. There’s no foreign. We’re gonna get it made, but it’s great crazy. Foreign rules the roost, sadly.
Maybe they just need to work on getting baseball to these other countries. Obviously, Japan and Latin America, like you said…
Japan doesn’t pre-buy anymore, so you can’t get any money in advance from them. It’s sad, but they don’t play baseball in Latin America. They play it in Colombia and the Caribbean. That’s a tiny market. Taiwan and South Korea, that’s the baseball market. That’s not a real foreign market.
I’d like to ask you some screenwriting advice, if that’s okay.
When a screenwriter is starting out, how important is it for them to write commercially, versus writing from their own personal experience? Is that something which is important?
I think you should write personal, make the characters great. Make the script better, and different than anything around you. Don’t worry if it’s commercial, because somebody will read it and say, “This guy can really write or this woman can really write. They’ve got a voice. They understand the structure and how to put characters and conflict on screen. Find this person. I wanna meet them.” Don’t think commercial. Don’t write something that obviously is so bizarrely tiny that four people are interested. Just make sure it has a voice and strong characters, and you want to keep reading.
What else should we be looking forward to from you in the future?
Well, Escape Artist I’m shooting in the first half of the year, then the second half of the year, I’ll be rehearsing and opening the musical, then I’ll be back to the next movie. There’s a TV pilot that, if that goes, I’ll be doing that, too.
What’s this movie you’re shooting?
Well, Escape Artist is about Ed Jones who broke outta prison 14 times. They’ll have announced it a few weeks ago.
Is there anyone cast in it yet?
Well, we have offers out to the lead right now. Can’t talk beyond that.
Just Getting Started opens across the country on Friday, Dec. 8.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor