FILM / In a league of his own: Ron Shelton, ex-pro baseball player and director of Bull Durham and the forthcoming White Men Can't Jump, talks about sport and the movies with Sheila Johnston
Friday 02 October 1992
Under Fire (directed by Roger Spottiswoode) was an uncommonly intelligent example of the journalist-in-troublespot genre. Shelton's first film as director, Bull Durham, looked at the rivalry between Kevin Costner's fading baseball star and Tim Robbins' dopey pitcher through the eyes of their shared lover (Susan Sarandon). It was a generous, spirited (and sexy) comedy that made the sports movie bankable again, and set the pattern for a slew of American baseball movies - Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out - which elaborated the idea of the sport as a sophisticated national philosophy.
Now, after a brief detour - the interesting but unsuccessful Blaze - he has turned his attention back to sport with White Men Can't Jump. But this is a whole different ball-game, basketball, and Shelton has another set of theories about it. 'It is ritualised combat, but in a very civilised world where rules are honoured and disputes settled, somewhat theatrically and emotionally. There are no lawyers, which is reason enough to like it. Baseball has got something that makes it the essence of the American character: there's no clock ticking. In every other sport there's a point where the game is over and you're just playing it out as if you're terminally ill. In baseball there's always the hope that you can come back. And that, for better or worse, is an American trait.
'Basketball is the opposite; it's a game of high energy and conflict and frenetic activity. You need a lot of guys to play baseball, or American football even. In golf you need a country club. Basketball is a game of the streets: you can play it alone - all you need is a ball. There must be a million basketball hoops on trees and barns and garages in the States; it's everywhere. And therefore it is perceived by young black children as a way out of the ghetto. Unfortunately that's a false assumption; you have about as much chance of becoming a black brain surgeon as of becoming a star in the pros.'
White Men turns on the stormy friendship between two small-time players, one white, one black (Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes), who scam around the courts of Los Angeles trading on the general supposition that white men can't. 'There's a tradition of hustlers in US film and literature; they seem to be largely American heroes from Mark Twain on. There are rules to it, an ethics involved, to quote the script. I am appalled when somebody hustles an old lady's savings. But it's different in School for Scoundrels or The Threepenny Opera - hustlers hustling hustlers is fair game.'
However his film is as much about the players' equally turbulent relations with their women, especially Harrelson's girlfriend, the vibrant, loud, film-stealing Rosie Perez. 'She runs away with a bad boy, which a lot of women friends I know did, and now when the movie starts it's five years later and that guy that seemed so sexy and so attractive and such a maverick rebel poet looks more and more like a slob . . . a model we can all identify with. By the end Harrelson is ready to start growing up: it's just dawning on him, this dim, 40-watt bulb, that, hey, I can't do this forever. Wesley Snipes' character is further along in his development. But you have to make a distinction between being childish and child-like. I don't think we should go into adulthood and leave all these children's games behind. I mean, I'm still playing them.'
At 46 Shelton is still up for pick-up basketball three times a week: 'These days usually we play indoors,' he specifies, 'you're less likely to get shot there.' And he wasn't above shaking down a production wallah on the set of White Men, in an incident he insists is not a PR-manufactured myth. 'I'll give you the exact facts. We were half a day behind at the end of the second week. A studio executive came down and saw all the banter between me and the actors and I think he was envious. So he said, in front of all these athletes: 'Ron I'll take you one on one for 10 dollars, right here'. I said, 'Come on, we're shootin' a movie'. He says, 'You're chicken'.
'I've got a crew of 150 people, I'm on the line and I'm no better than the guys in the movie in terms of this sorry male ego thing. So I said, 'All right, I'll shoot you the best of five . . . but not for 10 dollars. I'll do it for dollars 30,000 - that's a half day's shooting costs. If I beat you, you've gotta call the studio and come up with that. If you beat me, I'll take some pages out the script.' So everybody goes nuts, placing bets - 30 grand, this is really big time] - and I shoot five and he shoots five and I make the last one and he misses the last one and I get the half day. It couldn't have been scripted better.'
Like Shelton's other work, White Men's storyline is a shambling, slightly ramshackle affair; its strength is in the rapport between the actors, and in their colourful, high-speed badinage: it's one of the few recent films out of Los Angeles which doesn't either ignore race, make it the story's central problem (as in Boyz N the Hood) or artificially resolve it (Grand Canyon). The tensions are there all right, but Shelton's benign vision precludes tragedy. Even a pair of mobsters turn out to be buffoons. 'It's all about respect - I was told that even the character I wrote in Under Fire as a Somoza figure was a kind of a teddy-bear. And, as violent as the city of Los Angeles and America is, we still have our human comedy going on and I hope I can show us all to be somewhat foolish but with a nobility built in. I just didn't want to treat that world with a politically-correct sacredness.'
It's a paradox that, while many new black films have their characters spluttering into incoherence and profanity, Shelton, a white writer, allows them an unusual wit and articulacy. 'I would assert that because young black film-makers haven't had the opportunity to work, when they finally do, there's so much rage and social frustration built up. I didn't sell a script until I was 35 and I see the world more in terms of irony, although I am certainly passionate about my political beliefs. When you're young, you don't care about irony, you care about outrage. It's a half-baked theory but that's all I can offer.'
After retiring from pro baseball, Shelton studied painting and sculpture and odd-jobbed around LA as a landscape gardener, house painter and salesman at Sear's, in between writing some novels - which he has thrown out - and short stories, a few of which have been published. But film is his preferred medium and he has a few theories about that too.
'I talk when I write; I'm very noisy. When a good scene is working, it's just like somebody is whispering in your ear. Then I'll take that to rehearsal and anything that feels bumpy I'll write different, so that when it comes time to shoot everybody is very committed to the text; they know that throughout the day we're going to make changes. I don't come to the set as a control freak.
'I respect screenplays: it's as distinctive and separate a medium as poetry is from technical manuals. I have an English Literature background, but I will spend my life un-learning fiction in order to learn movie writing. You tell a story differently: Laurence Sterne digressed for 500 pages in Tristram Shandy; you can't digress for 20 seconds in a movie. At the same time, how can you bring in textural elements without losing the audience? That's always the battle. I have a lot of private theories and when I get drunk I'll tell some other drunk in a bar about them.'
'White Men Can't Jump' opens next Friday.
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