The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham
Not long ago, I was in Durham, North Carolina, to honor the thirtieth anniversary of the movie Bull Durham. As the writer and director of the film, I was to be trotted around the new ballpark that is now the home of the AAA Durham Bulls. Every night, I had a cocktail at the beautiful hotel bar—the Bull Durham Bar, in fact, named for the movie.
I was amazed to find that many locals credited the turnaround of the city to the opening of the movie in 1988. It’s true that when I scouted Durham—even before I wrote the film script—it was boarded up and in trouble. Its longtime economic engine, Big Tobacco, had ended, and there seemed to be nothing to replace it. The desperate look and feel of this southern town, with its ancient, crumbling ballpark and shuttered businesses, suggested the perfect background in which to set a story in the minor leagues where young athletes’ dreams similarly crumble and are boarded up. The entire region was ultimately reinvented when the tech boom of the nineties turned the Research Triangle Park (defined by the vertices of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—each with a major university) into a kind of Silicon Valley of the South. Nonetheless, the movie seemed to get much of the credit, whether it deserved it or not.
Being on site reminded me of when I got on the plane to go back to Durham right before filming began, having nothing but doubts. Susan Sarandon was not a bankable commodity professionally at that moment, Tim Robbins was an unknown, and Kevin Costner had just burst onto the scene. The three of them had barely met, and while it seemed there was the possibility of chemistry among them, I had no proof; it was mostly an instinct.
It wasn’t until rehearsals started in Durham that I began to feel that this could be a special group. Tim brought dignity to Nuke, Kevin kept the child alive in the fading Crash Davis, and Susan grounded Annie Savoy with a nonjudgmental generosity that transcended the character’s eccentricities. As actors, they liked and respected one another, and that ultimately translated into the affection they had onscreen.
But then, after shooting began, the deflating pushback started from the studio, and suddenly I was fighting with the suits to defend what seemed to not need defending, namely the performances. I was fighting for what turned out to be one of the movie’s strengths, and those fights drained my energy and took time away from focusing on the filmmaking itself. I’d learn in later movies that this is part of the drill—fighting the fights that shouldn’t need fighting.
John Huston once said that directing a movie is like going to war. This may be an exaggeration, but it’s sure as hell a contact sport. Why that is so—and why it’s always been so—is a mystery to those in the trenches. Why do those writing the checks and the producers midwifing the project always throw obstacles in the way of the creative process? I suppose it’s not that complicated—the engine that drives Hollywood is the ego. The financier is determined to prove he is not just about money but has a creative bent as well. Sometimes it’s just politics as usual, or the star’s girlfriend once dated the financier and it ended badly, or your agent hates my lawyer—the usual stew of cheap soap opera, except in the stew, money and careers and possibly good movies are at stake. Art patrons have always wanted to be heard—Pope Julius II surely told Michelangelo he thought Adam’s thighs were a little meaty, and it’s well recorded that Robert Evans drove Francis Ford Coppola mad as he tried to make The Godfather. The sublime irony is that sometimes the pope and Robert Evans are right, though mostly they’re not. The Sistine Chapel and the Paramount movie came out pretty well. The director has to listen and accept and fight back—it’s a curious behavioral contortion to have all your nerve endings open for discovery while you circle the wagons to defend your vision. Sometimes it helps to have an enemy; if none exists, it’s sometimes the director’s job to invent one. Bogeymen, real or imagined, are handy to rally the troops against. Long ago these enemies were dubbed “the suits” and have taken on mythic status as the antagonistic other. There are legendary directors who invent the other as part of their daily bread; the oxygen they breathe is the war they imagine they’re involved in.
Some famous director said that directing is “fifty percent the cast and fifty percent the script,” and while that’s too reductive, it’s also loaded with the truth. Even John Huston similarly confessed: “I remove myself from the rigors of directing by casting the movie properly.” You can’t overcome a casting mistake no matter how clever the editing or, as the joke goes, how high you crank the music, but I got lucky on Bull Durham—a perfect cast. Screen chemistry is a mysterious thing, undefinable and unable to be conjured by the most brilliant director or reinvented in the editing room. And while it can’t be explained by film science, the simple truth underlying all great onscreen chemistry is this: two characters must occupy different emotional and physical spaces. Nuke couldn’t be a younger version of Crash; they had to be different physically, politically, emotionally, and come from different backgrounds, even if none of that is revealed. They had to have different comfort zones as actors. Kevin and Tim are completely different people and in real life one can’t imagine them competing over the same thing. In a movie, however, it’s not hard to imagine them fighting over the same woman.
I say all this because, as happy as I am with the final movie, the making of Bull Durham was a troubled exercise—and of course we had our own others—but in retrospect, several movies later, it was a pretty normal series of fights, lies, clashing egos, and bloodshed, all leading toward a funny, life-embracing movie, due in large part to the incredible cast.
Making a good and successful movie is a minor miracle every time.
So why, all these years later, write a book about the making of this particular movie? I don’t actually think about the movie much but there are regular requests for interviews, the occasional university film class to teach, a retrospective—that sort of thing—and now and then an article about the movie is published and there are inevitably errors. No, Harrison Ford was not offered the part of Crash, and Cher was not given the script to play Annie. Where does this stuff come from? Maybe I can set the record straight for anyone who cares, maybe I can share with young film directors the problems a first-time director will almost certainly encounter, or maybe I could just forget the whole thing and continue to concentrate on new work in front of me, which is what I care about most these days. I’ve frequently been asked to write about the movie and have always demurred, but then something happened that caused me to reconsider.
In Durham for that thirtieth-anniversary bash, I did a Q and A with the fans in the ballpark prior to game time, and a married couple raised their hands with more than a question. They said they had moved to Durham because of the movie and they wanted to meet me and take a photo with their two young sons. I was happy to oblige. As I posed with this family of four, I asked the names of the boys. “Tell the man,” their mother counseled. The ten-year-old smiled and said, “I’m Crash.” I looked at his younger brother and said, “I’m afraid to ask.” The boy looked up and said, “Yep, I’m Nuke.”
I guess that’s why I’m writing this book.
Part One: Development
1. Forbidden Fruit
2. Dalko, Altobelli, and Number 136
3. Lysistrata in the Minor Leagues
4. Edith Piaf and the Texas Playboys
5. It Don’t Get No Better Than This
6. Aristophanes and the Bermuda Triangle
7. Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Lose, Sometimes It Rains
8. “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?”
Part Two: Preproduction
9. Building the Toy Train Set
10. “I Thought My Body of Work Would Be Enough”
Part Three: Production
12. There’s a Hat on the Bus
13. A Thousand Pigeons
14. Sixty-Minute Man
Part Four: Postproduction
15. The Third Time You Make the Movie
16. Kill Your Darlings
17. Those Baptist Whorehouse Chords
18. The Numbers Never Lie
19. Why Baseball?
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