Writer-director of ‘Bull Durham’ reveals behind-the-scenes stories of timeless movie

Detroit Free Press

The genius of “Bull Durham” can be found in so many scenes, including one in which minor-league veteran Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) coaches pitching newcomer Ebby Calvin (Nuke) LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) on the art of being interviewed.

“You’re going to have to learn your cliches,” advises Crash. “You’re going to have to study them. … Write this down. ‘We’ve got to play them one day at a time.’”

“‘Got to play.’ … That’s pretty boring, you know?” responds Nuke.

“Of course it’s boring,” says Crash. “That’s the point. Write it down!”

Yes, most real post-game interviews are mind-numbingly boring. But writer-director Ron Shelton’s 1988 movie about the Durham Bulls baseball team remains the exact opposite of boring.

The greatest sports movie of all time — that’s according to a 2003 Sports Illustrated ranking that still holds up — is the subject of Ron Shelton’s new book, “The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, and a Hit.”

Shelton will talk about his memoir Thursday at a virtual event hosted by Dearborn’s Henry Ford Centennial Library. Joining Shelton in the Zoom discussion will be Jim Burnstein, the director of the screenwriting program at the University of Michigan (and a screenwriter and producer who has delved into sports movies himself with the script for “D3: The Mighty Ducks”).

Released in 1988, “Bull Durham” stars Costner as an older, wiser catcher for the Durham, North Carolina, team, Robbins as the mix of raw talent and naivete that is Nuke and Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy, a so-called baseball groupie who’s in love with the game and who practices serial monogamy by romancing one player each season.

What makes “Bull Durham” such a timeless movie? Burnstein says the short answer is that Shelton designed it that way.

“Ron Shelton pitched it as ‘Lysistrata’ in the minor leagues. And you don’t have to be a fan of Aristophanes or baseball to get it,” says Burnstein, referring to the ancient Greek play about a battle of the sexes.

“It’s a pitcher, a catcher and a woman who tells the tale. She sleeps with one of them, but the other one is the right guy. You cannot help but love all of these characters. The story rings true because the minor league world Shelton creates is one he inhabited. It’s funny and sad and perfectly cast. ‘Bull Durham’ is the gold standard when it comes to sports movies because it’s not about sports.”

Although the movie wound up being seamlessly entertaining, sexy and bittersweet all at once, the process of putting it together was as nerve-racking as, well, watching a Detroit Tigers closer trying to preserve a winning score when there are two outs in the ninth inning.

Shelton reveals the ups and downs of the production in his book, such as the fact that a studio executive wanted Anthony Michael Hall to play Nuke instead of Robbins. The memoir has been praised by people like author Daniel Okrent, who raved: “No insider has ever written so well, and so revealingly, about the script-rewriting, the studio-fighting, the actor-coddling, the entire sausage-making process of any movie.”

All great art is a product of struggle, even if it’s a commercially successful movie like “Bull Durham.” In an email interview with the Free Press this week, Shelton made it clear that the process of bringing the project to the screen involved both the agony and the ecstasy of creative expression.

Asked when and how he realized his film was a classic, Shelton said: “It’s only dawning on me now. The experience of making it was so unhappy that I couldn’t even watch it for 10 years. Now enough time has passed that I can enjoy it and, it seems, write a book about it.”

So which cast member provided the most comic relief during the production? “The cast was hard-working and professional and committed to the task at hand, but Robert Wuhl was a comic tonic for everyone, keeping things light and funny and always irreverent, which helped through the battles,” said Shelton.

Wuhl was just as effective on the screen in what’s probably his best performance ever as pitching coach Larry Hockett. During the movie’s hilarious mid-game meeting on the pitcher’s mound, Hockett dispenses advice on what to buy a player for a wedding present: ‘”Candlesticks always make a nice gift, and, uh, maybe you could find out where she’s registered, maybe a place setting or maybe a silverware pattern’s good. OK, let’s get two!”

Shelton, who was nominated for a best original screenplay Oscar for “Bull Durham,” played minor league baseball himself for about five seasons. Thanks in no small part to his expertise, the action on the field in the movie was as accurate as the dialogue was quirky.

“One of the opposing batters, Butch Davis, actually made the majors a few years later,” said Shelton. He added that the baseball “coordinator-guru” for the movie was Grady Little, a manager of the Durham Bulls who went on to manage in the major leagues for the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers.

After “Bull Durham,” Shelton went on to make a few more sports-themed movies, including 1994’s “Cobb” starring Tommy Lee Jones as the iconic, controversial Detroit Tigers great, and 1996’s “Tin Cup,” a rom-com rooted in golf that reunited him with Costner.

For “Cobb,” Shelton said he filmed some footage at Detroit’s old Tiger Stadium, which he described as his “all time favorite baseball park,” and dined during his stay in the Motor City’s Greektown district.

“And I spent time in Detroit with Ernie Harwell, who had many stories about Ty Cobb that I’d never heard,” he said of meeting with the late, legendary Tigers announcer.

From “Bull Durham” to 1984’s “The Natural” and 1989’s “Field of Dreams,” baseball movies have an emotional pull and a lasting resonance that puts them in a league of their own, pun intended.

Shelton admitted he isn’t sure why. “I don’t know because it’s very hard to get them made. There’s almost no foreign sales for American baseball films or TV, and that’s the problem,” he said.

Perhaps it’s because baseball is the stuff that dreams are made of (to borrow from that literary all-star William Shakespeare) — and “Bull Durham” is the ultimate ode to that dream.

As Annie says in the voiceover that opens the movie (and inspires the title of Shelton’s book): “I’ve tried them all, I really have. And the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in and day out, is the church of baseball.”

Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic at jhinds@freepress.com.

‘The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings and a Hit’

6:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday

Zoom virtual discussion with author Ron Shelton, the writer-director of “Bull Durham,” on his new memoir. It will be led by Jim Burnstein, director of the screenwriting program at the University of Michigan.

To register for this event, visit the Dearborn Public Library website (www.dearbornlibrary.org) and click on the events calendar and registration link. 

Hosted by Dearborn’s Henry Ford Centennial Library.

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