Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, September 4, 2022



"Okay," you might thinking "I guess the Hollywood Juicer has finally lost it -- now he's trying to shove a book about baseball down our throats!"

"Hold your horses," as my sainted mother used to say.  Yes, I've doubtless lost a step or three over the past few years, I do like baseball, and I am shoving a book at you -- but it's a book about the making of a baseball movie, not the game itself.  Ron Shelton played in baseball's minor leagues for several years before becoming a screenwriter (Under Fire), and eventually directing movies like White Men Can't Jump and Tin Cup, so you'd expect to have a few relevant baseball stories woven into the narrative, but the meat of the book is the tale of how he took a germ of an idea, then with a Herculean effort managed to turn it into what is widely considered one of the best movies ever made about the game: Bull Durham.  As Shelton reveals, nothing in making this movie came easy, and his inside account of the long and winding odyssey from selling the idea, writing the script, landing the cast, pre-production, directing, post-production, then running the gantlet of test screenings before the movie was finally locked for release is as entertaining as it is informative.  In The Church of Baseball you'll learn something about turning an idea into a script, dealing with a skeptical studio, surviving constant sand-in-the-gears sabotage by an unnamed and decidedly hostile studio executive, how the process of casting works (and sometimes doesn't), how to deal with and direct actors, how to improvise and go with the flow when your on-set spider sense begins to tingle, and how to keep fighting the uphill battle to save your movie from clueless studio drones who apparently have nothing better to do than throw obstacles in your way.

Bull Durham may be set in the world of minor league baseball, but the story is really about people who've arrived at turning points in their lives before which everything was different, and after which nothing will ever be the same.  It's a love story on many levels, and by the time you've turned the last page of Shelton's book, you'll find yourself wondering how any movie ever gets made in or by Hollywood, let alone a film as good as this one.

As it happens, I share a tiny slice of history with Ron Shelton. 

Queue the swirling orchestral music and a rapid montage as calendar pages fly back on the wall, then the camera zooms in to freeze on a date in the late summer of 1978.   

The camera assistant from the very first low budget feature I ever worked on called with an offer I simply couldn't refuse. He'd be shooting a short 16 mm film over a weekend for a wannabe director, so how would I like to help as a grip-trician and possibly second camera operator? It was a freebie, of course, but back then my own Hollywood fantasies had yet to encounter the full gravitational force of reality, and since the script was about a minor league baseball pitcher -- and some of the filming would take place on the field during a minor league game in Bakersfield, California -- it sounded like fun. A few days later, our small crew gathered at a rambling old house up in the hills north of Sunset, where we sat in Ron Shelton's living room as he explained the story and how he proposed to film it over the following weekend.  He showed us slides he'd taken while scouting the ball park in Bakersfield, and assured us that although there was a lot to film, he'd get us through it without pushing too hard.

Ron was as good as his word.  We shot everything on the schedule with our two actors, the young Chris Mulkey -- who'd made a bit of a splash in an indy feature called Loose Ends a couple of years before -- and another actor whose name has long since slipped my mind.  

Hey, it was forty-four years ago, and as writing this post reminded me in ways I didn't expect, my memory is a bit spotty.  More on that later.

Once the final scene was in the can (and yes, I did get to operate the second camera while we shot the scene at the ballpark), Ron treated us all to dinner at what was then the finest dining establishment in Bakersfield, a restaurant with the unlikely name of Lemucchi's Tam O'Shanter, where the food, wine, and laughter flowed before we made the long drive back to LA.  It was a fitting end to a great weekend during which I had a blast ... and that, as far as I can recall, was the last time I saw Ron Shelton. Over the next ten years, I went on to climb the below-the-line ladder as a grip, juicer, best boy, and gaffer, while Ron forged a solid career as a successful writer/director in Hollywood.  

Nearly a decade later, while I was prepping to fly east for an eight week feature in Vermont, my gaffer said something that gave me the impression he'd been offered to gaff a baseball movie that was about to film in North Carolina, directed by Ron Shelton and starring Kevin Costner, but since he'd already committed us to the show in Vermont, had to turn it down.  

"Damn," I thought. I knew Kevin from my days at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, where I'd worked on many a commercial when he was a stage manager there, and although I hadn't seen Ron since that weekend in the Bakersfield -- which I assumed eventually led to Bull Durham -- this could have been a reunion or sorts, the three of us having achieved at least part of our Hollywood dreams ... but it was not to be.  So it goes in Hollywood.  Having told this "what might have been" story about Bull Durham more than once over the ensuing years, I planned to include it here, but it occurred to me to do a little fact-checking first.

So I called my old gaffer -- who'd bumped up to DP a year or two after the Vermont movie -- and caught him on his cell as he was traveling to a distant location to resume shooting an episodic drama for one of the big broadcast networks.  We hadn't touched base for a while, and it was good to catch up, but when I asked the question about Bull Durham, he confessed no memory of being offered the job. I checked the IMDB, and found that the DP was Bob Byrne, who - sadly - had passed away in 2017. With nobody left to ask, I'd struck out, so maybe I'd just go with the flow as represented by the newspaper writer's reply to Jimmy Stewart's character (Ransom Stoddard) in John Ford's elegiac western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence:  

"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

I went back to reading The Church of Baseball, which revealed that Bobby Byrne was actually the second DP -- another DP named Chuck Minsky had been hired to shoot Bull Durham, which he did quite well -- but thanks to Machiavellian maneuvering back in Hollywood by that unnamed studio executive, Chuck was "let go" with only three weeks left to shoot, for no good reason --  and Bob Byrne brought in to finish up.*

So back to Google I went to find Chuck Minsky's website, where I sent him an e-mail asking the Big Question: had my gaffer back then really been offered the gaffer job on Bull Durham?  Chuck graciously sent a prompt reply telling me how devastating it had been to be fired, what a great, stand-up guy Ron Shelton really was, and that since the film's low budget didn't allow him to bring his own gaffer, he'd hired a local who'd done a fine job.**  

So the answer was "no," which means that something I've long considered one of my Big Career Regrets -- that but for fate and cruel timing I'd have worked on Bull Durham -- was never real in the first place.  There's doubtless a larger lesson in all this (and maybe someday I'll figure out what that might be...), but although I lost a good story, I've still got the movie, which I re-watch every few years,  and The Church of Baseball, Ron Shelton's wonderfully entertaining and informative book.

If you're interested -- which you should be -- here's a podcast from LA's NPR outlet KCRW called The Treatment, which starts out in a twenty minute discussion with actress Maya Rudolph, then segues to a longer talk with Ron Shelton about his career in Hollywood and the book.  Once that's done, click on over to this five minute piece wherein Ron reveals the influence Sam Peckinpah and his epic western The Wild Bunch had on Shelton's career.  

Both are really good, so check 'em out.

*  This was beyond outrageous.  The more I read about that unnamed studio exec, the bigger an asshole he turns out to be.

** Having been fired a couple of times myself -- both times for arguably good reasons -- I'm not sure there are words sufficient to describe how Chuck must have felt. When you've done a good job under difficult conditions, you're not supposed to be rewarded by being dumped like yesterday's garbage with only three weeks to go ... but that's Hollywood for you.