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Ron Shelton

More than a Game:
An Interview with Ron Shelton

January 20, 2000
by Dan Lybarger
Originally appeared in the January 20-26, 1999 issue of Pitch Weekly. ........................................................................................................

Some filmmakers are associated with one genre. Think of suspense and Alfred Hitchcock’s name comes to mind. John Ford is synonymous with westerns and Akira Kurosawa with samurai flicks. Writer-director Ron Shelton’s movies almost always concern sports.

Shelton has made two about baseball (Bull Durham and Cobb), one about basketball (White Men Can’t Jump), and one about golf (Tin Cup). His latest, Play It to the Bone, follows a pair of over-the-hill boxers (Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas) as they head to Las Vegas to fight each other for the undercard on Mike Tyson’s latest bout. Lacking transportation, they have to beg a ride from Grace Pasic (Lolita Davidovich, Shelton’s real-life paramour), who has been romantically involved with both pugilists.

Speaking from his office in Los Angeles, Shelton explains why boxing is his favorite sport (he previously wrote the script to The Great White Hype) and a suitable subject for his latest movie. “Boxing is about the toughest sport there is,” he says. “Going on the offensive can leave yourself open. It’s all about endurance. You’re consistently taking punches. Even though Woody and Antonio trained for 12 weeks and are in great shape, they had a lot of respect for real boxers when they were through.”

So how tough are real boxers?“George Foreman’s handshake can crush your hand,” Shelton says.

From listening to Shelton talk, it’s obvious he has a remarkable eye for detail. The characters in his movies frequently speak in each game’s idiosyncratic dialogue. For example, in Bull Durham, minor league baseball players talk about pitching the “deuce” (a curve ball) and making the “show” (a.k.a. the major leagues). The fact that Shelton himself spent five years playing minor league baseball certainly helped.

“You want to make the movie so that aficionados will say, ‘Hey, they finally got it right,’” he explains. “Shop talk of all kinds fascinates me. I used to love listening to mechanics as they were working on my car. A lot of the shorthand they were using was really interesting.”

His fondness for minutiae also extends to the kind of athletes he’ll chronicle. With the exception of Cobb, most of Shelton’s movies concentrate on marginal players. White Men Can’t Jump deals with street basketball con men, and Kevin Costner is a lowly driving-range golf pro in Tin Cup. “Most of the legends are pretty boring people,” says Shelton. “A lot of the more exciting fights are on the undercard.”

The director’s insistence on authenticity may have endeared him to sports fans, but Shelton’s movies draw on archetypes that extend beyond sports. He says, “I often think of my movies as westerns. Woody and Antonio are like cowboys who use their fists instead of guns. I wanted you to root for both of them. I didn’t want what happens in a lot of boxing movies, where they get a villain from central casting. I think of (Play It to the Bone) as a three-way love story. They share an intimacy that goes beyond sex. In the final shot, I put all of them together to let the audience know that as long as they had each other, despite the fact that they’d all been beaten, they’d be all right.”

Another trademark of Shelton’s work is that, although dealing exclusively with male sports, they feature strong female characters, frequently played by over-30 actresses, such as Susan Sarandon and Rene Russo. “(The women) are frequently stronger than the men,” he says. “In White Men Can’t Jump, the Rosie Perez character is the only character who literally skates away with what she wants.… The studios always want you to cast actresses who are under 25. What could be sexier than Susan Sarandon at 41 (in Bull Durham)? Lolita was about the youngest actress I’ve ever cast (for the lead in Blaze), and she was 28 at the time.”

Shelton’s unusual attitude toward female roles extends to the other aspects of his filmmaking. Although Play It to the Bone is distributed by Disney’s Touchstone, Shelton financed the movie independently. He says, “You still need the studios for distribution. I took out a loan, signed the actors, and sold the North American distribution rights.”

Doing so gives him autonomy. “You can’t let the studios do your casting. I needed two actors who were about the same size and who could be convincing as middle- or light-heavyweights,” he says. “Woody and Antonio are both about 160 pounds, and Woody is about an inch taller.”

Part of the reason for Shelton’s insistence on running things his own way is the fact that his movies frequently deal with risky topics such as religion. Bull Durham and Play It to the Bone are loaded with religious references, and gospel music can be heard throughout White Men Can’t Jump. Shelton was raised with a Baptist background and attended the evangelical Westmont College. Although he doesn’t actively practice, Shelton says, “There aren’t many of us (Baptists) in Hollywood. I once had a joke about the difference between First Baptists and Southern Baptists, but I had to cut it because nobody else got it.”

Telling stories about athletics has let Shelton explore other topics, but that’s hardly the limit of his talent. He wrote and directed the political comedy Blaze and scripted the Central American-set thriller Under Fire. “I spent a couple of years down in Kingston (Jamaica) working on a Bob Marley project that didn’t work out,” Shelton recalls. “I doubt my next two movies will be about sports.”

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