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Interview: July 21, 2022

Ron Shelton, the award-winning screenwriter and director of the cult classic Bull Durham, has penned THE CHURCH OF BASEBALL, an entertaining behind-the-scenes story of the making of the film, as well as an insightful primer on the art and business of moviemaking. In this interview conducted by Michael Barson, Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, Shelton talks about the surprising popularity of Bull Durham, how the miraculous casting of Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy came about, a few of his favorite baseball movies, and which film he would like to see get the CHURCH OF BASEBALL treatment.

Question: One of the things about moviemaking that THE CHURCH OF BASEBALL brings to light is just how fragile the marketing system for movies is. You reveal that Bull Durham never managed to get beyond a C level in its test screening numbers before release, a statistic that easily might have doomed its prospects were it not for the faith in it evidenced by a top executive at Orion.

Ron Shelton: It's amazing how history has fallen in love with many movies that were flops at the time of their release. Bull Durham was not, although it came close to being abandoned over and over. The marketing team was outspoken in its belief in the movie, even with the low test scores. The thing most difficult to make sense of was how well the movie played in the theater --- much laughter and applause --- yet how poorly it scored. I'm still scratching my head about that.

Q: You make clear that without the proactive support of Kevin Costner, Bull Durham likely never would have been made. But a miracle on another level was the baroque manner in which Annie became cast as Susan Sarandon. You experienced some major luck on that one!

RS: There were a lot of great Annies who auditioned, but, as the book explains, the list of who the studio would accept kept changing. Susan wasn't on the list until she stormed the castle and willed her way onto it. Once she was on the list, she was hired instantly. That whole melodrama is wildly entertaining now, was nerve-racking then, and had a very happy ending.

Q: Everyone knows that Bull Durham is one of the greatest baseball movies ever made…possibly the very best. But your book reveals that it literally came within a few hours --- and a Vincent Canby review --- of never even being made. (The suspense in your recounting was at a Bourne Identity level for me!) Did any of your other films experience a similar close call?

RS: The bizarre circumstances under which things fell into place at the last second (in this case, to say literally the last second would be correct) have never been repeated for me. Alas. Usually it's a numbing drumbeat to the starting line, if indeed you make it at all.

Q: Why is it that a baseball film is said not to travel for overseas audiences, when countries like Japan, China, Australia and Central America supply so many players to our major leagues out of their own robust baseball leagues?

RS: Japan does not pre-buy small American movies --- it waits to see if they're hits in North America first. In the case of Bull Durham, the Japanese foreign sales agent said that the movie was unsuccessful there because the men were terrified of Annie Savoy and afraid that Japanese women would emulate her. She was too much in control for their egos to manage --- at least that was the report from the Japanese sales rep. China doesn't really play baseball or care.

The so-called "commonwealth" countries --- UK through Australia --- loved the movie because they got the language of it all. The Caribbean is a tiny market, though a baseball-crazy one, and Central America plays baseball only in Nicaragua and Panama, which again are small markets.

Q: Recusing Bull Durham for obvious reasons, could you name what you consider the five best baseball movies ever made?

RS: I'm not a good audience for most baseball movies because I'm hypercritical --- too much so, to be honest --- and find myself too critical of most sports movies period. I like The Bad News Bears quite a bit, as well as Eight Men Out, and there are parts of others. I haven't seen Richard Linklater's college baseball movie, Everybody Wants Some!!, but keep intending to do so. Moneyball is beautifully crafted, but the story itself just isn't accurate, and ignores too many things about the Oakland Athletics that year that are more responsible for the team's success than analytics. But that's just me.

Q: Would you agree that the world would be a far better place if it existed with THE CHURCH OF BASEBALL as just one of 100 book-length, detailed accounts about the making of Hollywood’s greatest movies? (Bull Durham would come in at #64 or so all-time, I’d submit.) As an inveterate film fan, which movie would YOU love to read a book-length explication of by its chief architect?

RS: I would love Sam Peckinpah's first-person account of the making of The Wild Bunch, from the moment he began working with Walon Green's screenplay through the casting and numerous battles with the studio. Sam was infamous for his battles with executives and producers, sometimes even when he imagined the enemy, but it always became a war with him. Nonetheless, beneath the violence of his movie, there is great sensitivity and empathy with the characters. He makes me care deeply about them, their plight and their choices, even if they're killers. Perhaps, knowing Sam's wicked and profoundly ironic sense of humor, because they are killers.

I also want to hear him talk about how he shot certain scenes and how he approached the workday. Although it was often through a lens of heavy alcohol consumption, it was also somehow clear-eyed.