No Bull

In ‘The Church of Baseball’ creator Ron Shelton gives the full story behind the making of ‘Bull Durham’

Whenever anyone compiles one of those best of baseball movie lists, Bull Durham is invariably near or at the top of the list. Deservedly. BD has none of the sports movies tropes. There’s no big game. In fact, BD mocks those very tropes. Set in the world of minor league baseball, it’s a romance with a lot of comedy–and a female narrator. Yes, to some degree, Bull Durham broke the mold.

Bull Durham
‘The Church of Baseball,’ by Ron Shelton.

Now, thirty-five years after he shot it, BD’s writer-director Ron Shelton is providing an in-depth window into the classic. He has written The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings and a Hit, which chronicles his experiences, everything from writing the script to scoring financial backing to casting to shooting. Like a lot of movies, BD was often on the brink of disaster. It came within inches of not being made. Indeed, the making of Bull Durham is a movie of in itself.

Shelton grew up in a church going family in California. Soon enough, a new church got his allegiance. He made it all the way to AAA ball but hung up his spikes with regrets at the age of 26. During his minor league odyssey, Shelton had become increasingly enamored with movies. (In college, literature had already smitten him.) To beat the heat before night games, Shelton and his teammates would camp out in air-conditioned movie houses. For Shelton, it was film school on the cheap.

Before BD, Shelton was essentially an unknown. However, he had a resume, having written two produced screenplays (Under Fire, The Best of Times), both box office failures. When Shelton opted to write what he knew, things took a serious turn for him. Inspired by everything from The Wild Bunch to Lysistrata to Spaceman Bill Lee to, he turned out BD. Besides being original, it was hilarious and had heart. And yes, there was that female narrator.

No studio would make it.

The studio suits said that baseball movies didn’t sell tickets overseas. Besides that, as Shelton points out repeatedly, BD had a meager plot and no third act.

Enter Kevin Costner, who was just starting to land on everyone’s radar. Shelton had considered Kurt Russell for the same role (Crash Davis), but Russell’s agents refused to give first-time director Shelton the time of day. Russell makes a surprise, hilarious cameo in Church. Even with Costner’s involvement, the studios still passed. If BD didn’t get backing, Costner was set to do Everybody’s All American. Eventually, at the last minute, after Costner earned raves for No Way Out, Orion stepped up with financing.

There was no time for celebration. They scheduled shooting to begin in Durham, North Carolina, in mere weeks, and there were still two other lead roles to cast. Susan Sarandon wasn’t on the studio’s list for the role of Annie, the aforementioned narrator, and had to campaign heavily, even flying herself to LA from Europe for an audition. One actress who wanted the role refused to read lines but did pull a Basic Instinct gambit. Tim Robbins, then an unknown, wasn’t the first choice for the role of Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh but fortunately Charlie Sheen was tied up with Eight Men Out. Shelton’s inspiration for the nickname Nuke comes from an unlikely source: His hotel server. Church is chock full of great nuggets such as this.

Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins in ‘Bull Durham.’

Shooting was tense. Shelton was convinced that the studio was going to can him. One of the studio suits wanted Robbins replaced. Meanwhile, BD’s budget was rail thin. One night, he had to recruit extras from a nearby Pink Floyd concert. One of BD’s producers knew the band, and he got a false rumor out to concertgoers that the band was going to be at the ballpark for a post-show party. At one point during the shoot, Shelton nearly lost it, going after a producer, an unexpected curve ball. Church is full of unpredictable curves.

In test screenings, audiences laughed heartily. Inexplicably though, their post-screening feedback (on comments cards) didn’t appear to reflect their actual movie going experience. Orion could easily have buried BD and released it straight to video. However, to Orion’s credit, they believed in BD and got it out to theaters, where it built an audience and became a hit.

Church is a breezy, fun read with no dead wood. It won’t disappoint true fans, and will pleasantly surprise newcomers.  Bull Durham raised the bar, and Church meets that bar.

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Jon Hart

Jon Hart is the author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures. He holds the Citi Field record for hawking the most pretzels during a single game.

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