The Church of Baseball: Making Bull Durham

In “The Church of Baseball,” Creator Ron Shelton Tells the Whole Story of Making “Bull Durham”

Whenever someone compiles one of these best baseball movie lists, Bull Durham is invariably near or at the top of the list. Well Named. BD has none of the tropes of sports movies. There’s no big game. In fact, BD pokes fun at those same tropes. Set in the world of minor league baseball, it’s a romance with plenty of comedy and a female narrator. Yes, to some extent Bull Durham broke the mould.

“The Church of Baseball”, by Ron Shelton.

Now, thirty-five years after shooting it, comic book writer-director Ron Shelton opens an in-depth window into the classic. He wrote The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings and a Hit, which chronicles his experiences, from writing the screenplay, to financial support, to casting and filming. Like many films, BD was often on the brink of disaster. He came within inches of not be done. Indeed, the making of Bull Durham is a film in itself.

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

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 chose 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, it turned out comics. Besides being original, it was hilarious and had heart. And yes, there was this narrator.

No studio could do that.

Studio suits said baseball movies don’t sell tickets overseas. On top of that, as Shelton repeatedly points out, 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 director Shelton the time of day. Russell makes a surprise and hilarious appearance in Church. Even with Costner’s involvement, the studios still past. If BD didn’t get support, Costner was to do Everybody’s All American. Eventually, at the last minute, after Costner won praise for No Way Out, Orion stepped up his funding.

There was no time for the party. They planned to start filming in Durham, North Carolina in just a few weeks, and there were still two more lead roles to be cast. Susan Sarandon was not on the studio’s slate for the role of Annie, the aforementioned narrator, and had to campaign extensively, even traveling all the way to LA from Europe for an audition. An actress who wanted the role refused to read the lines but pulled off a Basic Instinct bet. Tim Robbins, then unknown, was not the first choice for the role of Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh but fortunately Charlie Sheen was linked to Eight Men Out. Shelton’s inspiration for the nickname Nuke comes from an unlikely source: his hotel server. The church is full of great nuggets like this.

Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins in “Bull Durham”.

The shoot was tense. Shelton was convinced the studio was going to box it. One of the studio suits wanted Robbins replaced. During this time, the BD budget was very thin. One evening, he had to recruit extras from a nearby Pink Floyd concert. One of the comic book producers knew the band and he spread a false rumor to the audience that the band was going to be at the stadium for an after-show party. At one point during filming, Shelton nearly lost it, going after a producer for an unexpected curveball. The church is full of unpredictable curves.

During the test screenings, the audience laughed heartily. Inexplicably though, their post-screening comments (on comment cards) didn’t seem to reflect their actual movie experience. Orion could have easily buried BD and released it straight to video. However, to Orion’s credit, they believed in the comic and released it to theaters, where it garnered an audience and became a hit.

Church is an airy and fun read without deadwood. It will not disappoint true fans and will pleasantly surprise newcomers. Bull Durham has raised the bar, and Church is hitting that bar.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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