Directing in the Desert

About 30 miles south of Tucson, the ivory crescent moon pierces

the black sky amidst a burning sea of stars. The inky desert

scrunches into rugged hills, building a higher elevation, and the cool night air buffets the swaying weeds.

The desert is cold and desolate, but behind a shadowy hill radiates a brilliant glow of illumination. Monumental light systems tower above an assembly of technicians standing in a gravel parking lot next to a small driving range for golfers. Before them, Kevin Costner steps up to the tee-off point and begins methodically striking golf balls into the green expanse.

A microphone is held near the tee, registering each thwack! of the club. A few feet away, a large Panavision camera is recording the scene, sending a video signal by wire 30 feet through the crowd to a stack of visual equipment housed under a clear plastic sheet. From there, the signal runs to two black-and-white wide-screen displays where filmmaker Ron Shelton is seated.

Cheech Marin sidles in next to Costner and exchanges some dialogue. Costner shrugs him off and tells him to step aside. Marin steps back and Costner strikes another ball into the night.

"Cut!" barks Shelton, standing up. His large stature steps over the surrounding wires as he makes his way over to the actors. Immediately, the various technicians begin rustling about and conferring amongst themselves, preparing for another take.

This is the set of the Warner Brothers comedy "Tin Cup," co-written and directed by Shelton, starring Costner and Marin, Rene Russo ("Get Shorty") and Don Johnson ("Miami Vice"), and it's tentatively set for a July '96 release. It's a comedy about a talented golfer, Roy "Tin Cup" McAvoy (Costner), who enjoys taking risks and subsequently finds himself at the bottom of the opportunity pool. He now teaches golf lessons at the local driving range after losing his business to the owner of an exotic dance club, and reluctantly serves as caddie for his longtime rival, David Simms (Johnson). But an important professional challenge looms on the horizon and Tin Cup decides he's not giving up.

The movie reunites Costner and Shelton, who previously worked together on the comedy hit "Bull Durham" in 1988. Shelton wrote and directed the film based on his experiences as a minor league baseball player, and the movie's witty dialogue and comical philosophy earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Since then, Shelton has become the acclaimed writer/director of films like "White Men Can't Jump" and "Cobb."

The scene in progress is set on a warm summer evening in Texas, and Costner, in a light yellow button-up shirt and slacks, looks conspicuously out-of-place amidst the rest of the crew with their thick jackets and gloves. The night before, the air reportedly dropped to 38 degrees and tonight, crew members scramble around pushing portable carts with glow-heaters.

After conferring with the actors, Shelton returns to his monitor and humorously grumbles, "It almost worked . he only missed his mark by four feet." The crew chuckles and a voice rings out: "Quiet on the set! Stop all movement!" "Action," Shelton yells.

For a variety of reasons, including Costner's disillusionment with the popular media after his yearlong "Waterworld" debacle, "Tin Cup" is closed to any local press. But Shelton attended the UA as a fine arts graduate student in the mid-'70s, and his appreciation for the University prompted him to invite Mutato to conduct an interview. Production publicist Rob Harris, a soft-spoken and generous guide, supervises Mutato's visit, introducing various personnel and providing a useful commentary.

The film has been shooting in and around Tucson for six weeks, utilizing locations from Westin La Paloma on Sunrise Road to the Tubac Golf Resort, where they constructed and left a permanent water hazard at the 16th hole. Principal photography in Tucson will end in a few days and the production will move on to Houston where they anticipate heavy 12-hour workdays.

Standing behind the video monitors are various personnel involved with the film, including associate producer Karen Freud and producer Gary Foster, who was also the producer of "Sleepless in Seattle." There's the quiet murmur of production small-talk between takes, creating a focused atmosphere that Shelton's sets are known for.

"This production has run very smoothly," Freud says, "Everyone is happy with the way it's been going. The stars are happy, we've had great weather. It's been very undramatic."

Shelton decides the scene is finished and the crew begins moving equipment for one more setup before "lunch" break, in this case, a late dinner around 9:00 p.m. The shooting schedule is currently filming "splits," meaning the production films for half the day, stops, and resumes for half the night.

Rob Harris introduces David Weddle, the author of the recent book If They Move- Kill 'Em: the Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, who is currently working on a profile of Shelton for the British film magazine Sight & Sound. Weddle paces the set talking into a small tape recorder, and momentarily pauses to suggest a tactic for Mutato's upcoming Shelton interview: "When Shelton was in college, all his friends liked Bergman and Truffaut, but he loved Peckinpah, especially 'The Wild Bunch.' It'd be a good thing to ask him about."

The new scene involves a long shot of Costner teeing-off, when his friend, Dr. Molly Griswold (Rene Russo), pulls into the frame with her Ford Escort as she enters the parking lot. Russo has already left the Tucson set so the scene is filmed with her double, Dana Nichol, a student from UA who auditioned to be an extra in the film.

The film's director of photography is Russell Boyd, the acclaimed Australian cinematographer of films like "Gallipoli," "The Year of Living Dangerously" and "Crocodile Dundee." Boyd stands off to one side of the camera squinting from beneath his baseball cap and rubbing his silver beard thoughtfully.

"We're really lucky to have Russell," Freud says, "He's also the nicest DP (director of photography) in the business." A later conversation with Mutato confirms Freud's commendation. Boyd responds modestly to a compliment of his work and shifts the conversation to discussing the director he worked with.

As the new "Tin Cup" shot is being prepared, Shelton turns and congenially asks Mutato, "So what are they doing to your Journalism Department?" A conversation unfolds that is set aside once the cameras begin to roll again.

The scene is completed and "lunch" is called. The actors and crew walk to the catering area and, after filling their plates, sit around the food tent or return to their trailers, a whole row of which are parked side-by-side like a state campground. Walking toward Shelton's trailer, Costner passes by and Rob Harris compliments his swing. "Thanks ... thanks," Costner replies.

It's not long before Shelton arrives for the interview. Visibly weary but full of enthusiasm, he invites Mutato to join him for dinner in his trailer. He orders from a menu and as the wine is poured, begins to speak ...

Read Next Article