Ron Shelton began his film career as a screenwriter
after spending several years playing on the Balti
more Orioles' minor league team as a second baseman. He served as an associate producer on "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper" (1981) and wrote the films "Under Fire" (1983) and "The Best of Times" (1986). In 1988, Shelton wrote and directed the comedy hit "Bull Durham" which solidified Kevin Costner's and Susan Sarandon's status in Hollywood and introduced Tim Robbins. Since then, Shelton has written and directed "Blaze" (1989), "White Men Can't Jump" (1992) and "Cobb" (1994), in addition to producing several films and writing the upcoming boxing movie "The Great White Hype" starring Samuel Jackson and Jeff Goldblum.
The "Tin Cup" production has been enduring the Tucson desert, and even though Shelton once lived here, the whirling dust and long hours are taking their toll. His allergies are raging and a perpetual cough makes it difficult for him to speak, but he nevertheless sets the time aside and engages in the interview.
Mutato: So you were a graduate student at the UA?
Shelton: I have an M.F.A. from the UA Art Department I earned in 1974. I have a number of friends who are still here.
M: I was wondering, because you had asked about the Journalism Department and I was surprised you were aware of the situation.
S: (Laughing) I read the local papers! "Such as they are," but don't quote me. If I've got 3 minutes, I read the local paper!
M: You were an art major?
S: Art major, yeah, with an English Literature undergraduate degree from a California school, with an M.F.A. in Painting and Sculpture.
M: What type of medium did you work in?
S: Well, it's hard to describe. It was large scale and somewhat architectural and somewhat theatrical. Beyond that, I can't think of how to describe it. But it led me to video tapes with an interest in writing and it all came together with feature films. So it was kind of a long road from one to the other.
M: When did you start writing?
S: I wrote in college but I never thought anything would ever come of it. I was writing when I played baseball, I was writing for several years afterward. On a rare occasion, I would publish something in an obscure journal and I began writing screenplays in the late '70s, like everybody else in Southern California and, alert the media, I sold one. And I liked it, I liked doing it.
M: Was that "Under Fire"?
S: No, that was the first one to get produced. But I had two or three that I sold before that. Every waiter in New York is an actor and every waiter in L.A.'s a screenwriter!
M: Maybe Tucson's always been popular, but it seems like a lot more production has been coming in lately.
S: It's always been a good film town because it's not far from L.A. and you get so many topographical looks and changes, it's unbelievable. We just shot Texas here, we shot North Carolina shots here, it's astounding. And because of all the history of shooting Westerns here, there's something of a film support. You can get drivers and all that. A lot of films have been shot here if you go back 30 or 40 years. I like it because it's an hour away. Of course, when I lived here it was 12 hours away 'cause I had to drive!
M: "Tin Cup" is the first film where you've collaborated with another writer. How was that process?
S: It was fine, because I get final say and they have to go along with it! (laughs jokingly) I sort of "mentored," if that's the correct word, John Norville, who is a very good writer, and he's also a golfer. When we were writing I kind of supervised him. He would write a couple of drafts and then I would write a couple of drafts. I generally like to do everything myself just because I enjoy the writing, but in this case I was very happy with it.
M: Could you talk about the film?
S: Well, it's golf, which people say is an "un-filmable" sport, but that's what they said about baseball until I did "Bull Durham." I think golf has kind of a bad reputation because what you see on television, for the most part, is a bunch of rich kids, tour stars, who grew up in country clubs and live a very good life. But I think that's false. It's really a blue-collar game played on municipal tracks and the driving ranges by working class stiffs who aspire to be elite. Most golf is a public course game. You go to London or Scotland and it's like street basketball, I mean, there's a course everywhere. And what's interesting about the game is that it's really about playing against yourself in which your real character and nature cannot be avoided. So the drama lends itself to historically interesting conflicts. As cinema, you could say, "No, it isn't about guys on the driving range hanging out and trying to avoid their ex-wives." So that attracted me. And Kevin and I have wanted to work together again ever since "Bull Durham" so it's given us an opportunity.
M: In all your films you focus on the people just beneath the "big time." "Bull Durham" was about the minor leagues, "White Men Can't Jump" was about street hustlers .
S: And when I make a movie about a sports hero, "Cobb," it's about a monster! It's much more interesting that way. I have no interest in success, it's only interesting if it causes conflict. You learn more about human behavior by failure. People struggling on the fringes of the spotlight are more interesting than the world's best in the spotlight. Who wants to make a movie about somebody who's rich and successful?
M: So you're planning a boxing film in the future?
S: I want to do a boxing film, I want to do a love story, and I'd like to do something about race. I've dealt with race before with "Blaze" to "White Men Can't Jump" and "Cobb." In five movies about the only one that didn't deal with race is this one ("Tin Cup"). But I'd like to get back into it, especially now.
M: Were you always a movie buff, or did you just fall into the industry?
S: Well, I've always gone to the movies, but I never thought I would write one or make one. I went to movies every day in baseball and I just fell in love with them. In college, I went to all the movies. But while everyone else was falling in love with Truffaut, Bergman, and Godard, I fell in love with Peckinpah, Huston and the Americans.
M: Yeah, I've heard your favorite movie is "The Wild Bunch."
S: That's my favorite movie. I've written on it and I've interviewed about it. Some of Peckinpah's people discovered me out there in the wilderness so I have a fondness for all of that. Roger Spottiswoode was the editor of several Peckinpah films and was the director of "Under Fire."
M: I was reading an essay that talked about the relationship between art and entertainment and then about the relationship between entertainment and sports, and it suggested that there might be a relationship between art and sports .
S: I think sports is entertainment, I don't think it's related to the (traditional) arts. It has rules, but it doesn't have structure, that's what makes it interesting. There's no architecture to baseball. There (are) rules and limitations, physics, boundaries, but everyone's different. In the area of arts, basically I'm a storyteller and that links you to the cheapest novelist and Homer. They're all doing the same thing, and yet the difference between Caruso and the lounge singer is talent. Basically, you're doing the same thing: you're engaging the audience in song. That's all I'm doing, and if I do it well I'm an artist and if I don't, I'm a lounge singer.
M: So are you consciously trying to address all of the major sports with your films?
S: No, there's no consciousness to it. I don't hop around from sport to sport, they're just stories that come to me and it only later occurs to me that they're a sports film. It's like Westerns, my Western canvas is the sports world. But I don't think John Ford thought "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" was different from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," or that he thought, "Oh, God, I'm making another Western!"
M: I guess you've carved your own genre .
S: I sort of have!
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