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How Kevin Costner Helped ‘Bull Durham’ Find Studio Backing at the 11th Hour

In an exclusive excerpt from his new book ‘The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham,’ screenwriter and director Ron Shelton describes how close the movie was to never getting made—and how Costner’s attachment pushed it across home plate

Orion Pictures/Ringer illustration

I sent the script to Thom Mount, expecting pages of notes about what the rewrite should entail. I was sure he’d redline many of the scenes that weren’t about the three protagonists/heroes, Crash, Annie, and Nuke. Or, since he was a former studio head, I was sure there’d be a complete rethink. Why Durham? Why a woman? Why the minors? Where’s the big game? Why did I ever say yes to this?

Instead, he said, “I love it.” For a writer, these words are never heard. The best you can hope for is a set of editorial notes that aren’t incomprehensible. Mount then said, “Let’s make it.” That’s the second rarest thing a writer ever hears. I told him I had a way to get to Kevin Costner, who was starting to appear on everyone’s radar and, as trusted sources told me, could really play ball. There’s a box on the back of every actor’s 8-x-11 photo that asks, right after a list of roles played, for “other skills.” If this is taken at face value, every actor in Los Angeles can play flamenco guitar, breakdance, speak five languages, perform open-heart surgery, and play at a professional level in every sport. I never believe anything actors put on their résumés. Costner was different.

Kurt Russell was also different—he had played in the minor leagues—but when I initially contacted his agent, I was told he was not available. I’m not sure that was true but it was clear that his reps didn’t want him meeting with a first-time director with a minor league baseball tale. I knew Kurt from his role in The Best of Times, and we’d hit it off—but I didn’t have a way to get in touch with him except through his gatekeepers, and they kept the gate locked.

So, Costner became the leading candidate. I had seen him in Fandango, a wonderful little indie by Kevin Reynolds, and in Silverado, a Lawrence Kasdan movie that Costner practically stole. He’d just been cut out of Kasdan’s The Big Chill, but it wasn’t for performance reasons; the movie worked better with his character already dead when his friends all gather for a wake that is the heart of the story.

I knew J.J. Harris, Costner’s junior agent, a little bit, as she was part of Roger Spottiswoode’s agency on Under Fire. She took my call, read the script right away, and gave it to Kevin.

The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham by Ron Shelton is available for preorder from Penguin Random House

The problem was that Columbia Pictures, where Thom Mount had his production deal, hated the script. The news surprised me because the script was getting a strong response, as a piece of writing at least, not necessarily as a piece of commerce. It was especially strange since Columbia was run by the Englishman David Puttnam, who’d made his reputation producing slightly off-center movies that earned great reviews and had done surprisingly strong box office. Movies like Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (among other wonderful Forsyth films); Chariots of Fire, which broke all the rules and marketing expectations and was a huge hit, not to mention won the Best Picture Oscar; Midnight Express (another Oliver Stone script), about an American jailed in Turkey for smuggling drugs; and The Killing Fields, Roland Joffé’s harrowing tale of the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodian genocide. Say what you will, these movies break the studio rules. I asked for 15 minutes to meet with Puttnam or his right hand, David Picker, to walk them through what I thought the tone of the movie was and why, at a modest budget, it was a good bet. But nobody wanted to meet me. Columbia did promise Mount, however, that we could have the project back in “turnaround,” which means the originators of the project could have a limited window of time to set it up elsewhere, thus getting it financed by someone else. They would be reimbursed their modest investment (my script fee was extremely modest) and that would be that.

In the meantime, Harris called to say that Kevin really liked the script and wanted to meet. Almost immediately we were having lunch at a small place on Melrose called the Studio Grill. We hit it off and then he said one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever heard from an actor:

COSTNER: I like the script. I want to audition for you.

SHELTON: If you want the part, you got it already.

COSTER: No, I want you to see if I can play baseball well enough.

SHELTON: I said the part is yours.

COSTNER: You played professionally, I played in high school. I gotta pass the test.

He then ordered a couple of vodkas for both of us. Lover of spirits though I am, I never imbibe at lunch because I fall asleep; plus I don’t care for vodka. But we downed the drinks and headed to a batting cage on Van Nuys Boulevard in the Valley, a few acres of miniature golf courses, noisy arcades, and a batting cage where you could pick the speed of the machine and test your skills for a quarter. I brought a pocketful of quarters, but first we played catch in the parking lot. One catch and one throw is all it takes to know if someone can play, and clearly he could. Each of us, it seemed, kept a glove and ball in the trunks of our cars for reasons neither of us questioned, though I don’t remember using mine before or since. While we played catch, people walked past Kevin, not knowing who he was. That was about to change.

In the cage, he had a beautiful right-handed stance and then offered that he could switch-hit and flipped to the other side and had the same form left-handed. I thought immediately that wherever the sun was, he could be lit beautifully. It also occurred to me that if Crash Davis was a switch-hitting catcher, he surely would have had a longer run in the Show than 21 days, but that was just me. Kevin was an athlete, and as we left the batting cage, I told him I was going to call the producer and figure out how to move forward.

Thom Mount, who was back and forth to Paris in the middle of all this, producing a Roman Polanski movie, Frantic, made a brilliant and proactive move to land Costner. He offered him three times more money than he’d yet made on any movie. The genius of this is that Mount certainly didn’t have the money but everyone assumed he was speaking for Columbia Pictures, who technically now owned the script of Bull Durham because they funded Mount’s development. He never mentioned that Columbia hated the script.

I now discovered that Costner was committed to another movie in the upcoming fall time slot, Everybody’s All-American, based on a novel by the great sportswriter Frank Deford. The movie was set up at Warner Bros. with director Taylor Hackford, with whom, coincidentally, I had gone to high school. Costner’s commitment wasn’t finalized and, I was told, he was having creative differences with the people involved. I also soon learned that his senior agent at William Morris, Ed Limato, wanted him to do the Warner Bros. movie and not Bull Durham. This bifurcated agency position was about to cause big problems. Kevin, respectfully, did not discuss with me the other film or what the issues were.

Our first problem was that we didn’t have a studio to finance or distribute the movie. The other movie did, plus it had a director with a track record of commercial successes with The Idolmaker and An Officer and a Gentleman, among others. Mount brought a young producing partner, Mark Burg, onto our project from another film he’d just finished, Can’t Buy Me Love, and Mark helped coordinate a strategy for problem number one.

Our second problem was that Costner’s agents were afraid (for damn good reason) that we’d fail to land a studio quickly and that Kevin would lose a movie for the fall. The urgency was exacerbated in midsummer, when The Untouchables, directed by Brian De Palma from a script by David Mamet, opened, with Costner starring opposite Robert De Niro and Sean Connery. It was a big hit—Costner was now hot, and everyone wanted him. To force our hand, William Morris announced that we had 30 days to get Bull Durham a studio deal to shoot immediately, or they’d sign Costner to the Warner Bros. movie or something else. The script was sent to every studio, and meetings were set up.

I went back to Durham with Burg. Because we couldn’t afford a location manager to scout, we began securing locations. We drove around Durham for a couple days with a student from Duke. I pointed to a house for rent near the ballpark and said it would make a good Annie house, and pointed to some abandoned tobacco warehouses across the street from the Durham Athletic Park and said we should rent them as soon as we got the money … if we got the money. Essentially, that was the scout.

Back in Los Angeles, time was running out and we were getting nowhere with the studios. We went to Orion Pictures first because I’d had a good experience with them on Under Fire and they had a new Costner movie in the can so we figured they liked Kevin. The problem was that they were nervous about releasing the movie, No Way Out, a political thriller set in Washington, D.C., with Gene Hackman and Sean Young, because it had a double-twist ending that revealed Costner’s character was actually a Soviet spy. Orion had sat on the movie for several months and finally assigned it an August 14 release date; in those days, the end of summer, before school starts, was considered a burial ground for movie releases. As it happened, the No Way Out release date was also our deadline to find a studio to make our movie.

Orion passed. Mike Medavoy, head of production and partner in the company, said that they already had a baseball movie in preproduction, Eight Men Out, to be directed by John Sayles, and another in development, The Scout, with Rodney Dangerfield attached. (Years later it would be made with Albert Brooks in the Dangerfield role.) It was hard for us to make a case for a third baseball movie when no other studio wanted even a single one.

MGM was in chaos and not interested in meeting. Ted Turner, who had owned the studio, had sold it to Kirk Kerkorian after holding on to the library. The studio was swimming in debt service and the road out was not with the Durham Bulls.

Universal met with me, but it was immediately clear this was a polite meeting. They didn’t want to insult Costner’s agents. Then Leonard Goldberg, chairman of Twentieth Century–Fox, and rising young executive Scott Rudin responded that they liked the script but didn’t like “part of the package.” There was never anything more specific. Mostly I was alone at these meetings, as Thom was stuck in Paris dealing with issues on the Polanski movie, and I didn’t carry much weight in the room as a first-time director who’d written two movies that nobody had gone to. Force of personality goes only so far. We sent the script to TriStar, a mini-studio split off from Columbia Pictures, and heard nothing back. Then we got a call from Paramount Pictures, saying that Ned Tanen, who ran their motion-picture division, loved the script and he loved Costner and he wanted to meet. This felt real.

Tanen was a throwback studio chief who not only had served in the air force but rode motorcycles and liked fast cars and could throw down a drink with the best of them—at least that was his reputation. We’d never met. He’d also previously run Universal Pictures during one of their greatest streaks, green-lighting movies as diverse as American Graffiti, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Melvin and Howard, and the megahit E.T. He had wide-ranging tastes, was a straight shooter, and was—I was told—my kind of guy. With great hope, and time now running out on our 30-day hold on Costner, I met with Tanen and his team at Paramount in one of those enormous Hollywood studio-chief offices that was just like we imagine. I’ll give him this: He was a straight shooter.

TANEN: I like the script a lot. I like Costner in it a lot. It reminds me of a movie I once made called Slap Shot—which was directed by the hottest director in town, George Roy Hill, and starred the biggest name in the business, Paul Newman, and it did lousy business.

SHELTON: Yeah, but it was a really good movie.

TANEN: Nobody gives a fuck.

That was the end of the meeting and the last time I ever saw Tanen. I wish I could have made a movie with him because he certainly could cut to the chase, but it never happened. He summarized the movie business in haiku. Nobody cares if the movie is any good—it just has to sell tickets. In the pas de deux of Art and Commerce, Commerce leads the dance. Tanen thought of Slap Shot as a failure. I thought of it as a success. I would have been a disastrous studio chief, making Melvin and Howards and Slap Shots forever, or at least until I was fired, which wouldn’t have taken long. I was also told, but never verified, that Tanen and Mount had crossed swords when they were at Universal. I didn’t ask; I moved on.

I called Kevin and told him we’d struck out. He was angry, not at me but at the studios, and he insisted we reset the meetings—this time he’d accompany me and be an outspoken salesman for the project. With a week left in the 30-day window, we quickly rescheduled the meetings. The studios didn’t want to say no to this emerging star, so almost overnight I went back in to meet the moguls, this time with Kevin. Tanen didn’t want to meet because his answer wasn’t going to change, but as we went around town (I for the second time) it was clear that baseball wouldn’t sell, even with Kevin as a passionate and convincing advocate. Years later I was told by allies within the agency and studios—stories that were all confirmed—that Costner’s senior agents at William Morris were calling the studios after each meeting to say that Costner was tied to the Warner Bros. film and therefore wasn’t free to make ours. Welcome to Hollywood.

We had three days left until our deadline, a Friday. The only studio left in the running was TriStar and that was only because we hadn’t formally been rejected yet. Now that Kevin would be in the room, they agreed to set a meeting for Thursday, with studio head Jeff Sagansky. In today’s corporate studio environment, meetings could never be set for two days hence—more like two weeks or two months—but Costner brought some weight. I figured they weren’t interested in the script but they wanted to meet Kevin for future projects. We showed up and pitched like Baptist preachers, and Kevin kept pointing at me saying, “This guy can do it!” Sagansky said he liked the script and was intrigued but there was some concern within the company that baseball didn’t travel, which meant, in movie-speak, that there would be little foreign interest in a baseball movie. I said I was aware of that but at our low budget this needed only to be a domestic success. A TriStar associate was also in the room and the enthusiasm seemed genuine; nobody blinked when Kevin added, “We have to know by tomorrow or I’m doing another movie.” Jeff said he’d call me by noon the next day, and Kevin and I left TriStar (which was on the old MGM movie lot) feeling reasonably sanguine. We returned to my temporary office at the Mount Company on the Columbia lot in Burbank, where I had a bottle of something stashed. It was late afternoon.

Over Scotch in plastic cups, Kevin asked, “Why did Orion turn this down?” and I told him that Medavoy said they had too many baseball movies already. Kevin reminded me that his Orion movie No Way Out was opening the next day and suggested we call the New York office, specifically Eric Pleskow and Bill Bernstein, two of Orion’s executive partners (along with Medavoy). I had good relations with them from Under Fire and they’d been generous enough to fly me to Venice for its successful screening. When we reached them, it was close to 7 p.m. their time, and they said they’d be happy to read the script. We said, “But you have to read it tonight,” and Kevin explained why. Costner called his New York agents at the Morris office and had them messenger two printed hard copies to Eric and Bill. (These days it’s all instantly done electronically, of course, and we were lucky to get this transaction accomplished.) We went home, and I forgot about the Orion call for the night but felt good about the TriStar meeting.

The next morning, I arrived fully caffeinated and eagerly awaiting Sagansky’s call from TriStar. I’d fired up people on Mount’s staff that the meeting had gone very well, though there was no reason to get Thom’s hopes up in Paris, where he was still stuck on Frantic. At 11:30, Sagansky called. “Ron, I’m terribly sorry we have to pass,” he said. “We just don’t think there’s enough foreign sales to justify our commitment.” That was it. I began cleaning out the few things in my desk drawer in the temp office, figuring that, without Costner, this movie would never get made, not to mention that we had really run out of time to prep a movie to shoot in the fall anyway.

At noon, 3 p.m. in New York, the phone rang again. Pleskow and Bernstein wanted to make the movie. They asked if it was really true that a deal had to be made that day or we’d lose Costner to Warner Bros., and I said it was. They called Mark Burg to confirm the budget (which was still a bit squirrely), and Mark reached Mount in Paris. By Monday morning, the movie was green-lit to begin shooting six weeks later.

What I didn’t realize for several days was that No Way Out had opened that morning to a rave Vincent Canby review in The New York Times, and that had greeted Bernstein and Pleskow over breakfast. Any other kind of review and Bull Durham might never have been made. Still, I’ve never heard of a script being submitted to a studio on a Thursday night and having a deal virtually closed by the next day. Especially a project that everyone had passed on … twice.

I now had six weeks to hire a crew, cast the movie, and start shooting.

Excerpted from the new book The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham, by Ron Shelton. Copyright © 2022 by Ron Shelton. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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