Of the 10 films Ron Shelton has written or directed, seven deal with a sports-related story, usually baseball. Based on the adage that writers write what they know, it makes sense. Shelton played five seasons of minor-league baseball in the Baltimore Orioles’ farm system. But Shelton’s love for sports, baseball included, is hardly obsessive. Indeed, he is happily taking a break from the genre.
Currently, he’s shooting a film based on a James Ellroy story about good and bad cops in Los Angeles during the five days the jury weighs the Rodney King verdict. The pic’s title of the moment, “The Plague Season,” will change, says Shelton. His next movie is likely to be “Hacksaw,” a true story about a renowned prison escape artist.
Shelton’s hiatus from sports, however, is only temporary.
“I’ll always come back to it,” he says. “Sports movies are our Westerns, we all understand the mythology, the black hat and white hat; if we all understand the mythology, then storytellers can turn that on its head.”
How have sports movies changed over the years?
TV has forced our sports movies to become much better, much more realistic, much more honest. Up until the ’50s and especially after, hardly anybody had seen a professional game. Nobody saw the great plays and the great games that were a part of legend. There was no “SportsCenter,” believe it or not.
Because TV broadcasts have 17 cameras on any given moment, it’s impossible for a movie to compete with that. Therefore, the good thing is that a movie can take its one camera to those places that those 17 cameras can’t go, and to me that’s the key.
I think a good sports movie concentrates on all the things you don’t see on TV, which is to say, most of the drama is between the shot, the catch or the big play. In a movie, the storytelling can concentrate on the moments between the moments.
Which of your movies is the most successful in terms of realizing what you set out to achieve?
That’s really not for me to say. If a movie is successful, it’s certainly rewarding, but one tends to feel for movies that didn’t find an audience the way one feels about a child that doesn’t find it’s way in the world.
I love the movie I made about (Ty) Cobb but it was controversial and unsuccessful at the box office. You never know. I was shocked when (so many people went to see) “Bull Durham.” You try to engage a wide audience in a story that’s honest, after that it’s out of your hands.
Your movies often deal with marginal people, people dealing more with failure than success. Why?
I’d say that’s true. Most people I’ve found are more interesting trying to reach the top than they are once they get there.
There is some bizarre thing that happens when one is successful in sports, politics or the entertainment business. It tends to turn that successful person into a parody of themselves. Therefore those people trying to get into the spotlight I simply identify with more than those who are in the spotlight. I had to kick my way into this business and still have to kick my way to stay in.
Given that sports have become a cog in entertainment conglomerates that compete for ratings on TV, do we end up glorifying the wrong things — like the slam dunk or the home run?
No question. I don’t like what sports have become. I don’t even follow it that much. I find sports to be so out of kilter in our value system that it’s almost a sickness.
I think sports traditionally taught boys how to be men, now it teaches them how to be jerks. Athletes used to be great people, now they’re just prima donnas. I hold high the athletic model of discipline and learning to win and lose with grace. I can’t wait for some foreign team to beat the Dream Team (the U.S. Olympic basketball team), that would be healthiest thing to happen in sports.
I hate the growing nationalism in sports, you see it in the Olympics and in things like the Ryder Cup.
What sport subjects would you like to deal with in the future?
I think horse racing is a great subject that hasn’t been touched in a long time. I think it’s one of the only worlds left uncorrupted by corporate institutionalization, like boxing. The track is like it was in 1940, filled with characters Runyon couldn’t invent, or Ron Shelton. But the prevailing wisdom, perhaps rightly, is that there is no audience for it.