Before he died of congestive heart failure in March 1992, Richard Brooks, director of The Blackboard Jungle and In Cold Blood, used to tell this story. It takes place sometime in the late 1940s, when Brooks was ascending royalty in Hollywood; after all, he’d written John Huston’s Key Largo, starring Bogie and Bacall, and for his labors he had a suite of offices on the Columbia Pictures lot and a stable of secretaries. He was leaving the lot one night when he spied an old, maybe homeless man loitering about. The man approached Brooks and spoke to him in a gruff voice.
“You’re Richard Brooks, you’re Richard Brooks,” he kept saying. “I got ideas for stories. I got ideas.” He demanded Brooks get him an office. Something about the badgering codger struck him as familiar.
“Are you David Wark Griffith?” Brooks asked, and indeed, standing before him hand out was D.W. Griffith, director of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance and some 540 other features and one-reelers that dated back to 1908.
“Yes, goddamnit, and I can make contributions!” Griffith told Brooks. “All I want is an office!” Some 40 years after his first film, this is what had become of the man who co-founded United Artists in 1919, the visionary about whom Cecil B. DeMille once said, “He taught us how to photograph thought.” He had been reduced to begging for work, and Brooks was eager to oblige. He went to the head of the studio and demanded another office and secretary. The boss asked whom it was for, and Brooks told him.
“Absolutely not,” he answered. “He’s nothing but a pain in the ass, that old man.” Griffith was turned out and thrown away, one more famous old filmmaker cast onto the junk heap of history.
“And he started the movie business,” says Ron Shelton, writer and director of such films as Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup and an old friend of Brooks’, who once told Shelton this very tale. “Is that an unbelievable story? If D.W. Griffith can’t get an office…”
Shelton’s voice trails off, as though still flabbergasted and insulted. Over dinners before his death, Brooks used to teach Shelton lots of things–including how disposable the director was and remains–in Hollywood. The difference is, back in the ’40s there were studio heads to reckon with; today, the studio boss is some bookkeeping dilettante, and he’s likely based overseas. Back then, studios were in the movie business; today, studios are small parts of giant multinationals that sell everything from CDs to cable-network programming to elementary-school textbooks–and they’re messy parts, at that. Warner Bros. made money for AOL Time Warner last year, and still that company’s stock plummets. Last May, AOL Time Warner’s stock sold for $58.51; today, it’s worth less than half that. “The film division of Warner Brothers is a pain in the ass for AOL Time Warner,” Shelton says, with a roaring laugh.
“I can’t figure out how anything gets made these days,” the writer-director continues. “It’s a mind-blower out here, dealing with the new corporatization. The studios, as recently as a few years ago, were run by kinda wonderful, crazy characters who were entrepreneurs and gamblers and larger than life and lived and died by their own whims. Now, it’s all so corporate and formulaic that it’s very hard to get a picture through that isn’t pre-processed and isn’t a connect-the-dots kinda thing. That’s why you go to these movies and go, ‘Why did they make that?'”
Or, why didn’t they make that? The 56-year-old Shelton has in his desk three scripts he is dying to get made; that he can’t find a studio, big or small, interested in them speaks volumes about the current state of the movie business. If Shelton, a visionary in a world of near-sighted accountants and attorneys playing Thalberg, can’t get his pictures made, what hope is there for the bright comer trying to crash the golden gates of a studio system designed to keep out such dreamers?
Next week, MGM’s home-video division will release a special-edition DVD of Shelton’s directorial debut, Bull Durham, still the best sports film ever made. In 1988, the movie almost didn’t get made: Shelton, a former minor-league ballplayer and novice screenwriter (he penned 1983’s Under Fire, starring Nick Nolte as a combat photojournalist), shopped the script around to every studio–twice–before finally persuading producer Thom Mount to fork over the meager $7 million he needed. (In the United States, the film grossed $50 million at the box office and $22 million more on video). Shelton also had trouble convincing the money people he had the right cast: Kevin Costner wasn’t yet a bankable leading man; Susan Sarandon, who started making movies in 1970, was considered over-the-hill, and Tim Robbins’ biggest role to that point had been as the lead in Howard the Duck.
But if Bull Durham was hard to make then, it would be damned near impossible to get greenlit in the current market. Today, the economics wouldn’t be right for a major studio to bankroll it–primarily, because sports films do not play well overseas, and foreign sales account for about 70 percent of the budget of any studio-released or studio-financed film that costs more than $8 million.
“Would that movie get made today?” Shelton says. “No, not even close. Bull Durham would be a movie I’d have to make independently. Globalization has affected the movie business, and I’m always about five steps behind. You’re starting out saying, ‘OK, I have to have a movie that does equally well in Micronesia and Bulgaria and Paraguay.'” He laughs. “I’m the wrong guy for that. It’s why Bull Durham almost didn’t get made, and that was even when it was a less foreign-driven thing. I remember somebody at the head of Tri-Star saying, ‘Well, there’s no foreign.’ And I said, ‘I presume there’s not, but at this price, if it’s merely in focus and I’m barely competent, and if the script’s as good as you think, aren’t you covered? You can’t really lose here.'”
Shelton might be the wrong guy to hold up as the poster boy for the film industry’s ills; he works when he wants and on projects he writes and loves. (Indeed, he turned down a small fortune to direct the just-released Showtime.) In September, MGM/UA will release his seventh film, Dark Blue, an independently produced feature penned by crime novelist James Ellroy, screenwriter David Ayer (Training Day) and Shelton himself. It has all the trappings of an Ellroy book: Set in the days just before four white Los Angeles cops are acquitted in the beating of Rodney King, it’s about corruption and redemption as embodied by a dirty cop, played by Kurt Russell, trying to come clean. MGM/UA has bumped the film from April to September, believing Russell will have a shot at an Oscar nomination. Earlier this month, Shelton signed a deal with Revolution Studios, responsible for Black Hawk Down and America’s Sweethearts, to co-write and direct another cop thriller that takes place within the confines of the music business.
But what is most notable about Shelton’s filmography are the copious blanks, the long gaps between projects–years wasted on projects abandoned by studios without just cause. In between Tin Cup in 1996 and Play it to the Bone three years later, Shelton was to have made a Bob Marley biography called Trenchtown Rock for Warner Bros. He spent six months “for free” hanging out in Jamaica with the Marleys to find out if he was the right guy, then spent a year on the script and another six months in preproduction. But eight weeks before shooting was to begin, while Shelton was casting and securing locations in Kingston, the studio pulled the plug. The reason: On August 30, 1998, Warners released Why Do Fools Fall in Love, the story of slain R&B singer Frankie Lymon, and it made a sickly $4 million on opening weekend. The studio believed both movies to be about the same thing–dead black singers–and scrapped Trenchtown Rock lest it suffer the same miserable fate.
“It was so telling, and it was devastating financially, because I’d spent two years on this, and I’d chosen to do it because, geez, at least I’ll be doing something they want to do and I want to do,” Shelton says. “And I realized at that time there were no relationships with studios anymore. There was no such thing as a filmmaker-studio connection–no family, no tradition, no bond. It was just all corporate bottom line, so once you know that, you just have to deal with that. You have to figure out how to get around it, how to seduce it, how to trick it.”
Or perhaps he knew he was really in trouble when he wrote a movie about a dance competition set during the Cuban Revolution–only to have a studio exec ask him, in all seriousness, if the movie really had to be a period piece. Shelton also tried, to no avail, to get his name taken off both The Great White Hype and Blue Chips, for which he wrote screenplays so mangled in transition from page to screen they no longer resembled Shelton’s originals. In her review of Under Fire, critic Pauline Kael wrote of Shelton and director Roger Spottiswoode, they “may be appalled, but they’re never shocked.” Shelton likes to quote that line when talking about the biz and his place in it.
“Here’s the odd thing, and it’s a strange phenomenon,” he says. “You make a Bull Durham out of left field, literally–a movie nobody wants to make and a subject they don’t want to make with a cast they don’t want to make it with–and it flies. So then you go to make your next one, and everybody wants to tell you how to do it. That seems to be a behavior built into the business, and it’s worse now because of the corporate takeovers.” He pauses and gathers steam.
“Look, I could make a lot of movies. I just turned down a tennis movie with Reese Witherspoon. Well, Reese Witherspoon’s a talented young actress, but I don’t wanna make a tennis movie that was a terrible script, and I probably would have been offered three times as much money as I’ve ever made in my life. Why would I want to do that? It’s not like there’s no work. It’s just that it’s hard to make a movie, and I have to believe in it completely when I start. You don’t sleep for a year, and I’d rather live or die with a failed movie that I can say is mine than have a big success where I’m crawling out of the theater when the premiere starts.”