IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Craig Gillespie Talks 'Million Dollar Arm'

Wednesday, 21 May 2014 08:45 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Craig Gillespie Talks 'Million Dollar Arm'

As a director, Craig Gillespie has never been constrained by genre.

Part of his ability to nimbly navigate different types of films is probably due to his background directing commercials.  The Australian-born helmer spent sixteen years earning acclaim for his advertising work.  Though many of his commercials highlighted a distinctly dark sense of humor, they also allowed Gillespie to master a wide variety of tonal sensibilities.

That training has served him well in the realm of feature film, where Gillespie has become something of a chameleon, directing the 2007 drama-comedy Lars and the Real Girl starring Ryan Gosling and the nimbly comedic but still scary 2011 Fright Night remake starring Colin Farrell.  Both of these films demonstrate a rare ability to manage contradictory tones, balancing just right to create a satisfying story.

Now, with Million Dollar Arm, he tackles a new genre: the uplifting sports movie.

Based on a true story, Million Dollar Arm follows real-life sports agent J.B. Bernstein as he travels to India in a highly unconventional attempt to find Major League Baseball players from the ranks of the nation's cricket players, eventually bringing a group of young men to America for a chance to play in the big leagues.  The film stars  Jon Hamm (The Town, Bridesmaids) as Bernstein, as well as Lake Bell (Black RockIn a World...), Bill Paxton (2 Guns), Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi), Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionare), and Academy Award-winner Alan Arkin (Argo).

IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick recently had the opportunity to speak with director Craig Gillespie in an exclusive interview.  The director enthusiastically discussed his approach to sports movie tropes, the differences and similarities between all his films, how Bernstein's journey resembles his own, shooting on location in India, working with Jon Hamm in his first leading man role on film, and landing each member of the impressive cast.

Here is what director Craig Gillespie had to say about Million Dollar Arm:

IAR: The movie had a real tone to it of the classic Disney kind of sports film. Did I pick up on that because Disney is putting it out or was that the feel you were going for?

Craig Gillespie: It's funny because I wasn't going for that at all. For me everything about the tone is from [screenwriter] Tom McCarthy's writing. I love his work over the years. I love that balance he does between the humor and the drama, which is so tricky to do and he did it in this script and that's what excited me first most. And then on top of that it's just an amazing story. I'm a bit of a sucker for sports films. I love that journey that they go on you know that classic underdog scenes, but executionally I didn't try and make what you would think of as a classic Disney movie and I was really clear with that up front when I pitched the project and I said you know I want this in indigo, I want this to be hand held and I want to shoot on a film and it's going to be gritty and almost guerrilla style and I want to have rap music and [composer] A.R. Rahman's sensibility in India and then we're going to transition to some real rap music in the States. I pitched it in a way that was true to Tom's writing I thought and true to the story. But I wasn't trying to put it in a compartment of a studio. Thematically it certainly fits a Disney brand, but executionally I just tried to do what was right for the film.

When I look at all your films and every one of them is so different, subject matter and tone, is that done on purpose for you? Do you like to do different things every movie out and not get stuck in one kind of genre?

Gillespie: It's a crazy line if you actually try and drag it. I do feel like they all have tones like Lars and the Real Girl [oscillating] between the humor and the drama and Fright Night was a humor and horror. And Million Dollar Arm is a humor and the drama or the emotion again and I keep finding myself being attracted to that in material. It can look on the surface like hugely different things and of course executionally they demand different ways to execute them, but there is that undercurrent.

What was it that you liked about this story beyond just how good the script was? But sort of the true story of what JB did and finding these guys. It's pretty incredible. I didn't know about it.

Gillespie: To me it was really the human component of it. I could relate on both sides. I played a lot of sports growing up and I understand that drive and that pressure to succeed. First of all on JB's side of the equation, the classic American conundrum is like this is sort of one of the nations that works the most and has the least amount of free time for holidays and family I think around the world where you basically have two weeks off a year. And his whole motivation is very relatable at first, all about the material of success and measuring his self-worth through that. And then as he goes through the film he begins to realize that the emotional side of his family and friends and just having that priority in life. I think it's something we all have to balance as we go through our adulthood. I could certainly relate on that level. I'm always trying to balance my career with family and the emotional reward there. and then on the other side with the boys I came over here when I was nineteen. I won a scholarship and abruptly was here six weeks later living in a YMCA in New York City and not knowing anybody. And it had that dynamic of feeling very isolated and alone and feeling I had to prove myself before going back home. So on a much smaller scale than what the boys went through that I could relate thematically to what they were dealing with.

Tell me about the challenges of shooting in India, of shooting with local crew and also framing a shot in front of the Taj Mahal. What was that like as a director?

Gillespie: Honestly a very large part of the excitement was the opportunity to really go to India and do that. I spoke with several filmmakers before leaving. They had done other productions there and they always are really [amused] with a chuckle when we told them we were going there. I went down there knowing the specific locations I wanted to film in were very challenging and difficult to film in and basically kind of chaotic because of the numbers of people there in old Mumbai and the east villages. I went in expecting that and embraced it. It was kind of exhilarating just to be able to react and take advantage of opportunities that were happening in terms of the amount of crowds and the scale and the depth we would get in these scenes. And it was a lot of almost guerrilla filmmaking because we'd have three or four cameras all over at once and just finding places to hide in the shoot. Shooting at the Taj was its own thing because they're very protective of the Taj Mahal and it's a sacred area and I really wanted to shoot behind the Taj in that riverbed, but we weren't allowed to bring in any vehicles. Everything had to come in on foot. It's incredibly hot. It was 120 degrees at that point and the funny thing is that scene, as we're filming it, literally a herd of cows walks through the shot. We were lucky enough to grab it.

Let's spend some time talking about the incredible cast you put together. Jon Hamm is so good and he's so versatile as a dramatic actor and as a comedic actor. Talk a little bit about what he brings to the table.

Gillespie: I was so thrilled he was actually attached to the project before I came on board, but I thought he was the perfect choice and the exciting part of it was you seen Jon doing his dramatic work in Mad Men and films like The Town and you've seen him do his comedy in Bridesmaids and Saturday Night Live. But he hasn't seemed to do it all in one film and this opportunity with Tom's writing I knew everything that he gets to do and there's so few actors that can do that, between the comedy and the drama, and keep you invested in the character and the scene. I was so excited to be able to do it with him. He's amazing with it.

Alan Arkin is a film legend. What was it like I mean he's one of my favorites. Tell me about stories working with him. I couldn't imagine anybody else in the role.

Gillespie: When I heard he was interested I was thrilled and then in the best possible sets he really did his homework on his character and making sure that he felt integral to what was going on and he really elevated that material in the best possible sense and we talked a lot about that final scene and Alan got to work on it with us, which was great, which is in a diner, which is one of my favorite scenes in the film.

He makes it work, yeah. Paxton is another great one. You just believe he is a baseball coach.

Gillespie: Again, everybody did their homework, which makes my life so much easier and Bill like on his own, he went down and met with Tom House and really studied him in the way that he works and we talked about it and Tom has this very quiet, unassuming, nurturing way about him and we really wanted to capture that on film. So we both worked really hard to buy that. [Paxton captured] what you think of a typical coach. You know, the pushing the kids. And all the way down to the sun tan and everything. The glasses. He really worked it, encapsulating that character.

Was it challenging to find the right actors to play the ball players because that's pivotal that you have the right guys.

Gillespie: We really tried to, as Tom and I talked about the script, we really tried to differentiate the two boys and not make them just always feel like the boys.  We differentiated in a sense that it was just lightness to Rinku and he didn't feel the pressure and we ran with that notion in that sense and there's just a playfulness to him that Suraj Sharma really encapsulated for me.  [I] watched his performance in Life of Pi so we were fortunate enough to offer him the role and he came on board. [To] find his counterpoint, [we conducted] extensive casting in India. We really wanted our Indian cast to be from India. I felt there is an authenticity in terms of the language that they're speaking and just seeing their body language that you see on the screen. And so we narrowed it down to five guys and then they all auditioned with Suraj Sharma.

Lake Bell is great. Her character, if this was just a movie not based on a true story I'd be like that character would never get together with Jon's character in real life. And then you find out it's not quite how you thought. Can you talk about that relationship in the movie?

That was the hardest role to cast because at the foundation of this you've got to believe that love story or the movie's not gonna work. Jon is not a likeable character for a large portion of the film. And he's an intimidating character and Jon Hamm is an actor with a strong presence. Trying to find a woman that could really stand up to him and really put him in his place and do it with a light touch it was a tricky thing to try and balance. Also, the plausibility that he's not noticing her for the first part of the film. It was a long process trying to figure that out and then I saw Jon had [chemistry with Bell] as well. And I just loved the film and she encapsulated so much of what I was looking for and then I was thrilled and we managed to get her.     

Check out IAR's exclusive video interview with Jon Hamm by following this link.

We also have an exclusive video interview with Lake Bell, as well an exclusive video conversation with both Bill Paxton and Alan Arkin.

Finally, to see the real-life JB Bernstein and Rinku Singh in an exclusive IAR interview, you can follow this link.

Million Dollar Arm is now playing at a theater near you!

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