“You Gotta Know the Chord Changes Before You Can do the Improvisation”: Ron Shelton on the 25th Anniversary of White Men Can’t Jump“
Growing up in the basketball-crazy early ’90s, Ron Shelton’s White Men Can’t Jump was iconic long before I took the time to actually sit down and watch it: the title (that font stretching!), the baggy tanks and starched casquettes, the deadpan visages of Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes all but daring me to rent the movie every time I saw the VHS. Starring the duo as pickup basketball players who combine forces in an uneasy con-alliance, Shelton’s followup to Bull Durham is a stone cold classic: a big-hearted buddy comedy of dazzling cinematographic musculature, the camera bobbing and weaving cross-court with insane fluidity.
To me, Snipes’ turn as the flamboyant, trash-talking superhustler Sydney Deane occupies the middle (between New Jack City and Demolition Man) of a trilogy that testifies to his inimitable style as one of the superstars of an era — despite a surprisingly short filmography. As part of their essential “Major League: Wesley Snipes in Focus” retrospective, White Men Can’t Jump is getting a 25th-anniversary week run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; I was lucky enough to speak with Shelton over the phone about shooting men shooting hoops, the film’s touch-and-go origins, the difference between a studio greenlight in 1992 and 2017, and much more.
Filmmaker: A buddy comedy about pick-up basketball — I’m kinda surprised it didn’t already exist, to be honest. Where did you get the idea?
Shelton: I played ball in high school and college, on a scholarship, and I’ve been playing on public courts my whole adult life. The whole culture fascinated me then and now; it’s a rich world. As I was playing, I realized nobody on the court had any idea I had made Bull Durham, which was great, so I began writing, and it all came together pretty quickly.
Filmmaker: How long did it take to write the script?
Shelton: This was the strangest of my films, because I wrote 37 pages in one day — nothing like that has ever happened to me, before or since. I just started writing and I didn’t stop, didn’t even know where I was going. Those are the pages I showed Joe Roth at Fox, and he said, “Keep going.” So, of course, it took me about three weeks to figure out page 38. By the time those weeks had passed, I’d had another 20 or 30 page day. The whole project was kinda like that. It was like a basketball game, in a way, because there were these bursts of energy, stopping and starting. It was maddening, living between these bursts of writing, because I thought, “I’ve painted myself into a real corner with Fox here.” It all came out fine, but I’m not sure I recommend that model of screenwriting. But it somehow worked on this.
Filmmaker: What’s your typical process?
Shelton: I tend to write every day if I’m not in production. I try to take it one script at a time, but sometimes I’ll do a second draft of one while waiting for feedback on the first one; at the moment I’m working on an original script and rewriting two other scripts of mine. So, you know, if I’m not directing, I’m writing.
Filmmaker: Was there any resistance to casting Snipes?
Shelton: No. This is one of those things about studios being different then than they are now: Wesley Snipes auditioned for Sydney, and he was great. He wasn’t a great basketball player but he was a great athlete, so I knew I could teach him certain things to do. You can’t fake athleticism, but you can fake the basketball. I loved him — I want to work with him again, desperately. He had a little vacation, as he puts it. Honestly, I think Wesley is one of our greatest overlooked actors. Like Kurt Russell: he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Wesley can do anything. Back then I said, “He’s Jimmy Cagney!” and I don’t mean “the black Jimmy Cagney.” I mean, he’s Jimmy Cagney. He can be scary, he can be funny, he can make you cry, he can do physical stuff… I really, really want to work with him again.
Filmmaker: And Harrelson?
Shelton: He came in, I liked him, we tried different combinations, I put Woody and Wesley in a room, it was magic, I called Joe and said: “This is it.” He said: “I love it. Go!” He didn’t need to see anything, he just trusted my instincts.
Filmmaker: Beyond the fashion, the soundtrack, Snipes and Harrelson themselves — part of the lure of White Men, it seems to me, is that you put basketball onscreen with this kind of Golden-Era musical brio.
Shelton: Well, most sports movies are from the fans’ point of view — this is why I don’t like most sports movies. I was trying to make ‘em from an athlete’s point of view, because the player’s almost always concerned with something different from, and seeing something different than, the fan. The player counts his victories and losses differently than the fan does. That’s all I’ve done.
White Men Can’t Jump was choreographed pretty much the same as I’d do it for any sports movie, but basketball lends itself to that kind of choreography the best: we had a set of basic, fundamental plays any kid would know — pick-and-rolls, backdoors, things like that. We hired these players, some of whom were aspiring actors, athletes, ex-athletes, and we put ’em in basketball camp. So they learn the plays, they learn how to run ’em from the left and the right sides, and we’d film ’em. Then we’d take the same players, and roll three cameras and film an actual game. Now, these are the things that could only look staged if you tried: a dropped ball, a fumble, somebody bouncing, slipping, falling — you could take what we had choreographed in the real game, at the same exact location, and change camera angles so you can cut together very fluidly. In the end the choreography was pretty simple, and it cut together with the unchoreographed games.
Filmmaker: There’s this kind of tension between the choreographed and the natural — the script is unbelievably quick-tongued. Some of that stuff has gotta be improvised.
Shelton: There’s not that much, believe it or not — I rehearsed these guys for two weeks so we could get all the busy stuff out. There’s 5% improv, I think, but it’s mostly all scripted — but then some of that script came off those two weeks. Some guys like to improvise and some don’t; I’ve worked with Tommy Lee Jones twice, Paul Newman — these guys don’t like to improv, they say “Gimme the words and I’ll do ‘em as best I can.” Costner has interesting ideas on set sometimes, but in general, these guys are professionals — they won’t just start going off. These guys have careers for a reason. Wesley would go off, and I’d say, “Wesley, go back to the script!” And he’d say “Right, right, right,” and then sometimes I’d say “Now that we got that, take it where you want.” But you gotta know the chord changes before you can do the improvisation — I’m all about the chord changes.
Filmmaker: The movie is supremely easygoing. With all those moving parts, was it a difficult shoot?
Shelton: No, it was a joy. Okay, we shot too much basketball — guys were getting shin splints, we were put guys on the asphalt for too many hours a day, in retrospect. Because it’s difficult — you can’t move locations halfway through the day because it’s so inefficient, so I realized we were wearing them out, guys were getting hurt…. I think Wesley and Woody have different styles; Wesley, you could bark at, and it wasn’t personal — he was fine. It’s like being a coach! Woody, though, if you yelled at him he might say, “Do you like me?” I’d put my arm around him: “Woody, I love you. I’ll make ten movies with you. But there’s your mark — try to hit it.” You’re yelling at one guy and putting your arm around the other, but that’s the gig. These guys are so good, so prepared, so professional…. I think it was as good a casting as you could do.
Filmmaker: Rewatching the film, I’m still like, “There’s no way that’s the real Woody Harrelson.”
Shelton: But it is. There are no doubles.
Filmmaker: In your experience, if it’s “a joy”, does that seamlessness translate in the final product?
Shelton: Well, every producer, director, actor, whomever, will tell you this: there are movies that are miserable to shoot, you hate every second of it, and then they come out to be joyous affirmations of life, great movies. And there are movies that are joyful experiences and they don’t work at all. There’s no relation between the experience and the result… at all. And Tin Cup was a happy experience as well, that turned out to be a pretty good movie, but you just never know. Turn off the lights, you have 500 people sitting there, and you’re shining a light through the emulsion — at least, that’s in the old days; that’s how you find out what you got.
Filmmaker: Do you lament the end of celluloid?
Shelton: Well, I saw the digital thing coming from a ways away. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing more beautiful than a projected film with a great print at the right theater — the fact is you almost never get that, because the screen isn’t lit right, the projection lamp is wrong, etc. So digital was a lot more liberating for the shooting process; it’s faster, you can keep it running, never stopping to change a magazine, you can shoot with less light… Back then you’d get an actor on a roll, run out of film, and need to start all over again. Unless you wanna give me 100 days to shoot, I’m an easy convert to the digital world. The thing people don’t realize is we have half as much time to shoot as we used to. Unless it’s a Marvel comics thing, you’re on an incredibly tight budget and incredibly fast schedule.
Filmmaker: Tell me more about the disparity between studios then and today.
Shelton: It’s all run by international corporations rather than local companies. Everything has to be vetted, demographically studied, you know, just uh… pre-digested and formed and micromanaged, and there’s a thousand voices for every time you move. I don’t know how anybody gets a studio movie made.
Joe Roth, at Fox — he was trusting of filmmakers back then. None of my cast members were huge stars: Woody was seventh lead in Cheers, Wesley was known as “the other guy from Mo Betta Blues” at the time. Rosie [Perez] had four scenes in Do The Right Thing — it just doesn’t happen the same way anymore. A studio would never say yes to that kind of casting. But Joe and his people were great — they figured I knew how to make the movie, I showed it to ’em, they had a few comments, and we just kept going. That’s a world that doesn’t exist anymore, in the studios anyway. Studios need billion-dollar movies; they don’t wanna make a $12-million movie that makes $100 million. They wanna make a $200-million movie that costs another $100 million to market, does a billion and a half and spawns five sequels. That’s the only thing that moves the needle for a corporation that big. Fox, Warner Brothers, so on — these used to be small companies with international reputations. A modest success was embraced; not so anymore.
Filmmaker: Take Batman v. Superman — a bizarre corporate restructuring in movie form. If it costs $400 million and makes just under a billion, isn’t it kind of a draw? Some of these tentpoles barely break even in the final analysis…
Shelton: Yeah, but in the long term, they’re successful because — there are toys, television packages, they sell ‘em around the world, the movies show endlessly…. They have a long shelf life. I’ve made a couple films that were not successful at the U.S. box office, but somebody showed me what they had made internationally and I was sorta slack-jawed.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk politics — White Men Can’t Jump was released, what, a month before the Rodney King riots?
Shelton: I came from a conservative, working-class family, but this was back when conservative Republicans could still march for civil rights and weren’t looking to go to war every five minutes. I moved a little left of center — I’d call myself a liberal centrist, although I guess now I’m a liberal coastal elite; I should make a t-shirt that says that. Being color-blind was a huge thing for me, growing up — there were times I was the white kid on the playground. I don’t believe my folks had an ounce of racism in their system even though I grew up not in the hood. Because of sports, I was with minorities more than a lot of kids, and I think White Men carries a cry for racial acceptance despite being a comedy. These two guys get along with each other better than with their women — that’s sort of the perverse joke, that a very disparate black and white male have more in common than any man with any woman. At the same time, hopefully the movie treats women well — Rosie’s got a career and Woody doesn’t, in the end.
I was also here for the Watts riots, and I was happy to make Dark Blue because, like most social phenomenon and crises, the King issue was more complex than any of the respective sides painted it. Lou Cannon’s Official Negligence is the definitive book on it: his analysis is impartial and complex on all sides, as outrageous as the beating was… So. I was happy to make an inclusive comedy in the middle of all that.
Filmmaker: Not to sound like a tagline, but the game flattens out a lot of tension. At least, I feel the movie engages that.
Shelton: It does. I don’t think that’s a bad thing; the fact that big cities all live or die with their pro teams, it’s interesting — nobody on the teams is from that town anymore, and nobody on the team cares! It’s a worldwide phenomenon! And soccer fans are way crazier than American fans, I mean, they might kill each other, they storm the referees, storm the field! Here, the team owners are just plutocrats, so why do we get this emotional satisfaction from charting how the Dodgers, or the Yankees, or the Minnesota Twins are doing?
Filmmaker: I’m just glad I’m from Seattle.
Shelton: You guys got robbed, man.
Filmmaker: There’s another thing about White Men: it’s hard to imagine a studio greenlighting a comedy about people hustling — the characters are all, in one way or another, down on their luck.
Shelton: If you made it independently and it tested well, the studio might distribute it, but you can’t walk into a studio with a story like this. I do hope Get Out shakes them up — the $5-million movie that makes a hundred and fifty. A studio wouldn’t make that 00 they’d distribute it, because they made a deal with the financier, specializing in $5-million horror pictures. It just slipped through the cracks and exploded, which is great.
Filmmaker: And you’re in postproduction on Villa Capri.
Shelton: We’re on a little break right now because we have to do some additional photography and we’re waiting for one of the actors to become available. There’s always a couple days of pick-ups, so it’s a good chance for me: I’ll take the kids to the bus early, I’ll walk a mile or two just to get my heart pumping, then I get my fourth cup of coffee, and I’ll start writing. For lunch, I walk somewhere, get a sandwich, come back and dig in. I believe you gotta do it every day, personally. I’m done after 4:00 PM — I’m not gonna be drinking coffee all afternoon or evening. After that, I’m waiting for the first martini, is what I’m doing. If you put enough space between the last cup of coffee and the first glass of gin….
Filmmaker: Were you ever angling to make cheaper movies?
Shelton: The truth is, I only made one expensive movie — Hollywood Homicide, which was unsuccessful, and that’s because of how much the stars got paid. Bull Durham was $8 million, White Men was closer to 12 than 20… these weren’t expensive movies. And shooting in L.A. is expensive because crew rates are much higher. I’m also a union guy — too many movies have fled L.A., but when you can pay people decently, I happen to believe it’s worth it.
Filmmaker: Sorry — when I said “cheaper,” I meant like… zero-budget.
Shelton: Here’s the problem. Five million is okay. Five or seven million is okay. But most of these movies are made by liberals, and they’re exploiting the hell out of labor — it pisses me off! Do you work for free, Steve? I don’t wanna work for free. It requires calling in an incredible amount of favors, exploiting everybody, and then bragging about how little you made the movie for — that offends me, honestly. I can’t match studio rates but I want to pay people for their expertise, for their career, their craft, and some of those movies made for $1-2 million dollars, honestly, they look like it. The only way to make a movie that cheap is to not pay anybody, get deals from the labs and the camera companies, having a very tiny location budget… I’m working on a script that’s under $5 million so I’m not against it, but I guarantee, I’m gonna pay people.
Filmmaker: I think the idea is you exploit people — or maybe you get them to exploit themselves — but, you’ll remember it next time.
Shelton: Go back and find out if they paid them next time! Look, if people are willing to do it for their resumes, that’s one thing. But a lot of times, I’ve seen real exploitation. I understand the need to keep costs down, believe me. Just not at the expense of somebody else.
Filmmaker: Beyond Jordan Peele, are there filmmakers, people in the game today, whose work you’re keeping an eye on?
Shelton: There are a lot, but I can’t talk about living directors and writers I like, because then I’ll get a call from the others I didn’t mention. I swear to you… I talk about dead people. And actually, I’m getting to the age where the dead people are my friends, so I gotta be careful! Mostly, I’m just happy to be vertical, and working.