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Hot in Cleveland: Ivan Reitman on Draft Day

Draft Day

Pulling the curtain back on the process through which the National Football League invites new players into its ranks, Draft Day stars Kevin Costner as the embattled general manager of the Cleveland Browns, a beleaguered franchise whose owner (a sly Frank Langella) wants his employee to make a “big splash” at the upcoming NFL draft. Persuaded by the front office of the Seattle Seahawks to acquire the first pick in the draft, Costner’s Sonny Weaver spends the day on the phone talking to his staff, prospective draftees, their agents (one of whom is memorably played by Sean Combs in an especially post-modern touch) and a newly installed coach he doesn’t see eye to eye with (Denis Leary) while trying to come to terms with the fact that he’s knocked up the team’s fetching salary cap guru (Jennifer Garner). Reviled for firing his legendary father — long the team’s coach and only recently deceased — Sonny’s job and personal life collide on a long day when the fortunes of wealthy middle-aged white men in suits hinge on the future performance of black men in track gear who look like Chadwick Bosemen.

The man responsible for this affair is Ivan Reitman, a legend of his own whose sensibility has led not just to Ghostbusters and Stripes, but No Strings Attached and Kindergarten Cop as well. The movie, from a script by Scott Rothman and Ravaj Joseph, hits theaters tomorrow.

Ivan Reitman
Ivan Reitman

Filmmaker:  What about this project spoke to you?

Reitman: I wasn’t looking to do a football movie necessarily. I am a football fan. Am I a huge fan? Probably not. But I’m a big fan and I follow it pretty religiously during the season. I remember reading the script for the first time. It happened to be in the middle of the night. I woke up and it was the next one on the pile. I read it once in an hour and I knew by the time I got to the end of it that I was going to direct it somehow. I liked the tension of it. I got totally carried away. I thought, well here’s something I’ve never seen before. 

Basically it’s a sports movie in which all the action is off the field; it’s really human drama. I felt it was a movie that people who knew nothing about football would get very caught up in and understand. And that in fact is what seems to be happening now that we’ve been screening the film. I thought it was a great story. I think other people agree with me. It was at the top of The Black List by a substantial vote, probably a record-breaking vote in terms of production executives thinking it was the best script of the year that was yet not produced. 

And most of them, by my guess, they’re not football scripts. 

Filmmaker: No, I imagine they’re not. Once you decided it was something you were interested in doing, did you spend a significant amount of time developing it yourself and rewriting it with the initial writer?

Reitman: I worked a substantial amount with the writers, who I thought were very talented. I had no intention of changing what they had written. I usually get into a rhythm with [writers] where we just sort of work on it until it’s ready to shoot. They were first time writers. They had really created this wonderful complex puzzle of human characters, I just had to make it work more as a film. That meant opening it up and using the actual draft at Radio City Music Hall as an important subplot, going to other cities more, honing some of the characters that they had originally written and adding other characters, that kind of stuff. It’s normal stuff. Also trying to figure out how to make the phone calls work. By virtue of what the draft is, which is — you know, most people think it’s an event on television, but it’s really going on live at 32 war rooms around the country where people are communicating mostly by phone, so I had to find a way to make that interesting on film. 

Filmmaker: You chose to rely on the split-screen quite a bit. Is that something that was imagined during production or in post-production?

Reitman: I started experimenting with how to do these phone calls in pre-production. We had these two wonderful designers who had done mostly credit sequences, and once I shot my very first scene where I had both characters I said, let’s think of a way of making it come alive in a way that we haven’t seen before, this idea of people merging their location into another person’s location so that visually we had the sensation that they were together, as people who are on the telephone are together in their brain. Creating that illusion for our film viewer was important. 

Filmmaker: I’m curious about getting the NFL’s approval. Obviously they’re an organization that’s tremendously sensitive about their image. Was it difficult to get them on board in terms of using their logos and the likenesses of current players and creating an accurate NFL draft?

Reitman: I guess it’s hard to do, because virtually no one else has done it, especially to the extent that we have. I sent them a script and they loved it, they got it, they thought it was great for the draft and great for the NFL. And it’s a movie that’s not dealing with the safety issue because it’s irrelevant in the draft. That was never written about by our writers. I thought they might object to the language or things like that, but they didn’t really. They were very sophisticated about what makes a good movie and they totally agreed with me when I said look, the sports fan is very sophisticated about what goes on, how people speak, you can’t whitewash it. 

I think they wanted a PG-13 movie, which is what we wanted, except for a couple of lines it could fall easily into that category. [Editor’s note: Draft Day was originally rated R. The rating was lowered to PG-13 on appeal.] I think they had two big terms. One was that it was accurate to what really goes on in the draft and what really goes on in a war room and getting all the sort of minutiae of that correct. They were also very sensitive about the promotional partners, which are a very big part of the NFL’s profit center. So whatever their official phone is, whatever their car is, they wanted to make sure that our leads at least were not driving or talking on something that was not that. These are all sorts of big American brands, so it was very easy for us to comply. 

Filmmaker:  Did you consult with actual general managers and coaches and scouts and young men who have been through this process of being drafted to get a sense of what their experiences were?

Reitman: Absolutely we consulted, with virtually every sort of hyper-professional that’s represented in the film: coaches, general managers, owners, both retired players and those that are playing right now, and college players that are hoping to get in. I got to work with the entire Radio City team and [learn about how they work] with the officials that sort of govern that whole event, which is very carefully watched over. They are the governing body of what happens behind the scenes and all the training that’s represented in the movie. 

We learned a bunch of things. I think it was meeting with the Buffalo Bills; the Bills were one of the two teams we were considering as the home base. I remember they started talking about the draft party they have at the end of the first round, which was something I didn’t know anything about, nor did our writers. I said wait a minute, you have a party at the end of the first round? They said “Yeah, and if we have a top pick, we fly him down right after he gets chosen and he gets there and we introduce him to all our invited guests, who are usually kind of our biggest corporate sponsors, VIPs, city officials, families of the team. We have it usually in the field house.” I thought wow, that’s a great idea for a scene and a great way for us to bring all these characters together in one place where they get to meet each other, even though it’s briefly, at the end of the film. 

We wrote the ending of the movie to include that. There’s a bunch of things, particularly about the mechanics of the draft. I learned how they call the pick in and how it gets executed and how there’s this official cable at Radio City at the same time. Each team is on the telephone with different officials who confer with each other and make sure [the teams] abide by all the rules. It’s made official at that time and then it’s announced. I never really knew what happens when a guy didn’t make the ten-minute clock. So I added that dialogue [when] Rich Eisen from the NFL Network sort of explains that to our film audience. He confirmed that he gives that speech once each broadcast of the three days of the draft, because most people don’t know. 

Filmmaker: When did the cast come together during the process of getting the movie off the ground?

Reitman: I called Kevin very early in the process, long before Lionsgate was involved. In fact the movie at that time was bought on our behalf by Paramount. At the point that I thought I had a pretty good draft, I sent it off to Kevin, because I kept hearing his voice in the scenes. I thought he would be helpful in terms of getting the movie made even though at that time he had not starred in a film in quite a number of years. I got to him, met with him, and we got along really well. He loved the script. He had some very intelligent notes, mostly about his character Sonny Weaver. He came on board even though we didn’t have an official deal with him, he certainly seemed interested in playing it. Jennifer Garner was the part of the salary cap person. By the way, the salary cap person for the Cleveland Browns is actually a very attractive woman who is about the same age as Jennifer and who was very, very helpful, a real resource for Jennifer to speak to in terms of getting the attitude right, what it’s like to work in this male-dominated culture, what her desk looks like, what her office looks like, what meetings she goes to, what is she excluded from going to, what happens on that day, where is she, all that kind of stuff.

Filmmaker: It’s funny that the movie is set in Cleveland and is about a general manager whose father was an iconic coach. I’m from Cincinnati, where the Bengals are a long-suffering franchise and have a very similar situation where the owner, Mike Brown, is the son of famed coach Paul Brown, who is of course the person the Cleveland Browns are named after. This all makes me curious: why the Browns? Why Cleveland specifically? When you were considering Buffalo and Cleveland, what about those places were important to set this movie?

Reitman: It could’ve easily been Cincinnati. They’re both sort of Rust Belt, east coast towns with rabid fan bases that unfortunately have been let down quite a number of times by their respective teams. They see draft day as a moment of renewal and opportunity. I thought that element was really important. Cleveland was very picturesque. We had a very tight budget that we were fighting against all the time and the Ohio rebate was very substantial. It was three million dollars better than the New York one, and that’s how we ended up there. 

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