Craig Gillespie (the “Fright Night” remake and “Lars and the Real Girl”) is certainly no stranger to offbeat drama and comedy, and “Million Dollar Arm” represents his greatest dance with dramedy. The inspirational biopic about recruiting two raw talents from India and turning them into major league baseball pitchers in less than a year also afforded “Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm the opportunity to show off the full range of his acting chops, according to the director.
Meanwhile, even though live-action family fare has been supplanted by animation, Disney continues its string of true-life sports dramas with “Million Dollar Arm,” mixing the fish-out-of-water theme with a redemptive arc. Sports agent JB Bernstein (Hamm) is so desperate for star clients that he concocts a wild scheme to find baseball’s next great pitching ace in India. It’s like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack of cricket bowlers. Yet Dinesh (“Slumdog Millionaire’s” Madhur Mittal) and Rinku (“Life of Pi’s” Suraj Sharma) are two extraordinary 18-year-olds who can smoke a fastball with no familiarity of the American pastime.
But Gillespie admits that it was the smart script by Tom McCarthy (“The Visitor,” “The Station Agent”) that hooked him. “I love when you can mix that blend of humor and drama,” the director suggests. “It was so clear on the page that the film just popped out. It’s an amazing story. I find myself doing this tricky tonal balance [anyway]. Even with the ‘Fright Night’ remake. I love when you can do that dance and also where you’re letting an audience make a choice. I’m not telling them how to respond to a scene, whether they’re laughing or tearing up. It’s a personal experience.”
Even so, Bernstein’s a very unlikable character, obsessed with regaining his star status and living the good life again. But Dinesh and Rinku teach him a life lesson in family values that comes totally out of left field.
“I didn’t know how long he could be unlikable for,” Gillespie continues. “I didn’t know how audiences would put up with that. But I was pleasantly surprised that they went with it during early screenings.”
At a screening, in fact, JB and his wife Brenda (played by Lake Bell in the movie), sat next to a woman who complained about his insensitivity, and so Brenda frustratingly turned to her and remarked that he turns into a nice guy.
To contrast the look and mood and two different stories that converge, Gillespie shot the India scenes on film and the U.S. scenes digitally with his longtime collaborator, DP Gyula Pados. “It’s a different rhythm and a whole different way of doing things [in India], in many respects like the story we were telling,” Gillespie reflects. I went in knowing that there was going to be a certain amount of chaos shooting in real environments where there are so many people and you can’t control it. And they don’t try to control it.
“The first day we shot was that shot where he gets out of the cab and you see those thousands of people. We maybe had 300 people, which takes up 30 square feet. The rest of it’s real, with people staring at the camera and motorcycles and cows and people forcing their way through and you just have to go with the flow.I turned to my key grip, an Indian who works on American movies, and asked if it’s always like this and he said they don’t film here, only Americans try and film here. We wouldn’t try and shoot here — it’s too chaotic.”
Still, since most of India is shot in daylight, it also made sense to use film because the director believes daylight is the most unforgiving situation for digital, aside from the analog warmth that film provides. “I don’t think you can get that [texture] digitally. And it’s the boys and their sense of warmth and family that changes Jon’s character. So as much as we could keep India vital and layer it in there with the camera work and the energy, was what I was after.
“And then we pushed a cold extreme digitally by shooting the boys in the States, where they feel alienated. The frames are just cleaner and not as busy and not as much layering going on.”
There are four big tryouts and they all contain their own looks and arcs and Gillespie executed them with different styles: “The first one is when you first meet the boys at the academy and it’s shot classically. We went very static, and simmering in the Old West kind of way, and zoom in on Jon and the boys.
“And in the Locknell competition, it’s these big, sweeping, technocrane moves but then we’re hand-held amongst it all with them. But that’s just a cacophony of energy with long lenses and you’re all around it. But once they get to the Tempe tryout, it’s all hand-held on the boys’ faces and you barely see the pitching. It’s about feeling that emotion and we took all the footwork out of it. And then it’s the more heroic version in the final pitching. The big steadicam moves and dolly moves around them, the backlight and flares.”
The Bernstein house (shot in Atlanta doubling for Brentwood) serves as its own battleground back home for the sports attorney. First, they reinforced a gray palette to emphasize the alienation and then made use of a large window across the back, creating a fishbowl for Brenda to look into before becoming more intimately involved with Bernstein and a major redemptive catalyst.
“The house is a little off in terms of its proportions and it has a backstory: there’s chipped paint and it’s worn out because Bernstein hasn’t had substantial income in a decade and hasn’t touched it since he bought it.”
And Gillespie’s takeaway? “I tried to appreciate the moments and scouting. We got off the plane and they took us to the largest slum in Mumbai. It was such a quick prep that we didn’t take the time to process it. I had no expectations. I wandered around the area for three hours and nobody bothered us and everybody was welcoming. The next day we were in a village three hours outside of Mumbai. I was with a local guide and asked to enter a home unannounced and meet this Indian family.
“I relate to the story on both sides, actually. It’s such a classic, American dichotomy that we have. We’re such a work-driven society, more, I think, than any other country. It’s always that drive and always that balance of your work life and your emotional family life. He didn’t even know he had that struggle until the boys came in his life. I could easily relate to that but also the the boys’ side, though not to that extreme. When I was 18, I won a scholarship to come to New York. I had six weeks notice and suddenly I was in Manhattan not knowing anybody and living in the YMCA. So just that sense of isolation and loneliness and having to prove myself to my family.”
“Million Dollar Arm” could be a turning point for Gillespie, since he’s hoping to follow-up with a completely different true-life story that will allow him to do the dramedy dance once again.