On the surface, Disney’s Jon Hamm-starring feel-good family film “Million Dollar Arm” has all the makings of a typical studio sports movie, but dig deeper and you’ll be surprised to learn the project has some serious indie cred going for it.
For starters, it boasts a screenplay by multiple Independent Spirit Award-winner Thomas McCarthy (“Win Win,” “The Visitor”), who makes his foray into live action studio filmmaking with this project. Adding to its indie appeal is the director Disney employed for the gig, Craig Gillespie, of “Lars and the Real Girl” fame. In addition to “Lars” and “Million Dollar Arm,” Gillespie is best known for directing multiple episodes of the Showtime series “United States of Tara,” the remake of “Fright Night,” and countless commercials and music videos for artists like Kid Cudi.
“Million Dollar Arm,” based on actual events, centers on a desperate sports agent (Hamm) who concocts a reality TV
competition/publicity stunt in India to award a million dollars and the
possibility of being signed to a Major League Baseball team. Lake Bell (“In a World…”) co-stars as Hamm’s love interest.
Indiewire spoke with Gillespie about his indie roots, and what it was like to work with Disney. “Million Dollar Arm” opens wide this Friday.
You’ve done a bit of everything. You’re prepping for a commercial now, you’ve done a music video for Kid Cudi, you’ve done indies, you’ve done TV, you’ve now done a Disney film… Do you map out a different approach with each one of these projects or do you always approach everything pretty much the same way?
I don’t. It’s funny though, the only thing I feel all of them have that is sort of a theme — there’s a balance of two different genres going on and there’s always humor, whether it’s emotional or dramatic or even horror in the case of “Fright Night.” I love having to balance those genres. Even “United States of Tara,” which is Diablo Cody’s writing, has very dramatic, heavy scenes going on, but it dealt with humor. And that’s sort of the through line on everything. If it’s inspired by that there’s such disparity between them, the kind of content that I’m doing. They all have that kind of, that duality going on.
Is that specifically what inspired you to direct “Million Dollar Arm,” or was it a chance to collaborate with Thomas?
It was Thomas’ writing. I love his films and he does that so well in his movies, that balance in tone. I find good scripts are so rare to come.
This is a Disney movie, your first with the company. This also marked new territory for Thomas, who’d never written a live-action film for a studio this size. How did you net the gig?
I sort of learned over the years that the best approach is to be as straight forward and candid as possible about what I’m trying to do as opposed to second guess what they might want to hear. And there was a version of this film that I saw in Tom’s writing that I just loved, and that’s what I went in and pitched to Disney. Maybe it was counter intuitive in some ways. I pitched that whole film sort of the way I wanted to make it. Fortunately we were in line with their thinking. So then, from that point it was a very supportive process.
“Fright Night” had some special effects, but this one seems like your biggest film yet just given the India component of the shoot.
I loved the idea and the opportunity and that we got to shoot in India. And I pushed to shoot as much of the movie as we could in India.
At one point early on when they were budgeting there was talk about bringing whatever scenes like interiors we could to the States, and recreating; I said no I really think for all, for the actors, for the background talent that we’ve got to shoot all of these scenes in India. And we managed to pull that off!
It’s funny…when I first started talking to a lot of filmmakers in the business, particularly through commercials, that have worked on commercials, across the board it always started with a chuckle. I heard of the challenges involved in terms of the crowd control and the hundred degree heat. I went into it expecting that it was going to be organized chaos, so I sort of embraced that and it was.
What were some of the key differences from a personal and creative standpoint between working on something like this and a project the size of “Lars and the Real Girl”?
It’s funny. You would expect that there would be a lot of differences. But I actually felt like there was actually more similarities.
When I got to do “Lars” it was a very intimidating, but we had a lot of support and had a lot of freedom. There was sort of this a creative space that we lived in where we’re always trying to explore. It was the same in this. We had the foundation and we knew the direction we were going, but again the studio was so supportive and on board with the tone of the film that we were making and the style that we were making it in. Even with the casting, everybody was on the same page. Everybody was thrilled to get Lake Bell, which was one of the harder roles to cast.
I was thrilled to see her. She’s not used nearly enough.
I’ve got to be honest with you: I wasn’t that familiar with her and then I got the opportunity to see “In a World…,” the film she wrote and directed, and immediately was like, ah it’s got to be her! That was fairly far down the process of trying to see who could go up against Jon Hamm, who you know can be quite a formidable figure, such a strong presence.
For filmmakers reading this interview, do you have any advice for making it to where you are in the business?
[Laughs] I’m not sure exactly where I am.
Well, you’re doing alright.
It’s a tough business. You get a lot of rejection and it’s just this perseverance that you just have to keep. When you get knocked down, you just have to keep moving forward. Specifically as a filmmaker the best advice I can give is, for me personally is, just shoot as much as you can. Whether it’s something that would basically be almost free, or on a spec level, or on a commercial –anything that pushes you over the edge. The more opportunities you have to make mistakes the better [laughs].