It is a tricky thing, recreating a beloved classic. Since the 1992 premiere of Penny Marshall’s “A League of Their Own” audiences have fallen in love again and again with Dottie Henson, Kit Keller, Marla Hooch, and the rest of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. But these characters were based on real people, and there was only so much that could fill 90 minutes in a ’90s movie. Now, Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham are filling in the stories the movie left out — namely those of Black and queer players — as seen through the eyes of Carson Shaw (Jacobson) and Max Chapman (Chanté Adams), the central characters of Prime Video’s take on “A League of Their Own.”
“The impetus behind this whole endeavor is our love for Penny Marshall’s movie,” executive producer Hailey Wierengo told IndieWire. “We don’t think it needs to be improved upon. We don’t think it needs to be remade.”
Before Marshall’s death in December 2018, Wierengo and the other EPs had a long conversation with the director about making “A League of Their Own” and the inherent limitations of what can be covered in a feature-length film. Following the talk, the producers felt free to not hew so closely to the original. “It allowed us to be, I hope, really thoughtful and intentional and have fun with the homages,” Wierengo said.
In conversations with IndieWire, Wierengo, Jacobson, director Jamie Babbit, cinematographer Dagmar Weaver-Madsen, and production designer Victoria Paul discussed the skill, thought, and dedication that went into the crafts of “A League of Their Own” — and how they paid tribute to Marshall’s movie.
A Field of Dreams
For the most part, baseball stadiums from the 1920s and 30s all looked alike. So, when Paul began thinking about the show’s main stadium, it was always going to look like what we know from the movie, and what we know from old stadiums around the country. “All these wooden stadiums, for some reason I have yet to discover — and I have tried — are all painted forest green,” Paul told IndieWire. “By virtue of where [the story] happens, we created the same thing that hits the same notes: There’s that scoreboard that the guy climbs up and puts the letters and numbers on, there’s the press box, there are the dugouts. It’s a familiar milieu, and it’s not something we would reinvent.”
The pilot of “A League of Their Own” was shot in February of 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, production on the series didn’t begin in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania until July 2021. A few existing stadiums in the state had been scouted, in Eerie and outside Philadelphia. Ultimately, due to travel logistics and scheduling conflicts, Paul and her team designed and built their own.
“There was a diamond we found [about 10 miles east of Pittsburgh, in Monroeville],” she said. “It was regulation size — 90 feet to the base and 380 feet to the outfield — a real field with a couple of dugouts that we eventually knocked down, and a rickety old set of bleachers that we actually took and added to the factory field scenes because they were wonderfully aged.” (The bleachers were so authentic, they had to sand them down to avoid splinters in the actors’ butts.)
“It was a real ‘Field of Dreams’ moment,” Weaver-Madsen, who shared DP duties with Cybel Martin, told IndieWire. “It was so beautiful and moving when we stepped out onto that field — it was like Victoria made a time machine that just transported this huge stadium to us.”
Anne Marie Fox / Prime Video
The field where Max’s storyline takes place and the factory teams play is in front of an actual factory in Ambridge, 15 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. It already had the metal stands, and though neither the field nor the factory in the background were exactly period-accurate, Paul said “it sure passed and we didn’t have any qualms about shooting it.”
“She was next to me at all times,” Babbit says of Justine Siegal, the first female coach of a professional men’s team, founder of Baseball for All, and baseball consultant on “A League of Their Own.” “She would show me a baseball play and [I’d think it was] boring and ask for something more exciting. I really pushed her to keep showing me cool shit because Penny was the biggest fan of baseball, and she had the girls doing the splits and a lot of fun stuff in the original movie because she also knows cinema and she wanted to make baseball visual. So, I knew I wanted some slo-mo sequences, fun things like splits and doing jump balls, the six-frames-per-seconds, freeze frames of people in the air.”
Despite weather delays for rain and lightning during the humid Pittsburgh summer, Weaver-Madsen said it was an incredibly rewarding filming experience. In pre-production, she observed the actors training at baseball camp as they learned the moves and rehearsed various sequences which had been written into the game scenes.
Nicola Goode/Prime Video
Siegal was also integral to Weaver-Madsen’s work, looking at the way an actor’s arm or body was moving and advising on how to place the camera to either highlight or bring the focus away from the physicality of the move.
“To have that sort of instruction to make sure the form was accurate to the time period and to the player’s style was [incredible as a DP],” said Weaver-Madsen. “She came up with different pitching styles for each character. My job was to find ways for the camera to show the audience that and to be close in on the action. Other times I was trying to mimic how people are used to now watching baseball on TV, from different angles. In the show, we have a combination of the camera being on the field, part of the play and moving with the characters, then sometimes we’re a little more removed. Then we might go back in, see the action and how they go for a crazy slide and get tagged out. We wanted a balance between how people are used to seeing baseball now and being period-accurate.”
Signaling the Past
In choosing which moments from the film to include in the series, Jacobson told IndieWire that some of it happened organically and that there was never a list of scenes or sequences that they were going to force in no matter what. Tom Hanks’ immortal admonishment ‘There’s no crying in baseball’ was something they discussed a lot — the where, who, when, and if they were going to fit it in.
“We weren’t sure, and then Will threw it into a script in a scene where it is now,” Jacobson said. “It’s not the coach — he had Jess, Kelly McCormack’s character, say it. It felt totally different and like ‘This is right.’ It also ends up being about Carson’s arc as this de facto leader of the team, and it took on this new meaning.
“But every moment in that way is really different,” Jacobson said. “The running for the train — we’d written that pilot so many times and ultimately, there was a point where I was like, ‘We need to just be thrown in. Let the audience catch up.’ That moment is so iconic — at least for me. I love that scene from the film when they’re running and you’re inside the train, and you see Dottie come into frame and leave. Cinematically, that’s such a great moment. We’re doing without the sisters, it’s just Carson, but it felt [like] a great way to start with an homage and also flip it on its head – my dress pops open! I hope in the first five minutes you’re like, ‘Got it. I see their homaging and it’s very different.’”
Nicola Goode/Prime Video
The dance sequence from the original movie was another favorite, said Babbit: “I definitely wanted dancing at the bar. That Madonna scene in the original is so great. And I was like, ‘Well, I’m not gonna have Madonna, but I have a great song, I have all my characters, and I want to do one shot that goes from actor to actor to actor to actor that shows off who they are as a character dancing.’ It was a really fun thing to choreograph and do in one shot.”
Columbia Pictures/courtesy of Everett Collection
Another homage to the original is the charm school scene, where the girls are taught to behave and look like women. But the show’s charm school is a different and allows for more nuance. Weaver-Madsen remembered watching the film, and the feeling was the characters are tomboys or they’re not used to doing makeup or they’re not beautiful enough. In the series’ version of that scene, pressures the young women are under to ‘fit in’ are conveyed with looks between characters.
“It’s much more about gender identity and the comfort they have in putting this on or not,” said Weaver-Madsen. “And we get to go a little further because we’re allowed to talk about that kind of stuff now. The closeups of these different characters looking between each other can mean a lot more and we can show what that character is going through. It’s not just that they’re not good at applying blush or they don’t think that they’re beautiful — it has to do with the role they’re being asked to perform to allow them to play their sport. We also show the close ups of these men watching them and let the audience feel the presence of this male gaze, how it’s pushing on them. It was a fun thing to do, to be able modernize [the coverage] with paying attention to what the characters are feeling internally.”
For Jacobson, including these moments to enhance the story they are trying to tell was always about merging the nostalgia with an updated message.
“[We have] this Easter egg that now takes on a new meaning,” says Jacobson. “That’s the ultimate… There are a couple shots that are so visually reminiscent [of the original]. If we can find a way to pull in some of the little bits and little kisses to the film that we love, then it takes on a new meaning, and that’s the best.”