There are no greater underdogs in professional sports than those sorry teams located within the beleaguered confines of Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians have not won a World Series since 1948; the Cavaliers have been to the NBA Finals once, but were swept despite the brilliance of hometown superstar LeBron James (who later jilted the city in spectacularly humiliating fashion on live television); and the Browns... oh, the Browns. Since defeating the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL Championship Game, the Browns have been on the doorstep of the Super Bowl four times only to have a) Brian Sipe throw an inexplicable interception, b) John Elway drive the length of the field for a game-tying touchdown, c) Earnest Byner fumble the ball on the two-yard line while barreling into the end zone for a game-tying touchdown, and d) the Denver Broncos kick their ass. Then in 1995, Art Modell up and moved the team to Baltimore because he was broke and devoid of human decency. But just when it looked like Browns fans had hit rock bottom, something truly horrifying happened: a new version of the team opened up shop in 1999. In thirteen seasons, the "resurrected" Cleveland Browns have run through twenty starting quarterbacks* while compiling a hideous 77-163 record.
But, like first-degree murder, there's always hope in Cleveland - especially in the off-season, when the NFL Draft offers up a potential bounty of franchise-altering talent. Though the Browns rarely strike gold here (even if they have the first pick), there is forever that sense that this could be the year. So while the Cleveland faithful wait to find out if Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles or Teddy Bridgewater will be the franchise's under-center savior come May 8th, they can watch Kevin Costner attempt to pull off a miracle as Browns GM Sonny Weaver Jr. in Ivan Reitman's feel-good drama DRAFT DAY. And you thought summoning the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson from an Iowa cornfield was improbable.
Working from a screenplay by Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph, Reitman perfectly captures the mixture of pride and despair that has defined this franchise for nearly half a century. Though his Browns may be mostly fictional (real-life greats Jim Brown and Bernie Kosar cameo as themselves), the notion of a make-or-break draft is painfully realistic; Costner's GM is under as much pressure to "make a splash" in the film as the current Browns front office is next month. That, however, is where the verisimilitude ends; the rest of the movie is a familiar piece of old-fashioned Hollywood uplift that places as much emphasis on Weaver's faltering love life it does his professional crisis. It's the most Capra-esque film Reitman has made since DAVE, and one of his very best.
Interviewing Reitman at the DRAFT DAY press junket was an interesting challenge in that my Browns fandom is equalled by my adoration for classics like GHOSTBUSTERS, STRIPES and DAVE. Fortunately, I had enough time to discuss both. If you're looking for his thoughts on GHOSTBUSTERS 3, they're near the end of the below transcript are are surprisingly candid. This one was a lot of fun.
Jeremy Smith: I should tell you that I come at this film as a born-and-raised Cleveland Browns fan.
Ivan Reitman: So the pain is familiar.
Jeremy: The pain is very familiar, and you do it justice. Knowing how miserable, yet loyal this fan base is, did you feel any extra responsibility to portray it accurately?
Reitman: I think the whole Cleveland story is a character in the overall story. It was originally written with the Buffalo Bills, which is not the same because they actually got in the Super Bowl a couple of times; they just didn't manage to win. But the Browns are really the epitome of the sad-sack city from a sports point-of-view and also as a city itself - the kind of unemployment that hit in the '70s, and its Rust Belt reputation. It's really a beautiful city now. There are great restaurants and things like that. But as a character in a story, it all kind of makes sense; it gives more weight to the expectations of the city, which is one of the motivational factors that sort of hits everybody who's in charge of the Browns.
Jeremy: It was interesting reading about all of the people in the Browns organization who served as advisors on the film, considering they've recently been fired.
Reitman: I got a call from [former Browns CEO] Joe Banner. He was so wonderful when we were shooting, as was [former Browns GM] Mike Lombardi. [Lombardi] was a great chatter; he used to come by and tell stories while we were shooting at the facility. I got an email from Mike. It was really sweet because he liked the movie so much. I said, "I've got to hear the whole story on what happened." And he said, "We'll share drinks the next time we're in the same city." He was really caught by surprise. He didn't know that was happening.
Jeremy: Now that football is the national sport, people have really become obsessed with every aspect of the game. You have a significant chunk of fans who watch the NFL combine.
Reitman: I can't believe how many people watch the combine. If you think of the draft as a television show, that's like watching someone read the Yellow Pages. You're not getting much. When I talked to the commissioner and others about how [the draft] got developed as a television show, no one expected it to be this big. They had twenty-one million viewers for the first round last time. Most people only know it as the thing that happens on TV, so what's cool about the film is you have a sense of what's really going on. It's a story that's happening in thirty-two cities around the country, with groups of men in these dark rooms trying to make these life-and-death decisions as far as their cities and teams are concerned. And look at what happened in Cleveland: they're gone! I never set out to make a sports movie; I'm a sports fan, but I didn't think of it in that way. I'm much more interested in making a musical, which is something I've not managed to do yet. But I read the script and I loved it. I couldn't put it down. And I knew by the time I hit the last ten pages that I was going to make the movie somehow.
Jeremy: Like many of your best films, there's a really big ensemble around your protagonist. There are guys on the periphery who really pop, kind of in the way Rick Moranis did in GHOSTBUSTERS or Kevin Dunn in DAVE. In DRAFT DAY you've got Pat Healy showing up as the GM of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Reitman: Pat's first close-up gets a huge laugh every time it plays in a movie theater.
Jeremy: Is that something you look for when you're making a film, that rich assortment of characters that makes the movie a more lively experience?
Reitman: I cast very carefully. I fight any sense of convention if possible. I'm always looking for the actor who's going to bring bonus points to the equation; lots of people can act the scene well, but I'm always looking for just this little oddness or difference in the person, that quirkiness that identifies it as real as opposed to performed. It's the skill to bring that little extra thing that makes the moviegoing experience so delicious.
Jeremy: We expect classical films of this nature to be shot fairly conventionally, but you use an interesting editing technique. You have that split-screen that wipes back-and-forth, with people crossing the line into the foreground of someone else's shot. Why did you use this technique, and were you worried it might throw people?
Reitman: It has thrown people. I've read online that it's thrown people, which surprises me because it's really pretty clear and used fairly carefully. When I first read the script, I was like, "Shit, there are sixteen phone calls in this film. How am I going to do them so that they're just not dull?" As it is, a lot of it takes place in these rooms. So I built this movie out. I added all of the Radio City Music Hall stuff and a bunch of other things like that; the use of cities and their teams and going to those locations and getting a sense of the national importance of the game. But I had to look at the split-screen thing as an opportunity as opposed to a liability. I employed these guys, Jenny Lee and Gareth Smith, who've done all the title sequences for my son's movies. They're really talented and they've got beautiful designs, so I explained my problem.
I happened to shoot both sides of that scene with Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), where he's looking at his kids in the gym doing gymnastics while Costner's passing through the field house where the party is going to take place that night. It's that conversation where he just found out that Vontae Mack tweeted something. I had the footage ready, and sent it to [Lee and Smith]; I'd done a cut of it of the scene myself with Sheldon Kahn, who's been editing with me since GHOSTBUSTERS, and Dana Glauberman, who was Sheldon's assistant and then became Jason's cutter. I sent that scene to them, and right away I saw that moment where one character crosses in front of the other. I thought, "Oh wow, that's a great idea!" Then I started pitching them all kinds of ideas of things we could do with it. Then when we got into postproduction, one of the big decisions was how much we were going to use split-screen or cut things traditionally. I realized that there were no rules; I could edit on one side and use all kinds of cuts while I was holding singularly on one of the characters on the other side. I could violate the space, I could hold on to characters after the scene was over and go with one of them, and I could move the frame across. Inevitably, these two scenes were shot at different times, so the sync is going to be different. You can't keep on one take because the performances are different, and they run out of sync. That pushed for all kinds of innovations as well. It became great fun in terms of adding a visual dimension to a film that doesn't allow for that much.
Jeremy: At first, I was like "Okay, this is new." But as the tension ratcheted up, it felt pretty natural.
Reitman: One of my favorite uses is in the Sam Elliott scene where Costner walks right into the field and it looks like they're in a medium two-shot wherever Sam is. Then the background catches up with Costner, and we see they're in their respective places. It all happens in three or four seconds, but it's so delicious a visual event that it clarified the opportunities.
Jeremy: How was it directing Kevin Costner, who is a director in his own right? Did he take direction easily? Did he have ideas?
Reitman: Even actors who haven't won Academy Awards for directing have ideas. (Laughs) But when you have someone like that, it's smart to listen to them. It's very easy for me because I've been working with people like Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd from the very beginning; that forces you to be very nimble. They're writers as well as performers, and often they have spectacular ideas - and those are things that are happening while you're shooting. With someone like Costner, it's a conversation that happens before you get on set, where he says, "I'm comfortable with this, but we have to shore this up." They're really intelligent things that come from his own sports experience, which is considerable, and his own intelligence and his abilities as a director.
I worked with Robert Redford very early in my career on LEGAL EAGLES, and he'd just won the Oscar for ORDINARY PEOPLE. You have to respect it and, at the same time, you have to be the director. Redford got surly with me once, and I just wouldn't back down. He was like, "Why do I have to do another take?" It was a long speech, and he hadn't gotten it yet and he was being lazy. So I said, "Because you haven't got it." Redford said, "Well, what's wrong with it?" He was challenging me about what was wrong with the scene. So I actually enumerated about eight things in a row, and he stops and says, "Alright, I'll do it again." So he does it again, and it's much better. And we kept doing it. It was actually pretty early on in the filmmaking process, and he finally stops and says, "You actually know what you're doing, don't you?" (Laughs) And I said, "Well, I'm trying."
But that taught me that you have to stand up for your own integrity and get what you need, and not let yourself get bowled over by an actor who's being cranky or lazy or god knows what. And at the same time, I remember on MEATBALLS that I had just set up this shot, and Bill comes over with this ratty piece of paper and he starts pitching me, all excited, this scene that had nothing to do with all of what I'd just spent the last half-hour setting up. But I thought, "What he's pitching is better." It was a script thing. I didn't have it, but he had it already. I made some adjustments to it, but because I was being so positive about it he had no problem adjusting his own vision. I think that's the problem some directors have had with him over the years. I learned to go with the ebb and flow of it, and it's made me very comfortable taking the best suggestion even if it's not mine. I've always worked with writers in the development process, and I'm always in the editing room, so you learn about the plasticity of the storytelling and the creation of the movie. You're always looking for those opportunities because movies are about those moments.
Jeremy: Whenever we post a GHOSTBUSTERS 3 story, the reaction from our readers is basically the same.
Reitman: God forbid. (Laughs) "It's all bullshit!"
Jeremy: That's half of it, yes. "How can they do this?" But after Harold Ramis passed, those negative reactions seemed to grow in volume. Thinking of those fans who have a real reticence about this project, and how it might not live up to expectations, what would you say to them?
Reitman: I felt really uncomfortable about directing it. My expectation for the longest time - because we've been working on it for almost four years now, really actively on a regular basis with two sets of writing teams - was that I wanted to direct it and it was going to be good. We have very good scripts that really honor the tradition of it. The original GHOSTBUSTERS are all in their sixties - the ones who are alive - and one of them is extraordinarily reticent and hasn't read a screenplay, despite having said that he has. I hung in there until Harold's death, and then I realized maybe this is the opportunity. It happened in combination with [DRAFT DAY], which I'm so proud of; it was so satisfying to do something more serious and had a dramatic flow to it. It made more sense for someone of my age. I remember coming back and thinking about [GHOSTBUSTERS 3] for weeks even prior to Harold's death, and then that just pushed me over the edge. So I went to Sony and I said, "Look, I'm not comfortable directing this sequel now."
I realized I only have a number of movies left in me, and I did GHOSTBUSTERS. People will only be comparing it to that [first movie], and I'll only be fighting against myself. It just felt too weird, especially with the loss of Harold, who just focused that moment in my own life and my own sense of mortality. So I backed off. But I'm going to be very involved in it. I'm going to produce it, and it's going to be the second draft that Etan Coen wrote. It's terrific, and it really lives up to the original in a way GHOSTBUSTERS II didn't. I think the second GHOSTBUSTERS is two-thirds of a great movie, and I think the last act is ridiculous. I had no problem making it, but I knew we couldn't do that again. We had to do something that has the kind of energy and scale and deliciousness of the first one. I think we've got stuff like that in this. Generally, people are always cynical about these things because at their heart they start as financial desires by a studio. But there are really good creative people behind this that are trying their best. It doesn't mean it will be as great a movie as the first one. I hope strangely that it isn't. (Laughs) And strangely I hope that it is. That's the most honest answer I can give. I think it has the opportunity to be a really great film in its own right. You have to judge these movies as they come out.
DRAFT DAY hits theaters April 11th, 2014. The Cleveland Browns have already been mathematically eliminated from the 2015 NFL Postseason.
*By comparison, the Green Bay Packers have had four.