Interview: Craig Gillespie’s Winning Pitch for Million Dollar Arm

Based on a true story from the world of baseball, Walt Disney Pictures’ Million Dollar Arm stars Jon Hamm as agent “J.B.” Bernstein, who comes up with the crazy idea of saving his company by finding potential talent in India, staging a contest to find the fastest and most accurate pitchers among young men from a country where cricket is king.

They find two young men in Rinku (Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi) and Dinesh (Madhur Mitthal) and bring them back to California to be trained as pitchers by Bill Paxton’s Tom House, but J.B. soon learns it’s a much more difficult prospect than they thought and that these young Indian boys look up to him for support being so far away from home.

Inspirational sports movies like Million Dollar Arm aren’t a particularly new idea, but it may be somewhat surprising that the director behind the camera is Craig Gillespie, whose last few movies–Lars and the Real Girl and Fright Night–wouldn’t exactly make you think of him as the first person to direct a film about baseball that partially takes place in India and mostly features unknown Indian actors. While Million Dollar Arm does have some of the same qualities of Gillespie’s earlier work in terms of character dynamics, it also offered more than its share of challenges as ComingSoon.net learned when we spoke to Gillespie on the phone a few weeks back.

ComingSoon.net: I talk to a lot of directors who want to diversify and I’m not sure you can get much more different from “Lars and the Real Girl” to “Fright Night” and now this. If I hadn’t seen your name in the credits, I wouldn’t have guessed you directed the movie.
Craig Gillespie:
Fair enough. Yeah, it doesn’t seem like a really straight line, does it? I think “Million Dollar Arm” is a little more in my logical wheelhouse than “Fright Night” was.

CS: Where was the project at when you first got involved? Was there already a script written and was Jon Hamm already attached or was it still in the infancy stages?
Gillespie:
Tom McCarthy had done a lot of research and had written a script that I just loved that I managed to get my hands on. At the time, they were talking to Jon when I first started to meet on this project. It took me a while to get involved in it and for it to get my attention. I just started exploring and trying to figure out a couple different projects, and in the meantime, Jon was attached to it, which I thought was an excellent choice. Then I got to come back in and pitch it and meet with Jon and eventually I got the project which I was thrilled about.

CS: What was your pitch? Were you a baseball fan and did you already know about the story on which it’s based?
Gillespie:
The reason I was so keen about this project honestly was Tom’s writing. I’m obviously a fan of his movies and his sensibility and the tone that he strikes and that’s the one thing—talking about my other films—that you’d probably find it a little bit of a similar theme going on. I always like to mix the genres and have the humor mixed in with the drama or emotion or in the case of “Fright Night,” with the horror. Tom does such a great job of balancing that humor and the emotional side in his scripts so I really just related to his script and that’s the movie I wanted to make. I tried to be as clear as possible going into Disney and giving my pitch as my interpretation of his script and not really thinking of it as a studio picture, just what would serve the script including all the handheld work once we get to India, keeping it gritty, keeping it alive in camera and even referencing AR Rahman’s work from “Slumdog” and that mix of Western and Indian and how much that can drive the story and energize it. I really wanted to have a strong musical influence in it, too. I had a very specific pitch in mind that Disney embraced.

CS: There are a lot of elements involved with telling this story, including shooting in Indian and getting Indian actors, for instance. How hard was it making that adjustment, such as shooting a movie in India? Not a lot of Western movies are shot there so it must have been a challenge in that sense.
Gillespie:
The idea of shooting in India was really exciting to me and I do a lot of commercials so I worked with a lot of different DPs over the years and it’s a great network to be able to call up and check in with, so I called a bunch of friends that have shot in India and it was across the board. There would always be this chuckle when I mentioned that’s what we were going to do, I think partly because there’s a certain organized chaos that you gotta embrace, particularly since we’re trying to do shoot in real environments on the streets in these very crowded areas. It can be really challenging, but I sort of took it as more exuberance and embraced it. Not doing lock-ups and having pre set-up opportunities and just diving into that world, it’s almost like guerilla filmmaking, just grabbing whatever you can the best way you can. There’s a long dialogue scene where Jon walks down the street and it’s a Steadicam shot. There’s no lock-up, it’s all real people in the street, motorcycles, cows and I just threw him into the street with the camera and said “I’m going to call ‘action’ and just go for it,” and he said, “Okay,” and every take is a little bit different.

CS: Aasif Mandvi is fairly well known here from “The Daily Show” as is Suraj Shama thanks to “Life of Pi,” but what about casting some of the other Indian characters? Are those actors fairly well known in their country?
Gillespie:
Yeah, we obviously cast a lot in India which was great. We went down there and did all the casting for those roles. There’s just a wealth of actors down there, it’s obviously a huge business with the whole Bollywood thing going on that doesn’t get outside of the country too much. In the case of Pitobash, who was the translator, he’s done about sixteen movies down there and is a very well respected actor, and has quite a range of work—a political thriller that he got a lot of accolades for, and then some gangster films. He’s kind of all over the map, but I got to watch him without that knowledge and you can see what a great actor he is and how much brings to it, and he was completely a different character than what he’s been doing in India, so he was a real winner in that sense.

With the boys, we offered the role of Rinku to Suraj and met with him after seeing “Life of Pi.” He has this accessibility and charm and lightness that really tinted the character. Then the trick was really trying to find who to pair him up with and we did extensive callbacks down in India. Then the other thing was that we really wanted an Indian actor in this role. We just wanted that authentic nature so we didn’t really do any casting with American-Indian actors. There’s a lot of dialogue in their native tongue and we really wanted to do all that and keep it authentic. So went down to India and did a lot of casting and I narrowed it down to five actors who I then had them all audition with Suraj. The chemistry between Suraj and Madhur, to me, was electric, it was really obvious in the room, and they had a real yin and yang kind of quality about them. That was really exciting to find.

CS: Was it hard once you got to India dealing with crews that didn’t speak English?
Gillespie:
There’s so many different languages in India that there’s sort of a commonality in English so everybody pretty much speaks English as well, but it’s obviously harder shooting a scene that’s in another language that you don’t know, and you’re trying to track what they’re saying with script as they’re performing and work on their performance. The tonality is that you can separate the dialogue into scenes and you can tell they’re really giving you genuine emotion, so they’re connecting to the material. Because we certainly encouraged the actors to improvise, there would be times when they would go off script and I’d come over and go “What are you saying right now, because you have no dialogue. (laughs) There are no lines here. What are you saying?”

CS: I assume you had a translator during the editing process?
Gillespie:
We did and partly, too, we discovered certain scenes where they went off script so we had to re-edit it and rework it. I like to give actors that freedom, it gives another way into what is going on.

CS: Did you and/or the actors get to meet the actual players whose story on which this is based? Did you spend time with them?
Gillespie:
Yeah, yeah, Rinku is still with the Pirates pitching and I think he’s doing quite well – I believe he’s pitching around 97 miles an hour now. Dinesh, he pitched for that season for nine months and then went back to India, so we actually hired Dinesh as a consultant on this film, which was great, having him around, and he even helped coach the boys and put them through the drills. Both Suraj and Madhur had to learn the whole pitching process and how to pitch like somebody who could pitch for the try-out and also pitch poorly, which is how they start out at the beginning. They go through a whole change in terms of their coaching and they had to learn all these different styles of pitching throughout the film, and he was involved in all of that.

CS: I wanted to ask about that, because they were very convincing and it must have been hard to find actors who have the physicality to make convincing baseball pitchers. I assumed they played when they were younger or had some experience.
Gillespie:
We actually got some ex-ball pitchers who were very familiar with the world, and they were great in terms of coaching these kids and taking control of that in a very short time span of about six weeks before we started shooting. They had pretty intensive training going on.

CS: America has an interesting relationship with Indian culture, although we haven’t really seen a big crossover with that culture in terms of movies–”Slumdog Millionaire” was an exception—and yet this movie has really played well with American audiences. How do you balance being respectful to the Indian culture while still making a movie that American audiences can enjoy?
Gillespie:
It was so exhilarating because I’d never been to India before, so simply to go down there and scout this and go through the process to prepare for this movie, I got to see this world in a way that very few people would have and just experience all the diversity involved and the different cultures. I really wanted to try and capture that as authentically as possible while we were down there and to try to give the audience that experience, not just the movie version of India but sort of the real experience of it. We had so many great opportunities and it was really key to us that we didn’t form any stereotypes. We have several different classes of Indian in the film, between the boys from the village and Pitobash as the translator who works at a college, and then there’s Vivek the businessman. So they all have these different worlds that they’re coming from and I really thought it was crucial that we highlight that and didn’t just lump it all into the stereotype. It was a great opportunity in that way, and we were always aware of it and we had these gems along the way. There’s this one scene in the script where there’s a pizza delivery for the boys, and they come from a village so they don’t know what pizza was and a lot of this stuff is authentic, but Pitobash knows what pizza is because there’s pizza in Mumbai. So he came up with this line that wasn’t in the script but he said, “What, are you guys from Mars? You don’t know what pizza is?” We were always cognizant of it and just trying to be authentic with it.

Million Dollar Arm opens nationwide on Friday, May 16.

(Photo Credit: Brian To/WENN.com)

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