By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood May 9, 2014 at 2:26PM
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."