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Director Craig Gillespie Talks 'Million Dollar Arm' and Doing the Dramedy Dance

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

Craig Gillespie is 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.
'Million Dollar Arm'
'Million Dollar Arm'

Still, since most of India is shot in daylight, it also made sense to use film because the director believes daylight is the most unforgiving situation for digital, aside from the analog warmth that film provides. "I don't think you can get that [texture] digitally. And it's the boys and their sense of warmth and family that changes Jon's character. So as much as we could keep India vital and layer it in there with the camera work and the energy, was what I was after.

"And then we pushed a cold extreme digitally by shooting the boys in the States, where they feel alienated. The frames are just cleaner and not as busy and not as much layering going on."

There are four big tryouts and they all contain their own looks and arcs and Gillespie executed them with different styles: "The first one is when you first meet the boys at the academy and it's shot classically. We went very static, and simmering in the Old West kind of way, and zoom in on Jon and the boys.

"And in the Locknell competition, it's these big, sweeping, technocrane moves but then we're hand-held amongst it all with them. But that's just a cacophony of energy with long lenses and you're all around it. But once they get to the Tempe tryout, it's all hand-held on the boys' faces and you barely see the pitching. It's about feeling that emotion and we took all the footwork out of it. And then it's the more heroic version in the final pitching. The big steadicam moves and dolly moves around them, the backlight and flares."

The Bernstein house (shot in Atlanta doubling for Brentwood) serves as its own battleground back home for the sports attorney. First, they reinforced a gray palette to emphasize the alienation and then made use of a large window across the back, creating a fishbowl for Brenda to look into before becoming more intimately involved with Bernstein and a major redemptive catalyst.

"The house is a little off in terms of its proportions and it has a backstory: there's chipped paint and it's worn out because Bernstein hasn't had substantial income in a decade and hasn't touched it since he bought it."

And Gillespie's takeaway? "I tried to appreciate the moments and scouting. We got off the plane and they took us to the largest slum in Mumbai. It was such a quick prep that we didn't take the time to process it. I had no expectations. I wandered around the area for three hours and nobody bothered us and everybody was welcoming. The next day we were in a village three hours outside of Mumbai. I was with a local guide and asked to enter a home unannounced and meet this Indian family.

"I relate to the story on both sides, actually. It's such a classic, American dichotomy that we have. We're such a work-driven society, more, I think, than any other country. It's always that drive and always that balance of your work life and your emotional family life. He didn't even know he had that struggle until the boys came in his life. I could easily relate to that but also the the boys' side, though not to that extreme. When I was 18, I won a scholarship to come to New York. I had six weeks notice and suddenly I was in Manhattan not knowing anybody and living in the YMCA. So just that sense of isolation and loneliness and having to prove myself to my family."

"Million Dollar Arm" could be a turning point for Gillespie, since he's hoping to follow-up with a completely different true-life story that will allow him to do the dramedy dance once again.

This article is related to: Million Dollar Arm , Craig Gillespie, Directors, Immersed In Movies, Interviews, Interviews, Jon Hamm, Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.