Ron "The Artist" Shelton

With his new boxing movie, "Play It to the Bone," the writer-director continues to work the "radical middle."

Published September 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Forget Jesse "The Mind" Ventura. If the writer-director of "White Men
Can't Jump" and the forthcoming boxing film "Play It to the Bone"
were a politician instead of a moviemaker, he'd be the perfect third-party
candidate: Ron "The Artist" Shelton.

"The radical middle" has always been Shelton's existential sweet spot.
As an English major at an evangelical school (Westmont College in Santa
Barbara, Calif.) during the '60s, he would protest the Vietnam War yet defend as well
as play competitive sports -- which to some leftists were the roots of
American aggression. As a minor league baseball player (he was with the
Baltimore Orioles organization for five years), he'd risk the ire of
unsophisticated teammates when he dragged them off to see incendiary films
like Brian De Palma's "Hi, Mom!" As a moviemaker, he's too "quirky" or "arty"
for the Hollywood establishment, and too commercial (or maybe just too
entertaining) for the independent film movement.

But he's developed a following that will show up for a Shelton film
whenever a distributor gives it half a chance to open. And none of Shelton's peers -- not even a sacred cow like John Sayles -- has roamed more widely, pertinently or presciently over the American landscape. Even Shelton's most romantic and lighthearted movies, like "Bull Durham" (1988), "White Men Can't Jump" (1992) and "Tin Cup" (1996), challenge American notions of success, celebrity, race and masculinity. Their colloquial poetry energizes lazy or untried leading men: Kevin Costner in "Bull Durham" and "Tin Cup," Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes in "White Men Can't Jump." Working for Shelton,
these guys get to show off gifts for hardscrabble wit and literate nonsense
that reflect their Renaissance jock of a director.

In "Blaze" (1989), starring Paul Newman as Lousiana Gov. Earl K.
Long and Lolita Davidovich as Long's lover,
stripper Blaze Starr, Shelton paid tribute to the "ruthlessly local" politics
that voters now turn to in relief: "It's not about sound bites, and it
doesn't care about a certain amount of personal and public corruption if you
can do for me and my neighborhood's constituents what needs to be done." And
in his iconoclastic portrait of the notorious baseball giant "Cobb" (1994),
Shelton probed the conflicts of public image, private misconduct and press
management that are as relevant to presidents as sports figures.

In the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy the movie press has made its specialty, "Cobb" flopped so totally and immediately it never received a wide
release. Its strengths -- Tommy Lee Jones' ferocious lead performance, Shelton's wise,
original take on Ty Cobb's "Victorian Southern redneck small-town background"
and scenes so unique that they should have been taught not only in film
school but in creative writing class -- won little praise. But Shelton bounced
back with "Tin Cup," a lyrically rowdy golf comedy that said far more about
midlife choices than "American Beauty."
It was nearly everyone's favorite sports movie of 1997 until the more conventionally romantic "Jerry Maguire" opened at year's end and stole the spotlight.

After spending time on aborted projects like an epic biography of
Bob Marley, Shelton has returned with "Play It to the Bone." This infinitely
surprising, beautifully acted boxing film starts out as an on-the-road flick
with two guys and a girl, and ends up conveying the epic nature of fighting in
all its ramifications: commercial, mystical, heroic and homoerotic.

Antonio Banderas and Woody Harrelson play evenly matched
middleweights: best friends who get a last-minute call to battle each other
prior to the most publicized event in boxing history -- Mike Tyson's return
to the ring. Together they drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas with the woman who owns the car, who is both Banderas' girlfriend and Harrelson's ex (Davidovich, who has also been the woman in Shelton's life for the last decade). In its own unassuming way, the film deepens (and grows more funny) until the match
becomes the body- and soul-shaking crucible that boxing films always promise
but almost never deliver. The combat cleanses the boxers -- all their weird
impurities shake out in the ring, to alternately convulsive and heart-stopping effect.

Shelton says that when he and Davidovich first started to go out, he
gave her a copy of Joyce Carol Oates' book "On Boxing." Oates wrote that
boxing mimics "a species of erotic love in which one man overcomes the other
in an exhibition of superior strength and will," and that "the triumphant
fighter is Satan transmogrified as Christ." Shelton plays daring riffs on both
those themes. And by giving us equal rooting interest in the two
fighters, his movie provides a rare chance to view boxing as art and as

Originally slated for a November release, "Play It to the Bone"
received only cursory attention in the slick magazines' fall movie round-ups.
But the film's distributor, Disney, is so enthusiastic that it has
rescheduled the picture for a pre-Oscar platform opening, with December
premieres in New York and Los Angeles before a cross-country break in January.

Shelton himself is re-energized. Based in Santa Monica, where he
shares offices with his producer and Shanghai'd Films partner, Stephen Chin, he
hopes to continue making his own movies quickly and efficiently (this one
cost a mere $17 million) and going to the studios only to distribute them.

"I hate the conspicuous waste and excess and stupidity of the
studios," says Shelton. "And I hate whining and complaining, which I think
the independents do. But if you raise your own money and use the studios for
distribution -- that may be the only way. We're talking about cutting the
studio out of the loop, putting the financing together and then going back
to the studio for distribution because that's what they control. It's a
bizarre business now. The studios are not even in the same business as we are
anymore. They are small parts of giant international corporations. You used
to think Warner Bros. made films; no, Warner Bros. is a small piece of
Time Warner. And management reflects that. It's money-laundering, and if they
can figure out how to do it as well without making movies, they will, because
movies are messy." Shelton spoke recently with Salon Arts & Entertainment.

Why is boxing so attractive to filmmakers?

There are lessons to be learned from Foreman, Ali, Frazier, Julio [Cesar] Chavez and
Pernell Whitaker, so good at their job, and so relentless. The metaphors are
so grotesquely clichid: How can you take a hit and adjust? How do you
respond when you're bleeding? But in boxing, these aren't metaphors: They are
the truth. There's real blood. And trying to be an artist in movies and being
an athlete are very similar, because you have to stay focused at all times on
the work, and the moment that the studio's on the phone or the agent's on the
phone -- or the corporate sponsor -- focus starts to drain.

Lolita is a huge boxing fan. When we were starting out together, in the
volatile and tentative early days, I said to her, "Look, I am a boxing fan. I
subscribe to two boxing monthlies and read them cover to cover. And I go to
the fights and I'd like to take you to fights. If you don't like fights,
fine; many women don't, many men don't. But this is who I am and I always go
to these things. If you like it, great, but there's no expectation. Just give
me one weekend, give me one fight and read this book." And I gave her Joyce
Carol Oates' book "On Boxing,'' a book by a woman whose father took her to
fights as a little girl.

We went to a fight in Vegas and I can remember the whole card, starting with
Tyson and Razor Ruddock. The sixth fight on the undercard was the great
fighter Roberto Duran, out of shape and fat, getting beat by "Irish" Pat Lawlor, a journeyman fighter. I remember telling Lolita, "See that guy, who's
on at 4:30: That's the guy who some say was the greatest fighter of all time,
and he's about to get his brains beat out by this hack." That's the kind of
drama you find on the undercard! Anyway, she was taken completely with the
sport and became a knowledgeable fight fan. On "Play It to the Bone," we took
many of the women on the crew who had never been to a fight and had the usual
stereotypical notion, "Oh, it's just a bunch of guys hitting each other" [and we brought them to see some local fights and an Oscar De La Hoya match]. And to a woman they were turned around.

I think the sport is so different in person than on television. On television
you cannot appreciate how hard they hit, the punishment they take. Any one of
their punches would break one of our ribs; and the response they have is to
hit back! The concentration of these guys, who are almost without question
uneducated (high school education is first-class for a fighter), is something
we can all aspire to. And the conditioning. The Tour de France is one thing --
boxers have that and get hit and know they're risking brain damage.

At the end of my movie, Woody asked to fight with a professional double we
were using, and I agreed. The last boxing thing I shot was Woody sparring
with a pro named Cleveland Corder, a welterweight, the only white man I know
named Cleveland.

He was actually Antonio Banderas' double, he had Antonio's
outfit on, so I thought we could film Woody letting go on some blows. And
Woody was in as good a shape as any actor could have been. But Cleveland
could take Woody's best shots and just flick them away. Woody could fight
Cleveland Corder for 10 years and never land a punch. So we ran two cameras
on this, framing out Cleveland's head, and Woody is running out of gas,
running out of gas, running out of gas. And finally, I said, "Cut." And I
jumped in the ring and embraced Woody because it was the last boxing shot of
the film. And he said, "God, why did you let it go so long? What was it, five
minutes, six minutes?" I looked down and it was a minute and a half. It was
half of one round. Woody, who'd been conditioning for 12 weeks, couldn't
get through it. And both my actors were in extraordinary shape.

Your movies tend to open up relatively private sports worlds -- the minor
leagues of "Bull Durham," the basketball playgrounds of "White Men Can't
Jump," and now the undercard fighters in "Play It To the Bone." How did you
get the idea for this one?

The idea came from sitting around with Bill Caplan, who's been George
Foreman's publicist since Foreman was 18, and my late, dear friend, the
sportswriter Allan Malamud. We were talking about the fact that I love the
undercard. If the main fight starts at 8 p.m., I'll go at 5 p.m. Nobody will be there.
That's where there's great drama, and nobody knows. You read a "bout sheet"
with eight or 10 bouts; it's like reading hieroglyphics, but you get where the
fighters are from, and their records. So you see a guy is 16-0 and he's
from Philadelphia, with 14 knockouts. This is a fighter to watch out for, and
he'll be fighting a guy he's supposed to beat; you start to imagine what the promoters are thinking.

Out of the eight or 10 bouts there a couple that could go either way. And
these fighters have got to win to continue their careers, even if they are 16-0; if you can't win the 6 o'clock bout in Vegas, even though the TV
coverage doesn't go on till 7, you're never going to go back to Vegas. And
there will be guys who come up with no handlers, like my guys in the movie,
and knock the shit out of some stud from Philadelphia, and take a bus back to

So "Mud" and Bill and I were sitting around, talking about undercards, and I
said, "What is the greatest undercard fight you ever saw?" And Bill and Mud
said, "July 12, 1965, an undercard fight to Sugar Ray Robinson and Ferd
Hernandez." Now this was way past when Sugar Ray should have been fighting.
But he was the greatest fighter of all time -- or, as Dizzy Dean said when he
was asked if he was the greatest pitcher of all time, "I don't know, but I'm
among 'em." Robinson was beloved in Vegas by Sinatra and all those guys; he'd
be out of money and he'd go to Vegas and they'd find a fight for him, stage
it and give him all the money for it. He had this fight set for the
Hacienda, and it was a big deal.

Well, the semi-main event fell apart,
because both fighters were not able to fight that morning. So the promoters
called the Main Street Gym in L.A., which no longer exists -- there weren't many
fighters based in Vegas then, unlike now. They got hold of these two club
fighters, guys who'd had their shot, and said, "You have to be here by 6 o'clock."
They were Mexican-American fighters, best friends who'd never fought each other
and were working out at the gym; they drove over, beat each other's brains out in
what everybody described as the most unbelievable war they'd ever seen, got in the car
and drove home. That was the anecdote out of which this movie grew. They were friends: That's why they didn't think anything of driving over to Vegas together, to save gas money.

Do fighters often advance beyond these undercard matches?

Some advance, some don't. There are guys called opponents; an opponent is a
guy you have to beat. There are about three heavyweight opponents. If you're
a rising heavyweight, you'll fight a bunch of opponents -- guys who are
sanctioned, guys who have decent records. If you can't beat them, you'll
never get anywhere. Then you'll get to a couple of guys you'll have to get
past, stepping-stone guys, two or three in every division. And if you can't
get by them, again, you're done. Bert Cooper is one; there are only about
four. These guys are not in the top 10, but they're in the top 25, and
they're a real test -- like, "Here's a feature film, you're not making student
movies anymore."

Bert Cooper is an African-American heavyweight who had
Evander Holyfield out on his feet about six years ago, but Holyfield
recovered to beat him, and then beat Mike Tyson, so Cooper was that far
away from the top. He hits like a mule. He's not the greatest defensive
fighter; if you really are patient you can wear him down. But if you get into
a slugging match with him, Bert Cooper will knock you out. I was at a fight
once in Vegas and way down on the undercard I saw that the first televised
bout was Bert Cooper against a guy named Chuck "Instant" Coffee from
Kentucky. I couldn't wait to see what Chuck "Instant" Coffee was like. He was
from Kentucky, 26-0 with 26 knockouts, and he had his shot at an
undercard fight in Vegas; I figured everyone in Kentucky had to be watching
this. He had beaten a bunch of opponents to get to one of these fighters you
had to get by -- but he couldn't get by Bert Cooper.

I had this in mind for a long time. And after "Marley" fell through, I
thought, it's time to make it. I told Lolita, "I'll write this boxing movie,
and I'll write a part for you" -- that's how it started, truthfully. The whole
script I wrote in a week and a half, but I had 10 years of things in my
head. I wrote 10 pages with a black guy and white guy as the leads. Then I
changed course; I felt people would think of it as "White Men Can't Jump II"
-- that somehow I'd just taken my two guys and put them in another sport,
which is not at all what I was doing. Anyway, I like not to know everything
when I start writing, because I think you can kill a story by having it
overly organized. There should be a sense of discovery along the way;
obviously you should have a sense that you're heading north instead of south,
but how you get there is part of the job.

One of my favorite fights in the last five years was Arturo Gatti and the
European lightweight champion from Spain, Wilson Rodriguez. So I started to
think, "What if I made one of these guys a European who comes over here?" And
I pictured Antonio Banderas as I was writing it. After seeing him in Pedro
Almsdovar movies, and watching "Evita" and thinking, "All he's doing there is
standing there and all I want to do is watch him and not everything going on
around him," I thought Antonio wasn't getting his due in America. I saw Sean
Penn for the other part as I wrote it. Then I went to see "The Hi-Lo
Country." I like the director, Stephen Frears; I don't think he got that
right. But I was enamored of the way Woody Harrelson inhabited that mess. And
I thought, "Woody! He's getting better and better, his heart is everywhere, I
know how to work with him; I think we can do some classic Woody things and do
some new things." We gave it to Woody and Antonio and they both said, "Yes,"
like that, without big offers.

The clichi wisdom is that fighters get to know each other in the ring. Here,
Banderas and Harrelson are best friends before they reach the ring, and
Lolita plays a woman who is with Banderas and has been with Harrelson. This
makes the emotions of the fight more complicated, the "issues" more charged,
but also makes the spectacle of it more contemplative, since you want both of
them to win.

I wanted you to get to this level of the movie saying to yourself (if you're
conscious of this kind of thing), "Oh, this is a really good Ron Shelton
movie. I'm really intrigued by these characters, and the revelations" -- and
then let the boxing take you somewhere else. I mean, Sam Peckinpah does that
in the final fight and its aftermath in "The Wild Bunch." I knew I was happy
enough to be here, now I'm more, because I've got a place to land: The place
that Robert Ryan lands in "The Wild Bunch" is "It ain't like it used to be
but it'll do."

This film is, I think, unique. I don't know a boxing or gunfight movie like
this, [which is why] I tried to get the audience to invest equally and fully in both
characters. When Woody knocks Antonio down, Lolita says, "How could you do
that to him?" I think it humanizes her. She helps us see the way things get
turned around in this world because she falls apart. They fall apart in the
first two acts every minute and she's the tough chick. She's got a life, a
career; she can toy with them, she can tease them. But they get into the ring
and they are what they've always said they were: professionals. And she is
somebody who loves them both and she falls apart.

The movie is about people trying to prove themselves but also testing what
they think they know about themselves (sexually, emotionally, athletically)
and seeing how close they can get ...

I would love the movie to blast out of the air any idea of there being no
such thing as male closeness or intimacy outside of homosexuality. I go so
far as to show two guys showering together. And I acknowledge homosexuality in boxing and as part of one of the guys' makeup.

Beliefs also get tested. Your treatment of Woody's visions of Christ is both
humorous and serious, and we learn a lot about the other characters from how
they respond to it.

Unlike Antonio, who's European, Lolita's character wants to believe. I
thought of Woody as the believer, Lolita as the agnostic and Antonio as an
atheist. That's why I find it touching when Woody resorts to logic: He asks
Lolita what "proof" she has that there are "a lotta fags in boxing, more than
average." I give Antonio the Luis Buquel line, "Thank God I'm an atheist."
I'm worried that's too self-conscious, but since no one except film buffs
have heard of Buquel, we'll get away with it. By the way, I'm with Lolita's
character on this: I'd like to see God manifest; I'd also like to see a UFO.
I just need something -- will you show me? What does it look like? I'm open,
I just have to see it. When Woody sees Christ in a diner parking lot and he
leaves by the time Lolita and Antonio get there, it's Lolita who says, "Maybe
he's hiding."

In a sense, all your films play with the way sports crashes into theater.

Yes, but sports and theater usually meet where sports figures become popular
icons or symbols and stand for a lot more than just the event. For instance,
Joe Louis and Max Schmeling -- probably the greatest instance of that in this
century, and I wasn't born yet. [Hitler is terrorizing Europe] and Max Schmeling, a
German, knocks out Joe Louis. If you're an American and you're caught up in
the fight, you may start questioning: What is this Master Race, and does
Hitler know something we don't? And then, three years later, Joe Louis knocks
out Max Schmeling in the first round, on the eve of World War II, and you
think maybe we'd win and survive. That's where sports and theater collide on
a grand populist scale.

George Foreman's victory over Michael Moorer was one of those moments because
he was 47. It was like watching Mick Jagger crowding 60 and out-singing
opening groups who are 25. When popular needs and desires and political
issues and cultural issues become embodied in a symbolic way, that's the
theater of sports. It [happened] with Babe Ruth, it did with Muhammad Ali. And I was
a bigger Joe Frazier fan than an Ali fan.

I have problems with "When We Were Kings." My main problem with that movie is
that it doesn't go far enough. The liberal worship of Ali is blinding. The
interesting thing about Ali is that he was making speeches about our black
sisters and screwing every white woman out there. No problem -- but why did
he get away with things that no other boxer could get away with? Like calling
black fighters "gorillas," "Uncle Toms," "bears." This is race baiting -- from
a guy named Cassius Marcellus Clay, an upper-middle-class guy from
Louisville, with educated parents. I understand why Joe Frazier still won't
talk to him. He humiliated Frazier and Frazier beat him once and took him to
the limit three times in probably the three greatest heavyweight matches of
all time. Joe Frazier was the son of a butcher from Philly, who won an
Olympic gold medal with a broken hand; this was a man who characterized
African-American disenfranchisement, and he's the one who's been humiliated.
Ali is still the transcendental athlete of the last half-century, but I wish
he wasn't untouchable.

Bill Caplan has told me other stories from the "When We Were Kings" match in
Zaire: of Ali sending hookers to Foreman every night, or putting stuff in the
water for Foreman. It was 120 degrees and Ali fought a brilliant fight, but a
lot has been shoveled under. And Foreman is the guy who grew out of the
humiliation, whose life changed. George Foreman is the only African-American
ever on the cover of Forbes magazine -- George Foreman, who credits his life
being saved to the liberal American politics of Lyndon Johnson's Job Corps
program, who came out of the tough 9th Ward of Houston. (And I know it's
tough; I made a point of going there when we were making "Tin Cup.") It was
George Foreman who reinvented himself: He said that he didn't want to talk
about Zaire, yet he wore the same trunks he wore in Zaire at the Michael
Moorer fight. He hadn't touched the trunks since Zaire, but he put them on
again in a moment that transcended race.

Speaking of race and prejudice: This movie embraces Banderas' ethnicity,
portraying him as a boxer from Madrid; this is part of what enables him to be
as profoundly playful as in the Almsdovar films, where you feel he will try

He got the script immediately, and he hits all the notes. He was so nervous,
because, as he said, "Nobody trusts me with the language." I said, "I don't
want you to have a voice coach; any phrases you can't say I will rewrite."
For instance, people for whom English is not a first language have trouble
with contractions, which are particularly English and American. So I took out
90 percent of his contractions -- instead of "I couldn't," he got "I
could not"; instead of "I didn't," "I did not." As in, "Joe, I did not take
a dive in the Garden."

Banderas is his mother's name; Dominguez is his father's name. So Antonio was
very proud when I changed the name of his character to Dominguez, when I was
trying to clear a Spanish name; he said, "My father would be very happy,
because he was a little steamed I took my mother's name for my professional
career." And nicknaming Dominguez "El Califa" is really his idea -- from
caliph, which means supreme ruler in the Moorish world. I'm just afraid I'll
be known as the director who made Antonio Banderas look like Carmen Basilio --
a great middleweight, but he'd leave the ring looking like he'd been hit by a truck.

Did you go to school on the other boxing movies? What about "Raging Bull?"

I'm the only guy who doesn't think the boxing in "Raging Bull" is very good,
although I think it's very emotionally effective. Scorsese has said he'd
never been to a boxing match, and doesn't know boxing. What's great about the
boxing in "Raging Bull" is the sound design, to use a term. Besides his
operatic use of the punching, you've got the voice of Don Dunphy, the
greatest boxing announcer in history, who died last year. Dunphy was the
voice of boxing; you can't imagine "Raging Bull" without it. And Jim Lampley
is our version of that; he's a great guy, and his command of the English
language is electric and staggering.

The voice of Lampley, the voice of Dunphy -- these are important elements,
along with the voice of the crowd, and you weave them in and out, and
sometimes they tell you what you need to hear again, and sometimes they
clarify things, and sometimes they just provide texture. When Jim says, "Down
goes Dominguez again," you can hear he loves it.

I like "Fat City," and I liked "The Set-Up." And I really liked "The Boxer."
Besides Jim Sheridan reevaluating the IRA -- which was a huge movement for
him politically -- it's a sexy love story and Daniel Day-Lewis and Emily
Watson don't even touch. When they drive off in the car at the end -- it's
the first aerial shot that I ever thought was really hot. And our boxing
choreographer, Darrell Foster, said that's the only boxing movie where the
guys did a good job in the ring.

In my movie, I'm trying to make the fighting realistic and hyper-realistic,
and to get in the characters' heads. Is the gunfight at the end of "The Wild
Bunch" real? It's the most unreal thing you've ever seen and it's real.
That's what we want.

You went to Vegas for the Felix Trinidad-Oscar De La Hoya fight. What did
you think of it, and who did you think was the winner?

Well, I thought it was one of those fights that frequently happens at such a
high level, when you have two guys who know that if one makes a mistake, the
other can knock him out. They were respectful and afraid to expose
themselves, so it was not an offensive fight. For boxing purists, it was, for
nine rounds, a spectacular demonstration of fighting skills, though not so
exciting. The mystery for me was why De La Hoya thought he had the fight won
after nine rounds and stopped fighting; Trinidad won the last three rounds by
default and that gave him the fight. I think De La Hoya got bad corner
advice; I agreed with the Belgian judge. But De La Hoya after Trinidad may be
like Leonard after Duran and Ali after Frazier and Louis after Schmeling; he
may have great fights ahead of him, and both these guys are so young there
are many matches to be made. And it was good to have an honest decision come
out of Vegas. The only downside is that Don King is in charge again, which is
entertaining but not good for boxing. What people wanted was Hagler-Hearns --
two guys knocking each other out from the opening bell, throwing caution to
the wind, and one guy crumpling but honored in the loss, because there was
clearly nothing left in the bank. But Oscar was barely ahead and gave the
last three rounds away.

You also wrote the script to the political adventure "Under Fire," and you
have wide, wide interests. Do you worry about being typecast as a sports

There are other kinds of movies I've wanted to do. A gospel music story; a
crazed love story about a visionary, fraudulent hustler; a story about the
airline highway in New Orleans, the old highway that the interstate replaced,
which like all old highways now has wig stores and adult motels, and failing
tropical fish stores and fast food; it is the place where Jimmy Swaggart got
busted, where all these political figures meet strippers, and it's just a
great, great world.

The stories that I'm interested in -- sometimes I sort of notice later that
they're set in the sports world, and it really doesn't occur to me that
they're sports movies. I love the old John Ford story about him getting up
and saying, "I'm John Ford and I make westerns." That's OK, because "My
Darling Clementine" is different from "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," which is
different from "Stagecoach." I think of sports as a stage and an arena. What
I hope is that my movies capture life. I want to put life on screen. That's
the goal.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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