If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true1.
For some reason, movies about baseball seem to work better than films about any other sport. It doesn't matter if you don't know a thing about the rules, or if you've never even watched a game, the basic concept behind the sport seems to be ripe for inspiring stories of courage, decency and emotional closure. Whether it be the personal determination of a terminally-ill player (The Pride of the Yankees, Bang the Drum Slowly), female emancipation (A League of Their Own) or obsession (The Fan), the baseball movie somehow has the ability to appeal to all. Arguably the best of these, however, is Field of Dreams...
Field Of Dreams is a wonderful film, originally released in 1989, set in the farmlands of Iowa. Although baseball features throughout the film, it is really a story about following our dreams to avoid them becoming unfulfilled.
The storyline follows Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), a struggling farmer who, out in his field one evening, hears a disembodied voice tell him: 'If you build it, he will come'. Though Ray cries out to the voice, no answer is immediately forthcoming. Another night, he hears the voice again, only this time, it is accompanied by a vision of a baseball field in the middle of his crops. Slowly, Ray begins to realise that the voice wants him to build a baseball field so that the ghost of legendary baseball player 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson can return to play ball once more.
At first, Ray's wife Annie (Amy Madigan) is a little startled by the idea, but gives her consent. But after spending all their money on the lighting and turf for the field, Ray is disappointed when weeks go by with no sign of a ghost and no word from the mysterious voice.
Seasons go by until one evening, Ray sees a man standing in his field - it's a confused Joe Jackson, unable to grasp that he is not in Heaven, but Iowa. At Jackson's request, Ray's field becomes home for the spirits of the entire Chicago 'Blacksox' team - all those who, in 1919, were banned for life from ever playing baseball after it was alleged that they had been bribed into throwing the World Series, as depicted in the film Eight Men Out.
Though the novelty of playing host to a team of dead baseball players is an exciting one, Ray still can't understand why the voice asked him to build the field. Then, one evening, the voice returns with its next instruction: 'Ease his pain...' As Ray struggles to work out whose pain he needs to ease, he and Annie go to a local parent-teacher evening at their daughter's school, where Annie is compelled to make a spirited defence of the works of the author Terrence Mann in the face of a lobby of book-burners. It slowly dawns on Ray that the person whose pain he must ease might be Terrence Mann, once the voice of a generation, but now a bitter recluse. After he and Annie experience the same dream, Ray is convinced - he must find Terrence Mann and somehow persuade him to come to his baseball field.
Mann was a hero of Ray's since he was young, so it is with a heavy heart that he discovers Mann to be an irascible, bad-tempered man at odds with his reputation as an inspirational visionary. For years, people have used the 'messages' in Mann's writing to justify their own failures in life, so he has decided to turn his back on society. Though Ray respects Mann's reluctance to return to public life, he also knows that Mann is somehow linked to the voice. On the spur of the moment, he puts his finger in his jacket (pretending it's a gun) and kidnaps Mann, forcing him to attend a baseball game. There, both Ray and Mann hear the voice with its final message: 'Go the distance...' Mann finally realises that whatever Ray is involved in, it's something magical; he agrees to return to Iowa with him.
During a stop-off in Chisholm, Minnesota, Ray meets an elderly doctor called Archibald Graham who, he realises, is 'Moonlight' Graham, an ex-baseball player who made it to the Major League as a teenager, but never got to bat. Later on in life, he received his calling to be a man of medicine. Ray wonders if it is Graham and not Mann whose pain he should ease and invites the doctor to join him and Mann on their pilgrimage back to Iowa. Though Doctor Graham is flattered, he's happy to let the past be; he's enjoyed a good life and has only one tiny regret about his curtailed baseball career - he'd have loved the chance to stare down a pitcher and wink at him smugly just to put him off his pitch. Aware that the man is, like Joe Jackson, just a benign phantom, Ray makes his goodbyes and leaves. With Mann as his companion, Ray drives back to Iowa. On the way, he picks up a teenage hitchhiker and is startled to learn the boy's name: Archie Graham...
Ray, Mann and young Graham return to Iowa to learn that, thanks to the baseball field, the Kinsellas are broke. They are so far behind on their mortgage that the bank is threatening to foreclose and Ray must decide whether to keep the field and risk losing the farm, or sell up to Annie's brother and his business partners and give up their dream. What happens next sees dreams fulfilled, bringing tears to the eyes...
To some, it's schmaltzy and sickly-sweet. But for many others, it's a modern equivalent of Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, with its nostalgic, but mournful feel and ultimately happy ending.
Shoeless Joe - the Book
I think that in order to write of the fantastical you have to have an extraordinary grip on reality.
- WP Kinsella
In the 1970s, writer WP (Bill) Kinsella spent a summer at the Iowa Writer's Workshop and it was there that he first got the idea for Shoeless Joe. Remembering his father's stories about the Black Sox baseball team of his childhood, Kinsella wondered what would happen if 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson came back to life in present day Iowa. In 1978, he used this as the basis for a short story, but was later encouraged to turn it into a novel, which was eventually published in 1982. Although the main character is called Kinsella, and his wife is called Annie (like the author's own wife), it is not an autobiographical novel; the characters bear no relation to Bill Kinsella or any of his family.
Writer/director Phil Alden Robinson read the book soon after it was published and immediately fell in love with it, certain that it would make a good movie. But it would take another seven years before Shoeless Joe would reach the screen...
I had tears in my eyes when I first read Phil Robinson's screenplay. I said 'My goodness, this is my own work that's affecting me so strongly. If this script can be transferred directly to the screen, it can't help but be a success.'
- WP Kinsella, author of Shoeless Joe.
- A Universal Studios Production
- Written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, based on the book Shoeless Joe by WP Kinsella.
- Produced by Lawrence Gordon and Charles Gordon
- Music by James Horner
- Released in 1989
|Ray Kinsella||Kevin Costner|
|Annie Kinsella||Amy Madigan|
|Karin Kinsella||Gaby Hoffman|
|Shoeless Joe Jackson||Ray Liotta|
|Terence Mann||James Earl Jones|
|Dr Archibald 'Moonlight' Graham||Burt Lancaster|
|Young Archie Graham||Frank Whaley|
|John Kinsella||Dwier Brown|
From Book to Screen
I think the fact that I don't believe in magic or voices or ESP or reincarnation or any of the things that you'd think this movie touches on enabled me to tell the story in a way that reached a lot of people who also don't believe in the cosmic...
- Director Phil Alden Robinson
Phil Alden Robinson and the producer, Larry Gordon, took five years to be in a position to set the film up, with every major film company rejecting it. Gordon eventually became president of Fox, but by this time, even he was concerned the material was too esoteric for a mainstream audience. After stepping down from Fox, however, Gordon agreed to produce the picture himself - for Universal. He secured Robinson the writing duties on the script, and Robinson kept in regular contact with Kinsella, all the while reminding him that in transferring a novel to the screen, they'd have to take many liberties - books and films essentially have a different way of telling their stories, after all.
In the novel, Ray Kinsella is reunited with his identical twin brother, Richard, while the author that Ray kidnaps is JD Salinger2. Despite the fact that Shoeless Joe had in some ways been a tribute to Salinger, he himself had not been happy over the use of his name in the novel. By the time the possibility of a film adaptation was on the cards, Salinger point-blank refused permission for his name to be used in the film, threatening legal action against the producers unless they changed the character completely. Robinson was forced to create a fictional writer, who he called Terrence Mann. Despite the fact that he never existed in real life, many people have tried to find the works of Terrence Mann ever since the film was released.
Ray (Kevin Costner)
Robinson had actually put Kevin Costner on a list of potential stars that he considered suitable for the part of Ray Kinsella. But after Costner began work on another baseball movie, Bull Durham, Robinson felt that it would be unlikely that Costner would be keen on making two baseball-themed films back-to-back. However, when Costner himself saw the script, he surprised Robinson by being very eager to take part.
Annie (Amy Madigan)
The key to the part of Ray's wife Annie, according to Robinson, was that she doesn't say no to his dream, but she had to appear as if she could say no if she wanted to. It was with great pleasure that he managed to get Amy Madigan for the role, an actress who not only possessed a fiery quality but happened to be a fan of Kinsella's short stories.
Mark (Timothy Busfield)
The part of Mark, Annie's brother, was given to Timothy Busfield, who had found fame in the popular drama series thirtysomething and later worked with Phil Alden Robinson on another film, Sneakers. Mark's role in the picture is the apparent voice of reason which, through the eyes of the believers comes across as cynicism.
Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones)
For the part of reclusive author Terrence Mann, Robinson came up with the idea of casting James Earl Jones3, and he was relieved that Jones himself was enthusiastic about taking the part; Jones's wife had read the script before him and demanded that he take the role because of the baseball speech towards the end of the picture which, even if it never made it to the final cut was, she felt, a strong sign that Robinson had tremendous spirit.
Archie 'Moonlight' Graham (Burt Lancaster)
While researching the original novel, Bill Kinsella had been flicking through a baseball encyclopaedia and had become interested in players who'd had just one inning or less in their careers. He loved the name of one such player, Archibald 'Moonlight' Graham, who'd abandoned baseball to become a doctor. Kinsella and his wife, Anne, visited the town of Chisholm where Graham had lived for many years. Though Graham was by this time dead, they were able to speak to many people who had met him. The stories that appeared in the novel were all based on those true stories. Kinsella quietly thanked his luck that a man he'd picked just because of his name turned out to have such a fascinating character, exalted to the level of the greatest man who ever lived in Chisholm.
Legendary actor Burt Lancaster was offered the part of the elderly Doctor Graham but had decided to turn it down until a friend of his who was a huge baseball fan read the script and begged him to take it. Lancaster read the script again and began to appreciate just how strong the character was and agreed to sign up.
'Shoeless' Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta)
Robinson wanted an actor for 'Shoeless' Joe who had a sense of danger about him, an edge. Although initially they were looking for someone in their 40s, Ray Liotta possessed all the qualities they wanted. He was directed to play the part in a way that would not be clear whether he was a good spirit or bad until the very end. Baseball fans have complained that while the real 'Shoeless' Joe was a left-handed batter and right-handed pitcher, Liotta was the opposite. Robinson wasn't too concerned by this; he noted (with a hint of sarcasm) that the most glaring error in the film was that the real 'Shoeless' Joe had been dead since 1951, which he'd expected would be enough to tell the audience that this was merely a work of fiction and not meant to be taken as biographical. Significantly, Liotta had never been much of a baseball player and had to work hard to even look remotely convincing as a professional player.
In the autumn of 1987, the production team began their location scouting, determined to shoot the film in Iowa so that they could get all the location work in a relatively small area. The Iowa Chamber of Commerce were particularly helpful, even offering the production team a warehouse for them to build sets in and opening up school halls and shopping parades for the filming. Robinson had a number of criteria that he wanted for the farm: he wanted it to be isolated from other farms so that the issue of what Ray's neighbours think wouldn't rise; he didn't want it to look like a wealthy man lived there, so all of the farm's features had to be modest; and of course he needed a flat plain near to the house which would be suitable for a baseball field. In early spring, 1988, when most of the area was covered with snow, the location scout found a 91-year-old farm owned by Don Lansing in Dyersville, Iowa. It had all the features that they'd wanted plus the farmhouse was on a small rise which made it stand out slightly from its fields.
The area where the baseball field would be built was selected to be right on line with a point where the Sun sets. It was then that the production team learned that part of that section of land was co-owned by Lansing's neighbours. Luckily, the neighbours were more than willing to be a part of the project.
The first scene of the film was planned to be shot in a field of corn at shoulder height with Kevin Costner. The production team's farming advisor suggested that this would mean they couldn't start shooting the cornfield scenes until late June, and as corn grows quickly, they'd have to shoot each scene involving the field chronologically. However, Costner was contracted to start work on another film, Revenge, at the end of that August, meaning they'd have to shoot all the non-corn scenes first.
The film began shooting 24 May, 19884, while the field was being planted. But then the region suffered a drought which retarded the growth of the corn. As the date for the cornfield scenes approached, the corn had not grown any more than ankle-height. An emergency plan had to be drafted - they began irrigating the field, spraying it with water daily while the production designer, panicking, began investigating the possibility of importing 300,000 stalks of fake corn from a company in Taiwan. In the event, the team lost just ten days before they began shooting that all-important first scene. Ironically, their over-zealous techniques to yield corn meant that the corn had grown so high that Costner was forced to walk on crates just so he could be seen over the tops of the corn!
The Field of...?
It's not a field of dreams - it's a field of paint! Dead grass painted green!
- Phil Alden Robinson
The baseball field itself would also cause problems. Aware that they wouldn't have time to wait for real grass to grow, Robinson hired a sports field expert to supervise the laying of squares of turf (or 'sod') to construct the field that way. Local residents helped the team lay each square of sod over a 48-hour period, but as the field took shape, the field expert informed Robinson that the field would have to be left for weeks before it was suitable to be walked on or else the turf would die. With time ticking away, Robinson had banked on being able to use the turf instantly! The supervisor suggested that he should cheat - so a man was hired to spray the turf with green paint to make it look fresh after each day's shooting.
If you build it.... he will come...
Go the distance...
Ease his pain...
- The Voice
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.
- Terence Mann
John Kinsella: Is this heaven? Ray Kinsella: It's Iowa. John: Iowa? I could have sworn this was heaven. Ray: Is there a heaven? John: Oh yeah. It's the place where dreams come true. Ray: ... Maybe this is heaven.
Visit the location of the mysterious baseball field in Iowa and learn about the visitors who have made the pilgrimage there.
The extras who played the 'Ghost Players' in the film still play at the field and tour America. Read more here.