In “Draft Day,” Kevin Costner plays a beleaguered general manager of the Cleveland Browns who, despite being second-guessed by just about everybody, is determined to play the NFL’s biggest recruiting event his own way.
Honestly, has there ever been better casting?
“It fit, it fit,” Costner, as sure of himself as ever at age 59, says of “Draft Day’s” Sonny Weaver Jr. “That’s probably the big obligation in a sports movie, to see if you can fit.”
The star of four wildly different movies with baseball themes — “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams,” “For Love of the Game” and “The Upside of Anger” — not to mention the golf comedy “Tin Cup” and cycling saga “American Flyers,” Costner’s name is as associated with sports films as it is with win-or-lose Hollywood superstardom.
More on that in a moment. First, let’s look at Weaver’s really stressful day.
Having just recently buried the father he was named for — a beloved head coach whom Sonny Jr. had to fire — Weaver starts the day trying to avoid talking to his girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner) about her pregnancy. But that isn’t going to be easy during the next 10 hours, since she’s also in charge of the Browns’ salary caps.
Soon, he’s on the phone with anxious college players, portrayed by the likes of next-generation sports movie star Chadwick Boseman (“42”) and real NFL pro Arian Foster. Weaver also calls general managers from bigger, better teams, horse-trading pick positions that only he seems to understand the value of. Penn, the new coach played by Denis Leary, hates every deal Weaver makes, and team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) applies strong pressure to do things his way. What else does Weaver need? How about his guilt-tripping mom, Barb (Ellen Burstyn), who insists Sonny attend a memorial service for her late husband, which is on the same day.
Screenwriters Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman did not envision someone like Costner playing Sonny, but director Ivan Reitman had a different impression.
“I kept hearing a voice as I read the script, and a day or two later I said, ‘Oh, I’m thinking of Kevin Costner’,” the director of “Ghostbusters” and “Dave” says. “In the script, he was written as a 35-year-old man, but nevertheless, I was listening to that wonderful, kind of, American twang that’s in (Kevin’s) voice. And the integrity of what Kevin’s acting baggage is ... I really felt that he was the one, and he was sort of the only one we ever spoke to.”
A football player in his Southern California youth, Costner got the project. Though a sports fan, he doesn’t understand some of the interest others have in the business aspect of sports.
“Was I surprised by any of the characterizations or elements in the script?” the actor says. “No, I wasn’t, because cameras have so infiltrated sports now to the point where we have fantasy f-ing football. People who aren’t even playing on the team together have stats. And draft? We make a big deal about draft, all of which I have very little interest in. And I’m a fan; I guess what I’m not is a fanatic.
“I really have a strong understanding of the game, and I simply brought that to the part. And because of those cameras, we’ve seen GMs talking, so I can tell the ring of real dialogue or not. And because I have an IQ slant toward football, I could also tell when we were a little off base or getting too technical for people. Let’s just not do that, flex that we know all of the inside dope, and we kind of let this girl-boy story flounder.”
The movie doesn’t let that happen. However, a good deal of it involves Weaver on phones — a hard thing to act and even harder to make work throughout a movie. To give these scenes some visual energy, Reitman hired some tech-savvy designers who had worked on some of his son Jason’s films. They came up with what this writer is labeling Digital Crossover Splitscreen, in which characters from one side of the frame cross the middle dividing into the other shot, although hundreds of miles still separate the conversation they’re having.
“That was a challenge for Ivan, because those phone calls were all over that script,” Costner notes. “He told me that he wanted to do something special. A lot of people say that about almost every movie, but he really identified that area and enlisted some help. I think that was very smart, there’s something modern about it.”
“But those conversations were very hard for me, technically, because a lot of times you’re just not acting against anybody. Once in awhile, Chadwick Boseman was there, and I always made sure I was there for all of Chadwick’s stuff. But at the end of the day, I did most of mine by myself, or with a script reader, and you can imagine how that goes. Everything was unnatural about how we did it, but hopefully it plays natural.”
Clearly, Costner has great faith in his filmmaking instincts and isn’t afraid to voice them. For about a decade, starting in 1987, his feel for material was pretty unerring.
He was unbeatable at the box office for a run that went from “The Untouchables” through “No Way Out,” “Durham” and “Dreams,” his Oscar-winning directing debut “Dances with Wolves,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “JFK,” “The Bodyguard” and “Waterworld.”
But “Waterworld” was a turning point. The drowned Earth sci-fi story went way over budget and, though it wasn’t the first time Costner took post-production control away from another director, it was certainly the most gleefully reported on. Costner’s second directing effort, another dystopian downer called “The Postman,” came out and flopped a year later.
He did interesting work — including his third directing effort “Open Range,” another Western — in the ensuing decade and a half, but was more or less wandering in the wilderness until his Emmy-winning turn on the “Hatfields & McCoys” miniseries kicked off a career renaissance that included a poignant turn as Superman’s father in last year’s “Man of Steel.”
Costner says the films that turned out bad didn’t start that way.
“Film architecture has always popped out to me,” he insists. “So I’m always disappointed and shocked when I see something that I thought was mantled together ... ‘Dragonfly,’ ‘Message in a Bottle,’ I can go down a list of four or five movies like that where they were really good scripts. They were really tough, they had stuff that was painful in them, and those things began to fall away because somebody declared that ‘the audience doesn’t want to see that.’
“But what happened was, it watered down the victory. You thought you preserved something for the audience, but you didn’t. You f-ed it up; you had me kissing the girl and I hadn’t earned it.”
Costner has another sports film, “McFarland,” coming up, and one about racism, “Black and White,” which he produced, partially to ensure that no one would water it down.
“I decided I would make it myself and I paid for it,” he says. “Now I’ve got to get a distributor, somebody who’s not so scared.”
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