Kevin Costner and Sam Raimi on the set of For Love of the Game (1999)
By Gabriel Jandali Appel
Director Sam Raimi’s career tends to be thought of as split between two distinct periods: the early, consisting of micro-budget, gory horror comedies that became the very definitions of “cult classics” (1981’s The Evil Dead, 1987’s Evil Dead II, 1992’s Army of Darkness), and the later period, consisting of enormously successful blockbusters starring the likes of Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and The Wizard of Oz (recall that 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful made nearly $500M). Between these, though, there was a brief time in the 1990s where Raimi helmed a series of what can only be described as more conventional studio pictures: mid-budget films with actual movie stars, devoid of monsters or superheroes—the sort of films that now rarely get made. 1999’s For Love of the Game is one such movie.
Kevin Costner stars as Billy Chapel, a 40-year-old pitcher at the end of his career, playing his final game in what might be his last season. The film cuts between incredibly realistically choreographed baseball sequences at Yankee Stadium, with legendary announcer Vin Scully in the booth, and flashbacks of a turbulent love story between Costner’s Chapel and Kelly Preston’s character Jane Aubrey. Elegiac by nature, the story adapted from a best-selling book by Michael Shaara, the film has taken on an additional level of melancholy when viewed now as a final gasp of a certain type of Hollywood studio film. Three years after it was released, Raimi would direct Spider-Man, and his career—and the business—would change completely. I spoke with Raimi about his recollections of making the 1999 film, where it fell in his career, and his abiding love for the game.—Gabriel Jandali Appel
GABRIEL JANDALI APPEL: Metrograph is playing For Love of the Game as part of a series of films about baseball. What is your history with the sport?
SAM RAIMI: Well, I grew up in Detroit—the home team, the Detroit Tigers, that’s Kevin Costner’s team in For Love of the Game. Growing up as a regular American kid, watching on TV, but more listening on the radio with my grandfather. He used to listen to the games in the dark. I’d see a cigar glow up, its orange glow, then recede. Listening to the game in the dark really puts your imagination to work, like those old radio shows. I fell in love with the roar of the crowd, and being with my grandfather, and the beauty of the game, how pretty it is to listen to. I love that it’s not super exciting, except in moments. It’s like spending an afternoon with a friend telling stories. Especially if you have a good announcer, it’s this low drama event. I just love it.
I fell in love with the roar of the crowd, and being with my grandfather, and the beauty of the game, how pretty it is to listen to
GJA: You mentioned announcers. How did Vin Scully became attached? Was that your request?
SR: Yes. After moving to Los Angeles from Detroit, I started listening to the Dodgers and fell in love with the voice of Vin Scully. I would listen to him for days and days. And then when I had my kids, you know, you do that subtle dance to put them to sleep at night, and I would listen to the Dodgers. Vin Scully saved me. So when it came time to cast the announcers, I really wanted him. One of the producers was saying, “We can’t because the other announcer [Steve Lyons] would never be in a game with Vin Scully.” I said, “I know that, but I need to have Vin Scully anyways.” There was a real drive, by all the filmmakers, Kevin Costner, and the other producers to make it as authentic as possible, but they let me make a little tweak there.
GJA: When did you become attached to the project? Was Costner already involved?
SR: Yes. Kevin Costner was one of the producers, he was really in control of the picture.
GJA: Did you have an idea then of how you were going to do the baseball sequences? For the most part, they’re done with such impressive realism, but in two instances they become notably cinematic. Before pitching, Costner says, “Clear the mechanism,” and you dropped both the soundtrack as well as the background behind him, and then in the final at bat, you dramatically lower the shutter speed. Those sequences have stuck with me since I saw the movie in theaters.
SR: Oh, that’s great. Well, that is really due to the demand for excellence that Kevin Costner had in ensuring the baseball sequences were as authentic and realistic as possible. As I started to work in the movie, I realized why: we’ve all seen so much baseball, hours and hours, that we’d know if something didn’t look authentic.
As far as the business of Kevin saying “Clear the mechanism,” and the background going away, that idea was in Shaara’s book, and then Dana Stevens’s screenplay, that [Kevin’s character Billy] was tuning out all background noise. Obviously, because it’s a movie, I felt we had to visualize that idea, too. So with the help of some great storyboard artists and a great cinematographer [John Bailey], we were able to pull that off.
Kevin Costner and Sam Raimi on the set of For Love of the Game (1999)
GJA: With the baseball scenes, what level of special effects were involved, or what level of choreography?
SR: We had some great baseball experts helping us. And the teams were made up of, primarily, the farm teams of professional baseball—so there’d be a lot of New York Yankees who were going to come up into the majors, a lot of other professional players on the cusp of making it to the big leagues—along with people who specialized in coaching, like college or AAA. That really helped us make it look professional. Basically everybody around in the background playing the smallest parts were professionals.
GJA: Something I had forgotten until I re-watched the film is that in the first five minutes there’s a joke about a pitcher having “the ugliest wife in the league,” which is obviously the main joke people would make about how to measure a player’s ability in the time before sabermetrics. Then two minutes later, there’s a beautiful shot of the World Trade Center. It really feels like a movie from a previous era.
SR: It was a very innocent, wonderful time in New York. I remember I had been there in the ’80s working on my Evil Dead movies. The city was kind of crumbling, it could be a very ugly place. But by the time I came to shoot For Love of the Game, it was on the upswing, people had jobs, the streets were clean and it was very vibrant still—it wasn’t the antiseptic New York it is today, there was still the working men and women, there was a feeling of innocence in the air. I think the picture reflects the time of that place, and our world, as all movies must.
GJA: One last thought: I believe this and The Gift (2000) were the last movies you made before Spider-Man (2002). Did something profound change after Spider-Man? Was it a different experience making movies after that?
SR: I had spent, like, 20 years making movies until Spider-Man—I mean, professional 35mm feature films. And none of my movies really made money; they broke even, or barely made a profit. One, Darkman (1990), did pretty good; that was the one which made a little money. But I was always just hanging in there. And I never really got good reviews, except for A Simple Plan (1998). But that even didn’t make any money. After like 17 years, I had to finally tell myself, “You know what, you’re a small-time filmmaker. They don’t love your movies, and they don’t make money, but you have to be content, or you’ll lose your mind.” Because there was no other way to survive, I convinced myself critics don’t matter, that making money in the theaters doesn’t matter—it’s all about how you feel about it. So by the time I made Spider-Man, I finally had a big box office success, and the critics were very kind, but I had already brainwashed myself that none of that mattered. I was grounded before that happened, so it didn’t really change anything for me.
Gabriel Jandali Appel is an editor at Metrograph.
Sam Raimi and Kevin Costner on the set of For Love of the Game (1999)