By Ciara LaVelle
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"Would that movie get made today?" Shelton says. "No, not even close. Bull Durham would be a movie I'd have to make independently. Globalization has affected the movie business, and I'm always about five steps behind. You're starting out saying, 'OK, I have to have a movie that does equally well in Micronesia and Bulgaria and Paraguay.'" He laughs. "I'm the wrong guy for that. It's why Bull Durhamalmost didn't get made, and that was even when it was a less foreign-driven thing. I remember somebody at the head of Tri-Star saying, 'Well, there's no foreign.' And I said, 'I presume there's not, but at this price, if it's merely in focus and I'm barely competent, and if the script's as good as you think, aren't you covered? You can't really lose here.'"
Shelton might be the wrong guy to hold up as the poster boy for the film industry's ills; he works when he wants and on projects he writes and loves. (Indeed, he turned down a small fortune to direct the just-released Showtime.) In September, MGM/UA will release his seventh film, Dark Blue, an independently produced feature penned by crime novelist James Ellroy, screenwriter David Ayer (Training Day) and Shelton himself. It has all the trappings of an Ellroy book: Set in the days just before four white Los Angeles cops are acquitted in the beating of Rodney King, it's about corruption and redemption as embodied by a dirty cop, played by Kurt Russell, trying to come clean. MGM/UA has bumped the film from April to September, believing Russell will have a shot at an Oscar nomination. Earlier this month, Shelton signed a deal with Revolution Studios, responsible for Black Hawk Downand America's Sweethearts, to co-write and direct another cop thriller that takes place within the confines of the music business.
But what is most notable about Shelton's filmography are the copious blanks, the long gaps between projects--years wasted on projects abandoned by studios without just cause. In between Tin Cupin 1996 and Play it to the Bonethree years later, Shelton was to have made a Bob Marley biography called Trenchtown Rock for Warner Bros. He spent six months "for free" hanging out in Jamaica with the Marleys to find out if he was the right guy, then spent a year on the script and another six months in preproduction. But eight weeks before shooting was to begin, while Shelton was casting and securing locations in Kingston, the studio pulled the plug. The reason: On August 30, 1998, Warners released Why Do Fools Fall in Love, the story of slain R&B singer Frankie Lymon, and it made a sickly $4 million on opening weekend. The studio believed both movies to be about the same thing--dead black singers--and scrapped Trenchtown Rock lest it suffer the same miserable fate.
"It was so telling, and it was devastating financially, because I'd spent two years on this, and I'd chosen to do it because, geez, at least I'll be doing something they want to do andI want to do," Shelton says. "And I realized at that time there were no relationships with studios anymore. There was no such thing as a filmmaker-studio connection--no family, no tradition, no bond. It was just all corporate bottom line, so once you know that, you just have to deal with that. You have to figure out how to get around it, how to seduce it, how to trick it."
Or perhaps he knew he was really in trouble when he wrote a movie about a dance competition set during the Cuban Revolution--only to have a studio exec ask him, in all seriousness, if the movie reallyhad to be a period piece. Shelton also tried, to no avail, to get his name taken off both The Great White Hypeand Blue Chips, for which he wrote screenplays so mangled in transition from page to screen they no longer resembled Shelton's originals. In her review of Under Fire, critic Pauline Kael wrote of Shelton and director Roger Spottiswoode, they "may be appalled, but they're never shocked." Shelton likes to quote that line when talking about the biz and his place in it.
"Here's the odd thing, and it's a strange phenomenon," he says. "You make a Bull Durhamout of left field, literally--a movie nobody wants to make and a subject they don't want to make with a cast they don't want to make it with--and it flies. So then you go to make your next one, and everybody wants to tell you how to do it. That seems to be a behavior built into the business, and it's worse now because of the corporate takeovers." He pauses and gathers steam.
"Look, I could make a lot of movies. I just turned down a tennis movie with Reese Witherspoon. Well, Reese Witherspoon's a talented young actress, but I don't wanna make a tennis movie that was a terrible script, and I probably would have been offered three times as much money as I've ever made in my life. Why would I want to do that? It's not like there's no work. It's just that it's hard to make a movie, and I have to believe in it completely when I start. You don't sleep for a year, and I'd rather live or die with a failed movie that I can say is mine than have a big success where I'm crawling out of the theater when the premiere starts."