Bigger Stakes

Richard Linklater on remixing 'The Bad News Bears'

Bigger Stakes
Illustration By Nathan Jensen

A week prior to the theatrical release of Richard Linklater's Bad News Bears last Friday, locating an unrented copy of the original film here in the director's video-gorged stomping grounds proved as easy as getting Major League Baseball to pardon Pete Rose. Finally flagged down (try the Movie Store on Guadalupe), Michael Ritchie's swift kick in the athletic supporter of our great American pastime by a misfit squad of little leaguers and their "cruddy alkie" coach still clears fences few would have predicted in the bicentennial year of its championship season. Nearly 30 years later, Linklater's update underscores the original's Hall of Fame caliber.

"That put the first one in a 'don't-touch-it' category," he laughs now.

Instead, the former shortstop/left fielder, who bats right, swatted it, Billy Bob Thornton's amoral rat catcher standing in for Walter Matthau's Nixonesque pool cleaner. Hardliner Vic Morrow, as the opposing heavy, has given way to fratty car salesman Greg Kinnear, whose own fundamental ire recalls that of his late predecessor. The team's sponsor has gone from bail bondsman to gentleman's club. Nevertheless, except for a smattering of contemporary landmarks, Linklater's Bad New Bears courts the timelessness of its precursor. "Faithful" will forever compliment this new version, but the film's word of mouth confirms Bad News Bears was ripe for a generational makeover.

"And I heard from people who put it in a 'don't-touch-it' category," continued Linklater by phone, locally, on the eve of his own opening day. "I was just like, 'Sorry, I know it's a classic, but to me, it's not untouchable.'"

Austin Chronicle: Did you see the original film in the theatres?

Richard Linklater: I didn't actually. I think I was 15 that summer it came out and a serious baseball player. I didn't go see it because I didn't really want to see a movie with kids younger than me. I was in a small, one-theatre town anyway [Huntsville]. My idea of a good time was sneaking into R-rated movies. I didn't want to see a PG movie with kids. Had I been a few years younger, it would have been one of those seminal films of my childhood like it is for so many people just a little bit younger than me. Had it actually been that seminal film of my childhood, I probably wouldn't have had to guts to do the remake.

AC: Word is you're a jock.

RL: You know, I was. Definitely. I grew up playing baseball. Little-known facts about me: I went to college on a baseball scholarship. I never talk about it much, because by the time I started making movies that was such a different part of my life. It didn't even feel like me. It's only in the last five years that I've picked back up on baseball, or read a sports page. I'm a big Texas Longhorn baseball fan. I enjoy sports now, but there was a good 15-year chunk of my life where sports was so far out of my life. In the circle I was traveling in, the film/art world, it just seemed so incongruous to who I was and what I was doing [laughs]. As soon as I didn't play baseball anymore – my college career got cut short for a medical reason – that was it. I never touched a bat. I never read a sports page. I didn't want to be a fan. I put all my energy into something else. But yeah, I enjoy sports now.

AC: I'm told you have a baseball diamond and batting cage at your house.

RL: It's not a diamond. I don't have an infield. I just have big field, a big chunk of grass that you can throw a Frisbee on, play football, hit a baseball. I do have a baseball backstop and a pitching machine, so I take a lot of batting practice. Hitting is something that doesn't go away. If you could ever hit, you can still hit.

My college team had a reunion back at Sam Houston where I played college ball. They were tearing down our old field so a bunch of us got together and went back there one Saturday last fall. We got out on the field again and took infield and batting practice. And I was amazed. Here's all these guys in their 40s and they're still launching 'em out of the park. I hit a 400-foot home run. People could still hit. You couldn't hit that 92-mile-an-hour slider, but as far as basic swing and stuff, the guys could still do it.

AC: Bad News Bears was already in preproduction when you had this reunion?

RL: Yeah, I was just about to start it. I was casting. I picked the brains of a few of the guys when we were hanging out afterward. This was a good chance for me to reconcile two very distinct parts of my life; my baseball life and my movie life came together in this movie in a wonderful way. I had such distinct memories of being a kid baseball player.

AC: You see part of that in Dazed in Confused: Wiley Wiggins' character is a pitcher.

RL: Yeah, he's ballplayer, and the other guys are football players. In that I was portraying jocks not as these crew-cutted military dickheads, but like real guys who can be cool just like anybody else. Let's face it, most movies are made by guys who never played sports [laughs]. Art and fiction is usually created by guys who didn't play sports, or if anything, have a certain resentment of athletes so they're often depicted in this arch, crazed way.

AC: What's the biggest challenge in making a "sports" movie?

RL: Well, first off, they're tough to shoot. Storytelling via sports: It giveth and it taketh away. The good thing is there's a natural, dramatic arc to it. Like any competition. The more difficult part is what to show. How to abbreviate games. How to keep it moving, especially for what's generally seen as a slow-moving game like baseball, with so many pitches, so much inactivity in between the exciting things. And yet you want to be realistic. It can't all be one big montage. It's a fine line there.

So, I went in and planned out every pitch of the game. All the baseball. John [Requa] and Glenn [Ficarra], the guys who did the adaptation of the original script, they didn't really know baseball at all. There was a lot that didn't work. I had to firm up the baseball, but that was fun. It's tricky. It's like an action film, but it's fun. It's a challenge.

AC: You stayed very faithful to the original film and Bill Lancaster's original screenplay.

RL: John and Glenn had a lot of reverence for Bill. They loved his script. We just sort of modernized it, but it's pretty damn faithful to the original. Even though [Lancaster] is no longer alive, he ended up sharing a screenplay credit.

AC: You even kept the use of Bizet's "Carmen" from the original.

RL: [Laughs] Yeah, that one worked so well the first time. There was no way we were going to supercede the first [film]. We all have a certain reverence for it now. It's a classic. It's a perfect little film. We never even spoke of this as a remake. I just started calling it a remix. Literally, that's what we do. "Carmen," in the first practice, where we see the skills of the original Bears, I slowed the music down, "screwed" it up Houston rapper style.

AC: I got the sense that with the characters of Amanda and Kelly Leak that you didn't want to cast someone famous like Tatum O'Neal or Jackie Earle Haley in the original.

RL: Well, the Tatum O'Neal occurrence: That's a once in a lifetime moment. That you'd actually have an Oscar winner available as a 12-year-old pitcher. That's not gonna happen usually. That was our thing all along. I knew we couldn't out-Tatum Tatum O'Neal. My feeling was "Let's just get a 12-year-old kid who can pitch."

I was in the same dilemma with my School of Rock kids. For that to work musically, I knew I had to have a real band. I knew I needed kids who could really play. And I knew they were out there. Casting people, they dread that: "Can't we just cast good actors and then you can teach them that stuff or fake it?" I'm like, "No, no, no. We're gonna go the other way. Get ready for the nationwide search!"

Put Me in Coach: Billy Bob Thornton (l) and Richard Linklater confer on the set of <i>Bad News B</i><i>ears</i>.
Put Me in Coach: Billy Bob Thornton (l) and Richard Linklater confer on the set of Bad News Bears.

That's what we did: We looked all over the country. In this case, just for the two main parts, Amanda and Kelly Leak, because they had to be kids who could play and had the right attitude. Amanda had to be able to throw and be like a real 12-year-old.

AC: And curse like one. I guess you really couldn't really keep Tanner's line from the original: "All we got on this team is a bunch of Jews, spics, niggers, pansies ..."

RL: You know, it was in the script. At a table reading early on, we read it. We'd cast a certain percentage of the kids and I wanted to hear the whole thing out loud as we were working on the script. And I looked up and said, "That's such a signature line, and I don't want it to seem like someone made us cut it out for any reason, but it's just not funny. Why is everyone going, 'Hmmm' on that line?" It's just a different time and place. The culture's different. That kind of stuff's not funny in the same way it was. There was a lot more racial humor back in the Seventies.

AC: Was there pressure on you not to let things get too explicit?

RL: It was a given from the get-go that this was gonna be a PG-13. When I first read the script I went, "Huh, this is cool. It's an R-rated version." And they go, "No, it's PG-13." I go, "Really? Because all this shit in here is R." I shot some alternate lines for things we thought would be R-rated, but I'm not kidding, we got away with all of it. I didn't have an MPAA battle. We were smart about it. In the first one, Kelly Leak smokes all the time. You can't have little kids smoking. Forget it. We could've filmed it and then I could be beating my chest and on my high horse about the MPAA, but I agree with that. Do you really want to depict kids smoking? I just worked it another way on obvious things like that.

AC: Where's the intersection of this movie and Bad Santa?

RL: With John and Glenn having worked on that with Billy Bob, this was just sort of a natural. I don't know if Billy Bob considered this a prequel to Bad Santa or what. Their humor made this a little more raunchy. I like this more sexualized Buttermaker, too. It fits with Billy. They wrote this with him in mind. That was always the conception – this, Billy, Bad Santa writers. They had done some kids movies, Cats & Dogs, so they were kinda perfect. So it was a package and they approached me – Glenn and John, actually. They were like, "Man, you're the only guy that can do this," which is always flattering to hear.

That's what got me to at least read the script, because at first I was like, "Nah, c'mon. I'm not gonna do a remake." And they're going, "Just read it." So I'm like, "O-kay." And I was laughing. I could just see it. I was like, "Shit." My first thing was, "If the studio really wants to do this, count me in – if we don't have to sanitize it." It was so fun, I felt like we'd be getting away with something. It was like the success of the first film allows us to do this now. No one would do this film today. If this script showed up out of the blue, no one would do it.

AC: I take it you saw Billy Bob in Friday Night Lights, another top-notch sports film.

RL: Strangely, I saw it when we were full-on in preproduction. I knew I was gonna see it at some point. I kind of had to because I was working with Billy and that was a big thing in his life at that moment. So I was like, "Okay, I'll go check this out." Then I told Billy after, "Forgive me. I thought you were great, but I can't be objective about that movie." I mean, I had made that movie in my head. It was like being in some else's dream – totally bizarre. It was the first time I had experienced something like that – working a script for something you're ready to go on. It was weird working with Billy while that was going on.

AC: You wrote a script for Friday Night Lights?

RL: Yeah, I wrote a draft. This was is in the late Nineties, around '97, '98. I wrote a draft and was going to do it as a really low-budget film, but they had already spent a lot of money in Odessa developing it, so I just threw away everything and wrote a down and dirty version that would have cost about $10 million. The total cost would have been about $15 million, because they had already spent a lot on the book and various drafts over the years. But they wouldn't pony it up. They were like, "Nah. It doesn't have this or that; it's not gonna make any money." They just didn't seem very passionate about it at the time – the studio and the producer and everything. At that moment, no one was into it really.

AC: Michael Ritchie, who directed the original Bad New Bears, also did Semi-Tough, a fine, albeit forgotten, football film.

RL: I'd put Michael Ritchie in the Hal Ashby mode, maybe one notch slightly below. I think he's one of those great Seventies directors who made a lot of really good films. I rate him really highly. I love Downhill Racer, Candidate, Smile. Those are really great movies. I was lucky enough to meet him and hang out with him one night. It was in New York, about a year or two before he died [2001].

I was going on and on about his Texas cheerleader mom movie he did as an HBO film with Holly Hunter [1993's The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom]. That's excellent. I told him, "I'm from Texas. My best friend from childhood is a coach at the school where that incident happened. My critical antennae couldn't have more attuned. You nailed it, man. That's amazing." He got it all.

He had a real sensitivity toward people. He had a great sense of humor, a great subversive streak in almost everything he did. He was really of his time, but I rate him really highly. Having hung out with him a bit, I felt sort of anointed as I contemplated a remake of Bad New Bears. I felt like, "He'd probably give me an OK if he were around."

AC: Now that you've made one, what are your favorite sports films?

RL: Semi-Tough's good, and North Dallas Forty is good, too, as far as football movies. Baseball movies ... um ...

AC: The Field of Dreams reference in your film is nice.

RL: Yeah, Shoeless Joe. I don't know. My favorite baseball movies ...

AC: The Natural maybe?

RL: I like it on that mythic level it's pitched at. It's a little less of a baseball movie to me. Bears is a baseball movie, because if you look at the percentage of the movie that's on the field, it's pretty high. Other movies about baseball are really about a bigger drama going on and they use baseball as a backdrop. For us, baseball is very much the foreground. That's why I consider it a real baseball movie.

I remember I met John Sayles at the Hawaii Film Festival in 1987, I think. I was over there because a friend of mine was working on the festival. I was just hanging out going to movies. Sayles had just finished Matewan – he showed it at the festival – and he was just about to start Eight Men Out. We were at a reception and I asked him, because here he's about to take on a baseball movie. I said, "Well, what do you consider a good baseball movie?" He looked at me and went, "Bad News Bears." I'd seen it and liked it, but it sounded a little glib, yet I could see he was really serious. He was like, "Yeah, that's a good baseball movie. A lot of baseball. They tell their story through baseball." He wasn't joking.

AC: Being a successful film director is one of those top 2% jobs on the planet, and obviously you paid a lot of dues to get where you are. Now that you can make films for studios while also working on your own projects, does it all seem too good to be true?

RL: [Laughs] I'm in a good place in that I qualify to make bigger-budget movies. You're not always in that spot, so that's good – that I can jump back to lower-budget projects. But I don't really consider [the big-budget films] any less personal. Is Scanner Darkly any more personal to me than Bad New Bears? I didn't originate either story. One's a Philip K. Dick novel, the other's a previous movie. But you find your way into all of them. I don't make a big distinction between bigger-budget/smaller-budget films. It's just bigger stakes, lower stakes, I guess, on the production side. I'm really lucky that I can get a lot of movies made at different levels.

But, you know, anybody who gets Hollywood money could. It's just a matter of whether you want to make a low-budget film. Do you want to get paid nothing, not have a trailer? With most guys, once you get to that level, why go back? If you really see it as major leagues/minor leagues, why go back to the minor leagues where things are a struggle? I just see it as a reality for so many of the stories I really want to do that aren't big commercial films. You have to keep the budgets low. Before Sunset: You get that made when you make it for $2.7 million. Then someone kind of begrudgingly can give you the money if you're lucky. I'm lucky.

You're portrayed like you're at some pinnacle of something, but it always comes back to that question. "What's happiness"? You work your ass for all the years you're struggling, but then you get the same little petty concerns when you're successful: "Oh, Paramount's releasing another film on the same day as Bad News Bears. What are they doing?" It's a new round of noise to make you slightly irritated. The human condition is always slightly disgruntled, and not satisfied. In my most Zen moments, I have to really take personal inventory and say, "Okay, I'm happy. If I'm not happy, fuck, no one should be. Life is great." If I could jump back 20 years and see where I am right now, that would be as good as I could have possibly imagined. So, yes, in the big picture, everything's great. But, am I that much happier than I was in 1986 running the [Austin] Film Society? That was fun, too. So, I don't know if happiness is the thing. end story

Bad News Bears opened in Austin last week. For a review and show times, see Film Listings.

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Richard Linklater, Michael Ritchie, Bill Lancaster, The Bad News Bears, John Requa, Glenn Ficarra, Billy Bob Thornton

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