Craig Gillespie had some unique challenges when directing Million Dollar Arm. Fitting an extraordinary true story into a less-than-two-hour movie was one, but how about filming in India during that country’s hottest month in a heat wave that was record-breaking?!
We caught up with Gillespie for an exclusive interview where we also chatted about star Jon Hamm giving the performance of his life and the embarrassment of riches that is having a supporting cast that includes Lake Bell, Bill Paxton and Alan Arkin.
Movie Fanatic: Beyond the baseball aspect of this true story, what really hit you emotionally about Million Dollar Arm?
Craig Gillespie: I’m not a baseball fan, but I do love sports films. There’s this underdog and perseverance quality that gets me. But, it was Tom’s (McCarthy, screenwriter) writing. It was that human journey that JB goes on. Baseball is the backdrop to it, but he has this way of doing humor and emotion and this beautiful dance with it that is so hard to find with writers. With that, I just wanted to make his words come to life.
Movie Fanatic: What impressed me was the work you did filming in India. What unique challenges did shooting in that country provide for you -- if you could even narrow it down to one?
Craig Gillespie: That was part of what I was so excited about with this film. Yet, it felt like old Hollywood in that we got to go to these truly exotic locations and just be up to your neck in what is so authentic, like places that were three hours out of Mumbai in the villages. We were where the Taj Mahal is, which is not easy to get to -- it’s a four hour drive from Delhi. Everybody I spoke to in terms of film crews would chuckle when I said I was going to India, like, “Good luck.” I went into it knowing we would go into these places that would be packed with people and you can’t control it. You expect the chaos. It was how to navigate it that was the question. There are no police to shut down the streets. So as we were shooting, we had motorcycles driving through and cows walking by [laughs]. With some sense of irony, the first shot of the day when we were there, we put an “X” where the camera was to go. A cow walked up and defecated on it! What kind of omen is that?!
Movie Fanatic: How hard was it to find the two actors, Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal, who play the Indian guys who become the Major League pitchers?
Craig Gillespie: I had fallen in love with Suraj in Life of Pi. He encompassed so much of what I wanted Rinku to have onscreen which was this lightness and effortlessness to him. We were lucky to get him. The trick was, who to pair him up with? We did extensive casting and we wanted the actors to be from India. I narrowed it down to about five guys. But, then I had them audition with Suraj, and that dynamic, it became clear that it had to be Madhur.
Movie Fanatic: Although they don’t talk to each other in the movie, having Bill Paxton and Alan Arkin in your movie as supporting players is just amazing. Is it an embarrassment of riches?
Craig Gillespie: I couldn’t picture anyone else but Alan in the role. I was so fortunate. He had to go to India in the middle of summer. He was such a trouper. When you’re dealing with this caliber of actors, they elevate the material.
Movie Fanatic: Lastly, this is Jon’s movie and it rides on his shoulders. After doing Mad Men, it is so delightful that audiences get to see him go through such a journey in Million Dollar Arm. What was it about him that he was your guy?
Craig Gillespie: I feel like he’s so un-mined in terms of what he’s capable of in terms of acting. You’ve seen him do all these things in dramatic features like Mad Men and The Town. But, then you’ve seen him be really funny in Saturday Night Live and Bridesmaids. I knew he could do them both in this movie. There is such a small group of guys who can do that dance and pull that off. I was thrilled we were able to get him and he was so in tune with the tone of the film and the way he wanted to play it.