Director Ron Shelton talks 'Tin Cup' and the ending he fought to keep out of the movie
Nearly 24 years since its premier, the moment on the silver screen remains as entertaining—and memorable—as ever: Roy McAvoy, played by Kevin Costner, stands in the fairway on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open, a par 5 whose green is guarded by water. Should he go for it in two or lay up? He needs a birdie to win. Talk about your ultimate risk/reward decision. McAvoy also isn’t just trying to win a major; he is trying to win the girl (Rene Russo).
You know what happens next, and the moment after that … and the moment after that. It’s McAvoy’s stubborn attempt to knock his approach shot over the water that makes “Tin Cup” as poignant today as it was when it came out in August 1996.
We caught up with the film’s writer and director, Ron Shelton, best known for his baseball classic, “Bull Durham,” that featured Costner, along with Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. Shelton, who spent five seasons in the minors, also directed “White Men Can’t Jump,” “Cobb,” “Blaze,” “Play It to the Bone,” “Dark Blue” and “Hollywood Homicide.”
Can you think of movies that would be perfect to watch in these times?
Comedies, of course. I’d highly recommend anything by Laurel and Hardy. I’m an enormous Laurel and Hardy fan. My favorite is probably “The Music Box.” All these two guys are trying to do is move a piano up the stairs, and they don’t understand until the end of the movie the driveway went right to the house. They didn’t have to use the stairs. I think it’s a great movie.
The challenge of making a golf movie versus other genres, how is it that unique?
Golf is the hardest sport I ever made a movie about, by far. A professional golf tournament is 150 acres with 150 guys doing exactly the same thing, in a very quiet atmosphere, and you really don’t know who is winning, or making a charge, except for electronic scoreboards and television. How do you make that dramatically interesting? That’s the problem. In “Tin Cup,” we just tried to turn it into a classic Western in a certain way. The whole third act is a shootout, mano-o-mano, but we had to gradually work our way up there with humor and broken golf clubs.
How would you make it if you were making it today?
I hope I’d get the same amount of money that Warner Bros. gave me. You need a lot of time to shoot golf. You have to make it interesting in how you are photographing it, the number of camera angles. Every time Roy hit the ball in the water, I revealed it in a slightly different way. I wouldn’t change it. I think the movie works very well.
Do you hear from people a lot about the movie?
Yes, and it’s very gratifying. Everybody’s got a little Roy McAvoy in them, a little self-destructiveness. I’ve often felt more people are afraid of winning than they are of losing. To win, you then have to own it. You have to wear the crown and you have to defend the crown. That’s much harder than almost making it, and being competitive, and being a hell of a guy.
When you play golf, are you a little McAvoy?
After the movie came out, nobody would let me lay up. I tend to go for it in a foolhardy way. The last couple of rounds, I played a little more conservative, and I shot great scores. So maybe it’s time to bring out my inner conservativeness.
What did you learn about yourself doing Tin Cup?
It was a good experience. I had to fight the studio, of course, but you always have to fight the studios. They wanted to re-cut the ending so he wins the Open and holes the shot. It came up when we started screening the movie. He has shown discipline for 71 and a half holes of a major golf tournament, and then it comes down to [his need] for immortality, and it sinks him but, in a certain way, in my mind, makes him greater for going for it.
I said, “Look, if Ingrid Bergman walks away with Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca, you’ll never remember the movie.” You can not have it all at the end of a movie, and be satisfactory. Rocky didn’t knock out Carl Weathers. He lost. He went the distance. You have to find that balancing act between what is emotionally satisfying to the narrative and what grounds you in some reality, even if it’s a comedy.
Is there any one memory that stands out in filming “Tin Cup?”
In between camera setups, [the pros] had bets on trick shots, and it was endlessly entertaining. We saw Phil Mickelson hit a flop shot over a tree we couldn’t believe. Then Gary McCord upped the bet and he did it with a 9-iron.
They did something that sounds ridiculous, but one guy hit a 5-iron, the other guy hit a 5-iron to try to knock the first ball out of the air. Of course, they never did, but you couldn’t believe how close [they came].
Everybody was in awe of Johnny Miller. We had that scene at the driving range, where “Tin Cup” Roy is shanking everything. In between camera setups, Miller went out and took like a 3-iron, left-handed, and he started striking the most gorgeous shots you’ve ever seen, just with one hand.
Which of the tour pros in the movie was the best actor?
I have a reel called, “Shanks for the Memories,” 12 minutes of all their screwups, and we gave one to all the players. A week before the movie came out was the PGA Championship at Valhalla, and we did a private fundraiser. It was a fancy screening in Louisville, and we showed Shanks for the Memories as a short before the movie. They roared because it was how bad their line readings were.
Do you feel “Bull Durham” is your best movie?
It’s certainly a movie that still resonates the most, but I get many calls on “White Men Can’t Jump.” It’s just a slightly different audience. That was, actually, my most successful movie, financially. I did three interviews on [“Bull Durham”] last week.
How good were you in the minors?
I was a solid minor-league player who had one really good year in A Ball, and then I went up to Triple A. We had a great team, the Rochester Red Wings; it’s been called one of the 10 best minor league teams of all time. The next year (1972) the strike hit, and it changed baseball forever. Like many minor leaguers, I was unable to sit out the strike. It was pretty much thought the season was going to be canceled. I had a small child and a wife, and I went to graduate school.
How much worse is it that we don’t have sports as a distraction right now with the coronavirus?
It makes it much worse. Not only do you not have sports, which is cathartic. We don’t have our teams and don’t we have our guys. You also lose the high schools; I follow my local high school teams. Instead, it’s replaced by pandemic cases. That’s the only thing [people] watch, on any channel.