Thursday, September 15, 2016

How to make a 90 minute movie seem like three hours

There is a small indie movie that’s been showing up in theaters in various areas. And I’m sure if it’s not on VOD it will be in eleven seconds. It’s called SPACEMAN and it stars Josh Duhamel as the legendary pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Lee had quite a career in the ‘70s. He was a genuine character – uncommonly literate for a baseball player (he read books that had no pictures), a big stoner and drinker, into meditation, outspoken, colorful – in general: a loose cannon. But he was a terrific pitcher and enjoyed success for many years. He even started Game 7 of the 1975 World Series for the Boston Red Sox.

So you figure a movie about this lovable goofball, clashing with management, getting high, always walking a tightrope would make a great movie. Didn’t Bill Murray make seven of these?

You’d see Lee pitching a big game totally zonked out of his mind, the manager’s attempts to keep him in line, bizarre antics, great sequences at Fenway Park and other venues. Yeah, baby. I’m there!

But that’s not what this movie was.

I suppose I should say SPOILER ALERT here although most baseball fans already know the story and a quick peek at Wikipedia will fill in the rest.

Eventually the Montreal Expos got tired of his bullshit, released him, and no other major league team would pick him up. He was already 35 (which meant one year away from 50) and not worth the trouble.

And THAT was the movie. He’s released and for the rest of the film just tries to reconcile with that.

So if you want to make a 90 minute movie that feels like three hours, follow the following steps:

STRETCH OUT A PAPER-THIN STORY – For 90 minutes we see Lee applying for major league positions, getting rejected for major league positions, and finally he decides he’s okay with that. Period. That’s ten minutes in a good movie; an hour and a half in this one.

HAVE ZERO SUSPENSE – We know the story. And worse, it’s not a very exciting story. It’s a guy floundering. And then he stops. WOW!  This is especially egregious when the part they left out (his big league career) was the good stuff.   It's like doing a James Bond movie after he saves the world and he's in bed recovering from the flu for 90 minutes. 

DO NOTHING INSPIRING – No big comeback, no returning from the depths of despair to the top of the mountain. No taking a different direction and finding success elsewhere. No making a difference in anyone’s lives other than a bunch of rag-tag guys on a beer league team. No out-smarting anyone.  The big movie moment here is that he decides not to coach a minor league team in Tucson. Destined to be a classic.

REPEAT SCENES AT LEAST SEVEN TIMES – He thinks he’ll get another big league job. He gets rejected. He drinks and gets high. This sequence repeats over and over and over and over again.

HAVE A LINEAR STORY – Don’t do anything inventive in the storytelling. Just chronicle the turn of events. This is what happened in May. Then this is what happened in June. Then July, August, September, zzzzzzzzzzz.

MAKE SURE YOU HAVE NO SURPRISES – Do nothing unexpected. Just let the audience watch things they already know play out.

USE TIRED MOVIE TROPES – He falls in with a bad crowd and ends up hosting drug and beer parties at his house. He wakes up and his place is a mess with all these stoners passed out. How many times have we seen that? Hasn’t Seth Rogen made that movie seven times?

Lee winds up playing for a “Bad News Bears” team of middle-aged lovable misfits. Didn’t Walter Matthau make that film six times?

PLAY YOUR LEAD CHARACTER AT ONE NOTE – Josh Duhamel is charming and boyish as Bill Lee and stays that way in every single scene. Part of the problem in this case is I believe the real Bill Lee was involved creatively. So the Bill Lee we saw on the screen was I’m sure an air brushed version of the real dude.

GIVE YOUR LEAD CHARACTER ONLY ONE ATTITUDE – and let him play it for the entire movie.

And finally…

MAKE SURE YOUR MOVIE IS NEVER VISUALLY INTERESTING – Scenes in bars, scenes in the house, scenes in offices, driving through boring deserts, sandlot ballgames, spring training batting practice, and when you finally see a major league stadium all you're shown is nothing but loading docks, empty seats, service corridors, cramped locker rooms, and offices. Yes, it was a low budget movie, but there are plenty of films on shoestring budgets that manage to turn out eye-popping images.

In fairness, SPACEMAN did try to cover some backstory with animation, but it came out of nowhere, was stylistically jarring, and looked like it was made by a high school student on his father’s old Dell computer.

A 90-minute movie should fly. Especially when most movies, even trifle comedies, are well over two hours. If it doesn’t, my guess is the filmmaker fell into one of these ten traps. In the case of SPACEMAN, he fell into all ten.

If this movie is playing in your area, save your money and go watch a Little League game. At least you’re outdoors for 90 minutes.


rockgolf said...

In Spaceman, no one can hear you snore.

(Because you're the only person in the theatre.)

VincentS said...

Too bad. I remember Bill Lee. He sure was entertaining. And you bring up an important point: It's not a movie's actual length but how long it FEELS. Some movies are like this one but great 2-hour-plus movies like LORD OF THE RINGS, THE HUSTLER, and THE GODFATHER are a breeze to sit through. Which brings me to a Friday question: Most classic comedy movies are about 90 minutes. The longest classic comedy movie I can think of is SOME LIKE IT HOT, which is exactly 2 hours. Why are 2-hour-plus comedies not prevalent in movies the way they are in dramas like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, TITANIC, etc?

PatGLex said...

In a connected thought -- do you know anything about PITCH, the new fall show from Fox? Or have you heard anything? I hope you will at least watch the first few eps and let us know your thoughts....

Mike Barer said...

My recommendation is for the "Battered Bastards Of Baseball", a Netflix movie that was the story of the Portland Mavericks. It is a documentary, but has a great "David vs. Goliath" theme and the minor league charm of Bull Durham.

Breadbaker said...

As you're working your baseball play, I wonder if you'd had a chance to see "Ernie", which is Mitch Albom's play about Ernie Harwell. My cousin is the stage manager of it (I think they were last seen playing in Traverse City; the play doesn't really attract outside Michigan). The guy who plays Ernie is pretty good and the play isn't entirely hagiography.

rockgolf said...

@VincentS: The full version of "It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World" runs over 3 hours, but I don't know if it's been seen since the film was originally released in the week of the Kennedy assassination.

Comedies are like sugar. Nice in small amounts. Headache inducing if you overdose.

Bryan from Seattle. said...

Sounds like Snowden. I only wish it had been 90 minutes.

Dave Kovarik said...

Ken how many different unions are you in?

Longtime caller, first-time listener in Chicago said...

When things were going bad for Bill Lee in Montreal, I remember a conversation with friends about how Bill Veeck ought to sign him for the White Sox as both a pitcher and announcer. Harry Caray was doing play-by-play in those days. Imagine: "Here I go, Harry, into my windup..." Probably only get to do it once, if that, but Eddie Gaedel never even had an official at-bat and think of how unforgettable that was.

VP81955 said...

I interviewed Bill Lee in September 1979, when he was with the Expos and suspended by Bowie Kuhn for some comments he made regarding marijuana. (Had he been 45 years later, he might've had a good career in MLB -- especially if he had been pitching for the Mariners or Rockies, if you catch my drift. Of course, to pitch half your games in Coors Field, it might help to partake of such substances.) He was fascinating, if seemingly a bit weird, and I'm sorry this film didn't capture that.

Would love for someone to make a movie about Bill Veeck, perhaps setting it at old Comiskey Park in 1985, when he attended what would be his final ballgame (sitting in his beloved bleachers, of course!), chatting with fans about his life, with flashbacks to his days owning the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers, followed by the AL's Indians, Browns and White Sox (twice). I'm sure his son Mike Veeck could provide plenty of assistance.

Daniel said...

It's interesting to count how many of these rules Sully breaks.

blinky said...

Turns out it is hard to make a good movie. Even with great stars and a cubic yard of money, i.e. Independence Day 2.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Images. It's the images that get me. Another spit-take this morning. It happened when I read, "It's like doing a James Bond movie after he saves the world and he's in bed recovering from the flu for 90 minutes." I have an image of young Sean Connery in bed, alone, with a red nose honking into some Kleenex. :) God, you're good.

VincentS said...

rockgolf: The three-plus-hour version of MAD WORLD was a video re-release. I know because I got it on (ancient) VHS. And as you pointed out it didn't do well although I for one think it's a very funny movie including the long version.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,

A little off subject but I NEED your review on the new FOX show called "Pitch". It comes out next week. A female baseball player (a relief pitcher I think) It looks a little too far fetched -but because of your baseball & TV expertise I'd like to know what you think, --LL

julian said...

FYI, Bill is on Montreal radio [in english, tsn690, listenable on the web] regularly throughout the baseball season, and i'm absolutely in love with his segments. fascinating guy.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Great heads up on Pitch next week - I'd like to see a "before and after" review from Ken.

Before - what would it take to make Pitch a good series - in other words, pitch 'Pitch'.

After - a standard review.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Big thumbs up on Battered Bastards of Baseball.

This documentary is a big kick. I won't spoil it except to say that it features one, very famous, and two of lesser fame.

Ken Russell - who played college ball - maybe a little in the minors.

His dad, Bing Russell who had a long acting career - mostly TV and a few film Westerns.

Jim Bouton, who wrote Ball Four - the best-selling sports book of all time.

It's a fabulous idea to do a Bill Veeck bio-pic. Veeck is probably the most important "suit" in Baseball - more so than Branch Rickey who only beat Veeck to the punch by one year regards the MLB color line.

(funny to call Veeck a "suit", since he refused to wear a tie)

Veeck was such a colorful and innovative figure that the writers could play him "straight" (without any Hollywood BS) and make a very entertaining film.

Dixon Steele said...


You mean Kurt Russell the actor, not Ken, the (late) director.

I once worked with the latter and strangely enough, you were not the first to make that error.

MikeN said...

So they remade The Company Man?

Astroboy said...

VP81955 & Jahn Ghalt: Regarding a Bill Veeck film, I see Bryan Cranston as Veeck.

VP81955 said...

Cranston as Veeck? He could pull it off (look at his superb work as LBJ), and he loves baseball. Last year, he was guest PA announcer for a game at Dodger Stadium and didn't merely announce the starting lineups as some celebs do, but worked several innings. He was quite good. (An actor as Dodgers PA guy? Somewhere, John Forsythe -- who held that role at Ebbets Field early in his career -- is smiling.)

Ralph C. said...

I almost always prefer to see a documentary tell a real-life story rather than these bio-pic-ish movies. In a documentary most of these "steps" are absent. Telling a linear story in a documentary is preferable to me as the timeline helps to bring sense to the story. I sometimes wish some of the "posing" and other artificial aspects of documentaries didn't exist but understand they are there to "liven" things up.

One exception was a documentary about Graham Chapman called "A Liar's Autobiography - The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman". That was visually arresting as well as heartily told. A great movie that makes fun of the bio-pic tropes is "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" that I found to be tremendous fun.

Jahn Ghalt said...

@ Astroboy and VP81955:

When Cranston was mentioned I flashed on his role as LBJ in All the Way - which is much closer to Veeck than Walter White in Breaking Bad or the Dad role in Malcolm in the Middle.

Dixon Steele: interesting about the Ken/Kurt slip.

And one more baseball bio-pic (or documentary) that should be made - Curt Flood, focusing of course on his lawsuit vs. MLB. Though he finally 'lost', that the SCOTUS chose to hear is case at all was a win. The reseve clause soon collapsed after that and MLB players ultimately got paid a "market rate" just as other entertainers do.

For this reason I put Flood in a photo finish with Robinson. Robinson and Rickey broke the barrier for 15% of the talent pool. Flood broke it for essentially them and the other 85%.

Michael said...


Do you know anything about "Cheers Live on Stage?" Just saw a Facbook post about this, saw the promo video of the Cheers gang impersonators singing "Where Everybody Knows Your Name." It's starting this week in Chicago and moving all across the country, expect, of course, Los Angeles. What do you think about this Ken? Heres the link:

VP81955 said...

I remember Flood trying a comeback with the Senators in 1971 (one of his teammates was Denny McLain, part of a trade with Detroit engineered by the late, and still unloved in D.C., Bob Short that helped the Tigers win the AL East in '72 with ex-Nats Aurelio Rodriguez and Ed Brinkman and helped kill baseball in Washington for more than one-third of a century). During the few weeks they were teammates -- Flood left in May -- they must've thought to themselves, "Look how far we've fallen in three years."

DrBOP said...

Had the pleasure of joining the promoters after-speech party for the Spaceman while a MLB playoff game (circa 1992) was shown on one of the first huuuge big screen tv's in town. Not only did Lee entertain us with Scully-level tales of baseball, the Universe and everything.....he called about 95% of what particular pitch was coming over about 3 innings, accompanied by the 4 different reasons WHY that was the pitch to throw in that situation.....TRULY amazin'!

HOW could you make a dull movie about 'dis guy?

Unknown said...

My understanding is that Bill Murray has been trying to get a Bill Veeck biopic up and running for years now.
In recent years, as Murray's hair has receded and whitened and his face has gotten craggier, his resemblance to the real Veeck has become pronounced - makeup could be held to a minimum.
Of course, there's the business of Veeck's peg leg, but they're doing wonders with CGI these days ...

MikeN said...

Regarding Pitch, it appears to be the real life What if Aaron Sorkin wrote about baseball?

Potential premise flaw that they claim is covered in the pilot- Guinness World Record for fastest pitch by a woman is 79 MPH. No pitcher would make a roster with that, except a very good knuckleballer.

Boyd said...

I know you're busy with your play so maybe you don't know...on Decades TV today, Dick Cavett interviews Larry Gelbart, David Lloyd and Pat McCormick, 5 am, 11 am, 5 pm and 11 pm, Pacific time.