How a Director With a Dream Made ‘Field of Dreams’
UCR: Movies and Culture
“This was the kind of movie that you only make if you hear a voice telling you to.” Those words, from then-chairman of Universal Pictures Thomas Pollock in the Los Angeles Times, are all too fitting considering the movie he’s talking about. That would be the excellent baseball drama Field of Dreams, which opened in theaters on April 21, 1989, in which a modest farmer is inspired to build a baseball field in his backyard because he hears a voice giving him vague guidance to do so.
Even though baseball is considered America’s national pastime, movies about baseball have always been hit or miss, and weren’t in high demand in the early '80s, in spite of the success of the 1984 drama The Natural. That was when Phil Alden Robinson, writer of the Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin comedy All of Me, brought the W.P. Kinsella novel Shoeless Joe to industry executives Lawrence Gordon and Charles Gordon for consideration as a feature.
The novel, like the film, is about Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), a farmer with an extensive cornfield in his Iowa home who hears a voice saying, “If you build it, they will come." That hushed sentence inspires Ray to build a baseball field, after which he’s stunned to see Chicago White Sox player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) walk out of his cornfield straight from the '10s, looking to play some ball again. This discovery leads Ray on a journey through America, as he tries to better understand the messages he’s hearing from the mysterious voice, and why it is that dead baseball players keep showing up on his doorstep.
The good news for Robinson is that he was able to convince the Gordons, with Lawrence then the president of 20th Century Fox, that Kinsella’s novel was worth pursuing as a film adaptation. The bad news is no one else grasped the pull of this unique story. Robinson told the Los Angeles Times back in 1989, “The general response was, ‘We can see why you love this book but you can’t make a movie out of it.’” In the same way that Ray Kinsella was dedicated to his quixotic quest, so too were Robinson and the Gordons, eventually landing at Universal with a star who was both on the rise and no stranger to the baseball diamond in cinema.
Kevin Costner was fresh off a couple of major successes, including his star turn in Brian de Palma’s crime drama The Untouchables as well as his role in the baseball-themed romantic comedy Bull Durham in 1988. Instead of being shy about returning to the field on film, Costner dove in and was able to use his newfound clout to help Robinson from any unwanted studio interference, except on one aspect: the title. Though Robinson wanted to call the film Shoeless Joe, just like the book, Universal had another suggestion: Field of Dreams. It was only after W.P. Kinsella revealed to Robinson his own preferred title for the novel, The Dream Field, that Robinson relented.
There were, of course, other changes between the book and the film. In Kinsella’s novel, Ray encounters reclusive author J.D. Salinger. For the film version, though, to avoid any possible lawsuit from the real man himself, Robinson’s script creates an author called Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) who, much like the Salinger of the novel, loves baseball and seems to loathe other people; it’s only when Ray, convinced that meeting Mann is part of his destiny, is able to prove the magic of his field that Mann becomes a true believer.
It’s easy now to laud Field of Dreams, but of all people, Robinson himself wasn’t much of a true believer during the production. As noted on the DVD’s special features, Robinson felt tense and depressed while filming; Field of Dreams was not his directorial debut, but his prior effort as director, the 1987 comedy In the Mood, was a flop. It was Costner’s belief in the script and Robinson that enabled the film’s production to continue unabated. Lawrence Gordon often had to convince the writer/director that his vision would both be successful and not ruin Kinsella’s source material.
Robinson’s vision would remain intact, though filming had to be compressed around Costner’s packed schedule. The production spent most of its time in Iowa through the summer of 1988, with a one-week sojourn to Boston, primarily at Fenway Park to get location shots for the sequence where Ray and Terence take in a Red Sox game. Yet perhaps the most notable element of the film’s production is reflected in its final shot: a helicopter shot revealing the seemingly endless line of cars full of people waiting to get their chance to see baseball played by legends.
No special effects were used to achieve the eerily triumphant image. Robinson approached the local Chamber of Commerce, which quickly approved the idea and turned it into a community event. In terms of movie magic, the best twist of all is how the drivers were able to simulate movement without actually making their cars move that much: switching between their low beams and high beams, implying the cars were making a trek along the road to catch a nighttime ballgame.
Reaction from critics was mostly positive — the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score is a comfortable 86 percent, including a rave from the late Roger Ebert, who gave the film four stars and dubbed it both “completely original and visionary." But even in 1989, some weren’t so convinced, like Richard Corliss of Time, who called the film “a male weepie at its wussiest." Though the film does climax with Ray’s long-dead father coming out of the cornfield to have a catch, tying a bow on Ray’s past issues with his father, the emotional elements managed to burrow their way into the hearts and minds of many audiences around the country.
When it was released at the start of the 1989 baseball season, Field of Dreams became a gradual sleeper hit at the box office. It was never No. 1 at the weekend box office, though it ran in theaters until December of 1989 thanks to its moderate but consistent success. For some, though, the truest arbiter of success for Field of Dreams came a couple months later, when the film received three Academy Award nominations: for its wistful, melodic score by the late James Horner; Robinson’s screenplay; and the film itself for Best Picture. Though the film failed to win any of the awards — Driving Miss Daisy won for both Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and The Little Mermaid won for Best Original Score — the message was clear that Field of Dreams had stuck around long after its initial release.
Field of Dreams represents a high point for most of the talent involved in the film. Though Robinson would continue to direct films, including the 1992 heist picture Sneakers, Field of Dreams represented the last time everything came together for him at the box office, with audiences, critics and the industry. Lawrence Gordon went on to produce other big-name projects in the '90s and '00s, including the Tomb Raider and Hellboy films; the only Oscar nomination he ever received was for Field of Dreams. Kevin Costner was much luckier, getting Oscar glory with his 1990 directorial debut Dances With Wolves.
Now, Field of Dreams is considered one of the best genre films of all time. The American Film Institute has honored the film as the sixth best fantasy film, and in a separate list as one of the 100 best inspirational films of all time. In 2017, Field of Dreams was added to the National Film Registry overseen the Library of Congress, heightening its legacy to a level of permanence that Phil Alden Robinson may have doubted when making the film. Though he always was wary of the film’s title being different from the novel, it fits for Robinson, and the film itself. Nothing could better represent a movie so fantastical, so hopeful, so nostalgic, than the very idea of pursuing an impossible dream.