Sundance 2014: Kurt Russell, Chapman Way and Maclain Way
I didn’t even know that Kurt Russell ever played baseball, but when I saw he had a movie at Sundance of course I was interested. The Battered Bastards of Baseball is a documentary about Bing Russell, Kurt’s father, who between his acting career started a minor league baseball team, the Portland Mavericks. Russell is featured in an interview in the film, directed by Chapman and Maclain Way, Bing’s grandsons. The team also included bat boy and future director Todd Field. I sat across the aisle from Kurt at the screening and in the Q&A he got emotional from seeing his dad again. I got some private time with the Ways and Russell at Sundance and it felt like I was part of the family.
CraveOnline: Did you ever consider spelling Bastards with an E like Inglourious Basterds?
Chapman Way: We didn’t, no. I think he had the more fun spelling on that.
Maclain Way: We prefer the formal spelling on Bastards.
Kurt, you got really emotional at the screening yesterday.
Kurt Russell: I just never had thought about, it never was part of my brain trust that I would ever in any way see my father outside of playing a character in an old movie or television show, that I would see him as he was, as actually I remember him. As you get older, you have a tendency, you’re seeing him every day or every couple of weeks, and as you age you go into this strange I think denial of what you’re seeing. You want to, I guess, remember them as they were and I never thought I’d see that again. When that woman asked me the question, I started to talk and I just suddenly realized I hadn’t heard him in 12 years, hadn’t heard his voice, hadn’t seen the way he was. There was something about the voice. He was such a dynamic man, it just hit me like a ton of bricks.
Maclain Way: This wasn’t just Kurt. This was our whole family. My mother was in the screening and she hadn’t seen much of the film. She hadn’t seen Bing in 12 years too. She was just very emotionally moved. Bing was a huge part of all of our lives. We grew up incredibly close to him. We were four houses down from him so when even we first started out on the project and started getting our first interviews, it was an experience.
You don’t even have family movies of him talking that you’d watch over the years?
Maclain Way: I think Kurt made a great point about you can go on “Bonanza” and see him on “Bonanza” but that’s a character. He’s acting. As far as home movies, there’s not too many really. Certainly part of what we did in the film was we pulled scenes that he was in. We wanted to get across the varied acting career that he had but I even think in that you can tell that he’s different.
Kurt Russell: He never played a role as Bing Russell so you’re right. I never even thought about that question. We didn’t have a lot of family [movies]. You would have known. I was flabbergasted with the footage that they found. We’ve never sat down and said, “Oh, you’ve got to see this old footage of your dad.” I’ve never seen any. This was the first experience.
You described Bing in the movie as a plumber actor, which I love the analogy and its connotation of work ethic. Could you have been a plumber actor yourself?
Kurt Russell: Oh, I think I definitely was brought up that way. That is to say, I don’t mean that as a low end performance. I think art comes from a lot of different places. It comes sometimes from an expression of hard work and approach to it in that regard. I think if you go to work every day on a movie, on a television show, if you’re a ball player preparing yourself to play, your work ethic better be in order. I don’t care how good you are. You better learn to have a good work ethic. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to express that. My dad loved acting. He loved doing different parts but his whole thing was that he would go about it with a workmanlike process, I think much the same way old painters did. They didn’t just sit down and create it. You’re always working on it. I’m proud to be that kind of an actor and I took a lot of what I learned playing baseball and used it in acting, in terms of pacing yourself, in terms of your approach to it and psychologically preparing yourself as best you can to get the best out of yourself.
Was there a point where you transitioned from the plumber working actor to the leading man star?
Kurt Russell: I think you’re misunderstanding. I should put it another way. I’m not bringing this out right.
Oh, I’m sure it’s the Sundance exhaustion on my part too.
Kurt Russell: I’ve had this conversation with Meryl Streep quite a few times. Your interest in an issue, project, a job, your interest is your art. That’s your artistic approach. You can either improve that and rely on what you learn or you can let that flow and think that that’s as good as you can be. If you have a plumber’s attitude of “I’m going to work today to make money to bring home to feed my family,” if you have that and you add it to your art, then I think you get the best out of yourself.
So how did you approach the family to say, “We want to make a movie about Bing and his team?”
Chapman Way: So we came across a team photograph at my grandmother’s house. We talk about it a lot but it was just a totally different team photo than we’d ever seen before, and kind of had that eureka moment. I want to know more about this, I want to know more about my grandfather. I talked to my grandfather and I talked to Kurt. I said, “Hey Kurt, will you give us an interview?” We met up with him and he was super into it. We were just thrilled that he would come and give us that interview.
Maclain Way: Absolutely, I think it speaks to our family and how we kind of let each other do things. Kurt gave us the phenomenal interview but the thing that I loved about it was that he didn’t want to take it over. It was great, go ahead, make a documentary. Lou [Bing’s Wife] was the same way, our grandmother. Our family’s just so encouraging of the things that we want to do, but we let each other do it. I think that really ended up working out well in this project.
Did you reconstruct whole Mavericks games from footage available?
Chapman Way: No, the archival footage we got was what would be like 30 second news segments on the nine o’clock news, so we had four or five hours of 30 second snippets that we had to take and mold into the story that we had. It was a long editing process, finding the right spots for the footage. The championship game at the end was the only game that I think we had like an hour footage of just that game, but we never had a full entire game from beginning to end.
Where are some of the other Battered Bastards now?
Maclain Way: Who knows?
Chapman Way: We interviewed some of them. When we filmed up in Portland, Rob Nelson who invented Big League Chew, every four or five, six years will throw together a Bing Russell/Maverick reunion dinner. We were lucky enough to make it last year. I think there was probably about 50 guys there that showed up. It was just a really unique experience to get to meet all these guys and hear from them. We never met them, they would come up to us and just talk about Bing and what an impact Bing had i their life and what they ended up doing.
Maclain Way: I think it speaks a lot of Bing’s impact on a lot of the people that he had. Obviously Kurt went on to have an unbelievably accomplished acting career. He’s one of the most iconic actors of his generation. Everywhere from Bing’s son to the bat boy on the team, Todd Field who went on, almost parallel to Bing’s story, bad boy to the film industry. It really had an impact on a lot of the people and even ourselves growing up. This documentary wouldn’t be possible without Bing’s influence on us in our childhood. He was a huge part of our lives. I think our family is very talented. Our oldest cousin was a Maverick ball boy and one of Bing’s biggest projects was taking Matt Franco from Maverick ball boy up to the major leagues and he succeeded at that. I think Bing’s just had a very long lasting impact on a lot of members of our family.
Well, Kurt’s grandson is named after Bing, right?
Kurt Russell: Yeah, yeah. Their last name is Bingham, Matt’s mother so Kate felt that Bingham, shorten it to Bing would cover a lot of bases. He is, yep, but when my mom heard that, that was a great moment. When my mom was told for the first time that his name was Bing, I thought she was going to drop. I reached for her, like whoa. She was really struck by it. My dad was a very big character. He was a Dartmouth business grad. He was a very smart man who just had these very interesting life. They’ve done a wonderful job documenting who he was. He was intentioned. He was deliberate. He was apparently out of control. No, he was generally aware of what he was trying to accomplish. He did have his own outlook on life and what should be accomplished, but I think one of the greatest things my dad did was make every person he was around feel like they could do it. We can do this. He was a great inspirer of men especially.
Was he anything like Walt Disney, who you got to work with early in your career?
Kurt Russell: My grandfather was a little more like Walt Disney. Bing’s dad, Buddy, was actually quite a bit like Walt Disney in that he was a very inventive man. He was kind of an iconic figure in our family. He was airplane license number 192 signed by Orville Wright. Also I have to say that Lefty Gomez had a massive influence on my dad. They’ve shown that. Lefty, his years with the Yankees when they were world champion, what does he say, five out of six years?
Maclain Way: ’36-’41.
Kurt Russell: It was like this is the way you do it. This is the way you find out what you need to do to win. I think that informed my dad greatly and he passed that on to his next generation. It’s been passed on to them and I think we look at life that way. Don’t just go play. Go win.
I got to see The Art of the Steal in Toronto and that was lots of fun.
Kurt Russell: Good.
And we’re very excited about Fast & Furious 7 even though sadly we have to wait another year while they figure out what to do. Did that world make sense to you when they asked you to be in the franchise?
Kurt Russell: Yeah, when I read the role there were things about it that I didn’t care for but they liked what I wanted to do, which was very freeing. What it really is is I think will develop into a father figure to Vin’s character. I was saddened by that too because when I met Paul, I didn’t know Paul but my son Oliver, Kate, they knew Paul and said he was a really nice guy. When I worked with him, we were both struck by how similar outside of our job our lives were. He really liked to do a lot of the same things I did and so we talked about those things. One of them was driving cars. I raced quarter-midget racecars, as did my sisters and Paul loved to race cars. Unfortunately he wasn’t behind the wheel when the accident occurred. Everybody’s going to die, it’s just how it happens and when it happens and obviously for him, as far as I’m concerned and the obvious reality is that it happened way, way, way too early. It’s a sad thing but nobody’s going to escape so it’s going to happen sometime.
I got to see him two weeks before the accident so I treasure that time. Are you going to have to reshoot anything?
Kurt Russell: I don’t know. That’s a good question and if I did know I would tell you. I just don’t know. My character was a bit of an in flux character. We didn’t know if we were going to kill him off here or not or go into the next one. I don’t know what’s going on now in terms of the conversations they’re having. I’ve spoken a little bit with Vin. I’m just sitting back, letting them work it out and once it comes my way, I’ll look at it, throw my two cents’ worth in and hopefully it’ll be dealt with in a way that we’re very respectful of Paul and respectful of that franchise, what they did and what they want to do.
I’m looking forward to The Art of the Steal and seeing how audiences respond. I went to the Toronto Film Festival for like two hours and I really liked the movie. I really enjoyed it. I just think it’s a nice con man caper sort of thing. I liked the script. I like that guy a lot. I think Jonathan Sobol’s a good director.
It plays on a lot of your classic elements too, a stuntman like in Death Proof, wearing an Elvis costume, I’m sure a little Snake Plissken in there. Did you feel that or was it your input?
Kurt Russell: That was a character that he wrote, that Jonathan wrote, that we worked closely together on and it was wonderful to collaborate him. It’s a character, you see him one way and you think he’s one thing, and then it begins to unfold into something else. I like his structure of the screenplay and I liked the guys. Jay Baruchel was really fun to work with, a really good time. Matt Dillon did a really good job. I liked what it was. I really enjoyed it.
Underdog sports movies are so appealing, and you did one with Miracle. Is it more rare in real life for something like the Battered Bastards to happen?
Chapman Way: I think a lot of the reason why this film resonates with a lot of people is because it was a different time and it was maybe a throwback to a better time in sports. I think the way sports has gone into just maybe primarily being a business and then competition second. I think that it is harder for someone to come along like Bing and really take that chance and be bold enough and strong enough to strike out on his own and do that.
I know that for me, I would love a local baseball team in my community to go watch and play. I’d love to grab a bear and watch good baseball and get to know the guys. That’s not really there for me. I can go watch the Dodgers but that’s a whole event and you’ve got to do parking. For me to have a local team in L.A. that I can identify with the players and watch I think would be really, really cool. I hope that people walk away from this thinking maybe there could be a really cool team in my community that I could go and pay not a lot of money for and get really great entertainment.
Maclain Way: I think that there’s a lot of guys that we grew up with that are unbelievable athletes that just because they didn’t make it to the highest level doesn’t mean they can’t provide entertainment. I would love for there to be some outlet in our communities we can go to and watch the people that we know. There’s guys that have dedicated their lives to doing something like this and they’re incredibly talented at what they do and I would love to watch them continue to do what they are in some ways meant to do.
Kurt Russell: Aside from the fact that there are those guys that slip through the cracks, that do get missed or get an opportunity and they have a bad start. They’ve got one thing that they’ve got to work on but they don’t find what that one thing is until too late. They just slip through the cracks.
I grew up in Maryland there there was a local team, the Baysox. Does that sort of thing not exist anymore?
Chapman Way: Were they a minor league team or were they affiliated? Most teams are affiliated and the problem is it’s a pyramid game where you have different levels of baseball and pretty much the major league teams just have these teams so they can develop players to play at the professional levels. The problem with that is these players get called up during the season all the time, so you go to a game, you like the first baseman, you identify with his playing style, you like his grit. Two weeks later he’s playing in a whole nother town and so it’s very hard for the community to really feel like they get to know the players. So I’m not sure if the Baysox were a minor league affiliate or not.
They were minor league, but I didn’t follow sports closely anyway. Now that I’ve seen Battered Bastards I may go look them up again.
Kurt Russell: What’s interesting is that this reinvented the concept of baseball and there are now 65+ teams that are independent. So there’s a lot of guys getting an opportunity to play that otherwise wouldn’t be getting an opportunity play and that happened because of what my dad did.