Million Dollar Arm: Craig Gillespie on Finding Someone Hunkier Than Jon Hamm

Million Dollar Arm Jon Hamm

Jon Hamm plays J.B. Bernstein, the sports manager who came up with “Million Dollar Arm,” a pitching competition for Indian cricket players. He brought Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel to America to become baseball pitchers. Craig Gillespie directs the film Million Dollar Arm, which depicts Bernstein’s struggle in the athletic industry, romance with his now wife Brenda (Lake Bell), and success with “Million Dollar Arm.” It includes a moment where he yells at Brenda for letting his pitchers cut their hand in a cooking accident, and a botched media event in Tempe, Arizona. We spoke to Gillespie about his fourth film as director.

CraveOnline: It’s the empty Chinese takeout boxes that tell us J.B. is a loner, right?

Craig Gillespie: You’re talking about that first scene when they’re eating? They got Chinese that night. I guess they were there from the fridge. I think there’s a lot of things in that room. There’s so little in terms of the human touch to that room, very few photographs, very little knick knacks around. It’s a very barren backdrop to his life.

One of my favorite visual cues in a movie is whenever people have empty Chinese takeout boxes lying around, or they’re eating out of the boxes, that’s how we know they don’t have time to cook. They don’t sit down with other people. They’re loners.

Yeah, they don’t even have time to eat.

One of my favorite Disney sports movies is The Air Up There.

I haven’t seen that.

He goes to Africa to find a basketball player, so this reminded me of it, bringing baseball to India.

I should’ve watched that film just for some perspective. It’s funny, for me this wasn’t so much that it’s a sports film. It was much more that it was just really Thom[as McCarthy]’s writing to start with because I just love his sense of humor that he has that he balances with drama, which is always a rare thing to be able to find those mixes going on tonally. And then it’s just an amazing story and the opportunity to shoot in that country, I was just thrilled.

I’m not a sports fan at all and sports movies are great because anyone, even I can relate to them. Do you know a lot about baseball?

When I first came to this country, it was with the Mets in New York. So I very quickly was brought up to speed on the whole playoff thing. I was living in New York at the time but it’s not a sport that I follow closely. Obviously when you get into the playoffs it gets exciting but I’m not actually a huge sports person, even though I love sports films. I played a lot of sports growing up.

Which ones?


You called it football though?


You’re not a writer/director. How do you work with screenwriters and find those scripts that you relate to?

I’ve been lucky so far. Obviously with Nancy Oliver with Lars and Diablo [Cody] I worked with on “United States of Tara.” Thomas, and even Marti Noxon on Fright Night, they all have such a strong sense of style in terms of their writing and they’re all mixing genres in a way. There’s this uniformity of comedy with another genre going on. Once we started working, I think partly because I feel like Thom and I had shared a similar sensibility, it was really easy to work together. I had some thoughts or some ideas that I wanted to try and get on the screen and he came up with some ingenious ways of doing that. It was a really fun creative environment.

This might’ve been artistic license to show how their relationship developed, but was J.B. already Skyping with Brenda from India?

That’s probably the most artistic license that’s taken in the film. In terms of the competition, chronologically what happened, the boys coming back and living with J.B. and then him screwing up with the Tempe thing, all of that happened in that chronological order. I feel like more of the Brenda relationship actually happened after that. Obviously for dramatic purposes it works better like this.

Now he does overreact in the hospital, but he’s not wrong. A pitcher should protect his hands, right?

[Laughs] It’s funny you should say that. My son said that when he watched the film. He was like, “I agree with him.”

I mean, if he was a surgeon you wouldn’t want him playing with knives and open flames.

He’s under a lot of pressure. I don’t think he’s wrong. I think he may have handled the situation poorly but he is under a lot of stress. That’s what I like that’s so complex about the way that Thom writes, that you have that room and it’s not black and white. He’s obviously got his priorities, but that’s part of the journey that he’s on. He has a very materialistic work ethic in terms of what’s important in his life and he needs a balance and that’s what the boys bring into his life, being able to understand the emotional side of life and having these human relationships because that’s where he’s lacking. This just highlights that situation, that for him it’s property, it’s equity.

How did you cast the hunk that Brenda dates who intimidates Jon Hamm?

[Laughs] All right, so who do we get that’s going to be a threat to Jon Hamm on the screen? Obviously the most obvious thing is this sort of physical perfection, so I just put it right in his face. We need to find a guy obviously who can act, and he had to walk all those lines because he’s not an airhead or anything. He’s a medical intern, he’s got everything going for him and on top of that he’s a nice, genuine guy. He’s not judging Jon. He’s just having a very fair conversation. So it was like putting him on that pedestal so he’s truly a threat. That’s the one guy who can really put Jon in his place. He knew once he got the role, I said you’ve got to get in as best shape as you can get and you have six weeks.

Obviously you knew going in you were making a Disney movie, but would your instincts have been, under different circumstances, make J.B.’s single life edgier?

No, you know what was great in terms of Disney? I sort of learned this early on in this business. I went in and I just pitched the movie I wanted to make, and if that’s what they wanted, great. We were all on the same page. So I went in and I tried to be as clear as possible about India. It’s going to be gritty and handheld. I used A.R. Rahman as an example and that kind of energy with the music and rap music. Then we get to the States and it settles down and it’s much colder and more locked off. Jon’s basically quite an unforgiving character for a large portion of the film so I gave them this whole pitch and hopefully they liked it, which I guess they did. We’re here now. I never thought about the idea that I’m making a Disney movie. I was just trying to stay true to the script that Thom wrote.

Showing the athlete who wants a million dollar signing bonus, is there a parallel in cinema that the money doesn’t always correspond with the talent?

That was a reality of what was going on and apparently with J.B.’s story. Competing against these huge firms, they couldn’t finance these big signing bonuses that the other guys were getting. So this is part of the impetus for the plan that he came up with. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.