Friday, August 9, 2013

“The Sandlot” interviews, April 9, 1993

Standard-Examiner staff

SALT LAKE CITY -- Patrick Renna and Chauncey Leopardi, two youthful co-stars of "The Sandlot," are sitting in a suite at the Hilton Hotel, attempting to verbalize their feelings about acting in the movie. It's a nostalgic kiddie-baseball fantasy, very much in the vein of the vintage "Our Gang" series.

Renna, a husky 14-year-old, plays Ham, the team's slugger and chief trash-talker. Leopardi, 11, plays Squints, a bespectacled half-pint with a taste for older, buxom women.

Before shooting started, Renna says, "I watched a Jackie Gleason movie, because that's who they wanted me to be like. You know, how he's outgoing?"
Leopardi looks puzzled: "Who's Jackie Gleason?"

"He's a star," Renna explains. "He was in 'The Honeymooners.' "
Was a star, the kids are told -- he's been dead a while.
"Oh," the two reply in unison, shrugging their shoulders.

Too young to know about The Great One? Inconceivable.

Renna and Leopardi were in Utah a couple of weeks back as part of a four-city publicity tour for "The Sandlot," which was filmed in the Salt Lake City and Ogden areas during the summer of 1992. When the film's writer-director, David Mickey Evans, set out to recreate California's San Fernando Valley, circa 1962, for "The Sandlot," he came to Utah to do it.

"The San Fernando Valley and the Salt Lake Valley are not dissimilar," Evans said by phone from Los Angeles, "even though they are several thousand feet different in elevation. The hills around Salt Lake and Ogden look a lot like the hills around the (San Fernando) Valley."

Although Evans and his co-writer, Bob Gunter, played plenty of ball when they were kids, Evans says none of the characters in his film are patterned after either writer.

"What we did was we made composites -- the characters are all really composites of a bunch of kids he and I knew as we were growing up." Evans is from Pennsylvania originally, but spent most of his childhood in Southern California, where he and his brother played T-ball and Little League. He says the days of the sandlots are over, and laments that basketball has replaced the National Pastime as the sport of choice for most kids in the cities.

"The Sandlot" marks Evans' debut film as a director. (He previously wrote the screenplay for, and was set to direct, "Radio Flyer," but he was replaced after a few days by another director.) The film is an old-fashioned evocation of a simpler America, as it tells the story of nine friends who lose a very important baseball over a fence. On the other side of that fence is the meanest junkyard dog imaginable.

The casting process was laborious, says Evans. "I first started out looking for Little League players -- guys who could play ball. But we sort of got rid of that idea at an early stage, and said, 'You know, what we should do is cast this picture with the same sorts of ideas we had when we wrote it.' And we wrote it under a big poster of one of the 'Our Gang' comedies, which I am like the world's greatest fan of."

Evans also found himself working with James Earl Jones, who plays a pivotal character near the film's end. The director recalled that he never imagined Jones would want to play the character.

"I talked to Mr. Jones a couple of times on the phone -- in fact, I re-wrote the part for him. Originally, the part was written (for him to be) a frail old baseball fan who sort of sat around in his house all day. But it seemed to be a more natural thing that if Mr. Jones was going to play it, we would make this a much bigger deal."

Directing a talent like Jones on his first film, Evans says, was "awe-inspiring."

"Truthfully, I'd worked three months with nine kids all over Utah and attention span was a problem," Evans said with a laugh. "And then suddenly (Jones) comes onto the set and the first assistant director and one of the producers know him -- had worked with him on other films -- and I was standing right next to him and he was sort of looking over me. Somebody introduced me, and he looked at me and said, 'Oh, my God, you're so young.' And I said, 'I'm sorry. I'm really sorry.'

"And then we got to doing the first shot with him and I called 'Action.' He did it, I called 'Cut,' then stood there for about two minutes: 'Well, I guess that's it -- we don't need to do this another 20 times.' So that was quite a treat. He's phenomenal."

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