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Sundance Film Festival | Television & Radio

His first at-bat

Don DeLillo's baseball-themed 'Game 6' at last puts a screenplay on the shelf next to his novels.

January 22, 2005|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

"This was not my essential passion, so it was easy for me to just keep doing what I normally do, write novels."

He plunged into "Underworld," which was inspired by another landmark baseball game, in 1951, when the "shot heard 'round the world," a Bobby Thomson homerun, won the National League championship for the New York Giants. That also was the day of a Soviet nuclear test, so he imagined the news being whispered to one spectator at the Polo Grounds, the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover, while he watches with Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason, who two days later would introduce "The Honeymooners" on his variety show.

DeLillo toiled until 1997 on that massive book about the Cold War era, and he wrote two more after it, before he got another call out of the blue, a year ago, from his producing friends: They had $2.5 million to make five movies, on the cheap, and his old "piece of work between novels" would be one of those.

'Another civilization'

They shot "Game 6" over three weeks in the heart of the New York summer, on streets and in bars and a cluttered Brooklyn loft with no ventilation. DeLillo showed up on location six or seven times, and "it was very interesting until it became very boring. Then I went home."

He found that "making movies is another civilization." In his normal work, he wrote alone in his home -- for the last 20 years in a house in the suburbs -- and people generally read his works in their homes too, one at a time. But they watched films in groups, and that's how you created them.

The novelty of having a DeLillo script helped bring in actors of stature willing to work for scale: Michael Keaton as the suffering Red Sox fan and playwright who proclaims the film's mantra, "This could be it," but senses doom on all fronts; Bebe Neuwirth as his producer and mistress, who warns that the city's "avenging angel" critic will there opening night; Griffin Dunne himself as another writer on a downward slide ever since that critic found his way into a production of his one-act play intended only for the fish handlers at the Fulton Fish Market; Harris Yulin as the veteran actor being counted on to carry Keaton's play but who has a parasite in his brain that's eating his lines; and Robert Downey Jr. as the mysterious critic who comes to the theater in disguise, and armed, and who believes that people who write the truth are the outcasts of society.

Though Keaton's character insists he's not scared of the guy, he too winds up toting a gun after a series of cross-town cab rides take him almost nowhere while yielding conversations that, in the DeLillo fashion, could be read as comic or cosmic. Encountering one cabby who used to be a neurosurgeon in Russia and cracked open thousands of skulls, Keaton asks, "What'd you find?"

"Big mess every time," says the driver.

Only after the shoot did director Michael Hoffman ("Soapdish," "One Fine Day") ask DeLillo to expand the role of the unseen character who most goes cosmic.

That's "Lone Eagle," the radio traffic philosopher who reports that cars are bumper to bumper, and soul to soul, on major arteries and small veins alike, "Uptown, downtown. Headlights, taillights. Cars weaving down the avenues, sleeping people at the wheel. Sirens in the chilly distance. The planet turns. The traffic rolls. This is Lone Eagle, over and out."

Another voice-over added just weeks ago tweaks the real history of Oct. 25, 1986. Amy Robinson got veteran baseball announcer Vin Scully to record a new snippet to insert into his original call of the Sox-Mets game, adding the film's mantra, "This could be it," when the Red Sox did seem on the brink, in 1986, of breaking their curse.

The Boston team was back on that brink just as they were working on "Game 6" last year, and it would probably have been better for the film had Red Sox fans been left devastated again.

But DeLillo was not sorry the Sox finally won. Though he is true to his Bronx roots -- a Yankee fan -- he believes there should be a little justice in the world. Let others argue that Boston fans now are deprived of their specialness. "Actually it won't be the same," he says, "because it will be a little better.... They deserved to win."

For someone who plays the postmodernist hit man in print, he is a softie in many respects. He worries about the player who was the goat in '86. "The curse has been removed from the Red Sox and their fans, but has it been removed from Buckner?" he frets. "My guess is no, that he still feels the pain."

DeLillo is equally kindhearted in accepting the realities of moviemaking, such as how, when the credits trumpet that it's "A film by ... " they don't mean the writer.

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