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Diamonds Are Forever : Director Fields the Lost Hopes of Adolescence

Times Staff Writer

No matter how hard Universal Pictures tries to hide it, “Field of Dreams” is a baseball movie. A title change (from “Shoeless Joe”) and full-page advertisements that don’t even mention the sport can’t mask the fact that at the center of the story stands Shoeless Joe Jackson--wistfully recalling the “smell of the ballpark in my nose and the cool of the grass on my feet. The thrill of the grass. . . . “

The Chicago “Black” Sox left-fielder was forever suspended from major league baseball for his part in a scheme to fix the 1919 World Series. In “Field of Dreams” he returns to life when an Iowa farmer (played by Kevin Costner) tears up his cornfield to build a baseball diamond.

But “Field of Dreams,” based on W.P. Kinsella’s book “Shoeless Joe,” is about a lot more than baseball. It’s also about lost dreams, generational ties and discovering magic in the back yard.

So director Phil Alden Robinson can be excused when he interrupts an interview about his new film and the role of baseball in American life, and insists that he needs to explain the “Robinson theory of my generation.”

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“We’re the first generation in this century not to divest ourselves at 21 of those things that defined us as teenagers,” Robinson, 39, says of the baby-boom generation. “We still maintain as options a willingness to wear jeans, to question authority, to listen to rock ‘n roll. We’ve maintained all those things that defined us as teens. I think that’s healthy.”

But teen-age dreams--whether visions for life or just those crazy impulses that seemed to define the ‘60s--had a rougher time surviving the wear and tear of the years, says Robinson.

In “Field of Dreams,” Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, builds the ball field for Shoeless Joe after hearing a voice in his cornfield say, “If you build it, he will come.” Later, he nearly loses his farm as he sets off on a cross-country search for a famous reclusive author (played by James Earl Jones) and another old baseball pro (Burt Lancaster). Again, because a voice told him to.

“When you’re 19 or 20 and you want to do something crazy you do it,” Robinson says. “I’ve struggled a lot with the whole issue of what you do with your dreams (as an adult),” he adds. “I like to believe that there’s still a way to hang onto the same kind of freedoms.

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Robinson then recalls the time that he and his college roommates draped a parachute across a flagpole outside their house and not one neighbor in that working-class section of Schenectady, N.Y. raised a fuss.

In writing the screenplay for “Field of Dreams,” Robinson said he attempted to stay as close as possible to Kinsella’s dialogue in the book, which has become a cult favorite among baseball fans. But he added one speech in which Costner describes his fear of turning into his father, a man who always seemed old, who had stopped dreaming long before his son arrived on the scene.

When Costner’s character hears a voice early in the film, he’s ready to listen. “Here’s a guy in his late 30s, presented with the choice of doing something completely illogical,” Robinson says. “Taking that step into the void symbolized who we are, our legacy of the ‘60s.”

But Robinson also makes sure that Costner’s character finds much of his dream at home, in his wife (Amy Madigan) and daughter (Gaby Hoffman). That, too, is part of the Robinson theory on the baby-boom generation.

“We’re now going through a second coming of age,” the director says. “We’ve deferred what it means to be grown-ups,” including marriage and children.

This is not just idol philosophizing: Robinson himself is ready to look inward, to focus on friends and family. “I’ve deferred life for my career,” says the unmarried director.

So, after the release of “Field of Dreams,” which opens here today, Robinson is taking a year-long sabbatical to focus on friends, family, relationships. “Read my lips,” he says, “no more movies.”

By doing so, Robinson will be walking away from Hollywood--if only temporarily--at a time when his career is taking off. After studying political science at Union College in Schenectady, Robinson worked briefly as a journalist and then for many years produced, wrote and directed industrial and educational films.

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His big break in Hollywood came just five years ago, when his comedic screenplay “All of Me,” directed by Carl Reiner and starring Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin, became a critical and commercial hit. Robinson also wrote the original screenplay for another film that year, “Rhinestone,” starring Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton. But when that film was released to almost unanimous critical scorn, Robinson went public with the fact that Stallone had completely rewritten it.

In 1987, after gaining some directing experience on TV, Robinson directed his first feature film, “In the Mood.” The story of a boy who became famous in the wake of World War II after running off with older women earned plenty of good reviews but not much attention at the box office.

If early reviews are any indication of audience reaction, “Field of Dreams” is likely to polarize audiences. Syndicated film critic Roger Ebert calls the movie “completely original and visionary.” But Time magazine’s Richard Corliss sees it as a “male weepie at its wussiest.”

Robinson first tried to launch the project in 1982 after Kinsella’s book was published, but he couldn’t generate much interest.

“The general response was, ‘We can see why you love this book but you can’t make a movie out of it,’ ” he recalls.

The “Shoeless Joe” project first wound up at Fox, but that studio ultimately decided not to make it. Together with the brother producer team of Lawrence and Charles Gordon, Robinson took his screenplay to Universal. As they were closing the deal, Universal motion picture group chairman Thomas Pollock joked, “This was the kind of movie that you only make if you hear a voice telling you to.”

Robinson responded, “If you make it, they will come.”

Costner was the first actor to come to mind for the lead, says Robinson, but he and the producers were so sure he wouldn’t be interested in doing another baseball movie after “Bull Durham” that they didn’t even add his name to their list. A Universal executive, however, made sure the script got in Costner’s hands, and he came to them.

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“It was a great, great screenplay,” Costner recalls. “I saw and believed in the fantasy of this movie.”

Costner said he “wasn’t at all worried about” appearing in another film about baseball. But he admits that among his advisers “there was some concern about it.”

Costner promised to back up Robinson if the studio began tinkering with the film’s fantasy elements and dialogue. But they never came to blows with Universal--until the studio, concerned about the bleak fate of past baseball movies at the box office, changed its title to “Field of Dreams.”

“I loved the title ‘Shoeless Joe'; It’s a title for a movie about dreams deferred,” Robinson says, recalling the lost dreams of the innocent Shoeless Joe at the hands of baseball’s corrupt owners.

Robinson fought and fought, but Universal wouldn’t budge on the title change. Finally, the day came when the director had to break the bad news to the book’s Canadian author, Kinsella. Robinsons recalls that he felt sick as he dialed the phone.

But Kinsella took the news in good humor: “Shoeless Joe” had been the publisher’s idea for a title, Kinsella told Robinson. They thought it would sell better.

Kinsella had always wanted to call his book “The Dream Field.”


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