Why Traffic Jams Are Good For Storytellers

TRAFFIC MASTER

The story for the comedy Just Getting Started came to writer/director Ron Shelton when he was trapped on the notoriously clogged Interstate 405.

To many people, a delay in traffic is enforced down-time, filled with music-listening, phone-calling or road-raging. To writer/director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham), one such delay a couple of years ago was put to very good use.

Fresh from a meeting with producer Bill Gerber—with whom the filmmaker had collaborated on the hit Tin Cup,  the story for the comedy Just Getting Started came to writer/director Ron Shelton when he was en route to his Santa Monica, CA office from Burbank, heading south on the notoriously clogged Interstate 405.

“The whole story came to me in a traffic jam on the 405. I was going about a mile an hour, when a three-act structure just appeared.”

“Bill and I have a friend, who is kind of a hustler. No one can quite figure out what he does, but he always drives a fancy car, has a pretty woman on his arm and a big fat roll of cash in his pocket. A rogue hustler who turns out to be a hero is a fascinating archetype, and the idea of a community of people over 50, more active than people in their 20s, appealed to me.”

In Just Getting Started, Duke Diver (Morgan Freeman) is the freewheeling manager of the luxury Palm Springs resort, the Villa Capri. Diver may have a mysterious past, but he’s a pro at making sure that life for the high spirited residents is one big, non-stop party. But the status quo is challenged when ex-military charmer Leo (Tommy Lee Jones) checks in, triggering a competition between Duke and Leo for the top spot of Alpha male, as well as for the affections of the newly-arrived Suzie (Rene Russo). When Duke’s past suddenly catches up with him, the rivals put aside their differences and the two men reluctantly team up to stop whoever is trying to kill Duke, and also save the Villa Capri.

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Writer-director Ron Shelton with actors Tommy Lee Jones and Morgan Freeman during the filming of Just Getting Started

“I always thought it would be a fun idea to stage a film set during Christmas in a very un-Christmas-like atmosphere,” continues Shelton, who grew up in balmy Santa Barbara, CA, fascinated by surfing and playing golf while surrounded by classic Dickens-inspired holiday iconography and decorations.

Ron Shelton began in the industry penning screenplays, including the political drama Under Fire. But in 1988, he made his feature film directing debut on his original screenplay Bull Durham, which resonated with his own experience as a ball player—the film was an instant hit, earning Shelton an Academy Award® nomination for Best Original Screenplay

“One holiday, I was driving through Palm Springs, Dinah Shore Drive and Bob Hope Drive, and plastic icicles were bobbing in the wind. Dust storms were coming through, an inflatable snowman was blowing down the street and Dean Martin was being piped in, singing ‘Let It Snow.’ That always stuck in my mind as a delicious background for a story. So, after that slow crawl on the 405, I got back to the office, typed up and emailed a one-page treatment, and called Billy—he responded to it immediately.”

Producer Bill Gerber explains, “This film started because Ron Shelton and I were hanging out in my office, and we were telling stories about a fabled golf entrepreneur-slash-filmmaker friend of ours, and the incredible boondoggles that he had accomplished over the years. One thing led to another. We discussed films with that kind of character, and sports comedies, along with great pairings of actors—wouldn’t it be great to get this one and that one, or so and so, together? Ron said, well, let me think about it—maybe I’ll come up with something. And literally, he’s on his way home, in bumper-to-bumper traffic. He called me up and said, I think I got it.”

“Just Getting Started is a Ron Shelton comedy, well written and sophisticated, with snappy dialogue and memorable characters,” continues Gerber. “Duke is just larger-than-life, generous and enigmatic. For Duke, the taller the tale, the truer it is. He’s always looking out for everybody, and everyone seems to knows him, somehow.”

“We’re entering a time when people are discovering another chapter in their lives, second chances, later-life romances. There are a lot of entertaining stories that come out of having such an active life during retirement.”

Citing some of his favorite films, producer Steve Richards avows Shelton’s ability to weave a captivating tale. “Bull Durham and Tin Cup were so influential when I was growing up,” Richards recalls. “When Billy brought me Ron’s script, I was excited from the beginning. It really delivered on the energy level present in Ron’s comedies—and incorporated a different perspective. We’re entering a
time when people are discovering another chapter in their lives, second chances, later-life romances. There are a lot of entertaining stories that come out of having such an active life during retirement. And Christmas carolers bundled up in the 110-degree heat of Palm Springs, CA is not only ironic and wrong, it is a hilarious backdrop.”

As an estimated 65-million baby-boomers face retirement, Gerber is also certain they’re having a lot more fun, a lot longer into their lives. “When I was at Warner Bros., I worked on the Grumpy Old Men movies, and I always loved that idea that you’re never too old for any of it, you can still have a great time in your later years,” says Gerber, recalling a favorite bumper sticker that declares, “You’re never too old to have a happy childhood!”

Although the discussions that preceded his penning the screenplay for Started did involve prospective actor pairings, Shelton did not go into the project with the lead roles precast. He offers, “When I wrote the script, I didn’t have anybody in mind. When Morgan Freeman’s name came up, I initially thought of his work—God, the president, the speaker, a judge, definitely a voice of authority. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized what a great idea it was. He’s always got a twinkle in his eye. I bet he’d love to not play God and play a rogue—the key is, you have to love rogues, the ones that aren’t causing anybody harm. If the books don’t add up, so what? That archetype of an American hustler. And Morgan responded to it. He just took it. He loved playing it. After the first day of shooting, he told me, you know, this is more who I am— I’m not God, or the president or those other guys.”

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Morgan Freeman observes, “Duke is a bit of a shyster, and a lover—at least, in his own mind—but he really means well and is a good guy…for the most part. I get called on so much for gravitas that this was like unshackling. The big plus from Ron is that if you have a better idea for a line, he says, that’s what I was looking for. When you get into a rhythm as actors, there comes a time when it becomes free-flowing. You’re not married absolutely to the text, because you can see the possibilities in it, and Ron sees them too. It makes him a lot of fun as a director.”

When it came time for discussion on the casting of Duke’s challenger, Steve Richards remembers, “Oftentimes, you cast these movies by putting pictures up on a wall and looking at possible pairings. And when we put Tommy Lee Jones and Morgan Freeman up there, we all just started laughing. There was this general feeling of, oh, my gosh, that would be fantastic!”

Ron Shelton takes a bit of a philosophical turn when he says, “The chemistry in a movie comes from having people who don’t occupy the same place. If you have Morgan and get another Morgan, you’ve got nothing. You have to have somebody that is, in a way, anti-Morgan. Tommy Lee Jones. He doesn’t try to charm you. He’s tough, male, macho. He’s got a very wicked sense of humor, but it’s as dry as the west Texas dust. I know a lot of people have never seen it—but they will. We want to see these guys together, because they
occupy different emotional/psychic turf.”

When Leo appears, he is somewhat of an enigma to Duke and his posse, but Jones explains, “The story that emerges is that this fellow has had a long career in the military and done very well. He’s recently lost his wife, but he has made a lot of money in the business world, probably through his international connections.”

Past relationships also came into play when time to fill the role of the corporate number-cruncher and possible romantic interest, Suzie. Another Tin Cup collaborator sprang to mind. Ron Shelton recalls, “After I reached out to Rene Russo and told her I had something, we met, and she told me this story about her having road rage. Who would think that Rene has road rage? I have it,
too, because I pretty much live in my car. So, I thought, wow, what if the character of Suzie has a bit of road rage in her? Just a little streak, from some parts of her life that haven’t gone so great? I folded it into the character, and Rene read it and signed on.”

Russo notes, ““What I love about Ron’s characters,” she continues, “is that you’re never just a tight-ass. You’re never just one thing. Suzie’s all over the place, which is fun to play. No one writes it better than Ron. You get to access a lot of different colors, just about every color in your paint box. For instance, it’s so much fun to be angry in a comedy, because it’s a different color than if you’re angry in a dramatic scene. I just love the script—it’s rare that you get comedy like Ron’s.”

On Shelton’s flair for writing believable relationships, he confesses a fascination with human behavior.

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“It amuses me, stimulates me, challenges me.It was great to add Suzie’s rage to Rene’s wonderful combination of insecurities,
strength and power she brings to the dance. I love women. I don’t pretend to understand them and stopped trying long ago. But, you embrace what you don’t know, with deep affection and curiosity, and you try to sort it out in the writing. You could write relationships the rest of your life and never scratch the surface. I’m thrilled with the chemistry of the three of them. The key in any movie is
having characters that audiences want to watch get into and out of their dilemma—and I think we have done that,” he declares.

One of the great ironies of the story is that it takes place during the season of brotherly love, yet there is no love lost between Duke and Leo as they vie for bragging rights and Suzie. “We have two archetypes, the hustler and the exmilitary guy, and there is a pivotal moment when the hustler has a little problem and the only person that can really solve it is the ex-military guy…and that’s
when it all kicks into high gear,” explains Gerber.

“In the latter part of the movie, they have to work together, but since they barely know each other, it doesn’t always go well,” adds Richards. “It really shows off not only these actors, but also, what Ron does so well—two guys who can’t stand each other, stuck in a car, when their lives depend on working together to accomplish something.”

In closing, Ron Shelton says, “This may be an eye opener for people under a certain age. I hope they realize that their parents are hipper and crazier than they thought. But people my age, and the ages in this film, what were we doing in our 20s? Our 20s were in the ‘60s—the craziest time of all. Everybody was doing everything. The same people now playing shuffleboard were maybe at Fillmore East with Janis Joplin, doing stuff that you can’t tell your kids about. That’s us. We’re not the kind that are going to suddenly say, you know what, I really want to stop and just slow down. No, it’s more, we wanna party.”