In the summer of 1988, Phil Alden Robinson built a baseball diamond in the middle of an Iowa cornfield to shoot a low-key drama based on W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 novel. At the time, the writer/director was unaware whether anyone would ever show up in theaters the following April to see the finished film, despite the presence of major movie star Kevin Costner as a farmer who follows the suggestions of an ethereal voice and watches as the ghosts of baseball legends emerge from the corn to play on his field. Three decades later, though, people have come back to Field of Dreams again… and again… and again. In fact, they’ll have another chance this weekend, when Fathom Events and TCM Big Screen Classics hosts a special 30th Anniversary screening on June 16 — Father’s Day — in theaters across the country. (An encore presentation is scheduled for June 18; visit Fandango or Atom Tickets for showtimes and ticket information.)
That date only makes sense as Field of Dreams isn’t just one of the most beloved sports movies of all time; it’s also become a rite of passage that dads share with their sons and daughters. Because as the emotional final scene drives home, the real subject of the film isn’t baseball — it’s what parents can teach children and children can teach parents. “I’m always grateful for it,” Robinson tells Yahoo Entertainment. “You always hope a movie is going to do well, but you can’t really count on that. It’s remarkable to me that we’re still talking about Field of Dreams.” Here are five remarkable things we learned about this one-of-a-kind movie.
It’s common knowledge that the baseball field by Ray Kinsella (Costner) isn’t heaven: It’s just Iowa. But what’s left unanswered is what realms might lie in the surrounding cornfield. Robinson says that’s a question he hears a lot, including from the film’s cast during production. James Earl Jones approached him to pick his brain about where the resurrected ballplayers go when they enter the stalks, and vanish from sight.
The actor had a practical reason for wanting to know, of course: At the end of the film, his own character — novelist Terence Mann — makes the choice to follow Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) and the other players into the cornfield. “Before we shot that scene, I remember James Earl coming up to me and asking, ‘By the way, what happens to me when I go in the corn?’ And I said, ‘I have no idea. Does it matter?’ And he said, ‘Nope.’” The actor’s young son, on the other hand, was also on set that day and wanted a bit more detail. “After we shot the scene, his son asked him, ‘Daddy, what happens to you when you go into the corn?’ And he told him, ‘Infinity.’”
There is one definitive answer about Terence’s exit that Robinson did pass along to Jones. Before he enters the corn, Terence peers through the stalks and starts chuckling. That’s not because Shoeless Joe is making faces at him, though. “James Earl asked me, ‘What do I feel when I disappear?’ And I told him, ‘I think it tickles,’” Robinson says, with a chuckle. “So he went with that giggle in the scene, which is always a delight for me to see.”
Jones also devised an epilogue of sorts for Terence that hints at his final destination. “He told me, ‘I have this image that next summer, Ray is going to be out there mowing the outfield grassy and a little paper airplane is going to come flying out of the corn. He’s going to open it up and it’ll be the story Terence has written about what’s out there.’ But that’s as far as we got in terms of where they go. Who knows what goes on back there? I don’t have enough imagination to figure it out and I’m glad I don’t. I don’t think any explanation I could have come up with would be as good as ‘I don’t know.’”
The lost James Earl Jones speech
In the past, Jones has said — and Robinson confirms — that Terence’s “people will come” speech is what convinced him to accept the role. Or, more accurately, it’s what convinced his late wife, Cecilia, that he should accept the role. “Cece read the script and said to him, ‘Jimmy, there's a speech in here that will never make it into the final movie, but you’ve got to do this — it's great.’ And he felt the same way. He told me that the morning that we shot that scene.”
Jones shared another piece of information with his director that morning: Even though the speech is written as a kind of a sermon, he had no intention of preaching it with full fire and brimstone. “He told me, ‘I just want to say the words and underplay it. I think it’s egotistical for this character to preach, and he’s not an egotist.’ My heart sank! I’d been waiting so long for this big, stentorian thing. But I trusted him, and he was absolutely right.”
That first day, Jones spoke the speech, or select portions of it, roughly 18 times across three different camera set-ups: a master shot with a crane, a medium close-up and a wide shot. (The version seen in the finished film is edited together out of select takes from those set-ups.) But the following morning, he showed up ready to preach… even though he wasn’t going to be on camera. “We had turned the cameras around to do the reactions shots of the people listening to him. He wasn’t working that day, but he showed up anyway so he could read the speech offscreen. He told me, ‘I never got the chance to really preach that speech — do you mind if I do it now?’ I said, ‘Mind? Not at all.’ So from off-camera he just let it rip.”
Sadly, no audio exists of that command performance, but Robinson says that those who saw — and heard — it have never forgotten it. “His voice filled the Iowa sky. Hundreds of yards away, I saw some of the Teamsters get out of their cars and look. That was a little present from James Earl to all of us who spent the summer with him.”
The devil’s in the details
After tracking down the elusive Terence Mann — who was famously based on real-life recluse, J.D. Salinger — Ray’s next Voice-mandated mission is locating “Moonlight” Graham, a small-town doctor whose career in the major leagues ended almost as soon as it began. (For the record, the legend of Moonlight Graham is entirely real.) A road trip to the ex-player’s hometown reveals that he died sixteen years ago.
But then a mystical midnight trip back in time to 1972 — as evidenced by a movie theater marquee hyping The Godfather — brings Ray into direct contact with Graham, played by Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster in his final big-screen role. Costner and Lancaster’s first encounter plays out on a deserted sidewalk, with Graham appearing as if by magic beneath a street lamp. It’s an image that recalls another classic ‘70s movie, albeit one that didn’t hit theaters until 1973: The Exorcist.
Robinson admits that he had William Friedkin’s horror favorite in mind when he framed that shot. “Friedkin is one of my heroes — he’s one of the masters,” he says. “But every time I see that shot now, I think ‘I didn’t even come close to what I wanted it to be.’ If you watch the scene, the continuity of where he’s standing and where the fog is doesn’t really match up from shot to shot. I look at it and think, ‘A master did not direct that.’ I suppose it works in its own weird way.”
Before casting Lancaster as the elder Graham (Frank Whaley plays the young Moonlight, who gets a second chance to live out his baseball dreams on Ray’s field), Robinson flirted with the idea of giving the role to another master thespian: Jimmy Stewart. “We sent him the script through an agent, and we heard that he passed. I found out much later that the reason that he said no was that he didn't want to play a character who dies. I wish I’d been able to talk to him and tell him that Graham doesn’t really die! I was really heartbroken by that.”
But the opportunity to direct Lancaster mended those wounds. “I had goosebumps watching the scene in Graham’s office where Burt gives that speech about stretching a double into a triple. I was standing next to the camera, and I didn’t see the boom microphone or the lights: I just saw a movie star on a big screen. He had some difficulty with the scene: There was only one take where he really got all the words right. He was in failing health at the time, and it was a long speech, and late at night. But when he nailed it, he just totally nailed it.”
Robinson also had the unique pleasure of introducing one acting legend to another: Although they were contemporaries, Lancaster and Jones had never met prior to the first Field of Dreams table read. And while they don’t share a scene together in the film, they struck up a friendship off-camera. “They liked each other,” Robinson remembers. “After we finished shooting and came back to L.A., James Earl told me that he and his wife had dinner with Burt and his wife. They kept in touch, because as James Earl said, ‘We're both old lions.’”
Terence Mann promised Ray that people would come to his field. And boy, he’s not kidding. The final shot of Field of Dreams pulls back from the diamond — where Ray and his father (Dwier Brown) are having a long-delayed game of catch — to reveal a long line of cars filled with people waiting to witness the magic for themselves. It’s impossible to count the exact number of automobiles in that shot, but Robinson reveals the final tally off the top of his head: 2,500. “We had a production assistant drive that route from the town of Dyersville to the field, measure it and then divide it by the average length of a car with a little space in between. He came back with 2,500, so we said to the Dubuque county chamber of commerce, ‘You’ve got to give us 2,500 cars and drivers.’”
To their credit, the county honored that request, and packed the winding road leading to the farm (where the baseball filed still stands today) with vehicles, their lights illuminating the night sky. A local radio station even volunteered its airwaves so that the production could communicate with the individual drivers. Meanwhile, Robinson and his helicopter pilot, J. David Jones — an expert in aerial photography thanks to his work on large-scale films like Tora! Tora! Tora! and Apocalypse Now — took to the skies to find a way to fit as many cars as possible into the frame.
“On the first take, the cars had gotten a little tight together. So we did a second take where the light was beautiful, but we realized the cars didn’t look like cars anymore; we got to an altitude where it just looked like we had strung lights on the highway.” So for the third take, Robinson had his cinematographer, John Lindley, cue the cars to alternate their low-and-high beams, which would help simulate motion on camera.
At the time, the director didn’t expect to use that final take, viewing it more as an experiment. But that decision was made for him due to a technical snafu. “Two days later, we looked at the dailies, and on the second take where the light was perfect, the helicopter took off and the screen went black! It was the longest three minutes of my life. Thankfully, the last take was just right. We never could have reproduced that scene, so we lucked out.”
Robinson is (and isn’t) the Voice
“If you build it, he will come,” has already entered the pantheon of immortal movie quotes. Thirty years later, though, nobody apart from Robinson and his supervising sound editor, Sandy Gendler, knows who spoke those words. It’s a secret that the filmmaker has no intention of ever revealing, even though others have claimed to know the answer. Kinsella has said that Ed Harris is the culprit, and Costner’s name has also been tossed into the mix. Still other theorists point to Robinson himself, and they’re not wrong… at least, not entirely. The director tells us that there are indeed recordings of him delivering the Voice’s various commands, from “If you build it…” to “Ease his pain.” “I did record the Voice as a scratch track,” Robinson admits. “When you go into the editing room, you have to have something to cut to, so I recorded the Voice as well as Kevin’s opening narration.”
But just as Costner’s voice is the one you hear in the opening minutes of the finished film, so too was Robinson’s voice supplanted by a mystery voice. “When the picture was locked, we re-recorded all of that voiceover with people who could really do it,” Robinson says. “What’s funny is that a few people who thought they knew have revealed it and gotten it wrong. I’ll read people saying, ‘Well I happen to know that it’s so-and-so,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh no, it’s not!’ We’ll let that remain a secret. It’s a great mystery, and I like that.”
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