Written and directed by the legendary Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump), Just Getting Started tells the story of Duke Diver (Morgan Freeman), a lovable hustler in the Villa Capri retirement home in Sarasota, Florida. The manager of Villa Capri, Duke’s desire is to forget about his past and make life one big party for himself and his residents. However, when a mysterious stranger named Leo (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives, it threatens the balance of power within the community and the two men begin to compete for the role of alpha male.
While the development can be difficult at times, Shelton says that this particular story came together very quickly as he was spending the holidays in Florida.
“I drove through Palm Springs one time at Christmas [while] tumble weeds were blowing down the street and dust storms,” he recalls. “Everybody’s playing golf and Johnny Mathis was being pumped out playing ‘Let It Snow’ and I thought ‘This is a good background for a movie’. It came to me in a traffic jam on the 405 freeway. I was thinking about a guy who was kind of a loveable hustler and that turned into Duke Diver. Then, I started thinking about these upscale retirement villages I’d heard about. By the time I’d gotten to my office, I kind of had the basics of the story. Now, it took the normal amount of time to write and re-write but, a little bit, it kind of came out of the blue.”
With the secret of Duke’s past playing a key role in the story, the film has a strong message of one’s ability to move forward in their life. In light of this, Shelton believes firmly that, under most circumstances, it’s essential for people to be able to have the opportunity to start over.
“The answer’s yes and, in a certain way, you have to. Now, if your past involves—not to get too serious—but if it involves a real failure of human behavior, that needs to be dealt with. If it’s just a failure of human effort, you can run and start all over. You can’t leave some act unaddressed. Sounds like I’m addressing the headlines of harassment. But, no. Who cares if you failed in three businesses in Ohio if you can come here and invent a fourth that works?”
“California… and the whole US, is about starting over,” he believes. “A lot of people came over to reinvent themselves… The whole west was founded by [the] kind of people whose pasts are being hidden… and outlaws. [They were] people wanting a new future so I think that’s build into the mythology out here. I do think it’s about looking forward. Everyone in the movie here is in their 60s and 70s—Morgan’s now 80—[and they] are not looking at the scrapbooks of the past and listening to sentimental music about your high school dance. It’s about ‘where’s the next party?’ or looking for a date… Because everybody I know, I mean I’m of a certain age, but we’re all working every day. We’re all about our next project. It’s only when I read that I’m old or that I’m of a generation that I go ‘Nonsense!’… So, I think it’s about looking forward. The given is that you’ll be running from your past.”
Of course, any film is only is strong as the quality of its characters. To create fully developed characters, Shelton credits a variety of moving pieces, ranging from the strength of the dialogue to the acting performances.
“Everything is a bit of a sketch. It’s just like a drawing, you know. I came out of the visual arts world,” he states. “There are some sketches that are very telling of a flower, a person, a face… that are more haiku drawing than others. In your secondary characters of the film, you have to make sure that every line matters. The women are different in this movie… the guys are more just a team of crony knuckleheads with less identity. Of course, when shooting, the actors sort of form their own musical dance and shorthand and so they’re identifiable. Every character has to be identifiable in every film. That’s very important to me in every movie.”
However, Shelton also believes that what makes a character memorable are their personal flaws. Having written and directed many classic films including Bull Durham and Tin Cup, Shelton argues that it is through these particular failings that the audience has the opportunity to relate to the hero’s journey.
“They have to have flaws. If they’re not flawed, they’re not interesting. And their flaws have to be part of their… chance at greatness too,” Shelton argues. “Tin Cup is a perfect example. If you give them a flaw or a blind spot, it gives them something to play against, something to overcome, something to run from, something to confront. And the flaws have to be shown on the screen and the page, in the acting and the shooting of it.”
“I think we identify with flawed characters. Their flaws have to be our flaws. You can hate golf but Tin Cup’s flaw is that he’s actually afraid of success, which is a very common one. He’s created this character of a big fish in a small pond… His flaw is also thinking that he can be immortal so he’s going to fail at a really compelling level. You don’t have to know anything about golf to know what being self-destructive and a fear of success is. That’s universal. So that’s an example.”
When asked if there are any particular characters from his films that he would have liked to revisit, Shelton insists that, for the most part, he likes to leave them alone when production is over.
“I’m done with them. Although, there was a lot of pressure to do the next version of Bull Durham, which I didn’t give in to,” he remembers. “There are some characters that would turn into a tv series. I think White Men Can’t Jump would’ve. I think the guy from Tin Cup, I wanted to do a sequel. What happened to him? Did he actually learn from this? Did he hold onto the girl? He’s got such a self-destructive clock ticking in him and yet he’s sort of got these inclinations of greatness and immortality. I would’ve liked to have spent more time with him but we didn’t get the opportunity.”
With this in mind, a recurring image throughout Shelton’s career has been that of the theatrical impact of professional sports. With films tackling sports ranging from boxing (Play It to the Bone) to basketball (White Men Can’t Jump) in his filmography, he claims that the drama lies not in the sport itself but in the male need to compete.
Says Shelton, “The male needs to compete. It’s fascinating to me. I do think it’s in the DNA. I don’t think it’s entirely conditioning. I do think there’s something chemical about that. Watch animals. Where does that come from and how does one monitor that and adjust that, make that a part of a healthy character, not an unhealthy character. We see the unhealthy behaviour all the time in world politics and in world leaders and athletic behaviour but there’s a healthy version of that too. I maybe explore that in serious and comic ways all along. I think that women seem to have a wiser worldview, although flawed in their own ways, than the guys. Men do compete. Men do want to one up and its part of their strength and greatness and it’s part of their weakness. It’s a very western view.”
Just Getting Started is in theaters now.