As I always note as a reminder, these began life as a simple way to have fresh content on the then-new Writers Guild website. I sent a series of usually-the-same questions about writing to the writers, and they did the heavy lifting.
Edited by Robert J. Elisberg
[Subsequent to this interview, originally done around 1998, Ron Shelton wrote and directed “Play it to the Bone” and what is probably the “non-sports” movie he was referring to, the comic detective film with Harrison Ford and Ashton Kutcher, “Hollywood Homicide.” He also wrote the comic action film, “Bad Boys II,” and wrote and directed the TV movie, “Hound Dogs.”]
RS: As a kid I read the Robt. Louis Stevenson novels over and over. I especially loved "Kidnapped". Also the Oz books, all of them.
We didn't get a television until I was 12, and it was fairly closely monitored. But I remember liking "Have Gun, Will Travel" with Richard Boone, a lot, and I watched a lot of the old westerns on the afternoon movie.
I loved words, and playing with words, and so in high school was into W.S. Gilbert and Lewis Carroll, mostly because their poems and songs were fun to memorize.
In college I began reading Jonathan Swift, 18th century English writers, and 20th century American. Especially Fitzgerald.
But the first movie that just nailed me, and stuck in my craw, was "The Wild Bunch" which I saw in Little Rock, Ark., while playing pro baseball in the Texas League. I've been going back to see that film ever since.
So I'm not sure among all that what it was exactly that got me started writing, but I did come from a long-winded family with West Texas roots. My grandfather was an oilfields worker from outside Lubbock, and the whole lot of them could sit on the porch spinning yarns about almost anything, and
often almost nothing. So there is a storytelling influence in my background, somehow reinforced through films and books.
Also, as a rock-ribbed Baptist as a kid, we read the Old and New Testaments many times.
>>> When you write, how do you generally work? (Is there a specific time you prefer to write?)
RS: As a writer I'm rigorous in my discipline, working from 9 A.M. until about 2 everyday, then walking away from the script regardless of how I'm doing. Hemmingway said "always quit when you have an idea" and I believe he was right. I always come back fresh the next day. I want to get back to it.
I think this is also an athletic approach--one doesn't work out until one drops, because then you can't work out for days. Because of this discipline, I tend to write very fast. "Bull Durham" took about 10 weeks (one draft is the shooting draft), "White Men Can't Jump" took less (one draft again), "Tin Cup" was even quicker.
>>> Are you a good procrastinator?
RS: I don't believe in procrastination or writers block. On tough days, you write anyway. On easy days, you do the same. Anybody can write when the muse descends--the trick is to write just as well when the muse says "fuck off".
>>> Do you have any specific kind of music playing or prefer silence?
RS: I always play music when I write, usually music that is part of the screenplay. I played Edith Piaf and Bob Wills during "Bull Durham," Randy Newman and Southern gospel music as well as Loretta Lynn and Les Paul and Mary Ford during "Blaze."
"White Men Can't Jump" I played James Brown and George Clinton.
"Cobb" I played Mahler and Louis Prima.
On "Tin Cup" I played border music, Tejano stuff.
On the current script I'm playing everything from Flaco Jimenez to Tom Jones to Mel Torme. Lots of ballads.
>>> What sort of characters interest you?
RS: I'm more interested in characters who are outsiders, fringe players because I identify with them. I don't feel part of Hollywood. I don't know who my colleagues are, except for the guys at the bar.
>>> Most of your screenplays have been original stories. For your script of "Cobb," however, what were the special challenges not only starting from an already-existing book, but also writing something based on a real person?
Cobb was not really an adaptation, though technically it was based on existent material. It was the story of the writer and his relationship to his subject, the immortal Ty Cobb. I believe that a storyteller has the right to invent material, even so-called historical material--and the
hypocrisy comes when the storyteller says the narrative is "true", when in fact it is a dramatically realized point of view, inspired and informed by certain historical material. The movie "Cobb" was, in fact, my version of Al Stump's version of Ty Cobb's version of Ty Cobb.
>>> How do you work through parts of a script where you hit a roadblock in the story? Do you have any specific tricks to help, or just tough it out?
RS: As I've said many times, I don't believe in writer's block. You just keep writing. You never walk away. You may throw out material, but you never walk away from the typewriter. You write every day. Some days are easy and some days are torture, but you treat them all the same. In this regard, as I said before, writing is an athletic endeavor requiring great discipline. There are no excuses for not doing it, it you call yourself a writer. You may call it "toughing it out", but I just think that it's part of the normal process.
>>> What is your best experience as a writer?
RS: The most memorable experience I've had as a writer was probably the first 37 pages of "White Men Can't Jump" which were written in a few hours, without planning or outlining. They never changed and what you see in the final picture were written in one non-stop session. (That was a day I didn't walk away at 2 in the afternoon.) Other than that, writing is just plain work--but it's work that I love.
>>> Was there any particular writer who acted as a sort of mentor to you?
RS: I did not really have a mentor. I started late, sold my first script at the age of 35, directed at 42. I just examined and continue to re-examine the craft of screenwriting, the engineering of it, the structural demands, the freedom, the restrictions. It is quite a wonderful form of writing and it's too bad too many good scripts get butchered, but they do.
>>> Why do you write?
RS: I write because I like to tell stories. It's my way of trying to make sense out of mayhem.