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Draft Day about people, not football

By Karen Martin

This article was published April 11, 2014 at 2:24 a.m.

Kevin Costner stars as general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. for the Cleveland Browns in Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day, a sports dramedy about the NFL draft.

“If you want to make a good sports movie you’ve got to cut down on the sports, you’ve got to make it about people.”

  • Kevin Costner

That’s what Draft Day is about: people whose lives are centered on sports, not about the sport itself.

The film, directed by Ivan Reitman, stars Costner as Sonny Weaver Jr., general manager of the Cleveland Browns when the team is desperate to exploit the possibilities of the NFL draft to help rebuild after the original lineup moves to Baltimore.

“Our thesis is that you don’t have to be a football fan and you don’t have to be a male to like this film,” Reitman says.

Draft Day is fictional but employs real teams, real players and actual participants in the NFL draft.

Choosing the Browns as the film’s centerpiece came about, says co-screenwriter Scott Rothman, because “the Cleveland fans are just rabid and have been through hell with their team. There’s a sense of history, a sense of loss.”

The idea of focusing on a team general manager is a subject that’s ripe for the picking, says fellow screenwriter Rajiv Joseph, a native of Cleveland Heights. “The GM is the unsung sports hero. Here we are, 40 years old, men who can’t play the game, but we all think we can be a better GM than the one in charge.”

The use of actual players (as well as athletic-looking actors) gives the film a firm foundation.Especially relevant are the experiences of Terry Crews, a former defensive end who plays Earl Jennings, a retired Browns team member, and Arian Foster, a running back for the Houston Texans, who portrays Earl’s son Ray Jennings. The younger Jennings desperately desires to continue his dad’s legacy, but the blowback from hanging out with bad companions during his college days at Florida State may prevent that from happening.

The agony of the draft is still fresh in Crews’ mind. “I was drafted in the 11th round in 1991,” he says. “I thought I was going to go way higher. It [the draft] was in the second day and I thought it was over. Then the L.A. Rams were on the phone; that shows you how old I am” [he’ll turn 46 in July; the Rams moved in St. Louis in 1995].

Foster’s experience was even worse - he wasn’t chosen at all. “We had a get-together at a hotel in Arizona on draft day,” he recalls. “Round after round, the clock kept ticking and I wasn’t drafted. By the second day I left to play golf and played one of my best rounds ever. But I was still upset.

“All those emotions from that day that I kept in check came out for me in the film.”

Most of the other cast members, including Jennifer Garner as Browns’ salary cap manager Ali, came in knowing a fair amount about football. An exception was Frank Langella, who plays Browns’ owner Anthony Molina.

“Frank Langella knew nothing at all about football,” says Reitman, “which is appropriate for an owner.”

Garner’s character is modeled on Megan Shaw, the Browns’ actual salary caps manager. Garner shadowed her for a time in the Browns’ offices, right down to paying attention to what Megan carried with her during the work day. “I wanted Ali to be the smartest person in the scene,” Reitman says.

“I love my character; I wish I was as smart as Ali,” Garner says. “She’s a woman in a man’s world and she handles it seamlessly.”

Ali sure doesn’t dress like a man. Garner’s onscreen time is mostly spent in a super-short-skirted suit and towering heels. “Megan said they tend to dress up on Draft Day,” Garner says in explanation of her not-quite-professional attire. “But after filming I left those high heels ona monitor in Cleveland and said, ‘These are for you, I never need to see these again.” But nobody goes to the movies to see Jennifer Garner in flats and a wrinkled pair of pleated khakis.

What really matters is that the NFL, says Reitman, “loved the script right from the beginning. What they were most interested in was accuracy. We were vetted very closely.”

Casting Costner in the pivotal role of Sonny Weaver wasn’t a difficult choice for the director. “I kept thinking of Costner when reading the script,” Reitman says. “It was originally written for a 35-year-old but I really felt he was the one [Costner is 59]. The language of the part worked in his cadence perfectly.

“It was a wonderful script and we had terrific actors,” the director adds. “I love the idea of a character who’s under pressure from the very beginning, and it gets worse. I’m happy with the balance and range of performances we got.”

Although there are some aggressive gridiron scenes, some created by the cast, others that show archival footage of the likes of Joe Montana and John Elway at their best, much of Draft Day is centered on intense make-or-break negotiations taking place on the day of the draft, held at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

“It’s all about people talking on the phone,” Reitman says. “The [GMs making these deals] are not at the draft, they’re in the war rooms of their respective cities. And everything is done on the phone. That’s why we came up with a creative split-screen effect that shows both characters. It takes them out of their respective spaces and changes the rules for split screens so they’re not stagnant. I thought it was pretty effective considering the liability of a plot full of telephone scenes.”

As evidenced by the curt, sometimes disrespectful exchanges between the GMs, there’s not much that’s sentimental or idealized about Draft Day. “I enjoy sports movies that don’t sugar-coat,” Crews says. “It ain’t that magical. When you get hit by a ball going 25 mph, the magic is over.”

The stereotypes often portrayed in sports movies “are so unrealistic,” Foster says. “I like sports movies that are genuine and authentic.”

For Costner, who has appeared in plenty of sports theme films (Tin Cup, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For Love of the Game), “This movie is about the human element. It’s not about football, it’s about people who can’t get along, who eventually do. Women see themselves, men see themselves, against the backdrop of the NFL.

“I feel that Draft Day has a chance to become an American classic,” Costner continues. “Maybe not a box office hit, but a film that’s shared from generation to generation.”

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 04/11/2014

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