The uplifting golf story “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” detailing the unlikely victory of Francis Ouimet, a twenty-year old unknown accompanied by a ten-year old caddie, in the 1913 U.S. Open against the reigning champion and British legends Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, might seem an equally unlikely project for writer Mark Frost, who began his career in television with “The Six Million Dollar Man,” went on to become story editor on “Hill Street Blues,” co-created and co-produced “Twin Peaks” with David Lynch, and only recently penned the script for the successful comic-book adaptation “Fantastic Four.” But as he explained during a recent Dallas tour with director Bill Paxton and star Shia LaBeouf, his interest in the tale goes far back.
“I have a Scottish grandfather–his wife was an even better [golf] player than he was,” Frost said. “So every summer when we went to visit them, that’s what we would do–we’d go out and play, and he’d tell us stories about the history of the game. I learned early on this kind of respect for the game and the history of it, the lore of it. It just captured my imagination. It’s always been better than a psychologist for me as a release from the pressures of my business. This is just the first time I’d ever thought to marry the two. I’d never really thought about writing non-fiction until I found a story so compelling that I was drawn to write it. In this instance, it’s so much better than fiction, and even stranger.”
The remarkable victory of Ouimet, a lower-class young man who’d served as a caddie at the country club where the Open was played at a time when golf was considered the preserve of the social elite, was that story. “I’d heard about it,” Frost said, “because it’s sort of one of those origin myths that, if you play, people talk about. But it was really kind of a footnote–you never heard any details.” When commentators at a 1999 tournament remarked how a putt resembled the one with which Ouimet had sealed his win eighty-six years earlier, however, it set Frost to thinking. “That inspired me,” he said. And thus began a long research effort that led him through newspaper archives, the USGA files and keepsakes of the Ouimet family, as well as accounts by many of the players (“Almost all the participants had written about it later in life,” he noted.)
“It was like an archaeological expedition,” Frost said, “because there was nothing readily available. You really had to dig for it. It was like a treasure hunt. So I felt like a detective on the trail of a mystery. And I really liked what I found.” The result was Frost’s best-selling book on which the film is based. Had he always thought of it as a film? “Not really, until I finished the book,” he said. “And then about five minutes later I thought yeah, you know, I’m not done with this story yet. I’d like to tell this as a movie, too. And I sold the rights to Disney before the book was even published,” with the proviso that he’d write the script and produce. Selling film rights doesn’t mean, of course, that a movie will actually be made. But as Frost noted, “It didn’t hurt that the chairman of the film division had just read the book, and he’s a big golf fan.” When the executive heard that his company had already bought the rights, he put the project onto the fast track.
Then the search for a director began. “A lot of people were interested,” Frost said, “but once I heard Bill’s name, I just had a feeling that this was going to work. I’d always admired his work, and I’d liked his first movie [the 2002 psychological horror thriller ‘Frailty’] a lot, even though it’s wildly different. But I looked at it and I said, that guy’s a filmmaker–he knows what he’s doing, he’s got a command of the medium. And I wanted somebody who could bring in some fresh vision. And he came up with some great ideas on how to make it vivid and how to thematically connect it with things like the Wild West and King Arthur and all those wild ideas and kind of mythic dimensions that I think really make it resonant.”
For Paxton, who’s carved out a successful acting career in films made by many major directors over the last quarter-century, “The Greatest Game” represented a return to his roots, too. The Fort Worth native’s father was an avid golfer at the Shady Oaks Club, near which the family lived and where Paxton worked as a boy caddying. “I made all my money at Shady Oaks as a kid,” he recalled. “I remember an occasion shagging balls for Ben Hogan,” whose home club it was–and whom he found very intimidating. In fact, he said, he later learned that his dad had played in a Hogan-sponsored tournament there whose roster also included Eddie Lowery, the kid who served as Ouimet’s older-than-his-years caddie in 1913. “So I guess when I read this script, I had a chance to kind of revisit my youth,” Paxton said. “I’ve been able to be idealistic in any directing choices–I have another career in show business as an actor that’s allowed a little bit of idealism. I don’t feed my family from my directing. So I’m able to be vocational about it, while in acting I’ve had to feed the family–as my resume will tell you! Some times, I’ve gotten to do some great stuff. Other times, I got paid. And it wasn’t from an ego trip that I wanted to act and direct. You just spend so much of your career trying to be in other peoples’ movies and be other things to other people, and most of the time you don’t get the part, and even though you can strike that up to experience, after awhile I’ve had enough experience! And you realize, I want to be productive in my lifetime. When you choose a film to direct, you’d better choose something that’s going to sustain you. Because you’re talking eighteen months, two years’ minimum–if you don’t pick a subject or you don’t have a story or script that you [believe in], you’re not going to make it to the finish line.”
Paxton added: “And the other thing is, I realized nobody had made a movie that kind of celebrated the sport in a cinematic way. This was a safe that nobody had cracked. A lot of sports have gotten great cinematic treatment–you think of boxing, you think of ‘Raging Bull,’ you think of basketball, you think of ‘Hoosiers.’ There’s some great sports movies. But this is a sport that nobody knew how to light up. So I saw an opportunity there. What happens to people–people who have attempted it before–I think people get caught up in the pastoral nature of the game. But when you really get into the game on a championship level, it’s a kill-or-be-killed proposition. On TV golf, you don’t get into those eyes.” Chuckling, he added, “I saw it as ‘Tombstone.’ This isn’t a golf movie, it’s ‘Tombstone.’ Just go with me here. Harry Vardon, he’s Doc Holliday. You got this kid, he’s Morgan Earp. So I just knew in order to bring this thing to life and give it the treatment it deserved, I wanted to get out of the golf thing. This is a movie movie. If you liked ‘Chariots of Fire,’ if you liked ‘Rocky,’ don’t worry about the golf. That’s secondary. That’s the battlefield. This is a great human interest story. To me it celebrates the human spirit, the human condition. It celebrates America at a more innocent time when all these immigrants were pouring in, when America was almost a European country.”
Frost sounded a similar theme. Francis Ouimet, he argued, was “the Jackie Robinson of his sport–he broke the class barrier,” and Vardon and Ray, too, were from lower-class backgrounds and treated by their patrons as social inferiors. “To me,” he said, the material dealing with class differences and the struggle of immigrants for recognition, “that’s what the movie’s about. It just happens to be set in the world of golf. The class struggle was a universal experience back then–the labor movement was a big part of what was going on in America, and golfing was doing that, too. They were underpaid, overworked second-class citizens. And my feeling was, we’re telling a story about a class of people who are trying to elevate themselves out of poverty into self-respect.”
In order to make “The Greatest Game” work both as a sports tale and a human story, though, it needed both cinematic technique and an accomplished cast. “The idea was that it couldn’t look like golf coverage on TV–that was anathema to us,” Frost said. “We had to put you inside the minds of these players and feel like you’re with them as a subjective experience. That’s what the movie’s trying to do. And the key to that was not to follow the flight of the ball. You learn a lot more from watching people’s reactions to shots than the shots themselves.” Paxton added: “I took a chance with doing all this wild camera work and stuff; it gave me a chance to put the audience in he players’ shoes at times in terms of their POVs. It makes you feel that you’re in that crowd.”
For that to happen, though, the right actors had to be chosen. “We [Bill and I] met all the actors together,” Frost said, “and we agreed on every single part. We had a vision that we wanted to populate the movie with people you hadn’t seen before. It would make the period feel more authentic, like you actually were in a time machine.” One important factor in the selection process, though, was that all the major players would look like real golfers. “There’s five guys in the movie who really have to play,” he added. “And four of them were all accomplished golfers. We actually had them keep a five-iron in the audition room, so when they were done reading, I’d say, ‘Would you mind showing us your swing?’ So we knew–I’m a golfer. That separated the wheat from the chaff.”
The exception was Shia LaBeouf, who plays Francis Oiumet himself. “Not before [the movie],” LaBeouf admitted about his golfing skills. “I wasn’t a golfer before, didn’t really like the sport, like a lot of people in America. I became a fan of the sport only because of the mentality of it. Golfers are men. It’s one of the only sports where they’re still men–they’re gentlemen. They miss a six-inch putt that could change their life and they’re heartbroken, but they don’t do the Tyrrell Owens, little kid thing. They’re still men. They take off their hats, they wave at the audience, smile, put their hats back on and go back to work. [They play] with dignity, with honor, with integrity, with respect. For me it was the integrity of the sport that I feel in love with. Mark even said, ‘You can’t do this movie until you love golf. So go fall in love with golf.’ So I went on tour with the UCLA golf team. I figured that was the best way–they’re my peers. Because I always thought it was an old man’s, slow sport.” And it was by seeing the college players’ intensity that he learned what it was all about. “It’s a mind sport,” he said. “So for an actor, who’s all internal to begin with–feelings and thoughts and all the types of things that golf deals with–it’s very [much] fun for me. Also the fact that golfers have a shield–they can’t show emotion. They’re very stoic. So to show the audience emotions and have the audience feel emotions that I wasn’t allowed as a golfer to convey, was really cool. Because people still walk away touched, even though I couldn’t. And that’s cool to watch happen.”
But getting to respect golf from the sidelines wasn’t enough. He had to physically become a convincing golfer from scratch–and that was tough, especially given those he would share the screen with (“As far as I’m concerned,” Paxton said, “this is murderer’s row in terms of the actors. I got the best actors in the world to be in this movie. And like in the movie I put Shia in the polar bear cage with these guys.”) “He’s such a good actor, and we wanted him so much,” Frost said, “that I just put him in boot camp. He worked two or three hours a day for months and months. He had to compress about fifteen years of experience and lessons into that period. And I’m very proud of how his swing looks on screen. I think it’s very credible. And it’s a sign of his dedication as an actor that he applied himself the way he did.” LaBeouf remarked, “Hey, this isn’t baseball. You can’t fake this. It’s very intricate–a swing is very intricate. And the second a golfer sees a false swing, the facade is dropped, the curtain is down, they’re out of the film–they’re out, they’re gone. You’ve lost your audience. And that’s a big part of the audience. And because Francis was such an ambassador of the sport, we had to hold that audience. So we trained for six months, seven hours a day seven days a week–swing training, we’d do two hours putt training. I did calisthenics, yoga. I lost ten pounds. I used to do virtual reality training in my room. And Tiger Woods said it’s the best swing he’s ever seen on film.”
But like Frost and Paxton, LaBeouf sees “The Greatest Game” in human rather as well as golf terms. After describing it as “One David Versus Two Goliaths,” he added, “It’s also a social story. Social change happened with this guy. It wasn’t just a game. He changed the outlook on what sports could be in America. This immigrant boy became a spokesperson for an immigrant country.” The movie is about, he said, “a beautiful human being who never turned professional, who became the greatest ambassador of the sport. This movie is beyond sports–it’s about the integrity and the character of a man. This movie wasn’t made by a bunch of people who love golf. It was made by a bunch of people who love stories. We found a hole in filmmaking and then just drilled it. It’s never been done. That was the goal: go and make a cool golf film. We made a film that really touched a lot of people.”
Paxton added, “What makes the story great–and Shia got this–is, Francis was really a man of gentility. That’s really the point of the story. The heart of the movie is almost what the nature of class is. It’s really great history in a way, and it’s really touched my life. And now I’ve been able to kind of touch it back by bringing this story to life. It doesn’t happen all the time–this kind of serendipity.”