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By the time of the release of Field of Dreams in the spring of 1989 its lead actor Kevin Coster was already on a journey that would take him from under-appreciated supporting actor to Hollywood superstar. Following his well-received minor role in the western Silverado, almost decade of working on low budget horror and comedy pictures would finally pay off in 1987 when he landed two projects that would both propel him into the limelight. First was his performance as the man who brought down legendary gangster The Untouchables before he played a decorated Navy Lieutenant in a race against time to remove evidence that could falsely identify him as the killer of his secret lover in No Way Out. Following his eponymous turn in the sports drama Bull Durham, Costner would be cast as Ray Kinsella, an Iowa farmer who after hearing a mysterious voice destroys his cornfield in order to build a baseball field, in Field of Dreams.
Based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella, published just a few years earlier, Field of Dreams marked the second directorial feature for Phil Alden Robinson, who had first gained a name for himself as a screenwriter on such early 1980s projects as Rhinestone alongside actor Sylvester Stallone. But with Kinsella’s story he found all the core ingredients for a strong drama; a family man with father issues, a celebration of sport and a fantasy element that make the movie difficult to categorise. Costner’s second baseball-themed movie in a row, following Bull Durham, the film would mark the final feature appearance of screen legend Burt Lancaster and would serve as the calling card for a young up-and-coming actor called Ray Liotta.
Despite being released just two weeks after another baseball movie Major League, Field of Dreams would be like nothing else at the cinema during that time, a family-themed fantasy that nothing in the way of action and little in terms of sport. Instead of would explore a man who years to reconnect with his deceased father, only to discover the ghosts of long-dead baseball players emerging from the cornfield outside his home. Convinced that following the suggestions of the eerie voice that he hears in his farm, Ray is joined by his confused-yet-supportive wife as he destroys his livelihood to build a baseball field where the corn once stood, with the belief that the ghosts would return and bring the spirit of his father so they could meet one last time.
‘In Costner, writer-director Robinson has found the perfect player for a personal-stakes game, a guy with a leg-it-out intensity and kid-like enthusiasm,’ enthused the Hollywood Reporter in their glowing review at the time of the movie’s release. ‘It’s Costner’s eye-on-the-ball exuberance that carries Dreams past its often mechanical aesthetic paces.’ Despite receiving top-billing, Costner would be aided by an impressive supporting cast that would include Academy Award nominee Amy Madigan and James Earl Jones, having recently completed work on the comedy The Three Fugitives alongside Nick Nolte and Martin Short.
In a new article published by Deadline, Robinson discussed the process of adapting Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe into a motion picture. ‘I had it propped open on the desk beside me as I wrote,’ he recalled. ‘This led to a first draft that was so overly faithful to the book that Scott Rudin’s note was, ‘Congratulations, you’ve just written W.P. Kinsella’s first draft. Now write your own.’ Best advice I ever got. That’s when I learned that the truest way to adapt a book is to ask yourself what you loved about it, then write a screenplay about that. Use all the raw materials from the book you like but in the end your primary allegiance must be to the movie, not the book.
Adapting another writer’s work and making changes that would better serve the screenplay would prove to be an initially daunting experience for Robinson. ‘It was with great trepidation that I wrote Kinsella a rambling and apologetic letter explaining all the changes I reluctantly was going to make and how badly I felt about changing his creation,’ he explained. ‘Weeks passed without a reply and I imagined him wanting me dead. Then a postcard arrived from Hawaii, where he’d been vacationing. It read, ‘Dear Phil, Do whatever you have to to make it a movie. Love, Bill.’ Best postcard I ever got.’
One of the most acclaimed aspects of the film would be the relationship between Kinsella and his father, who had been a passionate fan of baseball when Ray was just a child. ‘At first, we received a lot of mail from men who wrote variations of, ‘I haven’t spoken to my father in twenty years but after I saw this movie I called him up and said, ‘Let’s have a catch.’ That was lovely, very gratifying and perhaps to a small extent, expectable, given the plot,’ said Robinson on how the themes of the film touched the audience upon its release. ‘But the reaction I will never forget was from an elderly Vietnamese lady after we screened the film in Hanoi in 2007. She stood up in front of the audience during the Q&A and said she never knew that American people cared about family the way Vietnamese people do. She said it had changed her entire view of American people. I cherish that one.’
For Costner, who would follow his role as Ray Kinsella with an Academy Award-winning directorial debut with Dances with Wolves, Field of Dreams would prove to be one of the most significant and personal projects that he would work on, even returning to the character two decades later for a three minute spoof sequel entitled Field of Dreams 2: Lockout. To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of its release Costner returned to the location in Dyersville, Iowa where the movie was filmed although sadly just three years later the vandals would cause thousands of dollars of damage by driving a vehicle onto the field and ruining inches of soil. Yet for both audiences and those responsible for the film Field of Dreams has remained a moving and memorable experience.
‘That was not the best career advice, to make two baseball in a row, with baseball thought to be poison,’ Costner later confessed during an interview with Yahoo!’s Role Recall. He would also comment on the final moment in the film where, after meeting the spirit of his deceased father, Ray asks if he would like to have a catch with a baseball, thus providing an emotional connection between the two characters. ‘It’s not very often you build a whole movie around a line, which is, ‘Hey, do you want to have a catch?’ Every studio executive would go, ‘You mean that’s our big moment? You want to have a catch?’ But that’s the power of movies, that we could create a story to where those lines would have such depth and have such meaning to so many people.’