8 Secrets From ‘The Sandlot’
On the 20th anniversary of the cult classic, its director takes us behind the scenes
Twenty years ago yesterday, The Sandlot was released in theaters. A coming-of-age tale set in 1962 about the manifold wonders of summer, baseball, childhood and imagination, its modest $34 million gross has been far outstripped by a cult legacy that’s well into its second generation of fans. Now David Mickey Evans, who wrote, directed and narrated the film, is taking the movie on a nationwide tour of minor league ballparks, beginning April 13 at Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton, N.J. Proceeds from the road trip will benefit the Sandlot Baseball Field Program, an initiative toward converting unused urban spaces into new ballfields and renovating existing ones.
I caught up with Evans, who is currently working on a screen adaptation of the old Matt Christopher children’s sports novels, to talk about The Sandlot at 20. “I don’t want to get all Ph.D. on it, but there’s that Jungian universal subconscious thing at work—and especially in America, [The Sandlot] connected with that,” he said of the film’s enduring appeal. “Whether viewers grew up in rural Iowa and went to a local ballfield, or were in the Bronx and played in the middle of the street, the movie means the same thing to them.”
What follows are eight of his favorite behind-the-scenes stories—about Scotty, Benny, Ham, Squints, Yeah-Yeah, Kenny Denunez, the Timmons brothers and Bertram Grover Weeks—from the making of a cross-generational sports classic.
1. It wasn’t always called The Sandlot.
“The original title of the movie was The Boys of Summer. I changed it to The Sandlot because Roger Kahn threatened to sue me upside down and backwards. (And, God love him, he was right.) The irony is that sandlot in the film wasn’t originally written as a sandlot. It was an elementary school recess yard. Where I grew up we didn’t have an actual sandlot, so when the schools were closed, we’d hop the fence and go play on a diamond.”
2. Everything you see was man-made—even the big oak tree.
“We found a big empty piece of land in a lower-middle-class neighborhood outside Salt Lake City, where the movie was shot, and constructed all the significant sets: the backstop, dirt, grass, trees, fences, Mr. Mertle’s house, the Timmonses’ house, both backyards. But there was no giant oak tree in which to build a treehouse. [Production designer] Chester Kaczenski and I were getting panicked, because we did not have a lot of money to make the movie. We were looking at having to buy an oak tree, and a specimen that big, if you can even find one, is hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Then one day Chester was driving to the production offices when he saw a man outside his house with a chainsaw about to cut down this ancient oak tree. He stopped and asked the man what he was doing, and the guy said, ‘Well, this tree was planted next to the house when it was built 100 years ago, and now it’s so big that it’s breaking my foundation.’ Chester asked if he could have it, and the guy said sure, so Chester told him he’d be back the following day.
“The next morning we rented a 55-foot flatbed with a diesel rig, and then went over and took the tree. We had to get Salt Lake City’s utility companies to take down the power and telephone lines along these major boulevards so we could actually get the tree the couple miles to our set. Once it was there we dug a gigantic hole with a backhoe, planted the tree and then filled the hole with something like 20 cubic yards of cement. It was a great save.”
3. The actors were freezing during the pool scene.
“There were days during the shoot when it was 110, 111 degrees out there. It was brutal under that sun. But after all those super-hot sweltering days, when it came time to shoot the pool scene it was overcast and the water was 56 degrees. There was nothing we could do about it, so the poor actors—Oh, we can do it, Dave!—all jumped in. They were freezing. If you look closely when Squints is staring at Wendy Peffercorn, his teeth are actually chattering. It’s because he’s freezing to death.”
4. “You keep your tongue in your mouth, understand?”
“Chauncey [Leopardi, who played Squints] was such a trooper. They all were. Two weeks out from the pool scene with Marley [Shelton, who played Wendy Peffercorn], he was clearly becoming anxious. Dave, when we gonna shoot that scene? We gonna shoot that scene today? When is it? I purposely wouldn’t give him a schedule or call sheets. That kept ratcheting up his tension and anxiety until he was about ready to explode.
“Then one say I said, ‘I guess we’re going to shoot that scene today.’ Oh, we are? Like the actual one where I get to kiss her like the actual one? And I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’ll see.’ I shot all those scenes in order to keep things clear in their head, and then we finally got to the part where they pull him out and throw him on the ground. Before we rolled I said, ‘Listen to me,’ and he grew really serious, and I continued, ‘You keep your tongue in your mouth, understand?’
“He did it really well, right through the big grin when she was out of the frame. He asked how it went. I said, ‘Pretty darn good, man, I’m going to print that one.’ And then he said, ‘OK … let’s do it again.’”
5. We nailed a 10,000,000-to-one shot.
“There’s a shot when they’re playing baseball at night and Benny hits a long ball up into the air, and it lands in the outfield and rolls right up into the lens of the camera, which is sitting on the ground. Then there’s a dissolve into the next morning and Squints seems to just continue running the same path from darkness into light to pick up the ball. Today we’d be all over that hit-ball shot with CGI and what not, but in those days we didn’t have that. So my prop master Terry Haskell says, ‘Don’t worry, I think we can do it.’ We used a pitching machine, the kind with the wheel that allows you to adjust the trajectory. Now, the odds of us launching a baseball 200-and-some-odd feet and having it land and roll right up into a camera lens are, what, 10 million to one? But the first take, it was perfect. That was really weird.”
6. “Wooly Bully” was the song we originally wanted for the vomit scene.
“The last stuff we finalized was the needle drop. ‘Tequila,’ ‘Green Onions,’ ‘Wipeout.’ We originally wanted ‘Wooly Bully’ for the vomit scene in the carnival, but the artist, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, wanted too much money. So shame on them. And thank you very much, ‘Wipeout.’”
7. The movie was written with younger actors in mind.
“I had written these kids as 9- and 10-year-olds, which seemed right to me when I was working on the script. We casted at that age for a while, and it became obvious real fast the kids were much too young. So I said, ‘We’ve got to make them 12 or 13.’ We knew it was the right decision instantly, because the first kid that we interviewed was Mike Vitar [who played Benny Rodriguez].”
8. Ham (“You’re killing me, Smalls!”) was the last kid cast.
“It was literally the day everybody was getting on a plane to Salt Lake City and we still didn’t have a Ham. Pat Renner came in and read and I said, ‘You’re in … and you’ve got to make a plane, kid.’”
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