The director of 42 (in theaters today), Brian Helgeland, explains why his Jackie Robinson biopic won’t strike out
VIBE: Spike Lee once imagined a three-hour film starring Denzel Washington to encapsulate the Jackie Robinson story. What were the time-constraint challenges of capturing his life?
Brian Helgeland: For me, the passage of years in a film starts and stops the drama. To maximize the dramatic impact, I decided to concentrate on the crucible of the 1947 season. Robinson's life was much bigger both before and after that season, but I attempted to catch the spirit of the man by concentrating on one specific time period of his life.
Of all the “black firsts,” what makes Jackie Robinson's integration of baseball cinematically compelling enough to have drawn you to this project?
I never thought of the story of Jackie Robinson from the standpoint of being the most compelling on a list of "black firsts.” Any first has merit, but I was drawn to the project because of Robinson's almost unimaginable real-life everyday bravery. I was drawn to it because I was staggered by the sheer guts of the man. It was a story of one person making America a better, more decent place, and stories like that are few and far between.
What about 1947 did you concentrate on in the film?
In 1946, Jackie faced similar difficulties, but it was the minor leagues and half of it was up in Canada. The big stage was 1947 in Brooklyn. Everything else was a dress rehearsal. “42” was retired because of what happened in 1947. It wasn’t over by any stretch of the imagination, but what Jackie did that year was like landing at Normandy. There was still a war to fight, but the army had arrived and there was no going back. He was brave to walk into an all-white locker room every day, to not take his day home with him. He was brave to step up to the plate with the weight of the world on him. And he did that four times a day.
Is it true that cardboard stand-ups were used in the stands during baseball scenes because of the budget?
No. We used inflatable people, but only for reference for the visual effects team. They were all replaced with individual fans we shot one by one against a blue screen.
What went into the film’s set design?
For Ebbets Field, the production designer Richard Hoover chose Engel Field in Tennessee. We moved home base and the infield further out to match Ebbets' backstop dimensions. We recreated the scoreboard and outfield ads, and then green-screened the rest of the field so we could add the stands and Brooklyn beyond. It actually turned into an enormous green screen stage.
How did you make a small budget work for you?
My team and I had to decide what was important early on. That focused the story from the start. It actually gave the film a great discipline that paid off creatively. The actors came well prepared knowing we only had three or four takes to get things right.
Why did you choose to cast relative newcomers to take on the huge roles in 42?
As far as Jackie and Rachel, I thought it was important that the actors be accepted at once by the audience. I think it’s tricky for someone famous to play someone else famous. It takes awhile to get used to it. I wanted to be able to say, “Here’s Jackie and here’s Rachel,” and let the audience believe it right away, flow with it from the start.