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Winning is Easy: Producer Griffin Dunne on the 2006 Hidden Gem, Game 6

First pitched in 1990, “Game 6” is the only screenplay written by elusive novelist Don DeLillo (“White Noise,” “Cosmopolis”). Sent via fax by his agent to producers Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson, the film follows playwright Nicky Rogan (Michael Keaton) as he makes his way down to New York City’s theater district via yellow cab. The year is 1986 and not only is his most recent play about to open, the Boston Red Sox are primed to win the World Series. If you know your baseball, you know that was not to be. For the bulk of film Rogan balances the stress of opening night and how it will received by a notorious critic (Robert Downey Jr.), his desire to get a haircut, an impending divorce, and a myriad of other disasters, all the while investing a great deal of emotions into the outcome of game six of the World Series. In 1986 the Red Sox had not won the World Series since 1918, and fans were filled with superstition. 

Dunne and Robinson worked to put a deal together on the film for nearly 15 years before finding financial backing and director Michael Hoffman. Through a series of favors they nabbed an all-star cast, including Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Bebe Neuwirth, and Catherine O'Hara—all working for scale. Things were looking up. Despite premiering at Sundance in 2005, the film didn’t receive theatrical distribution until March 2006, and even then, just barely. For years the film langoured in obscurity, available on DVD only for those in the know. 

Last year, The Ringer released a definitive oral history of the film’s production and its paltry release. As of its publication last summer, "Game 6" was still not widely available. All that changed after the article’s release, according to producer Griffin Dunne. Today, the film is finally available digitally. Hopefully now a film with such a cast, and from a scribe as accomplished as DeLillo, will no longer remain a hidden gem.

I read that you had attended a bachelor party and overheard a playwright upset over a review and came up with a revenge plot for a film, and then a treatment from Don DeLillo was faxed to your office with a similar story.

That is correct. The playwright had just gotten a terrible review in the New York Times and was ranting, he was a funny guy, but he was talking about kidnapping the reviewer. I said to my partner Amy Robinson, “You know a playwright kidnapping a critic is kind of a funny idea.” No sooner than the next day, Don DeLillo, who we did not really know although Amy may have met through Ann Beattie because our first movie “Chilly Scenes of Winter” was based on her first book, his agent faxed us a pitch for a screenplay that had the same premise. It was kind of spooky. And by Don DeLillo of all people, who we were enormous fans of. His idea won. Wherever his take would be, we wanted to know. He went far beyond, adding in environmental disasters and game six of the World Series and all these elements. 

So you had witnessed something and he had a similar idea on his own. How do you think this was brewing at the same time?

I don’t think coincidence is that unusual in many cases. Particularly in the world of ideas. I mean, that’s why you can have two movies that will have premises that are identical and the two filmmakers weren’t even aware of each other. I find that there was so much kismet going on, and I think that happens with every movie. The first movie I directed [“Addicted To Love”], I cast because I happened to leave my apartment and I met Meg Ryan, who happened to have read my script from an earlier incarnation years earlier and said, “Oh I always loved that script!” But if I hadn't gone out that never would have happened. There’s just always these connections. Michael (Hoffman) even knew Bill Buckner, who dropped the ball that changed the game of the World Series, when he moved to Boise, Idaho to get out of New York because he was just getting so much grief for that. Then Michael gets offered a movie where the pivotal plot point is the game six! He has to go to Bill Buckner and say, “I really want to do this movie, will this affect our friendship?” Which he said no. So I mean, to use a cliche it’s just all so small, the world. 

Could you talk about the various directors like Neil Jordan, Robert Altman, and Gore Verbinski who were all attached at one point and how Michael Hoffman wound up with the gig?

All the directors you mentioned were attached quite briefly, I don’t think it went to contract and we didn’t raise money on their names. We had lots of conversations. With Neil, he just said one day, “Listen, there’s this movie that I always wanted to make that I wrote that I thought no one would ever make and I got the money for it and it precedes 'Game 6' and I really want to do it and I’d like your blessing.” Well, that was “The Crying Game,” which was such a game-changer for him and won all those awards. We met with Altman a bunch of times and that looked like it was right up his alley, but he went off and did “Short Cuts” with all the Raymond Carver stories in it. Michael Hoffman was living in Boise, and we all loved his work and that was the one that stuck. We were able to raise the money and put together a really interesting cast. It was very, very comfortable. We were all friends and we’d known each other a long time. That’s how that came about.

Were you in contact with DeLillo the whole 14 years or so that this was in development?

Yeah, we actually became friends with him. We didn’t get together to talk about the various developments, I think he just sort of thought it was never going to happen after a while. He was just as surprised and delighted as we were when it was finally going to happen. In the course of developing this script with him, Amy, he and I became friends. We just had lunch with him less than a month ago in his apartment. He moved back to the city after living in Bronxville for many years.

The film takes place all throughout Manhattan. What were you looking for in terms of locations to represent what 1986 Manhattan would have been like? 

We’re all New Yorkers, so we were trying to be as geographically correct as possible. The idea was that it was going to have to be a midtown cross street because that’s where the theatre district is. It was an image that Don used in “Underworld” and “Cosmopolis,” of traveling across town, of parasites moving across environmental disasters at different places, must turn back, people in hazmat suits. Just seeing a kind of world of dread and environmental doom, but done in an ironic way where the dread is actually quite funny. Of course, we couldn’t with our budget be literally shooting on 42nd Street, that would be holding up the city for years doing that. So we just found locations and shot from certain angles and on certain blocks where we could block off, and just filled it with as many extras and as much variety visually as we could. 

Much of the film takes place in big yellow cabs. How do you coordinate shooting in cabs?

We didn’t have very much money, so we just did it however we could. Some of it was towed. Some of it was just holding the camera sitting in the front seat and shooting backwards. Luckily, the cabs were big then so we had more room. The New York Film Commission always gives you a cop to clear the road in front of you so you can get a good run going. It’s always very difficult to do those shots. I remember in the '80s, the very first shot of “After Hours” that we shot was a cab shot. The New York Film Commission was relatively new and they hired a stunt driver to drive the cab and we had a police escort in front of us. The stunt driver and the policemen got so carried away, we were heading down 1st Avenue and I think we hit like 89 MPH. So we were pulled over by another cop, saying are you people crazy? Those days were gone. It’s much more regulated now. 

How did you get Michael Keaton and Robert Downey Jr. to come on board and work for such a small scale?

Yeah, like $100 a day. [Michael Keaton] and I had been very good friends since we did Johnny Dangerously together in the early '80s. He was at a period in his career where he could take chances. He’d gone through dry periods and this was a good part that he understood and that really appealed to him. He was used to much bigger movies, but he liked all the people involved. He had a stool to sit on instead of a trailer, but was completely uncomplaining. Same with Downey, who Michael Hoffman had made two movies with prior to this. It was really just us asking if they wanted to come and have fun and make this movie. We were delighted that both actors signed on to do something that was so risky and financially unrewarding. 

I loved that one scene each with Catherine O’Hara and Bebe Neuwirth. How did they get involved?

I knew Catherine from “After Hours” and Michael knew Bebe. Forgive me if there was a casting director and I’ve forgotten, but I don’t think there was a casting director. Everyone wanted to work with Michael. He’d made some wonderful movies. It wasn’t a huge time commitment for any of these actors.  

Can you talk a bit about the challenges of DeLillo’s dialogue?

I was thinking of that when I was looking at Wes Anderson’s movies, and you could say the same about Mamet and Pinter. Each of those writers have really only one way to deliver their dialogue. It’s not like you can sort of improvise either emotionally or off the page. You add one word and it’s one word too many. Add an attitude where you hint at being humorous and you’ve killed the joke. The direction has to be so specific, underplayed, with constant changing of energy. Some people can get it and some people didn’t. In answering your question about all the actors who came on board, I think that they said yes as well because of the script. They loved the music of it. They wanted to be able to say some of those lines. Harris Yulin has one of our favorite lines in it. They’re talking about Harris Yulin’s character having a parasite traveling across his body and he can’t remember his lines and Michael Keaton’s character’s wife is divorcing him and she’s hired a very prominent divorce lawyer. He asks how prominent and they reply, “He owns his own submarine.” That’s such a crazy, off the wall sort of thing. But you say that without a trace of attitude. You say it with such dread and such pause, it’s so bad he owns a submarine. The more serious you deliver that line, the funnier it is. 

What do you think is the significance of the repeated phrase “This could be it”?

That’s another line that has to be delivered in just the right way. I think it’s sort of a theme that goes through the movie. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. This is the moment the play’s about to open. My favorite team is just about to win. This is it. The world is just about to come to complete collapse. It reoccurs that everything that has happened in this guy’s life is coming to one moment. The playwright, the baseball game, his daughter, his ex-wife. They’re all crashing into each other. This is the moment. This is it. It’s just something he’s saying with such hope, and of course it’s not going to happen. 

I also love the line “Winning is easy. Losing is complicated.” I feel like it fits nicely with the production history of the film. 

It’s certainly a line I understand. Making a movie, especially if that is what you are trying to set up you probably have other movies you are trying to set up and other things you are trying to direct that are in various stages and you can’t do them all because nobody wants to do them all. Somebody might want to do one, so that means you’re having a lot of loss; a lot of losing is going towards those other projects. So it’s very complicated. You have to have a relationship with loss and disappointment. Not every actor you send your script to is going to want to do it. It’s very complicated, there's a lot of complicated feelings. You can’t succumb to despair, but you know this going in. If you kid who tells you they want to be in the business, any right minded parent would be like, “Have you thought of anything else?” In this movie, setting this up there were many, many times we thought it would go and at some point we knew at Universal where we first set it up so quickly, looking at their slate of movies, we knew they were never going to make this movie. That was a loss we expected. We ended up attracting good filmmakers, and we thought we’d get it going and we’d moved on and then it resurfaced again. Sometimes something you think you’ve lost comes to you when you stop looking for it so hard. 

That’s a good piece of advice.

I’m gonna write that down myself. 

Michael Keaton and Griffin Dunne in "Game 6."

Could you talk about the challenge of acting in a film where you are also producing?

It was my second time around on that, the first was After Hours, which I produced with Amy Robinson. You completely take your head out of the came of being a producer. You don’t think about the budget, you don’t think about the schedule. You trust that the director, which we did, that he will bring it in. When I’m working as an actor I don’t really like to hear about huge production problems. There weren’t many in this that weren’t already anticipated knowing we didn’t have much money. Being a producer-director, after the first week of shooting on “After Hours,” Amy, my partner, came to me and was like, “Can you talk to Marty? He’s shooting so much film. Would you talk to him about shooting less film? Doing less takes?” I said, “You want me to ask him if he would shoot me less? You think I’m actually going to say, ‘Marty, could you not shoot me so much?’” and she went, “Nevermind.” 

I’m not much of a sports person and a big theme in “Game 6” is the agony of being a life-long fan of one team. What do you think is so compelling about being a lifelong fan of one team?

I have to tell you, I’m not either. I have too many other things to worry about than investing real despair and joy in the fate of another team that’s out of my control. I don’t have a gambling addiction for that very reason either. I don’t really understand it, but I have so many friends who do. I’m also quite baffled by how the turn out of a game by their team will reflect on their mood and their outlook for days to come following. But I do know that it makes for a rich character. Michael Keaton understood that as an actor, and you don’t have to be that way to understand that as an actor, when there’s something you really, really care about. I was one of the New Yorkers who remembered the game six of the World Series, you couldn’t help it, but I moved on. For many people, you would have thought Bill Buckner had stolen a ton of atomic secrets against the United States or something the way total strangers reacted. 

According to Box Office Mojo, the film at its widest played in 15 theaters and as of last year The Ringer reported it was not available streaming. Could you talk a bit about its distribution history?

It was incited by that article and how it made a lot of people want to see this movie. It has become even more relevant I think as the years have gone by. At the time, it showed at the Sundance Film Festival, to a very good reception, but didn’t make a huge sale. It had a small but enthusiastic distribution team that could only get so far with it with whatever limited funds they had. In the meantime, now there are entirely new ways to see movies.

In Ty Burr’s 2006 review he called the film “a tiny movie that touches on big things.” What do you think the film has to say to audiences in 2021?

I think it’s going to resonate in ways unintentional with this global pandemic. I think it’s going to have a subtext to it. This kind of pandemic is something DeLillo has been writing about in one way or another for 40 years. I think people love discovering movies that they hadn’t known about before, especially with a cast like this. With its original way in which people speak and all of these problems culminating at the same time, I think it’s going to resonate with a lot of people in a fun way. Despite all the environmental disasters, divorces, parasites, it’s all pretty funny too. 

“Game 6” is now available on VOD platforms.

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