The Sandlot still delivers 20 years later

David Mickey Evans had been fired eight days into his first directing job on his first Hollywood screenplay, Radio Flyer. It was all so very Hollywood, and it’s been written about a good bit, but Evans saw it as a big setup.

“They gave me eight days in the director’s chair, fired me, then they went about badmouthing me everywhere because they could not — everything in Hollywood is perception,” Evans said. “If it was perceived they had done that bad thing to Mr. 27-Year-Old Virtual Unknown with his personal little story, they would have been strung up.”

So that was the mood David Mickey Evans was in the day he drove home from getting fired, opened up a file on his computer and started typing a story about his childhood called “The Boys of Summer.”

You know it as “The Sandlot.”

“It came out really good, I thought, the script,” Evans said.

The Sandlot is 20 years old now. It was released April 7, 1993 and enthusiastically received by pretty much anyone who was a child, or had ever been one. In celebration of that anniversary, FOX is showing screenings of the movie at MLB ballparks all over the country this summer, including in Arlington, Texas earlier in May.

The movie is about childhood in a broad sense, but it is also about a specific childhood — Evans’ childhood.

He grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California during the early 70s, and things were not easy there for him and his brother.

“We got beat up all the time,” Evans said. “It had a lot to do with being poor, No. 1. And No. 2, we moved into that area at the end of something they used to call ‘white flight.’ You can take that how you will, but nonetheless we got beat up a lot.”

But one summer day — and, remember, this really happened in Evans’ life — the other neighborhood kids were playing baseball and one of them hit a ball over a fence and into a yard occupied by a ferocious dog. A shepherd mix or something. His name was Hercules. Mean. Scary.

So the kids told Evans’ brother, whom they were otherwise constantly beating up, that he could play with them if he faced up to the monster and retrieved the ball. He went back there, the dog broke off its chain and ripped up the poor kid’s leg. When he came back out, everybody was laughing at him.

That’s the story.

“I turned it upside down,” Evans said. “Instead of writing a story about a bunch of punks, I turned them all into heroes.”

Every studio wanted the script, but they didn’t want Evans. As a director, his name was mud on account of the whole Radio Flyer fiasco. But then along came a guy named Mark Burg from a studio that no longer exists. Burg told Evans he had spoken to every person in Hollywood, and they all said Evans “couldn’t direct his way out of a paper bag,” but he wanted to give him the director gig anyway.

“Well, yeah, I’ve heard that,” Evans said. “Why are you going to hire me to direct it?”

“Because,” Burg said, “they can’t all be right.”

So Evans was going to get to make his movie, his way, with almost no outside influence. To this day, he says it remains the only film with which he’s had that kind of experience. The quest to have another is part of what keeps Evans going.

The idea at first was to cast kids ages 9-10, but it quickly became clear that was too young. They looked like babies, Evans said. So they went for ages 12-13, and they went for a certain kind of kid.

Evans draws a distinction between “kids who are actors” and “kids who are kids, but want to be in a movie,” and he prefers working with the latter. They’re more authentic. Most of the cast had little or no experience in front of a camera, including the last kid who wanted to be in a movie — a husky, freckly kid from Boston named Patrick Renna, who had just come from a cattle call for Free Willy.

Hamilton “Ham” Porter.

“The character description definitely was for me,” said Renna, now 34. “This guy Ham, he’s the catcher. He’s the loudmouth, fun, rambunctious member of the team. I went in and had a lot of fun with it.”

Every other part had been cast already, and the rest of the kids were out in Los Angeles playing baseball together. That was how it started. Evans wanted them to get to know each other before they started shooting. So they’d play ball, go to the movies, go to the pool. At some point they went bungee jumping, and Evans had to stop it at that, but the point was for the camaraderie to be real when the cameras came on.

Evans likens directing kids to herding cats, but he said this group was easy to direct.

“Everybody wanted to participate, everybody wanted to contribute and nobody wanted to be the guy that was holding things up,” he said. “It was a total real team. Honestly, it really was.”

Renna was not technically playing the lead role, but he became the star of the film. During casting, Evans had Renna read a scene in which Ham was behind the plate, talking trash.

But you needed to like him.

“He was gregarious, fearless, funny as hell, and an incredibly likable kid who I could instantly see in a cuss-out match with a bad kid,” Evans said. “You were going to love this kid. There’s nothing he could do to make you not like him.”

Renna was a little too funny, it turned out. Because when they were trying to shoot the famous s’mores scene, in which Ham delivers the iconic “You’re killin’ me, Smalls!” line, Renna did it so well he kept cracking up his co-stars.

The scene took hours to shoot.

“He was so funny, everybody started busting up every single time he said the line, and it ruined the take,” Evans said. “Finally we got one where they managed to stifle it, but in the background of that scene you can see Mike Vitar, who played Benny, biting his lip to stop from laughing. Pat was just hysterical.”

Evans knew then the line would go over well with audiences. He liked his actors and he liked his script and he wanted his film to have the texture of nostalgia.

“I got out some old Kodachrome slides, that you’d put in a camera projector,” he said. “I said, ‘I want this movie to look like this and feel like this.’ It gives it that memory kind of quality, those saturated colors and stuff.”

So he shot it in 2:35 aspect ratio on these lenses he loved. They shot everything during the day (because the lenses required lots of light) and in Salt Lake City (because it looked like California but was a lot cheaper; the budget was tight).

“It all comes together and subconsciously creates a memory kind of feeling,” Evans said.

And then he had to make the beast, Hercules. He had to create that dog the way a kid would imagine him, a little surreal, a little fantastical. If such a character needed to be built today, most filmmakers would probably have him drawn up on the computer, but Evans said he wouldn’t change anything about the way he did it.

“The beast was supposed to be a little scary, a little ferocious and a little silly, you know?” he said. ” So we built a puppet. If you do that CG, it’s going to look a cartoon or it’s going to look like Jurassic Park. You don’t want to go there. The technology at the time was the perfect technology to tell that story the way it should be told.”

Renna says he knew the movie would be good because everybody had such a good time making it, but it wasn’t until he and some of his other cast members started hiding in the back of test screenings that he knew how big The Sandlot was going to be.

“The lines were around the block,” he said. “My entire school went to see it. People started freaking out about the movie.”

The Sandlot made almost $34 million at the box office, and it hasn’t gone away. Anybody currently between the ages of about 28 and 34 has recently heard someone say “You’re killing me, Smalls.” Renna gets asked to say it all the time, but the magnitude of his contribution to pop culture didn’t really sink in until he heard a SportsCenter anchor say it while describing someone getting dunked on.

“I rewound it,” Renna said. “That was kind of the moment where I thought ‘Wow, this is something people use.'”

That the film has stood up over 20 years Evans attributes to it being a period piece. He set it in 1962, a year before the Kennedy assassination, right before it all hit the fan in America. People remember that time warmly.

“It was the year before everything changed,” Evans said. “It was ’62, not ’63. The dream was still alive. Camelot was still in America.”

Renna’s father told him what it was.

“He said, ‘That character you played was exactly me growing up. The clothes were the clothes that I wore. They captured it.'”

Renna and Evans are still in the film industry. Renna is writing and producing an independent film. He still looks like he did 20 years ago, and he says Ham has always been a great ice breaker for him. Evans is publishing a novel he wrote years ago. He is on this tour now, visiting all these ballparks for the screenings.

Funny thing, though. He never really thought of it as a baseball movie.

“It’s a movie about friendship,” he said. “Character, courage and loyalty and not discluding someone because you don’t know them, you don’t like them and they don’t have the same kinds of abilities that you did. We got treated like that all the time and that’s wrong … Certainly I think it’s about friendship.”