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LIFE

Stars bring love of American football for sports movie

Jennifer Garner and Kevin Costner bring their love of American football to Draft Day, writes Kavita Daswani

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 10:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 10:02am

Chic in a fitted beige dress and ultra-high heels, and with her hair freshly coiffed, Jennifer Garner looks every inch the A-list movie star when we meet to discuss her latest film. But get her talking about American football and her face relaxes into a wide smile.

"I grew up around all that," the 42-year-old actress says. "Sundays, family, football, the Super Bowl - we were all about that." A New England Patriots fan despite having been born in Houston, Texas, she says: "My son [two-year-old Samuel, one of three children Garner has with husband Ben Affleck] is already built like a footballer."

So when the script for Ivan Reitman's Draft Day fell into Garner's lap, she felt an immediate connection to the gripping sports drama whose story unfolds over the course of a single day - the biggest day, to boot, in American football, apart from Super Bowl Sunday.

People love sports, but it's hard to make a good sports movie. There are a lot of crummy ones.
kevin costner 

Every year, the National Football League (NFL) holds its annual draft, where teams from around America exercise their right to pick from a slew of talented newcomers in a process that is as complex as it is enthralling. The Czechoslovakian-born Canadian filmmaker took the crux of that day - the frenetic backroom negotiations, the teams bitterly competing for the best picks of the new crop - and turned it into a story about one man and how his life spins and pivots on a single day.

Portrayed by Kevin Costner (who's graced his share of hit sports movies over the years), Sonny Weaver Jnr is general manager of the Cleveland Browns - a real NFL team whose insignia, colours and stadium feature in the film - and has to figure out how to land his top pick while navigating some thorny personal issues. (Among other things, he's still getting over the death of his football legend father, Sonny Weaver Snr, as well as trying to step out of his considerable shadow.)

Garner portrays Ali Parker, Weaver's recently pregnant love interest and the team's salary cap manager - basically the person who makes sure the bloated salaries offered to in-demand footballers don't destroy the team. The actress shadowed a real-life salary cap manager to get a handle on how the complicated process worked. "I'm familiar with a lot of the terminology around football, but there was still so much I had to learn," she says.

The film is a boon for die-hard sports buffs - given its authentic portrayals of how teams come into being, the plethora of cameos by sports personalities (including Cleveland Browns legend Jim Brown, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Hall of Famer Deion Sanders), and the real-world setting. Principal photography began at the actual draft day in New York last year, and many other scenes were shot at the official facilities of the Cleveland Browns.

But Costner is realistic about what makes a really good sports movie. (He's certainly trafficked in enough of them, including the baseball-themed Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and For Love of the Game, golf film Tin Cup and cycling movie American Flyers). His contention is that while sports can be a great subject for a movie, it doesn't necessarily guarantee that the film will be good.

"That will sound odd to you," he says. "'What do you mean a good story doesn't make a good movie?'" is a question the Oscar-winning actor-director (best director and best picture for Dances with Wolves) anticipates people asking. His answer: "A script makes a good movie. There's an art form. You take sports, and people love sports, but it's hard to make a good sports movie. There are a lot of crummy ones. It comes down to the writing."

In the case of Draft Day, the writing is by first-time scriptwriter Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph, a playwright and TV writer whose credits include TV series Nurse Jackie and the Peter Pan musical Fly. Costner gives the two film newcomers his approval. "I would say if I had success, it's been because of the writing. And maybe the good sense to recognise that and not change it. So I can't take too much credit except for knowing when something is good," the 59-year-old actor says.

Costner convinces as the man at the centre of the action and attention on the important day. It undoubtedly helps that sports figure among his varied array of interests - which also include music, history, green technology and Westerns.

"I am wired a little bit for sports," he says. "I grew up playing baseball, basketball and football till the streetlights came on. That's how I knew to go home. I played those sports all through my life and to this day I play and my children play and I watch them. So I know those sports intimately and the mythology and reality of them."

Costner admits to easily identifying with his character, and not always for the right reason. "I am confused by women just as much as Sonny is," he says, laughing. "But he has a love of sports, he's his own person, and I like to think of myself as my own person, and I would like to think there are smarter people around me and I can usually identify it. And, more importantly, I am not intimidated by it. I actually like it. I don't need to be the smartest guy in the room. I can usually tell who is … and I am okay with it. I am really comfortable with people excelling in front of me. So it fits me and it's a sport I understand. That also meant I could be on the set and make sure things didn't derail, in terms of language and in terms of script."

Draft Day's director is known for crowd-pleasing films such as Ghostbusters, Dave and Stripes. But Reitman is not generally associated with sports movies. Still, he does bring a brisk timing to Draft Day, some lovely personal vignettes and certain trademark comic touches.

"He's an intellectual person and he read something that was a little fun to him. There was a sense of humour," Costner says.

Although he's better known for his action films and sports movies, Costner has room for comedy in films. "I try to put a sense of humour in all of my movies, because nothing ever suffers from a sense of humour. I think people will now say, 'Why haven't you made more movies like this?'"

Given that football is a particularly American sport - despite its similarity to rugby - cinema-goers outside the US will need a dictionary to understand much of the terminology.

"I think you have to have a little understanding of [the game]," Costner concedes. "But my wife doesn't understand football at all and she really likes it. She said there's something comforting to her when she hears the TV on and knows that I am watching. She knows her family is at home."

thereview@scmp.com

Draft Day opens on June 19