‘Draft Day,’ featuring Browns and Cleveland, to open in movie theaters

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Denis Leary and Kevin Costner star in Draft Day. (Dale Robinette/Summit Entertainment)

In the office of Cleveland Browns General Manager Sonny Weaver Jr. is his game ball from the Oct. 24, 2012, game, a big win over the Cincinnati Bengals, 34-24.

The game and the score were real. Sonny Weaver and his office were not.

The new movie Draft Day, opening Friday, describes what Weaver (Kevin Costner), coach Vince Penn (Denis Leary), other members of the Browns and their rival teams do before and during an imaginary 2014 NFL Draft. But it tries to root its story in the real football world.

“We’re walking a really tricky line,” director Ivan Reitman said during a break in production last June on the Warrensville Heights campus of Cuyahoga Community College, where the Browns offices had been replicated.

“We’re working with the NFL for real. The teams are all real. We’re supposedly at the 2014 draft. But the characters in the movie are all fictional — although we trade on some of the history of both Cleveland and the history of the Browns in Cleveland. That’s a rich history for the Browns fans — and it’s one of the reasons why Cleveland is important as a setting for the story.”

The movie does not show the uglier side of pro sports visible in Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday and other not-the-NFL movies. But it ranges wide as it deals not only with the business of the draft when the Browns have a chance at a high pick, but the personal lives of some of the key characters, especially Weaver; he has a complicated family history with the Browns, and with the team’s salary-cap expert, played by Jennifer Garner. Then there are the young men being considered for the draft; who is the best choice, and why?

“There’s a wonderful emotionality to the story,” Reitman said. “I felt it was a fresh story because no one has told the draft story from the point of view of the people involved in it. We think of it as a television spectacle — more and more so with each passing year. That’s in our film but it’s a small part of it.” He was particularly intrigued by the younger characters, “whose lives are going to change in some fashion. … The road to success is so damned narrow, and that moment, that night, is a huge turning point in their lives. And for most of them, it’s a failure.”

Buffalo first choice

The film includes lots of local flavor, such as having real-life sports commentator Tony Rizzo heard on the radio in one scene, or brief appearances by Browns legends Bernie Kosar and Jim Brown. Browns colors, logos and memorabilia adorned the Tri-C sets. (The Browns offered tremendous access to the filmmakers, but the real-life offices were being remodeled as the film was being made.) Portraits of legendary Browns were visible, and a display case held a commemorative trophy for the team’s 1964 NFL championship. That precision and access helped with the performances, Leary said.

“When we got to Cleveland, [the Browns] embraced Kevin and Jennifer and myself going into the facility and meeting the coaches and some of the players,” Leary said. “It was not hard to pick up some of the atmosphere. … And as sports fans, Kevin and I were really excited by it.”

Yet, even with that attention to detail, and a script co-written by former Clevelander Rajiv Joseph, Draft Day was almost about Buffalo. That city had been announced as the shooting location, and Reitman and his team had gone so far as to scout locations. But the location changed thanks to Ohio’s tax credit for films made in state — and the growing reputation for Cleveland as a location for films, including the new Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

While that obviously led to adjustments in the script, some of the basic issues carried over, Reitman said.

“Both cities have had their own versions of an unfortunate [football] past, so we were trading on the weight of that,” Reitman said. The Buffalo Bills famously went to four consecutive Super Bowls and lost them all; the Browns have been out of the NFL championship game for close to 50 years, and vanished entirely from the city for several years in the ’90s.

Leary, famous for his love of all things Boston, saw parallels between the Browns and baseball’s Red Sox during that team’s now-ended, decades-long championship drought. “As a football fan, everyone including myself looks at the Browns and thinks it would be great if they finally won one, eventually,” Leary said.

As Reitman said of the Buffalo/Cleveland comparisons, “the football team in particular is important to each city. And both cities have had economic issues. So it was an easy shift from Buffalo to Cleveland in many ways.”

It’s personal for Costner

But he added that moving to Cleveland enhanced the storytelling. Cleveland, he said, is a larger city than Buffalo and “there’s more variation in terms of the very beautiful and areas that are run down. The fact that the team left the city for a number of years, although it’s not a big part of our film, certainly informs what is going on. I thought that was useful.”

On that day last June when reporters were allowed to visit the set, the scenes were for the most part interactions between Costner and Leary, making clear the conflict between the two — conflict portrayed again and again as even a short scene in a hallway was done numerous times. Costner, himself an Oscar-winning director, was intensely focused on how each take worked, not only going through them but reviewing the footage on the monitor before trying again.

This is not the biggest movie Costner will ever make — not long ago, he was part of the blockbuster Man of Steel — but he did not hold back in his performance.

“We’re only here at this moment for this scene,” he said during a break. “We don’t have two months of rehearsal. This scene is going to be done after this take, and it’s going to live forever. Your name goes above the title a lot of times. People call it your movie when it’s not your movie, you know what I mean? Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams. It’s not. It’s [writer-director] Phil Robinson’s Field of Dreams. … But you get that title a lot. So for me, these things live forever. … I take it seriously while I’m doing it. … I want it to be as good as it can be. … I take it personally.”

Besides, Costner thought this was “a really great American movie” — which is even more important at a time when Hollywood is increasingly fixated on movies that will do well not only in the United States but overseas. A film like Bull Durham had trouble getting made because it did not look like a big foreign seller, Costner said, only to prove to be a long-term success, and a classic.

Indeed, while the box-office expectations for Draft Day are modest once you get outside Northeast Ohio, the movie mattered to its participants in a big way. Leary was commuting between the sets of Draft Day and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 last summer, and rather pointedly referred to his work in Draft Day as “essentially an acting piece.” And Reitman, especially known for comedies like Dave, Stripes and the two Ghostbusters films to date, said he “was looking for something that had comedy in it but was more of a dramatic story” when he discovered Draft Day.

That discovery has even changed film history. Reitman was long attached as director to a proposed Ghostbusters 3. His thinking changed considerably in February, after the death of his longtime friend and Ghostbusters 3 collaborator Harold Ramis. He later decided not to direct the third film, and explained it to Deadline.com this way:

“When I came back from Harold’s funeral, it was really moving and it made me think about a lot of things. I’d just finished directing Draft Day, which I’m really happy with and proud of. Working on a film that is smaller and more dramatic was so much fun and satisfying.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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