Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists


Reassessing “Bull Durham” in the Age of Coronavirus

Photo Credit: MGM Studios

After a protracted lockout and negotiations, Opening Day of the 2022 Major League Baseball (MLB) season has finally arrived. To celebrate the return of America’s pastime, let’s take a look at one of the best baseball movies ever made: 1988’s “Bull Durham.”

Written and directed by Ron Shelton, “Bull Durham” follows two Minor Leaguers at opposite ends of their careers: Kevin Costner’s catcher Crash Davis is past his prime and Tim Robbins’s pitcher ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh is just entering his. Throw in a unique narrator – wildcard baseball groupie Annie (Susan Sarandon) – and you have the makings of a classic.

After premiering on June 15, 1988, “Bull Durham” went on to become a sleeper hit, earning a respectable $50M+ at the 1988 box office. It was well reviewed and well-loved but it’s true impact came in the years since its initial release.

In that time, it has grown in popularity and esteem. The American Film Institute (AFI) put it at #5 on its list of best sports movies and Sports Illustrated ranked it the #1 sports movie of all time. “Bull Durham” is even listed among the best comedies ever made by AFI.

In this series, we have already examined crowded indoor scenes, scene on transportation, and pivotal sports moments. But we haven’t looked at a baseball film yet.  

As we celebrate the return of Major League Baseball, let’s examine this iconic movie with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. We will break it down into three sections:

  • Safety first: what makes this move safe
  • On the field: the power of verisimilitude
  • Fresh perspectives: 2022 considerations

This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines would have affected a one of the greatest sports movies ever made.

Safety First: What Makes This Move Safe

When Ron Shelton and company filmed “Bull Durham” in autumn of 1987, no one was thinking about COVID-19 safety. And yet many elements of the on-the-field scenes are already pretty safe. Thanks in large part to the sport of baseball itself.

If we had to pick a team sport to be the subject of a movie during a pandemic, we would choose baseball. When we make a movie about a sport, we take on the risks of that sport but add the risks of making a film. The two elements of baseball that make it a safer pandemic film subject than other major American team sports are:

  • Baseball is played outdoors.
  • It allows for safe cast isolation and separation.

Baseball Is Played Outdoors

“Bull Durham” was filmed on location in North Carolina at Historic Durham Athletic Park. With the exception of a few domed stadium, MLB is played outdoors and, in the minor leagues, there aren’t any domes at all.

Outdoors is the safest place to be during this pandemic. COVID-19 spreads far more easily indoors, especially in locations that have poor ventilation. We have been advocating for productions to set scenes outside whenever possible since the beginning of this pandemic. If a scene can be shot outside, we should seriously consider it.

Shooting outdoors does have its drawbacks:

  • The lighting can be inconsistent and dependent on cloud patterns.
  • Sound can be more difficult to get cleanly because of ambient noises.
  • Production is at the mercy of the weather.

Under normal circumstances, these issues can and do drive many of us to film indoors. Obviously, the pandemic has created anything but “normal” circumstance. Every production has had to adapt to the changes COVID-19 has brought to this industry. Often that has meant adjusting old ideas to accommodate new realities.

To safely navigate the risks of COVID-19, we must prioritize safety. That means we must remember:

  • An outbreak can shut down production.
  • One positive test can delay a shoot.
  • And let us never forget that COVID-19 can kill and none of us wants to lose a cast or crew member.

When we focus on safety, we can see that the drawbacks to filming outdoors pale in comparison to the safety gained. By setting our scenes outdoors, we can maximize air flow, maximize pandemic safety, and minimize the chances of an outbreak.

What truly sets baseball apart as a safe team sport for movies, however, is how it allows for safe cast isolation and separation.

Baseball Allows for Safe Cast Isolation and Separation

Baseball is a unique team sport in that the opposing sides are never in contact with each other (collisions at the plate not withstanding). The only regular, planned contact in baseball is between the bat and the ball.

This lack of contact is one of the elements that had, prior to “Bull Durham,” led many in the industry to view baseball as un-cinematic. In fact, Shelton had trouble getting “Bull Durham” made precisely because no one thought a baseball movie would make any money.

Shelton chose wisely to focus on the relationship between the catcher and the pitcher to bring conflict, tension, and obstacles into the story. This focus is great for pandemic safety too. Per regulation, the pitcher’s mound must be 60 feet 6 inches from home plate and the catcher. This is excellent social distancing.

Baseball films, like “Bull Durham,” benefit greatly from the fact that all the players on the field are more than six feet from each other and the crowd is well separated from the players. This creates some nearly ideal conditions for a production during a pandemic. The cast of a baseball film, like “Bull Durham,” can easily remain socially distant from the extras in the crowd and from each of the other players on the field, whichever team they are cast to play for.

Baseball is played outdoors and allows for great cast spacing on set. These two elements alone would help increase pandemic safety on a film like “Bull Durham.” But to truly maximize safety we must get on the field and rely on the power of verisimilitude.

On the Field: The Power of Verisimilitude

The term “verisimilitude” is often misused in filmmaking circles, with many mistaking it for the shaky cam of “chaos cinema.” In reality (pun intended), verisimilitude is simply the appearance of reality or truth. The feeling that “this is how it really is.”

Watching “Bull Durham,” you get the sensation that this movie has captured the reality of minor league baseball. This is a fantastic and clear example of verisimilitude in film and one that we can all learn from.

Ron Shelton said he wanted to remove the glamor from the game. In his words, he didn’t want to “back-light it.” Having played in the minor leagues, he set out to make a movie that showed the truth of that world. What he created was the first film of its kind; taking you into the dugout, the batter’s box, and out onto the mound with the authenticity that only a veteran of minor league baseball could bring.

Shelton and company created this verisimilitude through many avenues – writing realistic dialog, shooting in real locations, casting athletic actors – but the one that we want to highlight is the placement of the camera.

The camera in “Bull Durham” is never in the stands, never in the crowd. It is always on the field. This is a departure from the baseball movies made prior to “Bull Durham” where the camera often took the perspective a spectator. Not here. Here the camera stays with the players. Even when he films Annie in the crowd, Shelton’s camera doesn’t join her in the stands.

This one choice dramatically increases pandemic production safety by keeping the crew away from the extras. Large crowds are one of the riskiest places to be in the pandemic and this holds true from film sets as well. Scenes with a lot of extras present pandemic safety issues for both the cast and crew. By keeping the camera on the field, Shelton keeps the cast and crew safe.

Many in the film industry tend to think of safety as an obstacle to great filmmaking but that’s a mistake. Safety can complement the goals of the creative team. Focusing on verisimilitude allowed “Bull Durham” to maximize on-set pandemic safety while also adhering to the director’s singular vision.

Fresh Perspective: 2022 Considerations

If we were to shoot “Bull Durham” today here are some pandemic considerations, we would want to account for:

  • A Safe Way Forward: We would be sure to follow union guidelines when filming during a pandemic.  
  • Vaccinations: We would want to encourage a fully vaccinated set. When filming on location we must remember that we are visitors to a community and that an outbreak on our set likely means an outbreak in that community. We should strive to limit the likelihood of an outbreak and a fully vaccinated set is a great step in that direction.
  • Booster Shots: The FDA has now authorized a second round of boosters for people over 50 and those with compromised immune systems. We would want to make sure that all cast and crew members who fall into those categories be made aware of their new eligibility.
  • Limit Improvisation: Ron Shelton allowed his actors to improvise on set. It added to the jocular atmosphere he was looking for, but it does present some safety issues. Safety requires that everyone be on the same page. Improv, by its very nature, deviates from the page. When shooting during a pandemic, we would encourage improvisation during rehearsals when everyone is still masked and distanced. We would, however, emphasize the importance of sticking to those choices and to the script when it is time to roll.

Final Thoughts

“Bull Durham” proved to Hollywood that a baseball movie could be a hit. In its wake came an onslaught of baseball films like “Field of Dreams,” “Major League,” “A League of Their Own,” “The Sandlot,” “Major League II,” “Rookie of the Year,” “For the Love of the Game,” and “The Rookie.”  

Relying on baseball’s innate pandemic safety elements allowed “Bull Durham” to lock-in a good degree of safety right off the bat. But what truly made its on the field action even safer to shoot during a pandemic was director Ron Shelton’s decision to rely on the power of verisimilitude. By putting the camera on the field, Shelton and cinematographer Bobby Byrne kept the cast and crew safely separated from the extras in the crowd. They put us in the game and that made all the difference.

Stay safe and enjoy the 2022 MLB season everyone. Please be sure to check back tomorrow as we celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the greatest movie musical ever made when we look through the COVID lens at 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.