You’re Never Too Old: Behind the Scenes of JUST GETTING STARTED with Writer/Director Ron Shelton

By Tom Snyder, Editor

JUST GETTING STARTED is a breezy comedy starring Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones and Rene Russo about two testy, outgoing retired men who vie for a woman’s attention during Christmas time in a game of one-upmanship at a resort for retired folks. The movie has some positive references to Christmas and Jesus, but it does contain a fair amount of crude PG-13 language warranting caution.

Movieguide® obtained an exclusive interview with the movie’s acclaimed Writer and Director Ron Shelton, who wrote and helmed BULL DURHAM, WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP and TIN CUP, and wrote BAD BOYS II.

Relaxing in front of a football game at the junket hotel, Shelton talked to Movieguide® about JUST GETTING STARTED and his career.

Asked what he wants viewers to get out of his new movie, Shelton replied, “Age doesn’t matter if you can keep your health. Your life can be in front of you as long as you are able. All I do is look forward to what I’m doing next. I don’t look at my high school yearbook. I try not to dwell on loss that we’ve all had or I’ve had. I’m all about what are we all doing next.”

Shelton’s attitude of always looking ahead makes a lot of sense, but it’s interesting, informative and even inspiring to remember that, in his youth, Shelton grew up in California in a Southern Baptist family from West Texas, became a college basketball star, and worked as a professional ballplayer in the Minor Leagues for several years.

So, how did he end up in Hollywood as an acclaimed writer and director?

“I loved watching movies in college and high school,” he recalls. “In baseball, I would go all the time, because you travel. And, I didn’t want to be in the hotel, so I’d go to movies. Years later I just started trying to write them at night, and one day I sold one. . . . Once I started writing them and going on set, I realized I really want to direct, I think I’d be good at this. I like actors. I like the organization of it. I like the visuals. So, that’s how it happened. You couldn’t have predicted it.”

Shelton said his storytelling ability probably comes from his father and his family. In effect, his father became his de facto teacher on storytelling.

“My dad was from West Texas. That whole big family of Texans moved out to Bakersfield [California] to work in the oil fields. They were old Southern Baptist talkers, and they were storytellers. My dad told stories. I grew up in a house where stories were always being told. We didn’t go to movies as a kid, but my dad would take five minutes to go to the grocery store, and it would be a two-hour story. I think I really liked storytelling, and then I started reading and then later going to movies.”

He added that storytelling is “critical” to being a good director.

‘When you direct a movie, there’s a schedule,” he said. “You’re moving quickly, and you’re just trying to get things shot and stay on schedule. . . . Nothing matters if the story you’re trying to tell isn’t being told, if the behavior on screen isn’t right, if the setups aren’t right. So, while that organizational stuff is happening, you really got to be paying attention. . . you never really know [for sure] until it’s all put together.”

Working in Hollywood and Los Angeles spends a lot of time driving on crowded freeways. He says the idea for the script of JUST GETTING STARTED came to him while sitting in L.A. traffic.

“I spend a lot of time thinking in the car and not trying to freak out,” he said. “This idea kind of evolved. It was a character I’d been talking about with Billy Gerber, a guy who’s kind of a hustler and lovable. I was trying to think of an idea for that kind of character who was older, and, by the time I got to Santa Monica, I had this idea in my head.

“That’s a real American archetype, the hustler,” Shelton noted. “A hustler who’s not criminal and really deceitful is an attractive character. I know a lot of those, you know, salesmen. . . but a hustler who’s a criminal and stealing from you should be shot. Morgan [Freeman] has dignity in this kind of character. Kind of a strange dignity, but. . ..”

Shelton had never worked with Morgan Freeman, so he considers casting Morgan in the role of Duke (the hustler running the desert resort for retired people), as a great opportunity to work with Freeman.

For Leo, the laconic antagonist against Duke, Shelton decided to cast Tommy Lee Jones, with whom he had worked previously on a dark movie about the baseball legend, Ty Cobb.

“We stayed in touch, and we liked working with each other,” he said about Jones. “So, when Morgan said he wanted to do it, I called Tommy, and I sent [the script] to him. I thought Tommy and Morgan would be great together, and I think they are. They are so different. They have a funny chemistry. Tom’s dry as West Texas dirt but smart as a whip [while] Morgan is spinning stories. And, there’s this deep affection for the two characters even as they’re rivals. That’s Tommy and Morgan.”

Shelton had also worked before (on the movie TIN CUP) with Rene Russo, who plays Suzie, the object of Leo’s affection who Duke starts flirting with, mostly to irk his rival, Leo.

“I called her and told her, ‘I’ve got Tommy and Morgan, do you want to come and have fun with us?’” Shelton recalls. “She said yes.”

Shelton said he thought the three of them, Rene, Morgan and Tommy Lee, worked well together.

“They’re not just real movie stars,” he said, “they’re fabulous actors. And, they’re professionals. I love them. When you’re working with people like that, they don’t bring drama on the set, they bring drama on the screen. They’re professionals. They’re hard working. They’re careful what they do. They care about the movie. They know their lines every day. They have things to contribute. Every young actor should watch the three of them work.”

Shelton said he also had a “wonderful” supporting cast for JUST GETTING STARTED, including the late Glenn Headley (DICK TRACY and MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS, among many other movie and TV projects) who passed away recently after filming the movie.

JUST GETTING STARTED is also set during Christmas at the Palm Springs resort in the movie. So, it features a lot of Christmas carols, including “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night.” Several scenes feature a group of Christmas carolers dressed in Victorian costumes like something out of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL but wearing flip-flops while they sing by the pool.

“I grew up in Southern California,” Shelton said. “So, I’m used to Christmases where one would go to the beach. Other people from the East or the North, they don’t understand this kind of Christmas. Then, I drove through Palm Springs at Christmas once. It was really funny and goofy cause it was windy and hot, and the dust storms and Christmas trees were blowing down the fields and the roads, and Johnny Matthis’ voice was on the speaker, and I thought, ‘This is a good backdrop.’”

Shelton said he’s still planning a musical version of his 1987 hit BULL DURHAM for Broadway. News about that project should hit sometime next year.

In the meantime, he said, “The project that I’ve been wanting to get off the ground for a while that now has financial backing is called THE ESCAPE ARTIST. It’s a true story about a man who broke out of prison 14 times, and we’re now about to make offers to actors. Hopefully, we’ll be shooting that next year. It’s a true story. I knew the guy for many years. He was not a criminal. He got convicted by accident, but then his crime became breaking out of prison so he could never get beyond the attitude of breaking out. I love the character. I love the world. I love the story.”