The success and long afterlife of Hoosiers — released almost exactly 30 years ago and new on Hulu this month — may not be quite as improbable as the events depicted in the movie, but it’s in the same long-shot realm as Hickory High’s run to the Indiana state basketball title. You had a director, David Anspaugh, making his feature-film debut; you had a co-star, Dennis Hopper, who played the troubled assistant coach Shooter Flatch, still working his way back from a solid decade in the show-business wilderness; and you had a subject, basketball, that up to that point, didn’t exactly have a sterling cinematic history. Oh, and Gene Hackman, who starred as coach Norman Dale, drove Anspaugh to the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Yet those problems resulted in beloved film, one that earned Academy Award nominations for Dennis Hopper’s supporting role and composer Jerry Goldsmith’s score. In 2001, the movie was selected by preservation by the National Film Registry and has been honored by the American Film Institute. As far as sports films go, Hoosiers, despite criticism from the likes of Spike Lee, is in the pantheon.
Speaking on the phone from Bloomington, Indiana, where he moved in 2014 to teach film at Indiana University, Anspaugh, who also directed the football classic Rudy, talked about his movie's legacy, butting heads with Hackman, an obsessive celebrity fan, race, and what Jack Nicholson said would’ve happened if he’d been the star.
I've seen you allude in past interviews to how hard of a time Gene Hackman gave you on the film. How quickly did you realize he'd be a problem?
The first scene on the first day.
We did a simple scene where Gene's character is driving to Hickory and he stops to get gas — it's a scene that never ended up in the movie. Gene's character and the gas -station attendant are talking about the town, and I shot the master. I was nervous, it was my first day, but the weird thing was that I'd been getting along really well with Gene for a couple weeks prior to shooting. He even helped me do a little acting workshop for the kids in the film because none of them had acted before. So before shooting started, I was thinking to myself, Working with Gene is going to be a wonderful experience.
And it wasn't.
It wasn't. So what happened was, I shot the master five or six times and it was real simple stuff; there wasn't a lot of acting to be done in the scene. I figured I'd got what I needed, so I told the cameraman, "Let's bring the camera over here for another setup," and Gene called me out in front of the whole cast and crew.
What'd he say?
Well, I'm sort of paraphrasing but basically he said, "You've got no taste, your head's completely up your ass, and you're a phony." I thought he was joking at first. Then I realized he wasn't. The crew went dead quiet. So I went up to Gene and I said, "Okay, I'm a little nervous on my first day; I should have asked you if you wanted to film another round." It was such a simple little scene, but I said we could go back and do it again. I shot about five or six more takes and there was not one slight divergence in what Gene did from take to take. I walked up to him and said, "Gene, is there anything you'd like to try? Any other way?" and he goes, "Why? What the hell was wrong with it?" Oh my God. That was the beginning.
Did he get better over the course of the shoot?
The shoot was 39 days. Probably 35 of them were like that first one. He was a little better after Dennis Hopper arrived — Dennis stole everyone's heart. But Gene was always challenging me.
Was he just hazing a rookie director? What do you think was going on?
I didn’t understand this at the time, but Gene likes to work on a set that has high anxiety because that's how he gets his juice. Some actors take a nip of Jack, some do yoga to get going. Some do — you know, Gene toward the end of the movie, after yelling at me for an hour, he said, "I know I behave like a child sometimes. I want to make a good movie, but I just don't feel comfortable making movies where I feel comfortable."
You also had some problems with Barbara Hershey, who played a Hickory teacher?
Barbara was in a situation where she felt like she had to take a side. She was either with me and [screenwriter] Angelo [Pizzo] or with Gene. She went with Gene. I still marvel sometimes when I think of all the Sturm und Drang that went on making the movie, and then you look at the end product, and you would never guess it was that way. I mean, Gene had me on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He gave me my first anxiety attack: One morning I woke up and I couldn’t walk, the room was spinning. I thought every day on the film was going to be my last because Gene’s agent was trying to get me fired.
What saved you?
The producers said, “Look, David’s not getting fired.” And we showed a half-hour of dailies to Gene’s agent and he saw that what we were making was actually pretty good. But, you know, hey, directing isn’t for sissies. I showed my mettle.
After you finished working on the film, how long did it take to know that everything had turned out okay?
It has to do with Gene. People sometimes ask me if Hackman ever apologized, and he never did, not really. But when the movie was all cut, everybody had done their ADR work except for Gene. Finally we said to him, “We don't want to go to a lawsuit about this. You gotta come in and do it.” And he said, “I want to see the movie first.” So we set up a screening for him the night before he was scheduled to come in and do his ADR. Angelo and I knew that if he didn't like the movie, he wouldn't show up at the studio to rerecord his dialogue. But he showed up. He walked in to the room, took his glasses off, looked me in the eyes, and said, “How the fuck did you do that?”
The movie made good money at the box office, but it wasn’t such a hit that the afterlife it's had seemed inevitable. Can you point to anything that helped keep the movie in people’s minds? I think of the way writers like Bill Simmons keep referring to it.
Bill Simmons? Forgive me, who’s that? I’m betraying my ignorance here.
The writer. He has a TV show now, too. He's a Hoosiers fan.
If people like him kept writing about the movie, that certainly didn’t hurt. I can’t explain how popular the movie still is other than it moves people. It’s a sports film that doesn’t really feel like a sports film. It’s really more about a place and time and people and community and second chances and fathers and sons. But who knows? Angelo and I, we still shake our heads and go, “How in the hell did this happen?”
The public reception of the movie is much more positive than negative, but over the years there’s also been an undercurrent of people arguing that it's racially problematic, at least insofar as we’re supposed to cheer this team of all-white players coming together at one point to beat the black players from South Bend Central. I know that Spike Lee, for instance, has said the film made him uncomfortable. Is the criticism fair?
No, no. Historically we were totally accurate. I know that Spike seemed to suggest that we made the black players into some sort of Darth Vaders, but I know that the men on the team that Hoosiers was based on admired their opponents. They weren’t racist. I can’t lose sleep over this criticism. It was a segregated time back then. That’s just the way it was and we were accurate to that period of history. It’s just that simple. You also have to understand, Spike Lee was one of the two sponsors for my membership in the Academy. I suspect his stance on the film may have softened since whenever he criticized it.
What’s a moment when you realized that the movie had become a cult favorite?
Let me tell you a story: A day or two after Billy Bob Thornton won his Oscar for Sling Blade, I got a phone call from my agent. He said, “Billy Bob Thornton wants to meet you.” And I go, “Fuck, why?” He said, “I don't know but he's at the Westwood Marquis hotel and he'd like to have you for lunch tomorrow.” I was wondering if it was about a movie project or something. So I show up, and he basically says, "You know, this is one of the kicks about winning an Oscar: You can meet whoever you want to meet, and you’re somebody I’ve wanted to meet for a long time." He told me how he’d sat the cast and crew of Sling Blade down and screened Hoosiers for them and said, “This is the benchmark.” Have you seen his new show, Goliath?
I have not.
Take a look at the pilot. His character lives in a motel in Santa Monica, next to a famous restaurant called Chez Jay’s. Anyway, his character’s daughter knocks on his door in the middle of the night, and Billy Bob’s character is watching Hoosiers and reciting each line — because Billy Bob really does know the movie by heart. He told me that day I met him, “Name any scene and I’ll do the dialogue.”
The mark of a true fan.
By the way, a lot of people don't know that Jack Nicholson was originally going to play the coach.
You know, I did read that somewhere. How far along did it get with Jack?
We had discussions about it. Six or seven years after meeting Jack for the first time — which is another long story; he was very kind to me early in my career — Angelo had finally written the script, and we took it up to him. Jack had written and directed a movie about basketball called Drive, He Said with Bruce Dern and I wanted some feedback. Jack ended up loving the script so much that he said, "I have to play this character." But then he got involved in a lawsuit with MGM and he wasn't able to work for six months. With Jack’s blessing, he said we could move on and Hackman came aboard.
It would’ve been an easier shoot with Jack. A different movie but an easier shoot.
Definitely a different movie. It’s funny you mention that because a month or two after Hoosiers came out I was at a restaurant, Morton’s, with my agent. Jack walks in and sees me — I hadn’t seen him in a while. He comes over with this big grin, and he goes, "I've seen your movie. It was great. Hopper was great. Hackman was great. The kids were terrific. You really got to the people with this one." And I said, "Well, thanks, Jack, but I'll always wonder what it would’ve been like if you’d been in it." And he put his arm around me and those eyebrows went up and he said, "A megahit, kid. It would’ve been a megahit." And then he smiled and walked away.
This interview has been edited and condensed.