“I think if a director isn’t heavily involved in the script, then he’s not really the director of the movie.” – Michael Ritchie
When you think of great American directors, Michael Ritchie’s name isn’t one that surfaces with the frequency of some of his more celebrated contemporaries. Perhaps it was his ability to seamlessly move a story along while not calling attention to himself, consistently eliciting strong performances from not just his films’ stars, but the entire ensemble casts that comprise his film canon. There was no flash and fandango in a Ritchie film, several of which centered around competition, showing the integrity (or lack thereof) competition inherently reveals, and the redemptive path sports can offer – Downhill Racer (1969), The Candidate (1972), Smile (1975), The Bad News Bears (1976), Semi-Tough (1977), Wildcats (1986), Diggstown (1992), The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993 TV movie) and The Scout (1994).
Ritchie was a director that put the character relationships front and center, navigating the stakes of the challenges they faced with a keen eye for infusing comedy into his films, so he could yank the rug out from under his audience when he hit us with the dramatic moments. Ritchie was a master of filling a frame with multiple actors and capturing a scene in an almost documentary style: the ending in Downhill Racer, the debate in The Candidate, the stage full of beauty pageant contestants in Smile, the trophy presentation in The Bad News Bears, the wedding in Semi-tough, the locker room in Wildcats and the boxing scenes in Diggstown. His “style” was integrating ensemble casts with a knack for creating naturalism and onscreen chemistry that stands as his directing legacy.
Hollywood’s love affair with boxing and the con-game genre was mashed up in Diggstown, when a just released from prison con-man Gabriel Caine (James Woods), makes a bet with John Gillon (Bruce Dern), who owns the town with the film’s namesake, that a boxer named “Honey” Roy Palmer can beat any 10 Diggstown men residing in the city limits in a 24-hour period. Director Michael Ritchie opted to build his cast around a trio of some of the most respected character actors in the business when he cast James Woods, Bruce Dern and Academy Award winner Lou Gossett Jr. – instead of plugging in the hot star of the moment. There was a shared history between Woods and Dern for having played the thinking man’s “heavy” in several movies, and with Gossett Jr. also in the mix, you had three men who never conceded an inch on-screen.
Without a proper marketing campaign to support Diggstown, and the film earning a split decision with critics, it quietly came and went in 1992, but thanks to the Pet Sematary for movies that was cable television and Blockbuster Video, it found an audience and achieved a second life. I was fortunate enough to sit down with veteran character actor Kim Robillard, who has worked with such directors as Steven Spielberg, Barry Levinson, Renny Harlin, Tony Scott, Michael Mann and Quentin Tarantino (you might know him as Saloon Keeper Pete in Django Unchained). Kim played Sheriff Stennis in Diggstown and shared his thoughts on working with the film’s director Michael Ritchie, as well as being a part of the standout ensemble cast.
GM: Diggstown is one of those movies like Office Space or Rounders that achieved a second life on cable television. Would you say it’s the movie that’s gained the most post-theatrical release momentum of any film you’ve been a part of?
KR: I’d probably have to go with Rain Man, but it’s definitely in the ball park. Maybe even number two. I just stumbled across it again the other night (laughs).
GM: I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like the film, and yet I don’t know anybody who saw it in the theater. When you were making Diggstown, did you think – “Man, we really got something here.”
KR: I always thought it was a good movie. I knew it wasn’t gonna be a huge blockbuster, but I always thought it was a good, solid, sharp movie – that underperformed at the box office for the level of quality that was on the screen. But it’s a small to medium size film, in that old-school Hollywood style that I think really delivers in the end.
GM: Those ‘medium’ size Michael Ritchie films have become few and far between. Hollywood isn’t releasing those theatrically much these days.
KR: Sadly, no.
GM: Diggstown does a great job of marrying the con-man film with the boxing genre. What did those fighting sequences look like up close?
KR: Watching the boxing being filmed, you’re seeing the same angle being shot over and over. And while it’s tedious to sit through that, the guys in the ring are actually having to do it. The last time I saw the film I thought the boxing was great – it really cut together. Lou Gossett Jr. had to be in his fifties when he made Diggs, and he brought it, man. I think the boxing scenes are right there with Rocky.
GM: I can’t imagine how hot it got in that gym with those lights.
KR: That gym was hot as hell, and luckily, I didn’t have to fight anybody. That’s one of the things about the film – I remember thinking – “How the hell is he gonna pull this off?” Not just “Honey” Roy Palmer the character, but Lou Gosset Jr. the actor. It was so physically demanding. And damn if he didn’t pull it off.
GM: The casting was excellent. You believe the ensemble that makes up the town, and the collective chemistry is wonderful.
KR: Definitely, and if you notice, there were all kinds of people that went on to do some great work: Jim Caviezel, Michael McGrady who’s on Ray Donovan… Oliver Platt… um…
GM: Heather Graham.
KR: Heather Graham! Her first big movie. I went in for a screen test on this film. I’d never been tested before, I was just offered parts after auditioning prior to this, but Michael wanted a screen test. They weren’t really even doing that anymore. I’m a little worried, because I’d never done this – and some of us were waiting to do our thing – and Heather Graham was doing her test before us. And all of us were saying, “Who the fuck is that!?” She was so good, and the camera loved her – we could see the playback – so stunning, you just knew she was going somewhere.
GM: You play Bruce Dern’s muscle in the film. What was it like working with a legend?
KR: I liked Bruce a lot. I told him when I first met him how much I liked his work in Drive, He Said. It’s Nicholson’s directorial debut, and he told me that it was one of his favorite roles. We also talked about Wild River which was Bruce’s first film. He’s a generous actor to work with who’s always looking for a moment.
GM: You’ve gone bark for bite with Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, James Woods, Bruce Dern, Jamie Foxx, Will Smith and Christoph Waltz to name a few. What advice do you have for any actors that find themselves on a call sheet with the big name heavy hitters?
KR: Be prepared. Know your character. There’s a line you can cross if you’re trying to make more of your character in the scene than what’s required. Don’t do that. I find if you’re in character that’s not a problem. Diggstown was great about creating an ensemble, but understand that’s not always the deal. Try not to hold anybody up.
GM: James Woods and Bruce Dern have both played heavies. Was there a competiveness between the two actors? Given their similar career paths – Lead Character Actors.
KR: There was some tension in the room sometimes, but not because they didn’t get along, I think it was the nature of the roles they were playing. That kind of competiveness worked for the scenes. It works for the film. But yeah, now that you mention it, it was definitely there.
GM: You’ve worked with a murderer’s row of elite directors. Guys like: Levinson, Spielberg, Ritchie, Harlin, Mann and Tarantino. Story and script aside – what are the intangibles that some of the greats you’ve worked with have in common?
KR: My mind right away goes to Barry, Steven and Quentin. They knew exactly what kind of movie they were making… and they tell you. All those directors you mentioned do that. Michael and Renny, too. They’re not flailing about at all, and if you step out of that vision – they’re going to tell you – “No. No. No. I don’t want you to do that.” Michael Ritchie was a little more by the seat of his pants. He liked to play around a lot, but he knew what he wanted. He had battled cancer and was excited to be back in the director’s chair. I was a big fan of Smile, and I told him so. He was a really sweet guy to work for. Sadly, the cancer returned a few years later and took him too soon.
GM: Michael Ritchie was a master of building drama and comedy around competition and sports, and was a real craftsman at ending a film. Sometimes thought provoking, exciting, other times hilarious, but always satisfying – and Diggstown is no different. There are a lot of actors in the frame at the film’s climax. How did Ritchie handle that?
KR: Well, it was mostly improv. He told us what he wanted, and when I try to arrest Bruce at the concession stand, that’s all pretty loosey-goosey. But by the end of the film, Lou has put so much into getting to that point, we all wanted to get it right.
GM: Did you ever get an opportunity to see the film with an audience?
KR: I saw it at the screening and then I saw it at a theater, and both times the reaction was the same – audiences clapped at the right places, and really rallied for the characters. The broken relationship between Jimmy Woods and Lou’s character in the film, with whatever happened in “Moline,” and how their friendship comes back together really works for me. And that last line of the movie… what’s that last line? When it’s just the two of them?
GM: “Now you’re motivating me.”
KR: Yeah. Michael Ritchie was a sweet, sweet guy and a great director. If you look at Downhill Racer, The Candidate, or The Bad News Bears today – those movies really hold up. There was almost a theme of futility at the end of some of his films. A kind of let down for the characters. “Well, what the fuck?” You know what I mean? Like that last line in The Candidate… what does Redford say? “Now what?”
GM: “What do we do now?” And then that empty hotel room.
KR: Right. Right. Very reminiscent of The Graduate. It’s like, what’s revealed about the characters is what’s important. Not the money, or the trophy. “We competed, now what?” That was quintessential 70’s filmmaking. Diggstown was really a 70’s movie.