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The Independent Critic

 An Interview With "Million Dollar Arm" Producer Mark Ciardi 
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"Miracle." "The Rookie." "Invincible." "Secretariat." What do these films have in common? Oh sure, they're inspirational sports stories that managed to capture the heart of America.

There's more.

In 1987, Mark Ciardi was an up-and-coming pitcher who'd just been drafted by Major League Baseball's Milwaukee Brewers. Unfortunately, Ciardi's time in the big leagues was to be brief as a rough start led to Ciardi's being sent down to the minor leagues and he would never get another shot at big league glory. After playing in the minor leagues and in Europe, the former big leaguer would become a fashion model before teaming up with Gordon Gray to start the production company Mayhem Pictures. Since the 1990's, Mayhem has produced three memorable films about underdog athletes - "Miracle," "The Rookie," and "Invincible," but their latest film may very well be their greatest underdog story of all, Disney's "Million Dollar Arm," based on the true stories of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, two young Indian men discovered by sports agent J.B. Bernstein after winning a reality show competition. The film stars Suraj Sharma ("Life of Pi") and Madhur Mittal ("Slumdog Millionaire") as the two young men with Jon Hamm as Bernstein along with Lake Bell and Alan Arkin. The film is directed by Craig Gillespie ("Lars and the Real Girl" and "Fright Night") and features original music by Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman. Ciardi chatted with The Independent Critic about the upcoming release of "Million Dollar Arm."

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I have to ask. You have an incredible record when it comes to films like Million Dollar Arm. Do you still get nervous in these days leading up to a film's release?

MARK CIARDI

Oh yeah, of course. It's funny, I was telling J.B. recently that it's the same for every film. The only thing I can liken it to is that feeling I used to get, I used to pitch, and it's that feeling you get right before the game. It's that nervous excitement. It's great, but having seen this movie play in front of audiences we all know how it plays. Now, we just can't wait to get it out there. Hopefully, we get a nice long run. That's what we think will happen.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I'd be amazed if it doesn't. Was there any hesitation with this story? American moviegoers can sometimes be really fickle. You have the film's two central characters being from India. Was there any hesitation or wondering if American moviegoers would be interested in this story?

MARK CIARDI

I think there's always a little with any kind of non-tentpole movie these days. You analyze it and just try to see if it will get the attention of audiences. We thought that this was a special movie. You do your best to write a great script and cast well and get a great director. When all those things come together like they did here, you have a finished product that test audiences really respond to and it's a matter of getting the movie out there. These are small movies that need attention and care. We're excited. We really think the word of mouth will be fantastic. We think we'll have a nice long run.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I'm sure that anyone who talks to you always refers to the fact that you've had multiple successes with inspirational sports stories. What was it about this story, in particular, that made you feel like this was a story that needed to be told and that you wanted to produce it? Is there really something that draws you to this type of a story?

MARK CIARDI

We never set out to make sports stories. We started with the movie The Rookie and then they started coming. We love sports and we love movies. For my partner and I, it was the perfect combination. Sports is a great backdrop and metaphor for life. It's a great canvas to tell a story. This one, it's the humor in it. It's the "fish out of water" story. It's a kind of story we haven't done in films past. When you watch audiences, it's fun to hear them laugh and look at them cry and to hear them clap at the end. It's very, very satisfying. A lot of stories come our way and most of them we don't feel are movies. When there's one that is, you just jump on it and really kind of put all your energy into it.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You're talking about the film's humor. One of the things I really appreciate about the film is that you have the humor, but it's not a humor that is done at the expense of the characters or the Indian culture. This film is very funny, but it's also very respectful of India and its culture and people and who these young men are as young men. As a director, I've always thought that Craig Gillespie does this kind of thing well. He creates a sense of culture in his films. I think that's one of the reasons that no matter how outlandish things got in Lars and the Real Girl, I was completely into the film and its story because Gillespie created such an authentic culture for the film and its characters. I liked that he was able to find humor in the story and in the characters but not at the expense of the characters.

MARK CIARDI

Yeah, I think you're right. We really did not want to seem like we were making fun of the boys. I think Jon's in the same situation when he goes to India and he's out of his own culture. By the way, we pulled all of this stuff out of real stories with the boys. In a lot of ways, I think they were much wiser than J.B. That's why he learned a great deal. He obviously helped them, but what he got back was so much more.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I know that you have baseball in your background, as well. I'm wondering how it is for you watching a story like this unfold?

MARK CIARDI

I was able to play in college and then get drafted and got up to the big leagues for a brief time in 1987. I know how difficult it is to get signed. It's every kid's dream who grows up playing Little League and then on to higher levels. There's probably no better person to understand the odds and know how difficult it is to get signed by a professional baseball team than myself. I went through it. For guys who'd never picked up a baseball six months before they ended up getting signed, it's incredible. We've done some real underdog stories, but this is almost impossible. If it didn't say true story, you wouldn't believe it. It's almost unheard of for this to happen for someone with no background and to come in and pitch at the level that these guys came in and pitched at is great. It'll also be an example in India for young kids who will also aspire to get themselves out of a difficult situation in India and become professional ball players.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I think that's part of what will blow people away. This is based on real stories and real people. Million Dollar Arm was a real contest.

MARK CIARDI

Yep. This is as accurate of a film as we've made.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Can you talk a little bit about your involvement as a producer? I mean you really did assemble a pretty amazing team. You've got Craig Gillespie, an awesome director. You've got a terrific cast. I'll admit that when I first heard that Jon Hamm was doing the film, I kind of wondered if he could pull it off but he really does. Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal are both great here. Lake Bell and Alan Arkin are great. A.R. Rahman's original music just fits with the film absolutely perfectly. This just seems like one of those experiences where all the pieces fit together perfectly.

MARK CIARDI

You're exactly right. It felt like we put together exactly the right people in the right jobs. We got very, very lucky. Jon did such a great job. He's such a good partner. We got our first choice. We'd been talking about him. Every single person and every single piece of casting is just perfect. They're just fantastic, fantastic actors in the roles - Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, Lake Bell. It was a very, very fun movie to work on and see come together, watch it be made, and then ultimately put in front of the audience. It's been a real dream to get this movie where it is now.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I also thought the film, and I really hope this doesn't sound like an insult because it's definitely not, feels like a traditional live-action Disney film. This film, in some ways, reminded me of those precious Sunday nights I remember as a child when I'd sit in front of the television with my family watching "Wonderful World of Disney" and I just really love that about the film. This was the kind of story I used to watch.

MARK CIARDI

Yeah. There's probably more adult themes in there and it feels slightly more adult, but it's in the same way. It's uplifting. It's just so charming. It's a film that I think all audiences will enjoy. So, I take that as a compliment. It's what Disney has always been about - telling really good stories that are a little change of pace from what people usually get in the theaters nowadays.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Maybe that's really what I mean. It's just a great story with really great characters. It didn't rely on special effects or pop culture references or any other gimmicks. It's the kind of film that leaves you feeling better when you leave the theater than when you went in.

MARK CIARDI

That's what I think is good about the films that we've produced over the years. I even catch myself if I see one of them on television where I can't pull myself away. They have a timeless quality. That's the brand. That's what Disney does. That's what they're good at. You can look at these films over the years and be really proud to play them over and over and over again. They get such a long life that new audiences find them.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I suppose I want to close out with something a bit inspired, though certainly your enthusiasm for this film is obvious. Let's spell it out, though. Why should audiences go see Million Dollar Arm?

MARK CIARDI

I just think that it's one of those movies that it'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry, and it'll inspire you. It will be a movie that will last. It'll sit with you. You can take the whole family to it. It's one of those movies that you can watch at any time or place and be entertained and have a smile on your face. I've never had more people who've seen this movie come to me and are so complimentary. It's really a movie that just hits something with people. It's one of the things that makes me most proud. I've been working on this film for years and it comes down to two hours of entertaining. We're really proud of it and we can't wait for people to see it.

"Million Dollar Arm" opens nationwide in theaters on May 16, 2014. Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. "Million Dollar Arm" is Rated PG for Mild Language and Some Suggestive Content.

Interview by Richard Propes
Copyright 2014, The Independent Critic

 

 Mayhem Filmography 
  • 2002
    The Rookie
  • 2002
    The New Guy
  • 2004
    Miracle
  • 2006
    Invincible
  • 2007
    The Game Plan
  • 2010
    Tooth Fairy
  • 2010
    Secretariat
  • 2014
    Million Dollar Arm


     
    The Official Rating Guideline
    • A+ to A: 4 Stars                
    • A- to B+: 3.5 Stars            
    • B: 3 Stars                         
    • B- to C+: 2.5 Stars           
    • C: 2 Stars
    • C- to D+: 1.5 Stars
    • D: 1 Star
    • D-: .5 Star
    • F: Zero Stars

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