Dare to Dream
“If you build it, he will come…Ease his pain…Go the distance…Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa….”
Few movies have generated such memorable phrases. Even fewer have withstood the test of time. Twenty five years have passed, and the movie stars, camera crews and production people are long gone. The only things left at this Dyersville, Iowa film site are the house, the field, the dreams, and the 65,000 people who migrate yearly to this mecca in the corn.
I first saw Field of Dreams in the fall of 1990. My wife had rented it, and knowing her passion for slapstick comedies and silly romances, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. Settling on the couch, I waited for boredom and sleep to take me away. A field of dreams sounded like a nice place to be.
The chills that ran up my spine for the next 106 minutes afforded anything but sleep. Actually, it was 212 minutes; I couldn’t wait to watch the movie again.
****THE MAKING OF A MOVIE ****
In 1982, aspiring screenwriter Phil Alden Robinson read a novel by the Canadian author W.P. Kinsella entitled Shoeless Joe. The story centers around an Iowa farmer who hears a voice encouraging him to build a baseball field in the middle of his corn crop. The creation of the field would allow Shoeless Joe Jackson and other banned members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox to return to baseball. Recognizing the book’s movie potential, and moved by its themes of family, faith, redemption and second chances, Robinson began a six-year quest to bring this heartwarming tale to the big screen.
Although Kinsella’s novel was set in Iowa, there were no guarantees that the movie would be filmed there once the green light was given by Universal Studio execs. Twenty states and several Canadian provinces lobbied for the project. Sensing an inside track, Wendol Jarvis, manager of the Iowa Film Office, and Sue Reidel, a volunteer member of the Dubuque film board, set out to help Phil Robinson find the perfect farm the producers were looking for.
“I made my first trip to Iowa in November, 1987, looking for a farm which fit several requirements,” says Robinson.”It couldn’t be near a main road or another house, leaving neighbors and passersby to wonder about Ray and Annie building a ball field. Second, I didn’t want a large dairy farm that would require more experience than Ray Kinsella ought to have. Third, I wanted a house that would be surrounded by corn on all four sides.” After an extensive search, a farm owned by Don Lansing became Sue Riedel’s favorite, prompting a visit by Robinson. Taking mental notes of the site, the director moved on, scouting farms in Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois and Canada. “In February, 1988, I visited the Lansing farm again, and started making up my mind that this was the place,” recalls Robinson. “The clincher was when I asked where the sun would set during summer. I had decided to situate the field to the side of Don’s house. Not knowing which direction I faced, I was hoping the sun would set over where the outfield would be. When told that was the case, I knew we’d found it.”
The Lansing farmhouse was given a facelift upon its selection in early March. Bay windows were installed, the porch was extended, and a fresh coat of white paint was applied. In April and May of 1988, two nearby towns were transformed: Galena, Illinois became Chisholm, Minnesota, the home of Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham, and a Dubuque, Iowa neighborhood provided the Boston-like setting for Ray Kinsella’s initial encouter with Terence Mann.
Filming at the Lansing farm was scheduled for late June, but the corn refused to cooperate. The summer of 1988 was one of the driest on record. With the crop lagging badly, producer Brian Frankish hit the nail on the head: “No corn, no movie.” As if justifying Robinson’s selection of the Lansing farm, as if heaven really were in Iowa, a small creek happens to run through the property. It was dammed, and the extra nourishment channeled to the corn allowed it to rebound nicely. So nicely, in fact, that once filming began at the farm, actor Kevin Costner was overwhelmed by the tall stalks. A platform was built between rows, hidden by the thick corn leaves. There’s no indication in the opening scenes that Costner, while walking in the crop, is nearly a foot off the ground.
The corn occupying the ball field was razed over the Fourth of July weekend. Tons of dirt were graded, and local baseball teams laid seven semi-truck loads of sod. The backstop, dugouts and lights were erected, and the field known to millions was complete in just four days.
The filming, which continued through July and into August, included a spectacular closing scene orchestrated by Riedel. As the movie closes, with father and son enjoying a conciliatory game of catch under the lights, an endless stream of cars begins its migration to the field. Fifteen hundred residents answered a newspaper ad eliciting help for the final scene. After being treated to a picnic lunch at a local park, they lined up their vehicles as dusk approached, coordinated by a Universal Studios helicopter equipped with a radio frequency to which the cars could tune. The entire community pitched in, vanquishing all outdoor lighting, including stadium lights being used for a baseball tournament in town. The darkout produced a spectacular scene, with drivers switching from low to high beam to create the twinkling effect seen at movie’s end.
Ironically, each participant received a bumper sticker proclaiming their involvement in the last scene of ‘Shoeless Joe’, the movie’s original title. Shortly before release, studio moguls renamed the effort Field of Dreams, prompting a howl of protest from director Phil Robinson. After learning that one of the original titles considered by novelist Kinsella was The Dream Field, Robinson abandoned the protest.
After 68 days of shooting, it all came to an end August 16, 1988. The equipment and cameras were loaded on a truck, along with the miles of footage shot at the field and nearby communities. While the lengthy editing process took place, executive producer Brian Frankish returned the following winter with a camera crew to capture a beautiful snowfall scene used in the movie.
On April 20, 1989, Field Of Dreams made its world premiere debut in Dubuque, Iowa. Popular not only in America, the movie proved an international hit, becoming one of the biggest box office draws in Japanese history. Though it received an Academy Award nomination for best picture, top honors that year went to Driving Miss Daisy. Dreams fans insist the chauffeur wasn’t driving Miss Daisy to the store, he was taking her to that little patch of heaven in Iowa.
****THE MAKING OF A LEGEND****
To maximize sunset filming scenes, Phil Robinson decided to situate the field west of the Lansing farm. When the property line didn’t cooperate, producers were forced to sign land contracts with neighbor Al Ameskamp as well. Underestimating the movie’s impact, and with spring planting season at hand, Ameskamp plowed under his portion of the field the same week the movie premiered. “We made a movie in 1988, it’s time to get back to farming in 1989,” he said, razing parts of left and center field, including the third base side of the infield.
Don Lansing, however, did nothing with his majority share of the layout. “I’m not really sure why I decided to leave it…Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones had walked there. I figured maybe the family could use it for picnics or something.” Neither owner anticipated what would happen next.
Within weeks of the movie’s release, as if fulfilling a prophecy, a steady stream of visitors began making its way up Lansing’s long gravel drive to see the field. Co-owner Ameskamp, moved by the forlorn faces of those saddened by the field’s alteration, explains: “It was a mistake I didn’t see at the time. What changed my mind was when I started seeing so many people coming to see the field and play on it just the way it was, without the original third base.” In the spring of 1990, for the second time in two years, sod replaced corn. The field was again complete, its parts restored, ready to capture the magic for those who dared to dream.
A 67-year old father of six from Dunwoody, Georgia, Ron Wojcik first saw the movie in a Chicago theater shortly after its release. “I had taken my twelve-year old son to see The Abyss. He got scared 25 minutes into it, so we bailed out into another theater where Field of Dreams was starting. I found it to be just marvelous.” Wiping away tears at movie’s end, he explains the emotional impact this way: “Those of the male persuasion aren’t very good at telling our dads we love them. We move from day to day, then they’re old, and it seems even more awkward to say. You could see, even after all the magic, that Ray Kinsella still couldn’t find a way to say it, other than asking his dad for a game of catch.”
Wojcik, scratching a four year itch, went the distance in 1993, visiting the field with his son, Douglas. “It seemed so right that, in this commercial world, we could walk onto the field, just by driving there.” Father and son shagged fly balls and took their cuts at the plate, the elder Wojcik circling the bases after a final smash down the third base line. “I’m sure my kids don’t understand, maybe one needs to be a bit older for this sort of thing to connect. I just knew it was important for me to go there. The movie and field are special to me; I hope one day my children will feel the same way.”
The interpretations of the message delivered by the film are as numerous as the visitors themselves. Some view Field of Dreams as nothing more than a baseball movie. For Bill Spitzer, mayor of St. Charles, Minnesota, the message is anything but baseball.
“The movie has a magic about it. Everyone has dreams, and sometimes they are hard to catch,” explains this 49-year old father of two. “Like Doc Graham said, we think there will be other days, but really, this is the only day. Our visit on this great planet is short, we have to enjoy every year, every month, every moment.”
The movie’s ending has special meaning for Spitzer, whose own father was killed in an automobile accident before he was born. “I would like to have known him, to find out what his dreams were. I wish for the opportunity to meet him, and ask for that game of catch. Is there enough magic in the moonlight to grant me that wish?”
Brothers who haven’t spoken to each other in 30 years have reconciled at the field. Couples have been engaged and married on it. Others have come to sprinkle the ashes of loved ones. The Double-A Carolina Mudcats, believing in its positive influence, paid Don Lansing to fly in with a bucket of dirt from the field.
(More to come, site still under construction!)