Ron Shelton Talks Directing a Gang of Stars In Holiday Romp ‘Just Getting Started’

Ron Shelton is the very definition of an old pro. A seasoned director with 11 titles to his name (and a few more as screenwriter), Shelton has done it all from dark drama to lighthearted romance. Hits like “Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump,” and “Tin Cup” have cemented his reputation as a filmmaker of easy going humor, while edgier fare like “Dark Blue” and “Cobb” reveal a director of sharp intensity.

Cool and collected at 70, Shelton returns to the big screen this season with “Just Getting Started,” a rowdy Christmas time ensemble piece starring Morgan Freeman as Duke, the suave manager of a loose retirement resort in Palm Springs who finds himself facing off with mysterious newcomer, Leo (Tommy Lee Jones), for the affections of Suzie (Rene Russo). All this as an assassin has been dispatched to snuff out Duke over a past he’s been running away from. Shelton sat down to talk with us about the film, working with a fellow gang of pros, and how to approach the art of the sex joke in these changing times.

“It’s not supposed to be more than fun,” said Shelton, “it came to me during a traffic jam on the 405. I would go down to Palm Springs occasionally to play golf, I would take my family down there, and one time I was there around Christmas and the wind was blowing, there were Christmas trees down the street, they were playing ‘Let it Snow’ on these loudspeakers. And there were these people in shorts playing golf, and I thought ‘this is a fun place to set a story.’” For Shelton Palm Springs during the holiday season seemed far removed from the typical image one gets when thinking about Christmas. In the movie there are lights and decorations, and Duke loses his wits when the corporation owning the resort brings in a for-hire Santa Clause. Yet the golf courses are sunny and the pools ready for a dip.

“It’s a kind of a nirvana, hopeful paradise for people who go there. It’s a little bit of Las Vegas without the trash,” he said, “whether you’re old or gay, or young and looking to party, it’s a place to celebrate.” Shelton paid attention to how older residents seem to move into Palm Springs with a sense of discovery and not closure. “They don’t go there to die, they go there to party.”

A director with an eclectic repertoire, who describes his work routine as writing every morning at 9 A.M. and whenever time allows, Shelton’s films all feature memorable characters, and it is the personalities which he believes form the grand link of his work. “Whether it’s a dark story like ‘Dark Blue’ or a whimsical story like ‘Just Getting Started,’ I’m trying to tell a story about people and their behavior,” he said, “I’m not interested in special effects, time travel, comic books. I think the most interesting thing is how people behave. That connects comedy to tragedy.”

When it comes to the film’s quirky characters, Morgan Freeman is the stand out as the self-assured Duke, who stumbles into follies such as drunkenly hitting on Suzie or knocking out an imposter Santa Clause at the resort Christmas party. “It’s hard to believe, but he can be a drunken, obnoxious Santa Clause and still have a certain kind of dignity,” said Shelton with a smile, reflecting on Freeman’s delivery. He described the pairing of Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones as a wonderful odd couple.

With so many seasoned names on set, you wonder how the egometer was kept in check. “You just let them go and see what happens,” said Shelton, “it was a very professional group. Morgan and Tommy are extremely professional, obviously Rene, total pro. I wish young actors could come to our set and see how these veteran, great actors and actresses do it.”

The movie is full of saucy humor, with references to the way age affects the libido. Duke as the resort manager is known for bedding three of the local single ladies, but his conquests are threatened by Leo’s appearance. But now in this post-Harvey Weinstein moment, how are screenwriters to approach sex jokes in their material? “We can’t be afraid of sex or sexual humor,” he said, “I worry at the moment the world is a little bit nervous. I’ve done all manner of sexual material in my movies. ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ was sexy. I try to make sure the sex is fun. I don’t try to take it too seriously, because in our personal lives sex is supposed to be fun, but in movies it’s always this angst-ridden, fake orgasmic thing, and it makes me uncomfortable. But if we’re laughing and having fun sexually, it seems to me that’s the best thing a movie can do about it.”

Just researching the world of retirement resorts yielded for Shelton some interesting revelations. “People were sending me links to websites about places like this that are way crazier, where there’s mate-swapping and crazy stuff in Florida going on. There’s a lot of people out there getting unretired in a hurry.”

Just Getting Startedopens Dec. 8 in theaters nationwide.