By John Duncan Talbird.
Jeffrey Radice’s No No: A Dockumentary about the life and career of African American baseball great Dock Ellis is currently in theaters. Nominated for the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, this is his directorial debut. He was executive producer for the award-winning short documentaries Mondo Ford, The King and Dick, LSD a Go Go and the cult classic The Collegians are Go!!! He is a graduate of Duke University with a Bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology.
Maybe you can talk about your inspiration for this film. What drew you to the subject of Dock Ellis for a movie and who did you originally envision as its audience?
I tried to make the movie for a younger audience, teens and twenty-somethings. I wanted to make a film that wouldn’t make them feel they were watching something on PBS; I use the term with affection, but a Ken Burns-style documentary. I drew my inspiration from movies like Searching for Sugarman, movies that are accessible for younger generations that might be used to a lot of distractions.
My initial inspiration was from reading the biography of Dock Ellis that was written by Donald Hall, a writer who became Poet Laureate of the U.S. about thirty years after he wrote that biography. I thought that was a very accessible portrait of Dock and I was intrigued by the relationship between the two men. I don’t think there are too many poets writing biographies of athletes. I reached out to Donald Hall pretty early in the process. I wrote him a letter, he responded and said that he would be supportive of a film about Dock but he didn’t know what he could do to help. The way that Hall described his relationship with Dock indicated that the two were friends. When Dock met Hall he was really intrigued to discover that he was a poet. What is a poet? He had never met one, didn’t really know what that meant. As I discovered from talking to a lot of other people, Dock was really an inquisitive person and probably one of the most intelligent men to ever play the game.
I was really struck by that moment in the film with Donald Hall as well. I knew that he had a series of baseball poems and so it made a lot of sense to me that he’d be drawn to a character like Dock. I was thinking of this earlier today before you called and I remembered how in your film Dock Ellis talks about being “the Muhammad Ali of baseball” and Muhammad Ali, in addition to being an athlete, was known for his wordplay – throwing down a poem on the spur of the moment. It often seems that Dock wants to be more than “just” a baseball player, at least in your rendering of him in the film.
I think there is a certain poetry to Dock – in his life, but also in his bearing. There’s not a direct connection there from Muhammad Ali to Donald Hall to Dock Ellis. I’m more interested in the fact that Donald Hall comes from this very old New England literary tradition and played softball with Robert Frost and you have a direct line from Robert Frost to Dock Ellis via Donald Hall. Baseball is considered to be a poet’s game. And someone like Dock might be off-putting to someone from that milieu, someone from the New Yorker-Paris Review scene. I think Dock and Hall were both unique individuals and they found facets of each other that were fascinating, that they hadn’t seen in other individuals before.
As we’re talking about it, this connection between renowned poet and infamous baseball player seems totally logical, but in the film it comes across as a surprise. When my editor asked me to do this interview, I thought “Oh boy, a baseball film.” I imagined lots of talking heads and television clips of games. But there’s so many more story-telling modes employed here (like animation, still photos, and clips from the just-say-no PSA “The Dugout”). It’s very complex and multi-voiced both in the craft of the film and the research behind it. How long did it take you to make this film?
From start to finish it took ten years. We got in touch with Dock about 2006. I had produced some short documentaries that had played pretty well, went to Sundance, and one of them was about LSD so it got me thinking about LSD stories. In my experience at Q&As at these festivals or even talking about the film on the street with people, I find they want to share their anecdotes about acid.
I already knew the folklore about Dock Ellis throwing a no-hitter under the influence of LSD and that drew me towards the Hall biography. So I had started doing the research in 2004. At first, I envisioned it as an Errol Morris one-on-one style interview. How would I construct it in Interrortron [a technology that Morris invented which allows the interviewer to speak directly to the subject through the camera lens] and why does Morris use it and what does he gain from his technique? And then we got in touch with Dock and we talked to him a few times and I dragged my feet. It’s hard to look back and understand why I didn’t move when I did, but we lost contact with him and then I read about him being sick and I couldn’t get in touch with him. I was collecting memorabilia that ended up in the final cut of the film and doing research and calling myself a filmmaker, but I didn’t make the full commitment to figure out how I was going to make the film and then when he died in 2008 it put this cloud of regret over me. I talked about it with my father and I didn’t want to live the rest of my life regretting that I didn’t pursue the story. At that time I hadn’t yet developed an understanding of what the story was. It evolved over time as we produced the film, but I think I understood the key pieces of the story, what I call vignettes. There’s the all-star game and Dock’s wearing the curlers, etcetera. I understood what all the key pieces were, but instead of having Dock talk about himself in a one-on-one fashion, I had to reimagine it as an ensemble of all these individuals who knew him talking about Dock. In a way, I think it worked out better because he gave a different facet of his personality to different people. He had this fractal personality, so talking to a lot of people revealed that. And tracking down the interviews that others had done with him played an important part in the film, but what I found was that there were some things that Dock didn’t talk about at all. Like the abuse of his two wives who are interviewed in the film. And so I think it ended up being a better film because of the path I had to take to get the story told.
So you never actually talked one-on-one with Dock Ellis?
I talked to him on the telephone once. All of the interviews in which he is speaking in the film are from a number of audio interviews people did. And there was one long piece where Bob Costas had a show on HBO called Costas Now. They did a piece on Dock Ellis in 2005 and did an interview with him and got some B-roll of him doing some classroom instruction at the youth authority school where he was working. And so I was able to track down the archivist at HBO and watch the whole thing. It was about two hours and I used maybe five minutes of it in the film. And I got some audio recordings that were created in research for a book and also Donnell Alexander had interviewed him for Minnesota Public Radio. The Alexander interview is the one in the film where Dock reads the Jackie Robinson letter. That’s also the interview that formed the basis for the animated short that went up on Youtube in 2009 that turned Dock and this LSD story into a viral sensation. Certainly for younger generations, that’s how they know of him. I felt that after the reaction from that initial video which has over three-and-a-half million views on Youtube, that most people will only know him from that story and there was so much more depth to his character and individualism. He was way out in front on certain issues and I thought it was important to get to those and certainly his family and his friends felt that way as well. The fact that I was able to talk to them about this desire allowed me to set up a rapport just so that I could do the interviews. I’m not even talking about actually doing the interviews on camera yet, just getting to know people so that I could discover who was close to Dock and who I should speak to.
For your average viewer, and I would include myself in that group, we just know him as the guy who pitched a no-hitter on acid. I didn’t know about him being on the first all-black Major League starting squad [the 1971 Pittsburg Pirates]. I didn’t really know about his symbolism as a Civil Rights figure, but these aspects come out in the film. It’s one of the ways the film is delightful. You think it’s going to be about this one stunt – the no-hitter on acid – but then it turns out to be so much more.
Going back to something you said a little while ago about how Dock was really quiet about certain things: I was surprised that he won’t speak about Roberto Clemente, for instance. And he’s so moved by the letter that he received from Jackie Robsinson – you show him crying on film twice while he’s reading it out loud. I wondered if he felt shamed by the good lives these two players led, in many ways the model of sports heroes, men who were great players but also worked off the field in philanthropy and were simply good family men. Dock’s drug use was a fulltime job and he abused his first and second wives. In fact, the tragedy of this story is that the no-hitter-on-acid stunt and his more flamboyant side has probably overshadowed the symbolism of him playing in the first all-black ML lineup. I wondered if you felt that you needed or wanted to rescue him as being the sort of clown that he’s portrayed as in the Robin Williams bit that you show at the beginning of the film?
Absolutely. You know one thing I found that was really interesting was there is a sort of cultural resonance especially between this story and the world of comedians and musicians. In those worlds, even if they didn’t experience the drug experience themselves, they know people personally who went to hell and came back. They understand the redemption story on a really visceral and personal level. I think Robin Williams knew a lot more about Dock Ellis than he let on. I wanted to rescue Dock from the LSD story. The truth was that he was always very emotional, but he didn’t come to terms with that aspect of his personality until the tail end of his life. Certainly Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson were heroes of his, no question about it. He felt moved that Jackie Robinson had written him this personal letter. And when he reflected on what Jackie had said – because Jackie wrote that letter to Dock in the context of the controversy of 1971, Dock’s statement that “they weren’t going to start a brother against a brother in the all-star game” which I think was using reverse psychology on Dock’s part, daring them to start him against Vida Blue. But when Jackie said, “You’re going to look over your shoulder and your brothers are not going to be there and you need to do it anyway,” I think what made Dock so emotional was the fact that he was thinking about what this hero of his had said at a point late in life when Dock was contemplating his own mortality. And the same thing with Roberto Clemente: he probably wouldn’t speak about him at that point in his life because he would have broken up.
I’m struck that even though No No is an historical film, that any many ways it’s also about today, about our sometimes simplistic ideas about drugs, and it makes subtle comment on contemporary controversies about drugs in professional sports. For one thing, I love that you cut in at various points with the anti-drug PSA, “The Dugout.”
That was an educational film that was commissioned by the Kroc Foundation. Joan Kroc was one of the early people in the recovery movement as we know it today. Her husband owned the San Diego Padres, so there’s a sports connection. I thought that that movie and Bo Belinsky’s story – he plays the creepy guy in the film – resonated. Belinsky threw a no-hitter in 1962 and dated Mamie Van Doren and tried to be this Hollywood playboy when he played for the Angels and his career ended pretty dramatically because of his alcoholism. He was out there from 1970-1981 doing basically what Dock ended up doing, working with other people in recovery. In some ways “The Dugout” is far more honest about drug use in 1981 than similar PSAs today. I don’t think you could make a film like that today where you show a kid smoking a joint in a dugout. I had to really fight my editor and my producer about getting “The Dugout” in, because it was really difficult to weave it into the story. It was always part of my vision, but it was not in the cut that we sent to Sundance. I knew that my collaborators wanted to go with the Sundance version, but I pushed the issue because I felt that what the kids were saying in “The Dugout” was my voice. I chose not to be the narrator, I chose not to include any questions that I asked of Dock or others and I chose not to include myself in the film. And using “The Dugout” was the closest I had to having an authorial voice in this film. Those kids were me. That was my voice speaking about drugs and it’s a reflection on how little has changed. But then when I ask myself if a movie like that would get made today I think, probably not, so in a way we’ve probably regressed.
And I think in race relations we’ve regressed. We thought that we were making progress, but we really weren’t. Look at Donald Sterling and look at what happened in Ferguson, MO. And so the Black Panther training film images were really important to put a historical context on the game where the Pirates were fielding nine black athletes for the first time. That happened a week before the Attica prison riots and it happened within the cauldron of the Black Panthers having massive rallies in the Bay Area. I didn’t think that many teenagers or twenty-somethings would understand the significance of what the Pirates did, they wouldn’t get what a racially charged environment it was in the U.S. So at the time that racially tinged prison riots were happening, the Pirates were making some significant progress and then it just seemed to stop. So you look at the recent news and see that this team in the Little League World Series was the first all-black team to play in thirty-odd years. The participation of African Americans in baseball has declined since the 1970s. And so I thought it was important to interview the gentleman who mentored Dock as a youngster, Chet Brewer, who taught him how to pitch and was a Negro League pitcher. I think the African American community really lost that generational mentorship and tradition and baseball shifted to the Caribbean and Latin America.
I have a background in anthropology and I thought it was important to trace all the societal influences on Dock. He came from a middle class family, he came from Los Angeles where the schools were integrated and then he played in the south where the teams were integrated, but there were still towns where they had to stay on the bus. When Dock started in the minor leagues the white and black players couldn’t actually room in the same hotel. After the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series in ’71, the players had a hard time renting houses on the beach in Bradenton, Florida where they had spring training. That was part of the story that I was trying to tell, but you can only get so much in in ninety minutes. So we had to consolidate a lot of the information. I thought that Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys who did the soundtrack was really appropriate for the type of mash-up style of the film that we created.
Your mentioning Horovitz makes me think of the Beastie Boys’ album Paul’s Boutique. You really can’t make an album like that anymore that samples so liberally from other sources.
Exactly. We, too, are staking a large territory over fair use in this film. There’s a lot that’s been cleared and there’s a lot that was produced on our own, but there’s a lot of fair use claim being made. Absolutely, the example of the Beastie Boys and other early hip hop influenced my creativity and I’m definitely drawing inspiration from them into a visual realm.
The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and has been getting great reviews. I imagine it’s going to open up doors for you. I was curious to know what you’re working on now or hope to be working on soon.
Really, I just want to wrap this thing up. I’m trying to avoid going out and making another sports documentary because it wasn’t my intention to make a sports documentary. I was trying to make a cultural commentary. One of my primary goals when I started out was to try and examine the war on drugs in the context of a Dock Ellis.
I’d like to take some time off. I’d like to write some screenplays. I don’t want to rope myself into being a documentarian. I look at myself more as a storyteller. I’ve got an idea to do a TV show about what the CIA was involved in with drug experimentation, a kind of Mad Men meets Get Smart thing. I don’t want to take another ten years to make a film. Honestly, I may not make another film. I overachieved my goals on this one. I just want to take some time off and catch my breath and explore some ideas that don’t require massive amounts of collaboration or years and years of work.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the forthcoming fiction collection with images by artist Leslie Kerby, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar, 2014). His fiction and essays are forthcoming or have recently appeared in Juked, Ploughshares, REAL, Ambit, The Literary Review and elsewhere. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he lives with his wife in Brooklyn.