Mark Ciardi is an athlete turned producer who specializes in taking real-life sports stories that sound like Disney movies into actual Disney movies: “The Rookie” and “Miracle.” His latest is the Cinderella story “Million Dollar Arm” about sports agent J.B. Bernstein’s “American Idol”-style competition to find athletes in India who could become major league baseball pitchers, despite the fact that no one in India plays baseball.
Ciardi spoke to me about why audiences connect to sports stories and how the real-life J.B. Bernstein changed as a result of the competition.
What is it that makes sports such a powerful metaphor for so many other things in life?
It’s a great backdrop for stories. Hopefully the really great sports stories are never about the sports, they are really about the people and how they change. Usually it’s either a great underdog story or how you’re overcoming something or second changes. So I think the themes are really great in sports stories and when they’re done well they’re just very, very powerful.
I’ve never heard of the real life million dollar challenge before. How did that come to your attention and what made you think that would be a good movie?
I know the guy personally who started the contest, J.B. Bernstein. I knew him well before I got into the film business and in 2007 we actually ran into each other at a super Bowl party in Phoenix. And he was just about to go to India. And was telling me the story about wanting to find two kids to bring back, and I remember looking at him, and I looked across eyed and was like “…good luck. That sounds crazy.” And about a year and a half later he ended up in my office saying he got these two kids signed and I was stunned. It was a quite, quite incredible story for him. It just became apparent to me that it would make a great film.
And what about the sort of personal aspect of that, did that play out the same way that it did in the movie in terms of his attachment to the two players and his romantic involvement?
Absolutely, that’s the great thing. Everything on the field really takes a backseat to the love he has for these boys and he’s was just together with them in Pittsburgh or at the premiere. He definitely gives credit to the boys to meeting Brenda and obviously falling in love and now having a family of his own. It’s was a great thing for me to watch personally. All those relationships — I had a front seat to all of them. I can attest that it is all true and he now has a family which is great. At the end of the film you see all these images of the real J.B. We’re really excited about that emotional transformation, spiritual transformation as well.
You kind of had the same challenge with the actors that Bernstein did with the athletes — you had to teach them how to play baseball at a very high level very quickly. How did you do that?
It was funny, it was like imitating art. As difficult as JB had it, this was more because these kids aren’t actually athletes. We had to find doubles to actually double our actors but we had great students in Suraj and Madhur and even Suraj who plays Rinku, a leftie, and he is right-handed. We had to flip the negatives. So there was a lot that went into what you saw the screen, it’s years of work and we really feel like we pulled out the sports really well.
Which part of the production did you work on?
We’re involved in getting the rights to the story, finding the director, bringing it to Disney, hiring, casting, everything. I was the one over in India and when we came back and shot in the States. I was there kind of every day on the set dealing with it and I guess I was the most involved.
Was this you first time ever in India?
It was, we actually scouted over there in March and we did a lot of the casting so when we went back to film for a month it was my second time. We were there at the very hottest time of the year, getting in before the monsoon started. So it was anywhere from 100 to 126 degrees. All the sweat you saw on our actors and everyone was the real thing. There was no makeup artist going in and spraying anybody down. It was brutally hot but I think it added the feeling of what JB went through with the contest and frustrations. It’s an amazing country I think everyone came back better for being there.
And what do you want families to take away from this movie?
It will make you feel good, put a smile on your face. It’s uplifting. It’s just one of those movies that entertains you, and you walk away and it stays with you. I’ve seen this many, many times in front of many audiences and it’s incredible, like the response. We know it special.