'The Thing' filmmaker: From 'The Bad News Bears' to Kafka
This is the time of year when, no matter who I'm talking to in the entertainment business, I manage to steer the conversation around to baseball. After all, it's playoff time, when anyone can be a hero or a goat. The games this year have been full of thrillers, including an 11-inning nail-biter Wednesday night between the Texas Rangers and the Detroit Tigers and a drizzly battle in St. Louis in which the Cardinals took a 2-1 series lead over the Milwaukee Brewers.
You'd think I would have had a hard time talking baseball when I sat down the other day with "The Thing" filmmaker Matthijs van Heijningen, since the 43-year-old first-time director is from Holland, a country where soccer, not baseball, is the national pastime. But I got lucky. It turns out that when Van Heijningen was growing up in Amsterdam, he was one of the few kids whose favorite sport was baseball.
The source of his baseball fervor? "I saw 'The Bad News Bears' when I was 10 and it really inspired me to get excited about baseball," explained Van Heijningen, whose latest film opens Friday. "Of course, it wasn't just the baseball -- I really fell in love with Tatum O'Neal. As a 10-year-old, I absolutely idolized her. I think my obsession with America came about from that."
Van Heijningen started playing baseball for an organization called the Amsterdam Baseball Club, which had a variety of different teams named after major league clubs in America. "We were horrible, just as bad as the team in 'Bad News Bears,' " says Van Heijningen.
One year, Van Heijningen's team was invited to West Germany to play a team from Ramstein, the giant American military base that is a perennial powerhouse in the Little League World Series. "It was really fascinating to be on this huge American military base, where it felt just like America, with McDonald's and everything," he recalled. "But we played against these Air Force kids who'd been playing baseball all their lives and we just got slaughtered."
By the time Van Heijngen became a teenager, baseball was replaced by other passions. "I was 14 and angry with the world, so I needed something darker in my life," he says. "If I'd been in America, I guess I would've gone through my Marvel superhero phase, but because I was in Europe, I found my refuge in Kafka. I read 'The Trial.' For a kid with glasses and braces, that feeling of dread and everyone being against you and having to fight the system, I think it had the perfect appeal for me."
I'm not sure if he got the entire karmic significance of it, but I explained to van Heijngen that if he'd stuck with baseball, all those dark, heavy feelings of dread and that sense of everyone being against you -- hey, it would've made him a natural Chicago Cubs fan.
Photo: Matthijs van Heijningen at the premiere of "The Thing" Monday in Los Angeles. Credit: Chris Pizzello/Associated Press