DYERSVILLE, Iowa - Before a field was built, before anybody had the slightest inclination to come and have a catch, Sue Riedel spotted this picturesque farm.
Riedel's solo scouting trip in 1987 was a fateful moment for these 193 acres, which for the last quarter century have been home to the rural baseball diamond known as the Field of Dreams.
Riedel, 68, taught speech and theater for 38 years at Hempstead High School in Dubuque. But in 1987, she also was a local volunteer for the Iowa Film Office, a state government effort to lure Hollywood business to Iowa's prairie. She was deployed to crisscross the dusty gravel roads of northeast Iowa in search of the perfect example of agricultural eye candy for the silver screen.
As she crested a hill on Lansing Road just a few miles northeast of Dyersville, she spied her holy grail: a white clapboard, two-story farmhouse nestled against the hillside. A red barn tilted nearby. Plenty of cornfields embraced the little scene to frame key camera angles.
So Hollywood carved 3 1/2 acres out of the fertile cropland into a magical place where the ghosts of baseball legends could materialize from out of the corn. "Field of Dreams," which premiered in Iowa 25 years ago Sunday, has become one of the most beloved movies in a generation and transformed this small patch of Dubuque County into Iowa's most famous farm.
It also set off a land dispute, echoing the movie's plot, that has become bigger and more bitter as the years passed.
In the film, obsessed farmer Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, handcrafts his remote ball diamond after a disembodied voice whispers the request in his ear. The movie transcends sports by tapping the universal emotional resonance of a son's simple yearning to reunite with his late father.
"Men really weep," Costner said of "Field of Dreams" in an interview earlier this year with Yahoo Movies. "They don't cry, they weep about things gone unsaid in your life to people you love."
Since its inception, the movie site has lingered not only as a cherished symbol but also as the epicenter of continual disputes. The latest: An Illinois couple has pushed a plan to develop the farm around the field into a massive, $74 million baseball and softball complex for traveling youth-tournament teams. The proposed All-Star Ballpark Heaven has sparked feuds and lawsuits between neighbors and against the city of Dyersville.
The company behind Ballpark Heaven, Go the Distance Baseball, now owns the 193 acres, but its zoning remains in dispute.
Residents have shed tears in City Council meetings. They've fought public relations battles on Facebook. The Iowa Legislature stepped into the fray two years ago by offering up to $16.5 million in tax rebates for the proposed Ballpark Heaven. But financing and construction delays have pushed back the projected opening to 2015.
As debate over the physical field simmers, Costner and some fellow cast members are scheduled to return in June for the 25th anniversary celebration, appropriately enough, on Father's Day weekend.
It all started in 1987, when Riedel knocked on the door of the farmhouse, home to the family of Joe Lansing and his descendants since 1906.
I took a picture of your farm, Riedel explained to Joe's grandson, Don Lansing. I sent it to Universal Studios, and they might want to come here to make a movie. Would that be OK?
Reminiscent of the reaction of movie townsfolk to Kinsella's quest, "He looked me in the eye," Riedel remembers, "and said, 'Are you crazy?'"
Lansing, 71, still is found most days on a lawn mower or tractor, tending to the Field of Dreams and his former farmstead, even though he and his wife, Becky (who met him on her own pilgrimage to the field in 1995), sold the land in 2012.
"I was born and raised here, lived here all my life," Lansing said, "and one day you get a knock on the door, and it changed my life forever."
That knock heralded a steady stream of people in the last quarter century who have lugged their emotional baggage all the way to 28995 Lansing Road. They come to a place where their longings are distilled into indelible quotes that live on as pop culture cliches:
"Is this heaven? No, it's Iowa." (This is uttered twice in the movie, the second time without the "no.")
"Hey, Dad. Wanna have a catch?"
And, of course, "Build it, and he will come." ("He," not "they.") The American Film Institute in 2005 ranked the line 39th on its list of the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema.
But as much as "Field of Dreams" now seems ingrained in Iowa's cultural identity, it wasn't a sure bet it would be filmed here. The filmmakers' agents scouted farms just across the state line in Nebraska and Illinois to as far away as Canada.
It was a Canadian, W.P. Kinsella, who dreamed up the tale of "Shoeless Joe" while enrolled at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in Iowa City, the university-town setting for his original short story and eventual 1982 novel.
Kinsella's love of baseball infuses his ethereal story, in which the ghost of "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, an early 20th century outfielder and star hitter with the Chicago White Sox, appears in the present day on a fictional Iowa ballfield. The real Jackson is one of baseball's tragic figures. He was among eight teammates banned from baseball, censured for accepting bribes to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series — the infamous "Black Sox" scandal.
Self-described "city boy" and filmmaker Phil Alden Robinson of Long Island, N.Y., was transfixed by Kinsella's rural fantasy. He spent several years shopping a screenplay, refining his pitch. He heightened the plot's suspense, delaying until the final scenes the ultimate purpose for building the ball diamond: a visit by Ray Kinsella's late father, John (portrayed by Dwier Brown in the movie).
A more practical change also became necessary. Author J.D. Salinger of "Catcher in the Rye" fame was a main character in "Shoeless Joe," but his attorneys made it clear, according to the filmmakers, that portraying him on screen might spur litigation. So "out of duress," they invented the character Terence Mann, offered as an iconic figure of the civil rights era, said James Earl Jones, who portrayed Mann. Jones, the booming stage voice famous for Darth Vader and the "This is CNN" sound bite, utters the classic "People will come, Ray" monologue at the heart of the film.
"The producers said, 'Well, we can't use a tall white guy who writes novels,'" Jones recalled. "'Let's have a character of a big black guy who's a journalist.'"
Robinson led what he describes as an "angst-ridden" 68-day shoot in the summer of 1988 in and around Dyersville and nearby Dubuque (a stand-in for Boston) and Galena, Ill. (substituting for Chisholm, Minn.).
"It was hot. It was dry. It was full of flies," Robinson said.
From his childhood on a farm in Michigan, Jones recognized the "sweet, acrid smell" of hog manure.
Between takes, the cast tossed horseshoes behind Lansing's farmhouse. They went fishing.
Kinsella to this day praises the film version of his book but sums up the summer of 1988 in northeast Iowa with two words: "colossal boredom."
He spent "two horrible days in the gym" in nearby Farley as an extra in the scene that shows main characters Ray and Annie in the middle of a raucous PTA meeting. (The author's daughter had a much better time that summer, Kinsella muses, thanks to "a little romance with Ray Liotta," who portrayed Shoeless Joe.)
It was a drought year. So to ensure lush, green corn beyond the outfield, the crew dammed Hewitt Creek and irrigated the field. At first, the stalks weren't tall enough.
"To make the corn look as high as an elephant's thigh, they had to dig trenches between the rows so that when Kevin Costner walked down the row of corn, it was over his head," Jones said with a chuckle.
Yet toward the end of filming, the corn had shot up fast enough that Costner had to be raised on a walkway to be glimpsed among the stalks.
The crew employed every available trick to turn the corn green.
"It was the best-looking cornfield in the state that year," said Wendol Jarvis, founding director of the Iowa Film Office, who helped lure "Field of Dreams" to Iowa and dispatched Riedel to scout for farms. "But it was all because of paint."
"We had a lot of fake corn on hold, in Asia," Robinson added, "ready to ship it in."
The iconic final shot of the film — orchestrated by Riedel — stands as a testament to the cooperation of locals. Hollywood people told Riedel later that they thought filmmakers used special effects to create the nighttime scene of a stream of car lights. But it was patient Iowans driving 1,500 cars lined up bumper to bumper on the roads leading to the farm.
The shot illustrated how Ray's vision paid off: The field had worked its magic, and hordes of tourists had come.
That summer, Robinson, the filmmaker, was dejected, thinking he lacked the cinematographic chops to achieve a "much more expressionistic use of camera." He "would've reshot every scene" in the movie.
But in retrospect, he doesn't regret his camera work: The film's simplicity has been a crucial factor in its charm and durability.