September 27, 2011 5:00am PT by Andy Lewis, Gregg Kilday
'Moneyball' Author Michael Lewis on Oscar Hopes, Working With Brad Pitt and His New 'Liar's Poker' Screenplay (Q&A)
With the success of The Blind Side and now Moneyball, which opened to $19.5 million this past weekend, Michael Lewis is one of Hollywood's hottest (and most unconventional) authors. Now the man behind such nonfiction bestsellers as 2010's The Big Short is setting his sights on a screenplay. Warner Bros. has hired Lewis to pen an adaptation of his 1989 book Liar's Poker, which he wrote about his time as a bond trader at Salomon Bros. in the high-flying 80s. Lewis spoke with THR in advance of the release of his most recent book, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World.
The Hollywood Reporter: How much were you involved in the Moneyball movie?
Michael Lewis: Hardly at all. The actual feeling of people who make movies is that everybody would be better off if the author was dead. The last thing they need is an author running around bitching and moaning about what they are doing to his art. And I actually sympathize with that. Because they basically have to break it and remake it, they've got to go off on their own. I would've been bothered if I sensed they needed me in some way. But having said that, I am alive. Nobody wants to be rude, nobody wants me saying "Nobody consulted me," although I swore to them I didn't care. So we had this long and polite interaction. I had lots of conversations with producers, with studio executives, with [director] Bennett Miller, with Brad Pitt. I went to the set a couple of times, I read scripts and even gave solicited advice, but as far as I can tell none of that had any effect at all. Thank god they had their own ideas about what they were doing, so I got to be friends with all these people and I really admire what they did but I had nothing to do with it.
THR: As you know, the film was originally to be directed by Steven Soderbergh until Sony abruptly pulled the plug on that version of the movie. Do you get a sense of how the Soderbergh and Miller versions differ?
Lewis: I don't -- that's the one script I never saw, because the studio didn't see it until two days before it was supposed to shoot. So I don't have any idea. The only thing that I did hear is that [statistician] Bill James was going to be a cartoon character. Other than that, I don't know.
THR: To you, what's the most significant deviation between the book and the movie?
Lewis: One big thing: They took the story of an idea and turned it into the story of a man. The story of the man is in the book, but the idea isn't subsumed in the man in the book and it is in the movie. That's the biggest thing -- the relative importance of Billy Beane to the story. He's more important in the movie than he is in the book. He's very important in the book, but it just gets amped up a lot more and as a result a lot of other things are diminished.
THR: You mean some specifics are distorted.
Lewis: There's a reason for this. I chose one pitcher and one hitter: Hatteberg and Bradford, who are in the movie, to illustrate the idea. I chose them not because these star pitchers didn't illustrate this idea but by the time I got to the team people understood the value, the reader would've thought they already understood their value. There were these two players -- Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford -- who the public didn't appreciate the value of yet. So I had the element of surprise in there. The book makes a big deal about the both of them, and that's why to kinda surprise the reader and the movie just follows the book.
THR: How surprised were you about the casting?
Lewis: I was jarred by it when I first heard it, and then I thought, "My god, it could be brilliant." [Jonah Hill] is physically so unlike everybody else in this environment that it has a metaphoric power and it works brilliantly. His performance is spectacular. He somehow manages to capture this sort of distance from the culture he's a part of. The movie really came to life the moment Brad Pitt meets Jonah Hill.
THR: Did Brad or Jonah ask you for help?
Lewis: They went straight to the horse's mouth. They went to Paul DePodesta and Billy Beane to find out what they were like. Brad spent a lot of time with Billy, and they spent time with scouts [and other front office personnel]. They went straight to baseball for their research.
THR: Tell us about your interaction with Pitt.
Lewis: I met him on the set and had some e-mail exchanges with him. He told me when he read the book he became kinda obsessed with it and he was going to do it kinda no matter what and it just took a long time to get rid of the things that were in the way. He was interested in a lot of things. This is more than a one-night stand. He bought my last book, The Big Short, along with Paramount. We talked about lots of different things.
THR: What's the status of that project?
Lewis: He's got a script, and apparently it's really good. I haven't seen it.
THR: What's next for you?
Lewis: Oddly, I've just agreed to write Liar's Poker for Warner Bros. so I'm going to spend the next two months doing that. Maybe it will be a race.
THR: Is this your first script?
Lewis: No. I just handed in a TV pilot for a drama series to HBO. I wrote a script for universal with Scott Rosenberg called Bit Player, which is still kicking around. I wrote a script for Fox that kinda grew out of The New New Thing. I wrote two TV pilots for CBS and one for TNT.
THR: What's the biggest difference between scripts and movies for you?
Lewis: The amount of compression that's required. A script feels like a short story and books feel like a novel. The amount of compression and the awareness of all sorts of non-verbal information. Moneyball shows this. Brad Pitt just in facial expressions gets across 500 words of description in the book. So it's just an awareness of what can be filled in by others. I can't really say I have screenwriting chops. HBO really liked my TV pilot and maybe we're going to make that, but none of the other things have been made.
THR: How did your experience with Moneyball being made into a film differ from The Blind Side?
Lewis: They are almost mirror images. The Blind Side, which seemed quite obvious to me to be a movie, got bought by Fox as a Julia Roberts vehicle, and when Julia Roberts didn't want to do it they lost interest. John Lee Hancock had written a script and trundled it all over town and everybody said there's no market for this. The only reason The Blind Side got made was because Fred Smith, who runs Federal Express, lives around the corner from the Tuohy family and has a son who dates Tuohy's daughter, and he said, "Man, that's a good story. I'll make it." And he paid for it to be made. It seemed to me a perfect illustration of the William Goldman line "Nobody knows [anything]." It seemed obvious to me, and turned out to be obvious, and the whole industry of professionals seemed to be oblivious to the value of the story. Moneyball -- I thought, "No freaking way. I can't see how they'll do it. It's too complicated." The emotions reside in the subsidiary characters. If you've read the book, you'll see this. Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford will make you cry, but Billy Beane is cold in the book. It's a cooler story. Plus, there's a blizzard of numbers. It's complicated. And not only did Brad Pitt and [Sony's] Amy Pascal latch on it to it, they're like dogs with a bone. They won't let it go no matter how many setbacks. It was such a bizarre experience to see that level of conviction from the head of the studio. Amy Pascal just has huge brass balls. She really does. If you go back and dig out the stuff that was written when they fired Steven Soderbergh, it was like, "This is dead, this is the biggest debacle in recent Hollywood history, blah blah blah." And they just ignored all that and just kept doing it.
THR: You spent a year researching the book. How much of an emotional investment did you have in the team?
Lewis: Hard question. It was very moving when Scott Hatteberg hit that home run [to win the team's 20th game in a row]. Very moving. I watched that game with Billy. When it actually happened in real life, Billy was stuck in the stadium because of media requests. I don't think I told Bennett Miller but I was driving home and she said you ought to go back to watch history, you're writing this story, you're all wrapped up in it, something might happen. I thought, "What the hell is going to happen with 600people in the press box. You're not going to have any kind of real access to people and I want access. It just going to be a media drain." And I went back and I went down to the bowels of the Colliseum and the game had started. It was like 11-0 when I arrived. I got to the clubhouse door and who opens the door but Billy and he's in there hiding in Art Helms' office watching the game because they are up 11-0 and I sat on the sofa with him and I watched with him. And then Hatteberg hits this home run. It was a wonderful scene. You could see it unfolding. When he hits the home run, I was very emotionally involved at that point. I didn't make any huge effort to stay detached that way nor did I think I had any obligation to do so either
THR: There's already some awards talk for the film. Give us your prediction.
Lewis: You want me to make projections so I can look like an ass in six months? Here we go. Moneyball gets a best picture nomination, Brad Pitt gets a best actor, Jonah Hill gets a best supporting actor nomination, [Aaron] Sorkin and [Steve] Zaillian get a screenplay nomination, and Bennett Miller gets a directing nomination. That's what I think. I can't tell you whose going to win because I don't know what it's up against. If you made me guess further blindly, I guess Brad Pitt wins and Sorkin and Zaillin win.