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Brad Pitt recalls it as “a dark weened for all of us.” It was June 2009, and Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman Amy Pascal and CEO Michael Lynton had pulled the plug on Moneyball only days before it was to go before cameras with Steven Soderbergh directing and Pitt starring, after five years of development and months of preproduction.
“It was really hard,” recalls Pascal. “It was hard making that decision. It was really hard making it OK with Brad. I feel terrible because I think Steven Soderbergh is a wonderful director.”
But she couldn’t go along with Soderbergh’s last-minute rewrite of the script by Steven Zaillian, which had been built on an earlier script by Stan Chervin. Soderbergh planned to take a semi-documentary approach to what was already a sports story with questionable commercial appeal — at a studio budget approaching $60 million.
“It was just a case of honest creative differences because that script didn’t reflect all of our hopes and Sony’s hopes and ambitions developed prior to Soderbergh coming on,” says producer Michael De Luca, who had been working on the project since 2004 with producer Rachael Horovitz, who had acquired rights to Michael Lewis‘ best-selling novel in 2003.
With $10 million already invested, Sony offered to let Pitt and Soderbergh take the movie in turnaround to another studio if they could make a deal for the $60 million production before it unraveled — which meant in a matter of days. After a frantic weekend of activity led by Pitt’s and Soderbergh’s agents, however, there were no takers.
Moneyball had struck out; few films had ever come back from such a shutdown.
Pitt was unhappy because he had a passion to play Billy Beane, the unconventional GM of the Oakland Athletics baseball club. “I’m a sucker for injustice stories,” says Pitt, “and wanting to right the injustice.”
But Pitt was also realistic. “I understood that the numbers didn’t add up for what Steven wanted to do with it,” he says, adding that “the studio is the one writing the check, so I don’t take offense to that.”
Neither Pitt nor Pascal, however, wanted to give up on Moneyball.
Pascal decided Moneyball would need additional leadership and work on the script to get it back on track. At the time, Sony was in production on The Social Network, on which De Luca was also a producer. Pascal asked Network producer Scott Rudin and writer Aaron Sorkin to get involved with the baseball-themed story, and Pitt agreed to produce as well as star. “This was really complex, unconventional material,” says Pitt, “so the more guns, the better. The more bright minds we have on this, the better.”
Pitt and Pascal each credit the other for reviving the movie. Pitt, says Pascal, is the “soul and spirit of this movie. He is the driving force behind it, in all of its troubled times and all the best times. He championed it all the way and never lost heart.”
“I was just glad they didn’t scuttle it,” says Pitt, “that instead what happened was Amy Pascal became our patron saint. She kept us alive.”
Pascal brought the budget down to $50 million, which included the $10?million already spent as well as Pitt’s salary, which reportedly was more than $10 million. That left less than $30 million for all of the other cast salaries and to make the movie.
Before accepting the assignment, Sorkin called Zaillian, who was on vacation in Rome when his phone rang. “I was standing on a side street just around the corner from the Pantheon,” says Zaillian, recalling that Sorkin said “he was being asked to write some new scenes. And I said: ‘That’s better than dismantling the script. Try not to do that, if you can.’ What I remembered most about the conversation was when I asked him what he’d do if I was calling to tell him what he was telling me. Without much hesitation, he said, ‘I’d burn the studio down.’ “
Sorkin is an ardent baseball fan and had created the late-1990s TV series Sports Night, so he was up for the challenge. “I was hired for three weeks and then again for another three weeks, and that turned into a year and a half,” says Sorkin, who began revising the script while in his Boston hotel room during filming of Network.
Even after Sorkin’s return to L.A., the work continued. “Brad would ride his motorcycle over to my house being chased by a couple carloads of paparazzi,” recalls Sorkin. “I wanted Brad to do most of the talking. He’d speak generally about his love of character-driven movies from the ’70s.”
Pitt had been a fan of Lewis’ book but wasn’t sure at first if he wanted to star after reading Chervin’s early script. “They were trying for something more commercial, more comedic,” says Pitt. “In reading the book and doing my research, I became obsessed with the deeper meaning within the book and a value system that was out of whack.”
Pitt meant that big-city teams have much more money for top players than small-market teams. He committed after a new script was written by Zaillian, which gave him the character he wanted to play: “It was a character I hadn’t seen in a long time that was verbose, competitive and sharp.”
Although sorry to see Soderbergh go, Pitt still wanted to play Beane if they could find the right director and approach.
So Sony began the search. As numerous names were tossed out, Pitt made a suggestion. “My dear friend Catherine Keener said, ‘You’ve got to talk to Bennett Miller,’ ” he recalls.
Miller, who hadn’t directed since 2005’s Capote, is notoriously picky. “I got a call from [CAA’s] Bryan Lourd asking if I was interested in baseball,” he says. “I said I used to be. He said, ‘If you’re interested in taking a look at this thing, Brad would be interested in talking to you about it.'”
Miller, who had met Pitt when trying to put together an earlier film, thought it over for three weeks. He read Lewis’ book, Chervin’s draft, Zaillian’s script and Sorkin’s, then flew to L.A. full of doubt about doing a studio film with “strong and powerful personalities.” He wondered, “Would I be able to do what I’m interested in doing?”
Miller isn’t a baseball fanatic, and he pitched Pitt on the idea of making a movie that was “subversive to the genre. It’s not really a conventional sports movie. It puts all that stuff on its head.”
“I wasn’t interested in making a sports movie, just recycling tropes and convention,” adds Miller. “Then I’d just be a gun for hire, working for the studio. But the question was, How do you avoid that? Brad said it will be a Trojan horse. We will give them the gift of a Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt that’s going to be real entertainment, but inside it is some cargo that is not really accepted in a vintage way, something that they don’t anticipate.”
Pascal also signed off on Miller’s concept, explaining that the director “had a wonderful vision for the movie. Scott, Rachael and Mike and I all believed he was fantastic with actors, and this movie was going to be about performance and getting inside the characters because it was really a character study.”
So Miller got the go-ahead to assemble his team, while Zaillian and Sorkin continued, separately, to write new pages. Each sent their contributions to Miller, who would then edit them together.
“Passing a script back and forth, obviously, isn’t the most enjoyable way to work and is usually a recipe for disaster,” Zaillian says of their tag-team approach. “Important things can get lost in the shuffle. But at the end of the day, difficult as it was, it worked.”
“Steve and I were now working at the same time,” says Sorkin, “concentrating on different runs of scenes. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but the point was, ‘Whatever it takes to cross the finish line.’ We were both courting the same girl, but we’d both invested way too much at that point to let ego stop us.”
Rudin, meanwhile, served as a kind of coach, overseeing work on the script and providing Miller with insights almost always in tune with the director’s goals.
For his crew, Miller looked for crafts people interested in making a studio film with an indie spirit. Cinematographer Wally Pfister had just worked with director Christopher Nolan on the big-budget Inception, for which he won an Oscar, but had started on indies like Memento and as a news-documentary photographer in Washington.
“He had a sensibility that suits me and the film,” says Miller. “The film has a quality not so much of telling a story but observing a story. The films I like are the ones that are not pedantic, that are not in your face, but the ones that reveal a story. He’s never artificial.”
Production designer Jess Gonchor had collaborated with the Coen brothers on movies with an indie spirit such as No Country for Old Men. For Moneyball, Gonchor says: “We just wanted to keep it real. It was something real that happened that we were re-creating.”
Working on a razor-thin budget, he created the underbelly of the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum — the players’ locker room, the weight room, the coach’s offices and a video room that became an extension of Billy Beane’s office — right on a Sony soundstage.
Since there was no money to shoot in the eight different ballparks the A’s visited, Gonchor dressed Dodger Stadium for three intense days of production to cover all those bases. He had less than two weeks to shoot the exteriors in the Oakland Coliseum, sometimes shooting at night because the A’s were playing during the day. Other shots of Oakland actually were done in Long Beach and Glendale. They had a single day to shoot a crucial scene in Boston’s Fenway Park, and it rained that day. The gloomy sky became a backdrop.
Every set, location, uniform and piece of equipment had to be approved by Major League Baseball, which was cooperating with Sony, making the situation more complex. But Gonchor says they never interfered and often added ways to make the film more authentic.
When Soderbergh proposed mixing interviews with real players into his story, he was shut down. But in his own quest for authenticity, Miller hired real players, scouts, umpires, executives and groundskeepers, whom he then mixed in with his actors.
When his own schedule opened up, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had starred in Miller’s Capote, called to say, “Have you cast the role yet of Art Howe?” Miller recalls, “We were on the verge of casting it, but had not yet, so I said, ‘I’d love you to do it.’ ”
For Peter Brand, the unlikely math genius recruited by Beane, Miller turned to Jonah Hill, whom he had known for five years. Hill was “desperate to change things,” the director explains. “He was very funny in movies like The 40 Year Old Virgin, but he had become stuck in that box and he wanted out of that box.”
“I love making comedies,” says Hill. “It’s amazing and a gift, but I am eager to do different types of roles. My worst fear is that at the end of my career they would say, ‘He only did one thing over and over again.’ I hope I’m going to have the opportunity to do many different things.” (See “Inside Jonah Hill’s Head,” below.)
Miller’s biggest challenge was finding the right girl to play Beane’s daughter. He saw dozens of young actresses before 13-year-old Kerris Dorsey came in and blew him away. “Not only was she perfect out of the gate,” says Miller, “but the song she sang sent chills down my spine because it was impossibly perfect in every way.”
Her song, Lenka’s “The Show,” and the instrumental track “The Mighty Rio Grande” by This Will Destroy You are the only music among 23 pieces in the film that were not written by composer Mychael Danna. His goal was not to lay on music to force an emotional response but rather to use music to support the story. “It was important to Bennett and I that the music come from the material,” says Danna, a Canadian who also worked on Capote. “Baseball is a tradition-loving sport, and we wanted to use traditional [instruments] but come up with a new, slightly unexpected take.”
When principal photography ended after 58 days, Miller faced his greatest challenge: editing down not only footage he had shot but also hundreds of hours of archival material. He laughed when a Sony executive presented him with a postproduction schedule lasting 12 weeks. “I looked at it for 15 seconds and said, ‘That’s ridiculous,’ ” Miller says. “That’s not going to happen.”
Instead, he spent the next 36 weeks editing in Los Angeles while working with his producers and two writers to refine the final script.
Pitt frequently came by. “I’m really into the structure and putting together the puzzle and seeing what was working and what wasn’t,” he says. “I enjoy it, but I don’t dictate.”
When Miller finally presented his director’s cut, he was nervous about how it would be received. His cut was long and had an indie sensibility. He knew it wasn’t a typical glossy commercial movie.
It turned out he didn’t need to worry. “There was such a great feeling when the lights came up and everyone felt we had done the right thing,” recalls De Luca. “This was a movie that deserved its day in court.”
The test audience and a focus group afterward confirmed the feeling that the screening had evoked in the producers and studio executives.
“It was very emotional,” says Horovitz. “I remember Amy Pascal and I both being teary-eyed when we saw the director’s cut.”
“It scored beyond people’s imagination and expectations,” says Miller of the movie, which has gone on to beat the odds, grossing more than $74?million domestically and nearly $100 million worldwide since its Sept. 23 release. “We lived to fight another day.”
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