By Mark Harris
Photographed by Nadav Kander
Movies and baseball marry well for a reason. They both start with a pitch, they both involve contentious teams and intense efforts that lead to more strikeouts than home runs, and they’re both overseen by people who believe that if you work the numbers hard enough, you can always find a way to win.
One more thing they share: The closer we get to fall, the more we root for long shots. And Moneyball, which opens September 23, is one such underdog. Michael Lewis’s 2003 book focused on Billy Beane, the general manager of the then-impoverished Oakland A’s, who used a kind of quantitative analysis known as sabermetrics to create a winning team and, more miraculously, to combat the huge payroll inequities between baseball’s richest and poorest organizations. Beane’s quixotic attempts to reform a hidebound system and turn a ragtag starting lineup of last-chancers into champions forms Moneyball’s heart. But consider that the above summary hinges on words like sabermetrics and payroll inequities, and you begin to understand why—even with the dogged support of Brad Pitt—Moneyball took nearly a decade, three directors, three writers, an almost complete recasting, and a public collapse before it got made. “There were some hard days,” says Pitt. By which he means years.
It didn’t start out that way. Moneyball was a quick sell to Hollywood when it was first published, back when every studio still wanted to be in the indie-style movie business. Producer Rachael Horovitz, who snatched up the rights in 2003, had had enough experience in studio trenches to feel instant kinship with a book subtitled “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” “I thoroughly related to the themes of starting over, reinvention, trusting in yourself to think and act differently,” she recalls. And in Beane she saw a “fantastic movie character”—a burned-out baseball prodigy who’d flamed out early and unimpressively and who was now, in middle age, determined to make a mark on the game he loved.
But there were problems, beginning at the source. Lewis’s book is less a narrative than a riveting Gladwellian case study in which a single outlier occasions a series of meditations on the risk-averse institution of baseball. This is not something that screams adaptation, Pitt says, citing “the difficulty of making a movie whose front window is dressed with economics and science and math.” You can’t simply hack away all the nuances to reboot the story as an inspirational sports weepie the way, for instance, the adapters of Lewis’s The Blind Side did; Moneyball’s nuances are its narrative.
“Sports movies work when they transcend the sport they’re about and become metaphoric,” says Michael De Luca, who joined Horovitz as producer early on, soon after leaving his position as president of production at DreamWorks. For him—as for nearly everyone involved at that stage—Beane’s David-and-Goliath story already functioned as a metaphor, for his own life in Hollywood. “The notion that occasionally you get revolutionary thinkers who speak truth to conventional wisdom—well, as a former production head subject to other people’s green-light decisions, that’s a fantasy I had continued to indulge!” De Luca exclaims. “I also loved the idea that your price isn’t always your value. Billy Beane gave a lot of players other teams had discarded an opportunity to prove their real worth. Those themes really made me feel there was a movie in this.”
Pitt came aboard in late 2007 to play Beane and quickly “became obsessed” as well. “I saw it as a story about justice,” he says. “How is a team with a $40 million payroll going to compete with a team with a $140 million payroll and another $100 million in reserves? Any talent they grow is going to get poached by the rich teams. That became really interesting to me.”
For Pitt, Moneyball also evoked “films about process,” particularly the seventies movies he loved. “I thought of The Conversation: How do you tap a phone? Or Thief, with Jimmy Caan: How do you crack a safe?” Pitt says. “And I saw in it a guy who had an obsessive quality like Popeye Doyle,” from The French Connection. “I don’t really like big character-arc epiphanies. What I most loved about those seventies films is that the characters were the same at the end as at the beginning. It was the world around them that had shifted.” In Beane, he says, “I saw a man going up against a system, questioning the reasoning: Just because we’ve been doing it this way for 150 years, why shouldn’t we change it?”
The involvement of an A-list star instantly made Moneyball a film that could actually get produced, and led, inevitably, to some personnel changes. Neophyte screenwriter Stan Chervin was replaced by veteran A-lister Steven Zaillian, whose experience adapting nonfiction included Schindler’s List and A Civil Action. And Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel departed in 2008, making room for Steven Soderbergh, who had worked with Pitt three times before.
But this wasn’t going to be Ocean’s Fourteen: Soderbergh was just coming off the massive eccentric historical docudrama Che and was eager to continue playing with the gray area between drama and factual authenticity. Where Pitt saw a story about justice, Soderbergh saw one about Justice—specifically, outfielder David Justice, who, along with former major-leaguer Scott Hatteberg, was enlisted to play himself. Art Howe, the longtime A’s manager and occasional Beane antagonist, was wooed as well. Other big names, including Lenny Dykstra and Darryl Strawberry, were drafted for interview segments intended to contextualize the dramatic action—a device one insider calls “Steven’s Reds thing,” meaning the Warren Beatty movie, not the Cincinnati baseball team. Soderbergh also cast the lanky, sharp-minded alt-comedian Demetri Martin as Moneyball’s second lead, the semi-fictionalized “Peter Brand,” a nerdy, tightly wound young number-cruncher and baseball savant who serves as Beane’s more freewheeling adviser.
Moneyball appeared to be on the fast track to production. But instead, in what Pitt calls “definitely a dark week” in June 2009, it derailed. It’s likely to take a few years of cooling temperatures before the full backstory is revealed, but what went public was bad enough: Just days before production, Sony chairman Amy Pascal slammed on the brakes. Reportedly, Sony was upset that the film had veered in an alarmingly documentary-ish direction, although how surprised anyone involved could have been remains unclear, since the planned use of real-life players was already public knowledge and several documentary segments had been filmed. Sony, in a paroxysm of postcrash panic, may also have balked at the $57 million budget, low by blockbuster standards but high for a prestige fall movie (ultimately, the film cost about that much anyway). In any case, when the dust cleared, Soderbergh was out, an experience so disheartening that his recent threats to retire become a little more understandable. And the film itself retained a pulse only because of Pitt’s support. “I just couldn’t let it go,” he says.
At that point, De Luca, who had been caught flat-footed by the bad news while honeymooning, “threw the bat-signal up for Scott Rudin and Aaron Sorkin,” with whom he’d just worked on the yet-unreleased Social Network. Sorkin added humor to the script by punching up the dialogue, and also enriched Beane’s relationship with his ex-wife and especially with his young daughter, an arc that plays out straight through the completed film. But the film was still missing a director. On the recommendation of his friend Catherine Keener, Pitt met with Bennett Miller, who had won an Oscar nomination for 2005’s Capote but hadn’t made a movie since. “I saw Moneyball as the story of one guy, in his mid-forties, who is beginning to question decisions he made when he was younger,” says Miller, 44. “There’s a line in the book about Billy wondering if there was another life he was supposed to be living. To me it’s a classic search-for-wisdom story about a character who’s dislocated from his life, trying to find his way. It’s not a baseball movie or a business movie or a movie about stats. It’s a wisdom story with an unlikely setting.”
But to make that kind of movie, Miller felt, the script still needed work. (In the end, it was credited to Zaillian and Sorkin, with story credit to Chervin.) “Mostly, it was a matter of remembering the thing I wanted to protect and always asking myself how every element served it,” he says, noting that “the work continued throughout prep, as we were shooting, and even as we were cutting.” Miller, a methodical, low-key director who tends to channel his nervous energies into attention to detail, was wary about “satisfying so many big interests—there was Major League Baseball,” which had demanded certain script alterations in exchange for its cooperation, “a big star, and a studio, and so many drafts, and a book that’s chock-full of interesting nuggets but has no real narrative. How does it become a movie?” he asked. “It sort of had to die and be reborn as something new.”
That meant jettisoning the interview footage as well as the notion of real-life baseball figures playing themselves. Instead, Miller cast Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt as Hatteberg, an injured catcher whom Beane reincarnated as a first-baseman, and got his Capote star Philip Seymour Hoffman to play Howe. But his most surprising choice was for Peter Brand. Demetri Martin was a casualty of Soderbergh’s departure (fittingly, you can see him in Soderbergh’s Contagion next month). His replacement: Jonah Hill, the explosively funny, trash-talking star of Superbad, and absolutely nobody’s idea of a buttoned-up brainiac whose expressive range seems to be governed by a giant, invisible mute button.
But Miller knew Hill socially and felt he could thrive in the role. “Jonah is brilliant in a way that might not be evident from the roles he’s played before,” Miller says. “He has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of movies. And I also knew he was interested in breaking out of whatever box he was in.” For his part, Hill felt he’d found a project—and a director—that might allow him to grow up a little. “A lot of times you’re funny as a way of not having to say anything real about yourself. Bennett knew that there are whole days when I’m not funny at all,” he says, laughing. “And this character has sweet moments, but no jokes or wisecracks.”
“Jonah’s a revelation in this thing—he’s a study in reserve,” says Pitt, who saw Hill’s potential in his earlier films. “I think the most interesting work that’s been going on in the last couple of years is what the comedy guys have been doing. Guys like Jonah and Russell Brand and [Seth] Rogen and a few others … they picked up on an irreverence that started with Adam Sandler and continued with Will Ferrell, but they’ve been grounding it in a kind of pathos and humanity. I find it really strong work.”
Hill had tested his ability to play a less overtly comic role in the indie Cyrus, and he loved this part—because, like everybody else involved, it reminded him of Hollywood. “It wasn’t the baseball or the numbers I connected to,” he says. “It was the obsessiveness. Bennett said that the way we talk about actors and roles and movies with each other is the way my character should be able to talk to Brad’s about baseball. It’s what we do all the time about movies—we analytically shit-talk everybody’s strengths and weaknesses! Everybody I know does that. So that was my in.”
For the movie, as for Beane, the triumph may be that an innovative idea got a fair chance to play out at all. “I think a documentary about the making of Moneyball would in some ways have been the perfect complement to the movie itself,” says Miller wryly. “It’s not a good-versus-evil story. And when you get into the shoes of everybody who exercised some kind of will over the creative process, it’s hard not to sympathize. But yes, I did have some moments of living scenes that felt like they were right from the movie.”
“I don’t mind the struggle as long as the work amounts to something in the end,” says Pitt, who ended up with a producer credit as well. “It was really Bennett who finally cracked it. His anxiety not to do anything conventional ultimately formed what this would be. At the same time, everyone involved in Moneyball, at every stage, was very passionate. But what most everyone gleaned from the book was very different. I look at the movie now, and I feel everyone’s fingerprints are on it. It’s been… well, listen. It’s been an interesting process.”