09.23.11

How ‘Moneyball’ Almost Never Happened

It took almost a decade, three directors, three screenwriters, and the unwavering support of Hollywood’s shiniest star, Brad Pitt, to bring "Moneyball" to the screen. Chris Lee reports on the movie’s rocky road out of development hell.

Barely a day into its wide theatrical release, public consciousness seems to have already solidified around the notion that Moneyball is this year’s answer to The Social Network.

Both films were produced by the prestige movie stalwart Scott Rudin, the immovable force behind such films as No Country for Old Men and Revolutionary Road, and both give screenwriting credit to Aaron Sorkin, the dialogue ace (who won an Oscar earlier this year for The Social Network). Further, both movies are talky dramatizations of bestselling nonfiction page turners that, at least in Hollywood’s focus group–fixated terms, hardly shout out blockbuster or even lend themselves to the kind of quick summary required for an elevator pitch.

Where The Social Network depicts the bonfire of nerd vanities that led to the creation of Facebook, in Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis’s eponymous “biography of an idea,” the action follows Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and how he set out to change the game of baseball one statistical analysis at a time. Portrayed by Brad Pitt, who burns luminous onscreen despite efforts to place his considerable movie-star aura under a bushel, Beane embraces a controversial system of number crunching to assemble a higgledy-piggledy squad of overlooked players—an “island of misfit toys” they are called in the film—to match bats with deeper-pocketed teams full of top-tier athletes in pursuit of World Series glory.

And in showing how the 2002 A’s upended 150 years of empirical thinking on what it takes to build a winning team, thereby forever altering baseball’s internal mechanics in an era when “game changer” has become an abiding cliché, Moneyball already represents a grand slam on two fronts.

There is its current renown as an early awards-season frontrunner, coming up frequently in film festival discussions of little gold men and Golden Globes courtesy of Moneyball’s propulsive dialogue, crisp direction, and an outstanding performance by Pitt. Then there is the movie’s production back story: a perilous tale of how it braved Hollywood development hell for nearly a decade, burning through screenplay drafts, cycling through various directors, and torching studio goodwill on the road to reaching wide theatrical release Friday.

“Nothing was easy with this movie,” said Moneyball’s director Bennett Miller, rubbing his forehead at the memory in a high-rise hotel suite, a day after the movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. “Everything seemed to be a fight and a challenge. It was a three-dimensional chess game.”

It was never intended as a baseball movie à la The Natural or even a feel good sports drama like Field of Dreams. Producers snatched up the rights to Lewis’s book in 2003 with the idea that Beane’s underdog vs. the Baseball Industrial Complex saga—in which rich teams like the Yankees could effectively cannibalize and thereby consign cash-poor teams like the A’s to the Major League trash heap by pillaging all their marquee players before Beane stepped in—would serve as a rich metaphor for nonbaseball issues.

“It’s a story about our values: how we value other people,” Pitt said at a Toronto press conference. “What we value as success, what we value as failure. How we take that value system and understand our own value. How that value system is warped and prejudiced.”

Once Tyler Durden committed to the project in 2007, Moneyball’s original screenwriter, Stan Chervin, packed it in, replaced by Steven Zaillian (who won an Oscar in 1993 for adapting Schindler’s List for the screen) with David Frankel, director of The Devil Wears Prada, installed at the film’s helm.

In an as-yet publicly untold chapter of the Moneyball production saga, Frankel dropped out in 2008 and was replaced by Pitt’s frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh, the independently minded auteur who had previously directed the star in three installments of the successful Ocean’s Eleven franchise.

As evidenced by his No. 1 box-office hit Contagion earlier this month, Soderbergh can tweak mainstream moviegoers’ passions at will—or at least, whenever he sets his mind to the task. But with Moneyball, the sex, lies and videotape director envisioned something more experimental: a kind of docudrama where real-life players from the 2002 A’s outta-nowhere run at the pennant–outfielder David Justice and slugger Lenny Dykstra among them—break down the film’s fourth wall in interview segments.

By the summer of 2009, some filming had begun in earnest. And the project was less than a week away from principal photography when disaster struck. Apparently freaked by the artsy-fartsy direction the $58 million movie was taking, Sony chairperson Amy Pascal decided to halt production.   

“[Soderbergh] wanted to make a dramatic reenactment of events with real people playing themselves,” Pascal told the Los Angeles Times. “I’d still work with Steven in a minute, but in terms of this project, he wanted to do the film in a different way than we did.”

Moneyball seemed D.O.A., and Pitt appeared to be in jeopardy of walking off the project at any moment. But instead, Sorkin–then toiling on The Social Network for Sony–was hired to take a pass at the script. And later that year, the Sorkin-Zaillian version of the screenplay wound up in the hands of Bennett Miller.

The director of 2005’s Truman Capote biopic Capote (for which Miller landed a best director Academy Award nomination and Phillip Seymour Hoffman scored an Oscar for best actor) wasn’t the obvious candidate for the job. With just one feature film and an acclaimed documentary  (The Cruise) to his credit, the fastidious filmmaker (who had not directed since Capote) is regarded as anything but a pinch-hitting director for hire—especially the kind of Brett Ratner–esque presence studios generally enlist in dire moments to shore up a dying production.

‘Nothing was easy with this movie,’ said ‘Moneyball’ director Bennett Miller. ‘It was a three-dimensional chess game.’

But Miller says he was compelled by the material precisely because of its challenging nature—a perception enforced by a Google search: “Moneyball movie.” “I liked that it was, in a way, a forbidding project,” Miller said. “I went online and read some blogs when I was contemplating this whole thing. Every time I read, ‘How are they going to do that?’ or ‘This is a bad idea’—that’s my idea of a siren song.”

Both Sorkin and Zaillian continued reworking the script in bits and spurts. And in a move initially dismissed as stunt casting, Miller hired Jonah Hill as a character named Peter Brand—a tongue-tied, Ivy League-educated wonk who opens Beane’s eyes to the potential of stacking his team with undervalued players, helping him implement an A’s roster that goes on a staggering run of wins.

Hill’s career has received a second wind as a newly viable dramatic actor by dint of his finely calibrated performance in the film–all awkward silences and deadpan scowls. But speaking as a veteran of more than two-dozen films big and small, sublime and ridiculous, Hill voiced appreciation for the high degree of difficulty that went into making Moneyball. And he credits Pitt’s tenacity with being the Sherpa that guided the movie past studio headbanging and beyond two regimes of fallen filmmakers to the multiplex. 

“This is not an easy movie to get made in the studio system,” Hill said in Toronto a few weeks ago. “It does not fall under traditional anything. I think Brad always saw what it could be. There were things falling apart and getting back together. He could have moved on. The studio could have moved on. But he wanted it.”

Pitt, meanwhile, assigns credit elsewhere. “It took Bennett Miller to crack this unconventional story,” he said.