Bennett Miller is not the first name that would come to mind as the director of Moneyball, which two years ago was a problem-plagued project stalled at Sony with $10 million in costs stacked against it from past writers Stan Chervin, Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and departed directors David Frankel and Steven Soderbergh. And yet, for many reasons, Miller was just the right fit for this Sony adaptation of the 2003 Michael Lewis bestseller about Oakland As general manager Billy Beane. The movie launched to raves at Toronto and beyond and opened well this weekend. Now Oscars are in its sights.
Miller had something to prove, after not having directed a feature since 2005’s Capote, made with his two Mamaroneck buds Dan Futterman and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won the Oscar. (Miller’s been directing commercials.) Moneyball is the New York director’s third film, and his first studio assignment. The reason Miller got the job, finally, was that he and Brad Pitt hit it off when they met on a film that never got off the ground at MRC, Foxcatcher, the story of DuPont heir John E. du Pont, who was convicted of killing Olympic wrestler David Schultz.
Thus, after Sony’s Amy Pascal pulled the plug on Soderbergh’s experimental vision of Moneyball, Pitt brought Miller in to direct the baseball film, and stuck by him through thick and thin. Miller pitched his idea of the movie, focusing on Beane as a disappointed, stubborn, competitive guy with something to prove–a subject the director knew something about–and Pascal went along. Amazingly enough, when Miller’s idiosyncratic, naturalistic, slow-paced, non-glossy director’s cut got to research previews, it played. For once, his movie was saved by movie fans.
Anne Thompson: Moneyball is unexpected from a studio movie. Which script did you first read?
Bennett Miller: I first read the script that was Sorkin’s first revision of Zaillian, and then I read Zaillian and then I read the book. Then I thought about if there was a movie somewhere. Then I met with Brad, and pitched him. Everybody’s gotta be making the same movie, otherwise you’re in a disaster, especially with these huge personalities. With them, Might can be your best friend or your worst enemy. If you’re sharing a common goal, purpose and vision, then great, and if not, it’s the last place anybody wants to be.
AT: So you really deliberated about taking the job?
BM: Because: What’s the movie? Is there a movie? Can it get made? Is it realistic, given more money than Capote or the other movie I was trying to get made that didn’t get made? Can this get made with a larger budget at a studio, when you’re coming onto something that already has a past?
AT: A checkered past. There are reasons why it was difficult. You probably understood the authenticity Steven Soderbergh wanted to bring, on some level?
BM: The immediate answer is yes. But also I think he left it too open to a process that was going to discover and reveal, that we can’t know exactly what would have been.
AT: That’s why the studio pulled out. Whereas you were in effect proposing a more predictable outcome? But it’s always risky.
BM: Yeah. (Pause) The truth is that every movie teaches you how to make that movie, and this one really had its own demands, independent of what anybody would have liked it to have been. It wanted things and needed things, and it really kept revealing itself right until the end. So I don’t think it’s right to say that it was predictable. From an executive’s perspective, you could say that, sure.
AT: So did the studio eventually just sign off and say go for it?
BM: Well, how long have you been in this business? I mean, come on. I don’t think there’s anything sensational about how it gets worked out, but it’s like anything, making a movie at a studio, passing legislation, whatever–it’s complicated.
AT: Did it turn out better or worse than you expected: working with the studio and making the movie?
BM: Honestly, I feel like I went in there with open eyes. I had never taken an interview with a movie at a studio before, after Capote. And so I thought, ‘oh, maybe I could do a Trojan Horse-type experience.’
AT: With Moneyball. What happened to The Immortalist with Vanguard/Paramount/John Lesher? You were working on that for a few years.
BM: And something else, too, called Foxcatcher at MRC, which is the one I’d committed to doing next. And the world didn’t cooperate. Things were falling apart. Both things I want to do still. I have the rights, but until you see the end credits roll on opening night…
AT: You’ve learned the hard way. But now, you’re in The Show.
BM: I’m in The Show. I’ve learned a lot.
AT: How did your name get thrown into the mix?
BM: I believe it was Brad. I had met him before and talked to him about Foxcatcher and when I flew out there to have a conversation we definitely bonded, we were feeling the same thing. Moneyball would not have been possible if he and I were making a different movie.
AT: How exactly did you describe your take on the movie to the likes of Pitt, Pascal, and producers Rachael Horovitz, Mike DeLuca and Scott Rudin?
BM: I liked a couple of lines from the book that reflected on Billy’s past and what might be going on beyond what Billy was aware of. Michael Lewis had said that Billy wondered if there was a different life he was supposed to be leading.
AT: He didn’t go to Stanford, he wasn’t good in the batter’s box.
BM: He wanted to be a student. He was really smart. Nobody in his family had ever gone to college, and he wanted to be the first. His mother really did not want him to go [to The Mets]. She wouldn’t be in the room when he signed the contract. He was a first round draft pick! From the time he was fifteen, you’ve got adults who’ve spent their lives in baseball, they’ve seen everything, saying ,’This is your future, this is your destiny,’ and he makes a decision based on that, and there’s a big check. Again, there’d be a big check at the end of the movie, and I thought, ‘well that’s one thing; there’s a check and a check, and a decision and a decision.’
The other thing: Michael describes Billy’s excitement when these new [sabermetric] concepts are introduced to him, as not just a way of winning, potentially, but as ideas that might explain him and his outcome, and why he might have failed. To me, he thinks he’s trying to win baseball games, but he’s really trying to remedy something in his own life.
AT: He couldn’t stand being a failure: why did all the baseball experts think he was meant to be something that despite all his gifts, he didn’t turn out to be? It didn’t work out. He didn’t trust those people.
BM: Well he wanted to prove them wrong, and that season became a kind of trial. And the outcome would be some kind of verdict that would have something to say about who he was. He’s trying to remedy something from his past and he wanted to put the game on its head, and there’s a little hostility in it.
AT: He was competitive.
BM: Extremely competitive. When I read it, I saw it as a really small story, in a way it used to be OK to make a small story, like a Cuckoo’s Nest, where it’s like, nobody knows about these people. But this is bigger in scale.
AT: That’s what I like about it. It has no gloss to it; I don’t mean that in a negative way.
BM: That’s the intention.
AT: How do you make a studio-level movie with a movie star and all these players and still bring your aesthetic to it? Because it’s still a Bennett Miller movie.
BM: How? You have Brad Pitt as an ally. That’s it. It really was his passion that got the movie made. It’s a great part and he wanted to do it.
AT: It was also a commercial movie, even if it’s not glossy.
BM: In my mind, I think that equals a more commercial movie, because I think nobody wants to see a baseball movie, or a light comedy baseball movie. Nobody cares, nobody wants that. That’s the surface of the thing and that’s actually the obstacle to selling the movie, but if it’s something that people can relate to, i.e. nobody’s life turns out the way they expect it’s gonna be, it just doesn’t happen. And nobody does not question at one point or another, ‘what else might my life have been?’ and the decisions you make. And also be reminded how hard and in a small way how heroic it is to challenge perceptions; your own and other people’s.
AT: People respond to the idea of a rebel going up against the establishment.
BM: Absolutely. My point is that those things are commercial when they’re given an opportunity. And in baseball, in a similar way, they want to keep betting on the same five tools, we’re making this at a studio and there might be that impulse to revert to the gloss or the swelling score or the jokes, and I never believed that that would be more commercial than something that has less gloss, that you could relate to. I think that is the big market that is overlooked.
AT: The screenplay, how much was Zaillian, how much Sorkin?
BM: Both of these guys came on and off it. It went Sorkin, Zaillian, Sorkin, Zaillian–it was a little bit of back and forth.
AT: Well you’re working with two of the best screenwriters we know. What were the strengths of each one?
BM:A guy could do worse! Zaillian had a heavier, earthier, more internal, brooding, darker perspective. And Sorkin is masterful at comedic haiku that communicates volumes in a moment, in a beat, that he could take a scene that’s written and he could reduce it and put a line in and make it function in a different way. But ultimately what we’re talking about is a character, the public and private self, like Capote. These guys wrote appropriately to different sides of him. Zaillian wrote more to the internal, beneath the surface, and Sorkin managed to write very effectively for the more public, charismatic side of Billy.
AT: Cinematographer Wally Pfister (The Dark Knight, Inception) was a good choice. He’s unpretentious, very gifted, doesn’t go for gloss. He keeps it on character, on what’s really going on.
BM: Wally comes from news and documentary; has a very on-his-feet, verite style, he’s the best operator I’ve ever worked with. He rolls into an environment and doesn’t want to create something out of his imagination–all of which make him a really comfortable fit for this stuff. He’ll walk into an environment and say, ‘Well, what is it, what are the sources, and how do we wrangle that in and make it manageable and allow us enough time to shoot the damn thing?’
AT: How did you cast the baseball scouts?
BM: We met a bunch of scouts, interviewed them, did research. I think there are three actors.
AT: The one that gets fired?
BM: He has done some acting but he’s a baseball guy for thirty-something years. He introduced me to those guys, they all know each other. I did a baseball-themed commercial about two years ago and Kenny came in to audition and gives me his dossier and says, ‘I was here, here, Yankees,’ and I said ‘What do you think of Billy Beane?’ and he says, ‘Ruining the game.’ I said ‘Why?’ and if had I been able to get a quarter of what he did in that monologue…
AT: And Jonah Hill: where did those long slow reaction shots come from?
BM: It just became a character thing. In baseball everyone’s kind of operating from the gut and shooting from the hip. He’s a very thoughtful guy. There’s not a lot more interesting than watching somebody think on film. And the movie really ends with a decision, like you don’t hear him, it’s not expressed in any way, you’re just sitting with a guy as he’s having an emotional experience and the decision is being made. Jonah brought that, and when we were cutting it, I liked it so much, we found ways to manufacture it here and there. It’s a character thing, of a thoughtful, deliberative person. Like he hesitates, thinks, measures twice, speaks…and it’s funny.
AT: How was it to work with Pitt?
BM: He’s got two things. One is a shamanistic ability you can’t really describe. He understands how to be fascinating, and conjure a presence. He could have been a ballet dancer, he exercises a kind of control over his instrument, he understands the frame like a painter, he knows how to enter it. It’s the only experience I’ve ever had where watching the dailies is different from what it’s like being in the room, it made watching the monitor more important. He’s doing a leading role, but I see him as a character actor. In this case, you have to tell the story, with your performance, you’re leading the audience through your story. It’s a personal story to him, he wanted to play the role. You need to be making the same movie and telling the same story. Is it communicating? To the degree that you can relate to the movie it will work and when it feels like you’re being put on, it won’t work. It didn’t want razzmatazz and slickness.
AT: What was the most challenging thing to pull off on this film as a director?
BM: The material itself was challenging. It did not lend itself naturally to a cinema experience: Michael’s book, the story, which is so much about numbers and stats, you can’t ignore that, it was difficult. Hopefully at the end of the day, it was a clarified vision, but getting there is like a football size suduku puzzle. The movie is a little like that.
AT: How was the editing process?
BM: The movie was revealing itself until the last moment. The spirit of the thing is very clear, and the way it was gonna happen was never by a complete prescription. And so I don’t remember how many months we edited for, but maybe nine, it was lengthy and laborious. It was a very creative period, meaning you have to keep on finding ways to make things work.
AT: How would you characterize what you were fighting to keep in the movie?
BM: If you have a vision for something, things are navigable. If it gets fuzzy, then obstacles become much more formidable. At the end of the day, someone has to show up and do the thing and there’s a choice to either stick to what you believe and see, or to attempt to helm something that you don’t really understand or appreciate that somebody else would argue for.
AT: Your movie has ebbs and flows and character beats that studios don’t jump up and down about when they are looking for mainstream acceptance. It’s not the way they would have done it.
BM: It’s the same exact thing as the story itself; you need guys who are fast, you need as many tools as possible, these are the ingredients that make up a successful team or a good player or a hit movie–and you say, well, those aren’t necessarily the ingredients, you don’t necessarily need to have a movie of this length, or moves along at this pace, or has a joke or a cut every so often. In the case of this movie it happens that the focus groups were validating. From the first one, it was a revelation that you can trust the things that made this book a bestseller, you can trust the themes that are non-debatably universal and meaningful to people. Just trust THAT. Make it feel relatable. That will suit your purposes, too.
People are attracted to entertainment, for sure, or jokes, excitement and romantically heightened stories that might be false, but are still attractive fantasies. But they’re also interested in this other thing. It’s not like, I’m against this or any of those things. There’s something to aim for; there’s a vision there, it’s about serving these things. it’s allowing it to be a small, personal story that has an outcome that defies the traditional tropes and climaxes and conclusions of a sports movie with champagne corks. It’s a quieter, more personal, longer lasting, I think deeper, more meaningful triumph.