Brad Pitt knows the parallels are obvious: baseball and the movie biz ― two industries where the complex algorithms of stats and star power, home runs and box-office hits, are endlessly worked on and worried over. Old ways of doing business, based on gut instinct and high-priced players, give way to leaner, meaner, formula-driven concepts ― on the playing field, and on the screen.
“Especially in today’s economically challenged times, you see the tendency of the studios to try to mitigate losses and therefore manage it in a way that’s based on numbers,” Pitt says. “And the numbers are oddly correct, but at the same time that way of doing business limits the material. It’s all based on what’s been done before, instead of something new ― which I’m much more interested in.”
In “Moneyball,” Pitt tries something new ― and comes away with one of the strongest performances of his career. Yes, in a sense this is an old-fashioned baseball movie ― Pitt plays real-life Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, forced to rebuild his team after his roster is gutted in a buying frenzy.
But it’s a baseball movie like no other, offering an insider’s perspective on how coaches and players relate ― or don’t. And it documents a pivotal moment in Major League Baseball, when Beane, at the start of the 2002 season, adopted a radical new strategy, seeking out low-salaried players with high on-base stats. Aiding and abetting him on his Sabermetrics mission ― which begins pitifully, and ends in a record-breaking winning streak and a playoff berth ― was a numbers-crunching Yale economics nerd, played with glorious uptightness by Jonah Hill. “Moneyball” opens Friday.
Brad Pitt, left, and Jonah Hill star in Columbia Pictures’ drama “Moneyball.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Courtesy Columbia Pictures/MCT)
“I love process films, films that draw back the curtain and show you how things are done,” says Pitt, who also produced “Moneyball” ― adapted from Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” ― and stuck with the project through several false starts, and several directors. “Remember ‘Dr. Strangelove’? ‘Strangelove’ is one of my all-time favorites, and just the time (Stanley) Kubrick takes showing them going through the code sequences, what it takes for Slim Pickens to drop the bomb ― I jones on that.”
Pitt, sporting a beard, with his hair dusting his collar, was in black tie, arm in arm with a begowned Angelina Jolie, on Sept. 9 when “Moneyball” had its gala premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The next morning, he’s in a suite at the Ritz Carlton, talking up the film and some of his other projects.
He made “The Tree of Life,” with Terrence Malick, a few years ago, but its release this summer showed a different facet to Pitt: intense, internalized, anguished. The movie’s lengthy cine-poetic sequences ― vast stretches without dialogue ― are in stark contrast to the crackling back-and-forth in “Moneyball,” which was scripted by two Oscar-winning Hollywood wordsmiths, Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”).
“Zaillian really got the undercurrent of what was happening internally in Billy’s life, and comes from a great love of baseball,” Pitt explains. “In fact, he wrote a two-person play afterwards, set in the world of baseball, that I hope gets staged. It’s really, really good.
“And then Aaron brought in a kind of rhythm. These characters are charismatic and joking, full of this gallows humor. They were really cut off and on their own, and Aaron brought this beautiful layer to it, this kind of verve, that uplifted the piece.”
Pitt says that other “fingerprints” are on the film, too, including Pitt’s “Ocean’s Eleven” (and “Twelve” and “Thirteen”) director Steven Soderbergh, who was all set to do “Moneyball” with his pal when Sony Pictures pulled the plug.
“They balked, to use a baseball term,” says Pitt. “It wasn’t the concept of the film, or what Steven was after, it was the price tag for that concept. But it was in a similar direction to where the film’s ended up. In the same ballpark, so to speak.”
“It’s hard not to use baseball-speak. It so permeates the American lexicon.”
That last-minute no-go came in June 2009, mere weeks before Pitt, Soderbergh and company thought they were going to start shooting.
“Yeah, that was an unpleasant little period, but I wanted to stay with it, and we had a patron saint in (Sony chairman) Amy Pascal who decided she was going to double down. More often than not, this is the place where projects go by the wayside; they’re written off and that’s it. But she double-downed and we got it made.”
Bennett Miller, of the Oscar-winning indie “Capote,” came in as director, a suggestion offered by Catherine Keener ― Pitt’s friend, and costar on his first lead role, in 1991’s “Johnny Suede.”
“It was complicated material, it was unconventional, and everyone had a hand in the end product,” the actor says about “Moneyball.” “We needed to go through these evolutions to get to the place it is.”
By Steven Rea
(The Philadelphia Inquirer)
(MCT Information Services)