09/22/11 10:00 AM ET
Pitt and Co. bring 'Moneyball' to the masses
By Ben Platt / MLB.com
This was the case with "Moneyball," the story of A's general manager Billy Beane -- played by Brad Pitt -- who would have to think differently and reinvent the rules if his small-market team was going to compete with the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox, teams with payrolls four times larger.
Michael Lewis' 2003 best-selling book gave a detailed look at how Beane and his assistant general manager, Paul DePodesta, in '02 attempted to challenge the tried-and-true baseball theories about scouting and evaluating talent with the sabermetrics approach championed by author Bill James.
"'Moneyball' is a classic underdog story," said Pitt, who also serves as one of the producers of the film. "They go up against the system. How are they going to survive? How are they going to compete? Even if they do groom good talent, that talent gets poached by the big-market, big-money teams. And what these guys decided was they couldn't fight the other guy's fight or they were going to lose. They had to reexamine everything, to look for new knowledge, to find some kind of justice."
But the question remained: Could what essentially was a business book translate into a motion picture?
"I didn't see it as a movie when I was writing it as a book," said Lewis, who would later write another bestseller called "The Blind Side" that, in 2009, starred Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock. "I did think it had a lot of emotional appeal. I thought there was an emotional story, even though there was an intellectual component. I didn't think they were going to be able to tease those emotions out onto the screen."
With the rights to the book purchased and Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh ("Traffic") and Oscar-winning screenwriter Steve Zaillian ("Schindler's List") on board, the film went through the normal developmental process. Soderbergh asked Pitt, who had co-starred for the director in "Ocean's 11" and its two sequels, to star as Beane. Soderbergh made changes to the script and wanted to use a lot of the real characters, including Art Howe, who was the manager of the A's in 2002, and David Justice, in the film, but four days before production was to begin in '09, the studio halted production and Soderbergh left the project.
"It would have worked," said Pitt about the original concept. "It just came down to economics like everything else. It wasn't that the studio wasn't behind his vision, they weren't behind it at that price tag, and that's their prerogative. We're big boys, and that's how it goes. We had to pick up and start again."
Conventional wisdom in Hollywood is when film production is halted, the majority of the time, the project is shelved and never seen or heard from again. But "Moneyball" had a champion who didn't want to see this story die.
"You want to know why this film was made?" said Lewis. "Go over and talk to Brad Pitt. He's the reason why this film was made."
"This was a book I couldn't put down. I couldn't let go of it," said Pitt. "It's complicated material, it's not a conventional story that I'm always looking for, and in it had colors of R.P. McMurphy [the main character in 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'], a character who is the same beast in the end that he is in the beginning. But the world around him changes a couple of degrees, and you're dealing with these underdogs who changed the game and made people look at things differently."
Pitt and his producing partners stuck with the project and brought Bennett Miller, who was nominated for a best director Oscar for his debut film, "Capote," to direct the movie. Miller cast Jonah Hill to play Peter Brand, a character based on DePodesta, and his "Capote" star, Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, to play Howe.
Pitt and Miller also brought in Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network") to build on Zaillian's script and find a center to the story, which ended up being more about Beane and Brand's relationship and what the A's team accomplished in that magical 2002 season, including a record-setting 20-game winning streak.
"During that streak, I think everybody on the club contributed in some fashion toward winning," said Howe, who was not a big fan of his portrayal in the book. "It was a great group of guys, and I always joked that we didn't need a team bus, because everybody was there way early, and I think our traveling secretary was on the team bus with the writers and that was about it."
"Anytime you're portrayed in anything, it's flattering," said Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, who was the first-base coach for the A's from 1997-2006 and is portrayed in the film. "I was a part of the times there in Oakland, and we were very successful during that period of time. For me, I played a very little part of it, but to be part of that success is flattering."
Finally, production commenced during the summer of 2010, and the final product was especially gratifying to Lewis, who didn't originally believe the filmmakers could bring the essence of his book to the silver screen.
"I was shocked, absolutely shocked," said Lewis. "It really did surprise me. It really works well with the book. If you saw the movie and you needed to know more, you can go to the book, and the movie does get to the essence of it, and that's all you can ask."
But another question also arises: Did Beane truly change the game? Sorkin has his own thoughts.
"People have been arguing about that since Michael Lewis' great book came out," said Sorkin. "I hope those arguments continue in the parking lot of the theater after people see the movie.
"This is less a story about whether Billy Beane really changed baseball, whether or not his methods, his strategy are the right way to go. It is simply about a human underdog story about what necessity pushes us to sometimes -- a redefinition of courage and a world that says, 'No, we've been doing it this way for a hundred years' and a guy who says, 'OK, we're going to try it this way.'"
For the man who is in the center of it all, the experience of having his life on the big screen for all to see has been an interesting one.
"Even being a part of it with the book with Michael and everything, I was really struggling to see how they were going to turn this into what they did," said Beane. "It was amazing that they turned that book into a movie, and as I was telling Brad, 'If it wasn't me, I'd love the movie.' So that's probably the best thing I can say."
"Moneyball," produced by Sony Pictures, opens nationwide on Friday.
Ben Platt is a national correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.