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'Moneyball' author Michael Lewis: Brad Pitt hit a homer

November 11, 2011 | 12:31 pm

Brad Pitt

Michael Lewis, journalist and author of bestselling books including "Liar's Poker," "The Blind Side" and "The Big Short," specializes in writing about money and economics through a scrim of righteous anger and ironic humor. He digs into the quirks of the stock market and paints vivid portraits of the Wall Street sharks and feckless politicians who nearly busted the global economy.

With his book "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," published in 2003, Lewis turned his razor-sharp reportorial eye on baseball, specifically Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane and his unorthodox strategy of stocking his team with low-paid, undervalued players who had the ability to get on base rather than with coddled millionaire superstars. Director Bennett Miller's film adaptation, starring Brad Pitt as Beane, is one of this fall's best-reviewed movies.

24 Frames' Reed Johnson spoke with Lewis about the big-screen version of "Moneyball" during a recent L.A. stopover to promote his latest book, "Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World." He shared his thoughts on the likelihood of "Moneyball" finding its way to the screen, Pitt's starring turn and the strange similarities between misvaluing players in Major League Baseball and misvaluing assets on Wall Street.

"The book ['Moneyball'] comes out in ’03. And that point I had, I don’t know, three or four books and half a dozen magazine articles bought or optioned by the movie business, including 'Liar’s Poker,' where Warner Bros. had spent several million dollars trying to get a script. And so from my point of view, the movie business was this machine for taking my stuff, paying me money for it but then burying it. And this one, if you had asked me to rank, in order of promise, movie promise, the books that had been bought up to that point, books and magazine articles, there are half a dozen that were clearly much more suited to turn into movies than 'Moneyball.' So I thought it was just another one.

"I told Billy Beane this, I said –- because he was worried, he didn’t really want a movie made -- I said, 'Don’t worry, they’ll never make it.' And the way it works is every 18 months or something they have to re-up the option. Every 18 months they’d call and a check would come in the mail, and Billy Beane would get a check. And he’d say, 'This is great, you’re right, they’re never going to make it, and they just send us checks every 18 months!' And he said, 'How long does it last?' and I said, 'Until they give up. And eventually they’re gonna give up.' And then the thing all of a sudden went live. All of a sudden it was clear that they weren’t fooling around.

"And the moment came when, well, I guess they were about to start filming, [original director] Steven Soderbergh was about to start filming. And I can remember Billy saying, 'You promised me they weren’t going to make this thing!' And I was as shocked as he was. And then it fell apart. He said, 'You’re right, you’re right, they don’t make these things, they just pretend they’re going to make them! And then it goes away.' So when it actually happened I thought -– I really thought this -– it was going to be embarrassing.

"At this point, though, 'The Blind Side' had come out, and I had a new ritual: bring the whole family, my parents, the extended family, to wherever the premiere was and everybody’d go to the premiere. I was imagining how awful it was going to be when the whole family was sitting there, watching this jaw-droppingly bad movie, and then everybody was going to have to stand up and pretend to have enjoyed it afterward. I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is going to be a disaster.' And this may be delusional, but I don’t think they affect the perception of the books. Because the only people who have a view about the book are the people who’ve really read the book, whose view matters. Enough people will have read that it doesn’t matter if the movie is bad. But I just thought it was going to be a social embarrassment.

"I had seen scripts, and they were not promising. And then I got a call from a friend who’s a senior executive at Sony and said he’d seen some outtakes, and he said, ‘Not good.’ And he said, 'They tell me there’s a movie in there, but not good.' And I thought, 'Hmmm, this is kind of what I thought.’ And then I went and saw a very rough cut. This is very rough, and I knew it’d be quite different from the movie, three months before the movie was finished. And I couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe how good it was.

"And to this day I can’t figure out why it worked so well. I have some thoughts about it, but I haven’t got a satisfying explanation. But basically Bennett Miller and Brad Pitt and probably Wally Pfister, the cinematographer, all completely understood that they were getting across an idea, and they embodied the idea in images and performances in all sorts of subtle ways. So the idea, I think, was how we misvalue other people. That’s why the Oakland A’s had this opportunity: The baseball players are misvalued by this marketplace. So we have the misvalued players, the Chris Pratts and so on and so forth. But Billy Beane himself is a misvalued person. He was overvalued, and it screwed up his life at one point. But they take this idea, and they weave it, they use it as a guide for the other aspects of the movie-making.

"And I felt like even in Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill’s performances you were seeing them slightly differently. Jonah Hill had never done that kind of acting before. He can do it. His acting performance is echoing this thing that the movie’s about. So the performances themselves are kind of mimetic. The performances themselves are causing you to say, 'Oh, my, this person isn’t exactly who I thought he was.' I’d say that’s even true of Brad Pitt’s performance. And Brad Pitt felt that way. He felt like, to me, a lot of times his performances have felt like he doesn’t want the responsibility of the movie star. He doesn’t like that role. Here he’s just off the leash, and I just felt like he didn’t hold back. The thing about his performance that surprised me: I don’t think I’ve ever seen him convey emotion so well with subtle expression. And there was a lot of little stuff he did that surprised me. It was his performance that I found moving. What was moving, I asked? I’m actually getting the feeling of the struggle of a noble soul in a very difficult situation. And it isn’t because he’s throwing chairs across the room.

"But there’s a funny kind of connection between Billy Beane and the Wall Street crisis. It was this: The only reason 'Moneyball' got read was Wall Street picked it up when it came out as a metaphor for investing. Because it was investing in baseball players. It was a better way to value an asset. And that’s what everybody’s trying to do on Wall Street -- find better ways to value assets. And for a period of four or five  years, I bet he was the most sought-after Wall Street paid speaker. He spoke to Lehmann Brothers, to Goldman, over and over and over. And they would stand up and cheer. And at the same time they were misvaluing assets as they possibly have never been done in history. And so they heard the message and then did what they did anyway. And got paid handsomely to do it. So it’s a funny thing that the lesson got so lost."

Read the rest of The Times' interview with Lewis here.


Movie review: 'Moneyball'

Brad Pitt owes a debt to Benjamin Button

Inside 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'

-- Reed Johnson

Photo: Brad Pitt, left, and Jonah Hill star in Columbia Pictures' drama "Moneyball." Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon / Columbia Pictures/MCT

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