Why the new Brad Pitt film is right on the 'Money'
I have to admit that when Michael DeLuca called me earlier this year, saying he was finally going to get "Moneyball" made into a movie, I figured he must've been smoking the proverbial Hollywood crack pipe.
Anyone who loves baseball has read Michael Lewis' bestseller about how Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane almost single-handedly upended the traditional way baseball evaluates athletic talent. Beane was a prized young baseball player who ended up being picked by the New York Mets in the 1980 major league draft. To the old scouts, Beane was considered a phenom because, well, he looked like a phenom. With his slim, muscular athletic physique, he ran, threw the ball and swung the bat the way great baseball players were supposed to.
But Beane was a bust. He ended up playing only 148 games in the majors, hitting a pathetic .219. So when Beane became a talent evaluator, eventually emerging as the general manager of the Oakland A's, he spent far more time studying arcane statistics like on-base percentage than he did worrying about whether a prospect was tall or lean or chiseled. Beane's shrewd wheeling and dealing and his embrace of the stats-driven science of sabermetrics helped the under-financed A's become a perennial contender in the American League West.
As the story is told by Lewis in "Moneyball," Beane is a classic outlaw hero, thumbing his nose at decades of baseball tradition in his irreverent efforts to transform the sport's hidebound ideas of how to scout talent. Still, it felt like an impossible dream to imagine that Hollywood would possibly transform the Beane saga into a feature film, because the saga has no love story, no real villains and lots of wonky baseball chatter. But sometimes improbable stories do get told. Not only is "Moneyball" set to start shooting on June 11, but the $57-million project is in the hands of a first-class group of talent, with Brad Pitt playing Beane and Steven Soderbergh directing a shooting script penned by the much decorated Steve Zaillian ("Schindler's List").
What's more, having read the final script, I can only say that the story is amazingly faithful to the book, capturing the rebellious energy of Beane as he butts heads with the old-school baseball establishment. Soderbergh, who will serve as his own cinematographer on the film, is so adamant about sticking close to the tone and texture of the book that he is having many of the actual characters involved with the 2002-era events -- including Oakland A's Manager Art Howe, catcher-turned-first baseman Scott Hatteberg and outfielder David Justice -- play themselves.
How did this unlikely project make it to the starting gate? Keep reading:
It all started when a woman named Rachael Horovitz decided that she needed some good books to read when she went to Tahiti in 2003 for a much-needed vacation. Having spent years working at Fine Line and Revolution, Horovitz decided to strike out on her own and become a producer. She fell in love with "Moneyball," not so much for its inside take on baseball, but because it was such a compelling example of a workplace drama. "For me, the movie is a love story about a man and his job," she explained the other day.
The film rights were there for the taking. "Every studio had passed on the book," she recalled. Horovitz recruited the screenwriter Stan Chervin, who'd written some other baseball scripts, to help put together a solid pitch. They took it around town, got several bites, but the studio that was the most enthusiastic was Sony, largely thanks to Amy Baer, then a production executive there and a big fan of the book.
"Everyone at Sony was incredibly supportive," Horovitz said. "Of course, they all asked the same question -- how do you make a movie out of it? I kept telling everyone 'This is a story anyone can relate to, because it's basically a second chance story. It's about a guy whose early failure could have doomed him to failure, but managed to turn it into a huge life lesson.'"
Sony teamed Horovitz up with DeLuca, the longtime New Line Cinema production chief who'd also become a producer, with a production deal at Sony. DeLuca had his own reasons for identifying with "Moneyball." If anyone in Hollywood could relate to how Beane turned the A's into a contender without the resources of high payroll teams like the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox, it was DeLuca, who for years had pulled rabbits out of hats at New Line, as the studio usually had a fraction of the operating budget of bigger studios like Sony or Warners.
The New Line of 1998 was incredibly similar to the Oakland A's of 2002. Just as Beane traded for unsung players when he couldn't re-sign a costly free agent, DeLuca helped create valuable franchises on the cheap, using actors like Ice Cube ("Friday") and Mike Myers ("Austin Powers"), who more established studios had little interest in. It was DeLuca who helped transform relative unknown filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights") and David Fincher ("Seven") into cinema stars.
"I personally identify with every movie I'm involved with, which I guess makes me a total narcissist," DeLuca said with a laugh. "But it doesn't take much of a stretch to see New Line as the Oakland A's, always having to make do with less while catching a lot of crap from the establishment for the crazy, unorthodox things we did."
DeLuca and Horovitz kept pushing the script process forward. When more work was needed, they brought in the team of Stephen Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, who'd written the Will Smith-starring "Ali" for Sony. A year or so ago, Pitt took an interest in the project, which of course put it on a front burner at the studio. Pitt was a natural for the part. As DeLuca put it: "If you try to think of a movie star who could embody someone like Beane -- a former athlete who's an incredibly physical specimen with movie good looks -- you pretty much get to Brad Pitt right away."
With Pitt interested, Zaillian came on board to do a major rewrite, with an eye on authenticity. Soon Soderbergh was on board as well, in part because of a recommendation from Fincher, who'd been working with Pitt on "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
"Soderbergh was especially interested in having the story stick to the reality of the book as much as possible," DeLuca said. "What was great about the book was that it was compelling and original, with a character who shakes the foundations of conventional wisdom. So we felt the script had to do the same thing. It had to be original. If anyone felt about a scene -- geez, I've seen that in 10 other sports films -- we'd lose what was great about the book."
In some ways, it's easy to understand why Hollywood finally fell for the Billy Beane story. He's the Sammy Glick of baseball, a far closer cousin to Ari Emanuel than legendary baseball GMs like Al Campanis or Buzzie Bavasi. Beane is a scrappy hustler with a shrewd eye for talent, always playing the angles, one step ahead of his rivals, always on the lookout for the next ingenious deal.
For filmmakers, Beane brings baseball into sharp focus. DeLuca admits that although he was a Yankees fan as a boy, he really loved sports movies more than the sports themselves. "Sports films are great because they're allegorical -- they're a great metaphor for life," he said. "It's how you learn about relationships and heroism and friendship and teamwork and tragedy. I guess it's why we're trying to stay so close to reality with this story, because in 'Moneyball,' the drama is all there already. There's no reason why you have to make anything up."
Photo of Billy Beane (left) by US Presswire; Brad Pitt by EPA.