Movies and baseball marry well for a reason. They both start with a pitch, they both involve contentious teams and intense efforts that lead to more strikeouts than home runs, and they’re both overseen by people who believe that if you work the numbers hard enough, you can always find a way to win.
One more thing they share: The closer we get to fall, the more we root for long shots. And Moneyball, which opens September 23, is one such underdog. Michael Lewis’s 2003 book focused on Billy Beane, the general manager of the then-impoverished Oakland A’s, who used a kind of quantitative analysis known as sabermetrics to create a winning team and, more miraculously, to combat the huge payroll inequities between baseball’s richest and poorest organizations. Beane’s quixotic attempts to reform a hidebound system and turn a ragtag starting lineup of last-chancers into champions forms Moneyball’s heart. But consider that the above summary hinges on words like sabermetrics and payroll inequities, and you begin to understand why—even with the dogged support of Brad Pitt—Moneyball took nearly a decade, three directors, three writers, an almost complete recasting, and a public collapse before it got made. “There were some hard days,” says Pitt. By which he means years.
It didn’t start out that way. Moneyball was a quick sell to Hollywood when it was first published, back when every studio still wanted to be in the indie-style movie business. Producer Rachael Horovitz, who snatched up the rights in 2003, had had enough experience in studio trenches to feel instant kinship with a book subtitled “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” “I thoroughly related to the themes of starting over, reinvention, trusting in yourself to think and act differently,” she recalls. And in Beane she saw a “fantastic movie character”—a burned-out baseball prodigy who’d flamed out early and unimpressively and who was now, in middle age, determined to make a mark on the game he loved.
But there were problems, beginning at the source. Lewis’s book is less a narrative than a riveting Gladwellian case study in which a single outlier occasions a series of meditations on the risk-averse institution of baseball. This is not something that screams adaptation, Pitt says, citing “the difficulty of making a movie whose front window is dressed with economics and science and math.” You can’t simply hack away all the nuances to reboot the story as an inspirational sports weepie the way, for instance, the adapters of Lewis’s The Blind Side did; Moneyball’s nuances are its narrative.
“Sports movies work when they transcend the sport they’re about and become metaphoric,” says Michael De Luca, who joined Horovitz as producer early on, soon after leaving his position as president of production at DreamWorks. For him—as for nearly everyone involved at that stage—Beane’s David-and-Goliath story already functioned as a metaphor, for his own life in Hollywood. “The notion that occasionally you get revolutionary thinkers who speak truth to conventional wisdom—well, as a former production head subject to other people’s green-light decisions, that’s a fantasy I had continued to indulge!” De Luca exclaims. “I also loved the idea that your price isn’t always your value. Billy Beane gave a lot of players other teams had discarded an opportunity to prove their real worth. Those themes really made me feel there was a movie in this.”
Pitt came aboard in late 2007 to play Beane and quickly “became obsessed” as well. “I saw it as a story about justice,” he says. “How is a team with a $40 million payroll going to compete with a team with a $140 million payroll and another $100 million in reserves? Any talent they grow is going to get poached by the rich teams. That became really interesting to me.”
For Pitt, Moneyball also evoked “films about process,” particularly the seventies movies he loved. “I thought of The Conversation: How do you tap a phone? Or Thief, with Jimmy Caan: How do you crack a safe?” Pitt says. “And I saw in it a guy who had an obsessive quality like Popeye Doyle,” from The French Connection. “I don’t really like big character-arc epiphanies. What I most loved about those seventies films is that the characters were the same at the end as at the beginning. It was the world around them that had shifted.” In Beane, he says, “I saw a man going up against a system, questioning the reasoning: Just because we’ve been doing it this way for 150 years, why shouldn’t we change it?”
The involvement of an A-list star instantly made Moneyball a film that could actually get produced, and led, inevitably, to some personnel changes. Neophyte screenwriter Stan Chervin was replaced by veteran A-lister Steven Zaillian, whose experience adapting nonfiction included Schindler’s List and A Civil Action. And Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel departed in 2008, making room for Steven Soderbergh, who had worked with Pitt three times before.