But this wasn’t going to be Ocean’s Fourteen: Soderbergh was just coming off the massive eccentric historical docudrama Che and was eager to continue playing with the gray area between drama and factual authenticity. Where Pitt saw a story about justice, Soderbergh saw one about Justice—specifically, outfielder David Justice, who, along with former major-leaguer Scott Hatteberg, was enlisted to play himself. Art Howe, the longtime A’s manager and occasional Beane antagonist, was wooed as well. Other big names, including Lenny Dykstra and Darryl Strawberry, were drafted for interview segments intended to contextualize the dramatic action—a device one insider calls “Steven’s Reds thing,” meaning the Warren Beatty movie, not the Cincinnati baseball team. Soderbergh also cast the lanky, sharp-minded alt-comedian Demetri Martin as Moneyball’s second lead, the semi-fictionalized “Peter Brand,” a nerdy, tightly wound young number-cruncher and baseball savant who serves as Beane’s more freewheeling adviser.
Moneyball appeared to be on the fast track to production. But instead, in what Pitt calls “definitely a dark week” in June 2009, it derailed. It’s likely to take a few years of cooling temperatures before the full backstory is revealed, but what went public was bad enough: Just days before production, Sony chairman Amy Pascal slammed on the brakes. Reportedly, Sony was upset that the film had veered in an alarmingly documentary-ish direction, although how surprised anyone involved could have been remains unclear, since the planned use of real-life players was already public knowledge and several documentary segments had been filmed. Sony, in a paroxysm of postcrash panic, may also have balked at the $57 million budget, low by blockbuster standards but high for a prestige fall movie (ultimately, the film cost about that much anyway). In any case, when the dust cleared, Soderbergh was out, an experience so disheartening that his recent threats to retire become a little more understandable. And the film itself retained a pulse only because of Pitt’s support. “I just couldn’t let it go,” he says.
Pitt quickly “became obsessed” with the project. “I saw it as a story about justice.”
At that point, De Luca, who had been caught flat-footed by the bad news while honeymooning, “threw the bat-signal up for Scott Rudin and Aaron Sorkin,” with whom he’d just worked on the yet-unreleased Social Network. Sorkin added humor to the script by punching up the dialogue, and also enriched Beane’s relationship with his ex-wife and especially with his young daughter, an arc that plays out straight through the completed film. But the film was still missing a director. On the recommendation of his friend Catherine Keener, Pitt met with Bennett Miller, who had won an Oscar nomination for 2005’s Capote but hadn’t made a movie since. “I saw Moneyball as the story of one guy, in his mid-forties, who is beginning to question decisions he made when he was younger,” says Miller, 44. “There’s a line in the book about Billy wondering if there was another life he was supposed to be living. To me it’s a classic search-for-wisdom story about a character who’s dislocated from his life, trying to find his way. It’s not a baseball movie or a business movie or a movie about stats. It’s a wisdom story with an unlikely setting.”
But to make that kind of movie, Miller felt, the script still needed work. (In the end, it was credited to Zaillian and Sorkin, with story credit to Chervin.) “Mostly, it was a matter of remembering the thing I wanted to protect and always asking myself how every element served it,” he says, noting that “the work continued throughout prep, as we were shooting, and even as we were cutting.” Miller, a methodical, low-key director who tends to channel his nervous energies into attention to detail, was wary about “satisfying so many big interests—there was Major League Baseball,” which had demanded certain script alterations in exchange for its cooperation, “a big star, and a studio, and so many drafts, and a book that’s chock-full of interesting nuggets but has no real narrative. How does it become a movie?” he asked. “It sort of had to die and be reborn as something new.”
That meant jettisoning the interview footage as well as the notion of real-life baseball figures playing themselves. Instead, Miller cast Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt as Hatteberg, an injured catcher whom Beane reincarnated as a first-baseman, and got his Capote star Philip Seymour Hoffman to play Howe. But his most surprising choice was for Peter Brand. Demetri Martin was a casualty of Soderbergh’s departure (fittingly, you can see him in Soderbergh’s Contagion next month). His replacement: Jonah Hill, the explosively funny, trash-talking star of Superbad, and absolutely nobody’s idea of a buttoned-up brainiac whose expressive range seems to be governed by a giant, invisible mute button.