In the Oscar-nominated film Moneyball, Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, a baseball manager obsessed with turning his cash-strapped team into a contender. Pitt says that drive is what attracted him to the role that has earned him a best-actor nod.
"He was a guy who had been devalued by the sport as a player and now is working as a GM for a small-market team," Pitt says. After an unsuccessful big-league career, Beane struggles to find a level playing field in a sport where money tilts the table. "There is such a gulf in what these teams have to spend on talent [that] they can never play equally — they can never have a true competition."
Beane is fully consumed by his job, divorced and trying to stay in touch with his daughter — not exactly a well-rounded character. But Pitt says that's what makes him interesting.
"I like him for his idiosyncrasies — that he can't watch the games without getting too emotional, that he often has food down his shirt, that he tends to break a few chairs now and then," Pitt says. "These things make him human."
Those idiosyncrasies are evident in a scene between Beane and the owner of the Oakland A's. He's asking the owner for more money to sign better players, and his frustration and even desperation are clear. Yet he smiles.
"What I like about that scene is he knows he's losing the argument," Pitt says. "He's getting more and more frustrated and therefore getting more and more pushy and trying every Hail Mary he can to get in there and reason — to the point where he almost insults his boss. And he's got no other cards to play, and maybe that's the [reason for the] smirk — it's a no-win situation."
Scouts Onscreen: An Insider's View
Moneyball is based on a true story, but Pitt says such films walk a line between approximating reality as it happened and letting the world of the film become its own reality.
"They're in this dynamic flux every day," Pitt says, "and the day you shoot that day informs the day after, what you're going to shoot next."
For example, in a scene between Beane and his scouts when they discuss picks for the upcoming draft, Pitt says, you can see how the process of research for the film changed the outcome.
"We had a work session where about 30 scouts came in and out," Pitt says. "We're all riffing, and after it, [director] Bennett Miller said, 'Look at these faces: This is what we have to do — we gotta get these guys in the scene.' "
In the film, Beane sits at a table with actual scouts and veterans of baseball, all middle-aged or well beyond. Beane, in his mid-40s, is probably the youngest at the table. When he explains his picks for the upcoming draft, it's Beane's instinct against the experience in the room — and the scouts react with realistic skepticism.
Pitt says that though Moneyball had the talents of screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin going for it, they weren't baseball insiders.
"The [scouts] could lend an authenticity that's even beyond what we had on the page," Pitt says.
Pitt is listed as a producer on the film, but despite the clout that comes with that credit — and with being an above-the-title star — he says he always works for the director.
"I just take credit for being smart enough to find a guy as smart as Benett to tell the story," Pitt says.
Miller joined the production midstream as its third director, after several stops and starts. Before Miller, David Frankel and Steven Soderbergh had both been set to direct.
"We came up to the last minute," Pitt says. "We were supposed to be filming days before, [but] the studio didn't like the price. They had no problem with the story, but at that price, they could not justify it. And we could not bring it down to a price that both sides would be happy with, so we had to start over."
Asked if the experience of making the film had any similarity to that of Billy Beane putting together a championship baseball team, Pitt chuckles.
"A little bit, yes," he says. "I dare make those comparisons, but we often said 'the making of' would be as interesting if not more interesting than the film."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When the Academy Awards are given out this month, Brad Pitt will have a shot at two for his work on "Moneyball." He's nominated for Best Actor as the star of the film based on the true story of the general manager of baseball's Oakland A's. The film won praise for finding drama without all that many Hollywood tricks. It's the story of a guy who does not play baseball anymore but remakes the game through statistical analysis.
Brad Pitt can also get an Oscar for Best Picture because he's listed as a producer.
BRAD PITT: Producer means you get to - it's a further extension, first of all, of acting. But you get to start from the inception of an idea what a film is going to be. So, you get to start with story in its most nascent form, and that's what I most appreciate. And something that's not talked about enough is tone, deciding on the tone of a film and all these pieces and moving parts that you put together is all in support of that tone.
INSKEEP: "Moneyball" had many pieces and moving parts. Before audiences could see the story of a baseball executive assembling the right pitchers, catchers and fielders, somebody had to assemble a director, cast and crew. It took Pitt several years and a lot of frustration to make that happen.
Was there something that obsessed you about this story?
PITT: Yeah. I was obsessed with the story of this obsessive person who wanted to find a leveled field. He was a guy who had been devalued by the sport as a player and now is working as a GM for a small-market team. And there is such a gulf in what these teams have to spend on talent. Therefore, they can never play equally - they can never have a true competition.
INSKEEP: I'd like to play a little clip, if I can, from "Moneyball." This is a scene early I the movie in which your character, Billy Beane, is meeting with the team owner and basically begging for more money; a bigger payroll to make a better team for next season.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MONEYBALL")
PITT: (as Billy Beane) I need more money.
JOHN GOODMAN: (as Stephen Schott) We don't have any more money.
PITT: (as Billy Beane) I can't compete against $120 million payroll with $38 million.
GOODMAN: (as Stephen Schott) We're not going to compete with these teams that have big budgets.
PITT: (as Billy Beane) I'm not asking you for tens and 20, $30 million. I'm just asking for a little bit of help. Just get me a little bit closer, and I will get you that championship team. I mean, this is why I'm here. This is why you hired me. And I got to ask you, what are we doing here...
GOODMAN: (as Stephen Schott) Well, you know...
PITT: (as Billy Beane) ...if it's not to win a championship?
INSKEEP: I want to ask about the expression on your face in roles like that. People who see the movie may note it, that in those moments of frustration or desperation even, your character often gets a little smile, a little smirk on his face. Are you consciously expressing something? Is that just Brad Pitt? I mean, it seems like several emotions are on his face all at the same time. It's rather effecting.
PITT: I'm not aware of that actually. What I like about is he knows he's losing the argument and he's getting more and more frustrated, and therefore more and more pushy and trying, you know, every Hail Mary he can to get in there and reason. And to the point where he almost insults his boss and he's got no other cards to play, and maybe that's the smirk - it's a no-win situation.
INSKEEP: Part of his character, part of his charm is that he just clearly doesn't have a well-rounded life. He's obsessed with work, he's divorced. He tries to stay in touch with his daughter. But this is a guy who is consumed with work.
PITT: Well-rounded is not necessarily my concern. I like him for the fact that he - you know, his idiosyncrasies, that he can't watch the games without getting too emotional, that he's often has food down his shirt, he tends to break a few chairs now and then. I mean, these things make him human. These things make him interesting to me.
INSKEEP: It occurs to me that, as a movie viewer, that it was quite lucky for you that your character doesn't watch the game. Because if he did, I mean as the general manager, he'd just be sitting there helpless. But instead, your character can sprawl out in the weight room. He can get in a truck and drive around. He could turn the radio on. He could turn it off with a key pitch. There are things for you to do as an actor you couldn't do in the stands.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PITT: Yes, that is true.
INSKEEP: When you do a film that is based on reality, as "Moneyball is, there must be a point at which you have to let go of your best approximation of the reality and let it become its own reality.
PITT: Films are like that. They're in this dynamic flux every day. And the day you shoot that day informs the day after, what you're going to shoot next. In the scout scene, for example, putting that together; people talking on each other, trying to discover the rhythm of it and maybe one of the scouts has another way to say it that's more inside baseball.
INSKEEP: Let's describe for people that scene, who haven't seen the movie. You're sitting around a table with a bunch of baseball scouts and other veterans of the team. They are middle-aged or well beyond middle aged. You're character, in his mid 40's, is probably about the youngest guy at the table. And it's your character's instinct against everybody else's the experience.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MONEYBALL")
PITT: (as Billy Beane) OK, here's what we want. David Justice.
STEPHEN BISHOP: (as David Justice) Oh, no.
KEN MEDLOCK: (as Grady Fuson) It's not a good idea, Billy.
GLENN MORSHOWER: (as Ron Hopkins) Old Man Justice.
PITT: (as Billy Beane) Why is that?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Barry) Steinbrenner is so pissed at his decline that he's willing to eat a big chunk of his contract just to get rid of him. Anybody can...
PITT: (as Billy Beane) Exactly.
MEDLOCK: (as Grady Fuson) Ten years ago. David Justice, a big name. Been in a lot of big games. He's going to really help our season tickets early in of the year. But we get into dog days in July and August, he's lucky if he's going to hit his weight.
INSKEEP: So these are real baseball scouts and the...
INSKEEP: ...that they're coming up to say, were they things that they had actually said at some point in their life, like that guy is going to be a great player - he's got a good strong jaw.
PITT: Yeah. We had a work session where about 30 scouts came in and we're all riffing. And after it, Bennett Miller said: Look at these faces and this is what we have to got to do. We got to get these guys in the scene. We had a couple of the best writers in town, but they're not inside baseball. And these guys could lend an authenticity that's even beyond what we had on the page.
INSKEEP: So you brought them in for research and then they became part of the film.
PITT: That's right.
INSKEEP: When you're - well, when you're Brad Pitt and you're also listed as a producer on the film, is the director - are you working for the director, Bennett Miller? Or is working for you?
PITT: No, always working for the director. I just take credit for being smart enough to find a guy as smart as Bennett to tell the story.
INSKEEP: Didn't Bennett Miller join this production in midstream?
PITT: Yes, there were several starts and stops. And he was the third director to pick this thing up. First was David Frankel, and then Steven Soderbergh, and then Bennett came in.
INSKEEP: What happened?
PITT: Well, we came up to the last minute. We were supposed to be filming days before, and when the studio head seen the script they didn't like the price. They had no problem with the story. But at that price, they could not justify it. And we could not bring it down to a price that both sides would be happy with, so we had to start over."
INSKEEP: Oh now, wait a minute. Were you having the same kind of experience that Billy Beane was having trying to put together a baseball team for not quite as much money as "Avatar," say?
PITT: A little bit, yes. A little bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PITT: I dare make those comparisons, but we often said the making of would be as interesting if not more interesting than the film.
INSKEEP: Well, Brad Pitt, thanks very much.
PITT: Thank you. I appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: He's up for several Academy Awards, including two for "Moneyball."
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.