‘Moneyball's’ Bennett Miller: It's Not a Baseball Movie, It's ‘The Wizard of Oz’

Director of the Oscar-contending film says making a low-key studio movie is like assembling a small-market baseball team

When Bennett Miller was hired by Sony Pictures to direct "Moneyball," his task wasn't completely dissimilar from being chosen to manage a struggling baseball team with a couple of stars and a lot of problems.

Director Steven Soderbergh had spent years developing the project, which was based on a compelling but statistics-heavy book about how Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane — a failed ballplayer himself — had used new methods of statistical analysis to build a winning team on a small payroll.

Bennett MillerBut Sony had pulled the plug just as Soderbergh was going into production. Based on a script by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, it would have included documentary-style interviews with some of the real people involved, and an animated version of  stats guru Bill James, which would occasionally interrupt the film to lecture the audience.

Inheriting the troubled production with the support of star Brad Pitt, "Capote" director Miller ditched the talking heads and made a tense, smart, talky drama. It opened to $19.5 million last weekend (so-so for a Pitt film, great for a baseball movie) and instantly went to the top of many critics' lists and awards forecasts.

On the heels of that opening, Miller talked to TheWrap about approaching the film the way Billy Beane approached the A's. In conversation, the 44-year-old, New York-based director is thoughtful, deliberate and halting; you could fit entire Sorkin monologues into the spaces between his words.

So, how are you feeling?
I've never had so many people ask me about my feelings in my life. [laughs] You want people to see it, and you want it to mean something to people. Anybody who makes a film and says that they're cavalier about those things has got to be lying. So this kind of reaction is ultimately the big reward.

What version of that long-in-development script did you first read when Brad Pitt asked you to get involved?
I was given a pile of stuff. The first thing I read was Aaron Sorkin's first revision of Steve Zaillian's script. And then I read the Zaillian script that Sorkin had worked from. And then I read the book.

Going backwards?
Swimming upstream to the source.

Was there a key in that material that made you think, I can do this?
There was. It had to do with Billy's backstory. It had to do with this line in the book about Billy believing that there was a life he was meant to be living, there was some other life out there for him. Meaning, when he was a kid he made a big decision, and took the check [from the New York Mets] and the temptation and went down one road – and now later in life, he's thinking about what his life could have been.

And I think that's something pretty much everybody can relate to. You get to a certain age and ask yourself, Is this really my life? What if I had made different decisions? Do I concede that this is my lot, or do I begin to challenge the notions I was reared in and the things that led to this life?

There's something else Michael Lewis wrote in the book, which is that this more effective, scientific approach to looking at the game was exciting to Billy not just because they presented a possible way of winning, but also because they explained him. They explained his failure to live up to expectations. And that, to me, feels like something you can build a movie on.

Jonah Hill and Bennett MillerIn other words, you didn't see it as a baseball movie.
It's really the classic, universal, timeless story: the search for wisdom. It's "The Wizard of Oz," it's King Arthur. You're misplaced from home, from the life you're supposed to be living. There's disharmony, and you can find yourself facing some impossible adventure or task with the understanding that if you do this, order will be restored and you'll be returned.

I loved the notion that this kind of enlightenment could occur and this story could play itself out in this very unlikely setting, in baseball and in the industrial sprawl of Oakland.

Did it ever feel precarious, picking up a movie from another director who'd had the plug pulled on him?
You can't allow yourself to get to distracted by that. Making a movie is always filled with a tremendous amount of noise and distraction. There are always 10,000 things to pull your mind off of what you should be concerning yourself with. But if you have a vision of the thing you want to do, and you are in love with it, obstacles don't loom as daunting as they might otherwise. Meaning, everything that wasn’t about making the movie I wanted to make seemed ignorable.

The baseball scenes in the film are realistic, but there aren't many of them. Was there any pressure to have a certain amount of action take place on the field rather than in the back rooms?
If you're approaching the movie from the outside, you might have thoughts like that. Sure, there are these expectations: it's a baseball movie, it's a Brad Pitt movie, it's a Jonah Hill movie.

But for me, it is about the guy who is struggling to do something that could ultimately turn out to be redemptive. It's a portrait of a guy, Billy Beane, who's involved in a very dynamic, personal struggle, and one that I think is absorbing, engaging, engrossing, interesting and relevant. And if you get into the core of that, and then that works, then you can ask the question, what role does baseball action have in that story?

We can use that baseball drama, employ it as a tool to help convey this guy's story. And beyond that, it doesn’t really have a place.

I'm a huge baseball fan, and I thought the movie was terrific. But at times I did sit there thinking, Wait a minute, the success of this Oakland team wasn't all about finding unwanted players. This team did have the best starting rotation in baseball, and the Cy Young Award winner, and the MVP. Was it a conscious decision not to bring up those other factors?
Yeah. It had nothing more to do with than simple efficiency. There's nothing that were trying to avoid and conceal to heighten other things. But for telling the story of Billy Beane's struggle and quest, the details of the team and the sabermetrics approach were going to be reduced to their essence.

Brad Pitt in MoneyballThere's so much more to that team and their approach that I found personally fascinating, but did not fit the haiku way of telling the story. What's different about the story is because of their financial situation, they were going to have find and use inefficiencies.

They could afford those other guys, like [MVP Miguel] Tejada and the rotation, if they bought 'em early – but if you look at a team like the Yankees, there is no deadwood. They don’t have to bring in undervalued players the way Oakland did.  

After he saw the film, the director Rod Lurie tweeted, "Moneyball is so layered and brilliant that I can't imagine how this cut survived research screenings." How did it?
I think research screenings ended up saving  the film from the kind of impulses that you were referring to. Meaning, the pressures to mess with it, to give it the appearance or structure of a more conventional film.  From the very first screening, it played really strong.

It just occurred to me that there are parallels between what the movie's about and the making of the movie. Despite conventional wisdom, sometimes if you slow something down and get quieter, it gets stronger. The impulse tends to be the opposite.

Conventional wisdom might say, oh, you shouldn't slow it down and get quiet and still. But I think that's a lot more exciting than the numbing effect of doing the opposite, just ramping things up and being loud and fast.