It's never an easy decision when a studio head has to pull the plug on a big movie, as Amy Pascal did last week when she shut down "Moneyball," a $58-million Steven Soderbergh film that was set to star Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the maverick general manager of the Oakland A's who almost single-handedly reinvented the way baseball scouts and develops young talent.
The movie, based on the bestselling book by Michael Lewis, wasn't just in preproduction. It was literally five days away from filming when Soderbergh turned in a new version of the script that Pascal and her Sony team found unacceptable. The decision was so abrupt that the film's producer, Michael DeLuca, got the call about it while on his honeymoon in Paris. As a courtesy to the talent, Pascal gave them an opportunity to try and set the film up elsewhere, but no other studio has shown any interest. So the movie remains at Sony, but will it ever get made? Will Pitt stick with the project? And what exactly went wrong?
Although stories about the film's abrupt demise have appeared everywhere -- with Variety getting the original scoop -- Pascal hasn't talked about the decision until now. To hear her tell it, Soderbergh delivered a script that was inventive but a radical departure from the film Sony thought he was going to make. It was, put simply, more of a dramatic re-creation than a feature film.
"I've wanted to work with Steven forever because he's simply a great filmmaker," Pascal told me Tuesday. "But the draft he turned in wasn't at all what we'd signed up for. He wanted to make a dramatic reenactment of events with real people playing themselves. I'd still work with Steven in a minute, but in terms of this project, he wanted to do the film in a different way than we did."
Soderbergh's last-minute revisions represented a huge change from the shooting script I read when I was working on a story about the film during its preproduction. The script, written by Oscar winner Steve Zaillian, was a baseball movie, but it was loaded with great comic moments and dazzling dialogue that captured the frenetic energy of Beane, a strikingly good-looking former phenom who washed out after a brief stint in the majors, only to resurface as a general manager who operated more like "Entourage's" Ari Gold than the buttoned-down insiders who normally run big-league teams. Beane was a born hustler, always wheeling and dealing, staying one step ahead of his rivals as he scouted unlikely unknown minor leaguers to replace the high-priced free agents a small-market team like the Oakland A's can't afford.
Soderbergh wouldn't talk to me about all this, but it seems clear that he became obsessed with authenticity, replacing many of Zaillian's inspired scripted set pieces with actual interviews with the real people who were involved in the events. The Soderbergh aesthetic, according to one source close to the film, was simple: If it didn't happen in real life, it wasn't going to be in the movie. That might make for an intriguing art film, but it clearly was no longer a film that any studio would spend $58 million to make, especially with baseball films having virtually no appeal outside of the U.S.
"Steven wanted to tell the story through these interviews with the real people, as they commented on Beane," Pascal explains. "But there are lots of ways to tell a true story. We were just more comfortable with what we thought was a wonderful draft from Steve Zaillian."
Some changes to Zaillian's script were subtle, others were dramatic. At one point, Beane signs Scott Hatteberg, a journeyman catcher with a bad arm whom Bean can get for peanuts and turn into a first baseman. Beane loves Hatteberg's ability to get on base, but his staff is appalled -- he just can't turn anyone into a slick-fielding first baseman overnight. In Zaillian's script, one of the coaches watches Hatteberg taking ground balls at a Little League field, his wife armed with a plastic laundry basket full of baseballs. She hits the balls to her husband off a tee, with their 4-year-old daughter backing him up down the line. One ball takes a bad hop and goes between Hatteberg's legs. When his daughter scoops it up, the coach quips: "Maybe we should sign her."
Soderbergh cut out the joke because it was the screenwriter's invention -- the coach had never actually said it. He also cut out a scene where Beane gives a tongue-lashing to Jason Giambi, one of his departing free agents, again because it didn't actually happen. Zaillian's script was anchored by on-screen monologues by Bill James, the oddball guru of modern-day baseball statistics (who today works in the Boston Red Sox front office). James functioned as a Greek chorus for the film, offering wry, Yoda-like explanations about the game's complexity.
Zaillian's deft renditions of James' maxims were funny and always to the point, allowing the audience the opportunity to see inside the game. In one monologue, James says: "If you score three runs and the other team scores four, you can be inspired as all hell but you still lost. The numbers represent the ineluctable sum of victories and defeats, and that cannot be made one iota larger or smaller than it is by PR campaigns, personal animosities or any of the greater and lesser forms of B.S." But in Soderbergh's draft, the James material had all vanished, presumably to be replaced by interviews with Beane's real-life associates.
The Sony production team and Soderbergh ended up having a summit meeting after everyone had read Soderbergh's draft of the script. Pascal wouldn't discuss what was said, but other sources close to the project say that Soderbergh asked the Sony executives to trust him, saying that even if what they wanted wasn't on the printed page, he would find a way to capture the drama and the humor of the story when he was on the set, filming interactions with the real-life baseball people.
Studios get nervous when directors say "Trust me." Sony was especially concerned, wondering if the end result would be one of Soderbergh's "experimental" films, like "Bubble" or "The Girlfriend Experience," not one of his more polished gems, like "Out of Sight" or "Ocean's Eleven." For now, the project remains in limbo, with Sony having sunk nearly $10 million into the film. The studio still needs to find out whether Pitt, who is intensely loyal to Soderbergh, will stay. As Pascal put it: "We really hope we can still make this with Brad Pitt."
Sony would also have to find a new director who is not only a good fit for the material but would pass muster with Pitt, who has director approval on his films. To find a director with enough stature or buzz to attract Pitt won't be easy. The most likely options would be for the studio to go in more of a comic direction -- possibilities being Jay Roach or Jason Reitman -- or toward a more dramatic choice, like Gary Ross or even George Clooney, who is putting the finishing touches on a two-year production deal with the studio.
Pascal insists there's no bad blood between her and Soderbergh, saying the two plan to meet in the coming days to discuss other possible projects. In the meanwhile, she remains an ardent believer in the film. "We love this movie, we always have and we still want to make it. It's a completely innovative way to tell a baseball story. It's about wanting to believe in magic, which is what baseball is all about."
I'd still say that makes "Moneyball" a long shot. Or to put it in baseball terms, this project that will need to stage a big late-inning rally to put a win up on the scoreboard.