‘Moneyball’ comes to bat after lineup changed midgame

Reporting from Toronto —

In June 2009, just a few days before Brad Pitt, director Steven Soderbergh and others were set to board a plane for Phoenix to begin shooting the film version of Michael Lewis’ baseball bestseller “Moneyball,” the unthinkable happened. Despite the months spent preparing the shoot and the star wattage involved, Sony Pictures Co-Chairman Amy Pascal pulled the plug on the movie. Soderbergh was leaving the project, the studio announced, and the film’s future was in serious doubt.

It was the equivalent of a freak triple play killing a no-out, bases-loaded rally.

Barely two years later, “Moneyball” is not only complete but is about to be unveiled, a remarkable comeback in an industry where even small obstacles can be fatal. Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “The Social Network”) came on to rewrite the script, and Bennett Miller (“Capote”) took over as director; Pitt stayed aboard starring as the fiercely driven Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who fights the odds and conventional baseball wisdom with ragtag players. The film will have its world premiere Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival ahead of its Sept. 23 general release in the U.S.


Depending on one’s viewpoint, the rollout caps a feel-good underdog story that could have been lifted straight from the movie or offers a glimpse into what can nearly doom a film even with the shiniest pedigree. Or maybe it’s both. Whether it succeeds at the box office or appeals to Academy Awards voters remains to be seen, but one aspect of the film has already achieved an Oscar-worthy level of drama. “I think the making of the movie is just as interesting as the movie itself,” Pitt told The Times in May.

In interviews with multiple sources familiar with the development process who requested anonymity because Sony and producer Scott Rudin did not authorize them to speak publicly, a colorful picture emerges, filled with big personalities and clashing visions.

A potential “Moneyball” film began life in late 2003, when producer Rachael Horovitz obtained the rights to Lewis’ book and teamed up with writer Stan Chervin to develop it. Lewis’ nonfiction work was a phenomenon, spending months on the bestseller list, and soon Sony would win a bidding war to make the film version. The studio enlisted veteran Hollywood producer Michael De Luca to work on it.

But what kind of film he and others could carve from “Moneyball” was not immediately obvious: Roughly half the book told the personal story of Beane, a failed baseball prospect who’d found redemption as a general manager. The other half, however, was a historical and mathematical account of sabermetrics, the complicated quantitative analysis Beane used to evaluate talent. “Field of Dreams” it wasn’t.

The project trotted along like an aging catcher. Chervin wrote several drafts before Pitt was attracted to it. Soon after, Steven Zaillian, who won an Oscar for “Schindler’s List,” was brought on to write a draft of the script. “The Devil Wears Prada” director David Frankel came on to direct and worked on it for several years before falling off.

In January 2009, however, Soderbergh came aboard, and the film rocketed forward. A lifelong baseball fan — he was known for sleeping in his Little League uniform as a child — the “sex, lies, and videotape” auteur began crafting the movie as something that would blend elements of a documentary (baseball players like Scott Hatteberg would appear as themselves in interviews) with statistics and the larger A’s story. The film was to begin shooting that June.

What happened after that, as Pascal dramatically halted the movie, remains a matter of contention.

Creative differences played a role in the decision. At the time, Sony executives said that Soderbergh’s version was too wonkish, and they wanted something more emotionally accessible. Pascal told The Times then that Soderbergh’s draft “wasn’t at all what we’d signed up for. …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.”

A person with knowledge of the conversations, though, describes a clash that was as much personal as artistic. Communication among Soderbergh and Pitt and Pascal — all complicated personalities began to fray in the weeks leading to production, the person said. Coupled with the creative disagreements, the results were explosive.

What was not a primary factor in the plug-pull, according to the person, was financial caution, as was widely reported at the time. Soderbergh’s version was ballparked at about $57 million, while the one coming to screens now is said to have cost about $50 million, with Pitt taking in $10 million to $15 million, according to a source familiar with the budget. (Pascal, Rudin, Sorkin and Soderbergh all declined to comment or did not respond to a request for comment for this story directly or via their representatives.)

Soderbergh went on to other projects, including the Warner Bros. film “Contagion,” which arrives in theaters this week. But the decision to halt production stunned Hollywood. Though movies routinely get stopped, typically they go away quietly after faltering for years in development; they don’t implode noisily days before they are about to shoot.

“Moneyball” appeared dead. The film had no director and a script from Soderbergh that Sony wasn’t going to use. On top of that, producers and the studio were concerned that Pitt, with his pick of a half-dozen other roles, could walk.

They quickly decided to hire Sorkin, who was then working on “The Social Network,” to do a rewrite of the script, with Sony also attaching “Social Network” producer Rudin. Sorkin’s script, the parties agreed, would emphasize the isolation of Beane as he pursued his unorthodox methods as well as the human aspect of him winning over skeptics.

There were still fears Pitt would leave. But as the movie gained momentum, it caught the eye of some directors whom Sony — and the actor — liked for the chair. Among them were Marc Webb ("(500) Days of Summer”) and Miller. The “Capote” director was famously fussy — he hadn’t directed another movie since his 2005 debut and was largely seen as a product of the lower-budget independent-film world. But Pitt and Miller had several fruitful conversations, and the two came to a meeting of the minds, said a person familiar with those conversations. (It probably also didn’t hurt that Miller’s first movie had landed Philip Seymour Hoffman a best actor Oscar; Hoffman would in fact join the “Moneyball” cast as manager Art Howe, with Jonah Hill playing Beane’s right-hand stat geek.)

Pitt acknowledged the unusually high drama in getting the film made but said he believed in the end it all helped the final product. “Everyone involved has such a specific point of view, and they were often divergent but were also very passionate about it,” he said in that early summer conversation, sounding a slightly more diplomatic note than his firebrand character. “This movie has been enriched by everyone’s contributions. It wouldn’t be what it is without that.”