Like a mid-season coaching hire for a losing ballclub, director Bennett Miller inherited an uphill battle when he was brought in as the director of a shaky project called "Moneyball," but he had two key players on his side — and both of them were named Brad Pitt.
With its half-dozen Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations, "Moneyball" is now viewed as a quality contender in the Oscar nomination race, but the sports-film-with-a-message was clearly a longshot project back when Miller stepped in following the summer 2009 departure of Steven Soderbergh, who had spent years developing the script.
The difference maker, says Bennett, was the persistent presence of star and producer Pitt, who was an MVP on both sides of the camera.
"You work all day with Brad the actor and there's that energy, and then we'd wrap at the end of the day and maybe half an hour later we'd get together in this little area outside his trailer and he'd be Brad the producer," Miller said. "We would look at the next day, just go over things and maybe have a glass of wine. Sometimes it would be two or three hours of discussing and planning, and it's pretty exhausting making a movie, but it became this ritual for us. And then early the next morning, Brad the actor is back, being on set and making things happen in a totally different way."
And now Pitt may be swinging for the fences on Oscar night in the lead actor category. He seems to be a lock for that nomination, considering those early nods he's already collected for his "Moneyball" work as Billy Beane, the real-life maverick general manager of the Oakland A's who fought Major League Baseball resistance to his reliance on traditionally overlooked stats in team-building. Pitt the producer may also hear his name called out in the best picture category if the upstart film makes that final cut.
"Moneyball" looks like a sports film on paper, but on closer inspection it's a message movie about fighting an entrenched system that doesn't recognize or reward the true value of people. That's what drew Pitt to the project — that and his restless need to "surprise and challenge" himself by seeking out "passion projects and not doing what's been done before just because it's available."
Pitt certainly assembled an unlikely body of work for 2011. In addition to "Moneyball," he starred in Terrence Malick's impressionistic and challenging "The Tree of Life," a film made far from the crowd-pleasing gravity felt by most Hollywood releases. Pitt also gave voice to an existentially yearning krill (yes, that's right, krill, as in whale food) with his buddy Matt Damon in the animated film "Happy Feet 2."
Rounding out the eclectic list, he spent much of the year running from undead extras while filming "World War Z," an adaptation of the Max Brooks globe-trotting horror novel and the most expensive zombie movie in the history of Hollywood.
"Like I said, I like mixing it up," Pitt said with a chuckle during an October interview on the Budapest set of "World War Z." "You need to make it interesting for yourself to make it interesting for other people."
In "World War Z," due in theaters right before next Christmas, Pitt will play a United Nations fact-finder and family man who desperately races around the globe to determine the origins of a zombie pandemic that has toppled civilization in short order. The film is directed by Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland," "Quantum of Solace") and is similar in spirit to September's "Contagion" (from director Soderbergh and starring Damon) with its geo-political bent and the aspiration to deliver social messages amid the moans and screams.
For Pitt, the big sci-fi thriller also represents his strongest bid to have a big film franchise of his own, which might be viewed as the missing piece of his career jigsaw puzzle. Forster and Paramount Pictures each view "World War Z" as a trilogy that would have the grounded, gun-metal realism of, say, Damon's Jason Bourne series tethered to the unsettling end-times vibe of AMC's "The Walking Dead."
Time will tell if audiences embrace that idea. Pitt knows too well that big popcorn plans don't always pop; he learned that on "Troy," the sprawling Bronze Age epic in 2004 that cost $175 million to make but earned anemic reviews and pulled in just $133 million in domestic box office (although it did add another $350 million in foreign markets).
It was 20 years ago this past May that Pitt — with his cocky smile and without his shirt — first caught the eye of American moviegoers in Ridley Scott's "Thelma and Louise." Now, with the actor just two years shy of 50, he is one of the most famous men in the world. And, like his pals Damon and George Clooney, he's trying to perfect the 21st century model of a leading man who uses his star wattage to set up his cinematic risks.
"I don't need to be more famous," Clooney recently told a Rolling Stone interviewer while explaining the reason he made the $12-million political drama "The Ides of March." That phrase could also be the career-strategy motto at this point for his friend Pitt (the pair have appeared in five movies together), who has taken a stand against his own glamour in movies such as "Burn After Reading," "Snatch" and "Kalifornia."
Pitt has never won an Oscar, but he did get a supporting actor nomination for his madhouse work in Terry Gilliam's "Twelve Monkeys" (1996) and then a lead actor nod for his reverse-aging performance in David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008).
But for the small-town kid from Missouri, the only compass point is the work itself and finding, as he says, "the things that surprise me and things that challenge me and the things I haven't done before."
Pitt says he doesn't think his acting craft has changed much over the last decade: He still has the same approach, but, like the wily veteran players of "Moneyball," he knows the rhythms of his game better and rarely wastes energy the way he did as a young actor.
"Truthfully, I'm just more experienced. I can get to places — and I'm talking in actor-speak now — but I can get to where I need to get faster now. I can understand when it's off, and I know it quicker; I know the signals and I'm better at redirecting it. But my approach is still the same. I've always liked to mix it up a bit."
With "Moneyball," that strategy delivered a winning moment with critics as well as moviegoers (the movie has pulled in $103 million in worldwide box office). The story, based on the 2003 nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, follows the rebel path of Beane, a failed player who makes his mark in the sport by working with a shy Yale-schooled statistics guy (Jonah Hill) who doesn't know baseball traditions (or its haughty clubhouse mentality) but can find the truth hidden in the numbers.
To director Miller, there's a lot of Beane in Brad Pitt.
"He makes bold choices," Miller says. "When a movie is done and it comes out and it's accepted and it feels like a cohesive vision, it's hard to look back and really grasp what the risks felt like for the people involved. And for Brad, this movie was a big risk, not only as an actor but as a producer to hold on to it and be the motor and risk his reputation. That's especially true with the subject matter, which had a lot of skeptics."
For Miller, the "Moneyball" experience wasn't his first success — he was nominated for best director, in fact, for his first feature film, "Capote" (2005) — but "Moneyball" was a landmark moment in his creative life thanks to the presence of the two Pitts, and no trophy is needed to recognize that.
"We had a rare, fast and strong connection," Miller said. "Fast doesn't always mean lasting, but in this case it did. We shared common values, and we're after similar things and always compatible things. And somehow we were able to get to a sort of process where there were two distinctive relationships on the set. One was an actor and the other was able to be deliberative and thoughtful, a protective producer. And he was pretty great at both."