Director Bennett Miller on Why Moneyball Worked: 'It Became Personal to Me'

This fall's hit baseball drama Moneyball stars Brad Pitt as a beleaguered Oakland A's general manager who turns his team around with a formula designed for quality optimization. Ironically, director Bennett Miller employed a similar strategy when adapting Moneyball, the long-gestating project based on Michael Lewis's book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game for the screen.

When the New York City-raised director, who received an Academy Award nomination for his breakout feature Capote, was approached to take on the film that had been bouncing between different directors (including Steven Soderbergh and David Frankel) for years, Miller pitched the studio and Pitt a simple formula that, if executed correctly, would help Moneyball transcend the limitations of the sports genre and reach a broad audience. "I basically chose to test a different theory, which is just, 'Make a good movie,'" Miller explained earlier this week. "Build it and they will come." Judging by last weekend's box office results, superb reviews and the early Oscar buzz surrounding around Pitt's performance, Miller succeeded.

The director phoned Movieline this week to explain why he is not celebrating his film's success just yet, what makes Brad Pitt a great studio cooler and why, sometimes, it's best to let other people do the worrying.

So how have you been celebrating Moneyball's success so far?

I -- I don't know.

No champagne? No lavish purchases?

No, my answer is kind of disappointing. It's great making a film and having it embraced and seen. I really enjoy that. It's a really good feeling, but it doesn't really spur me to get wasted or run down the street with noisemakers.

Smart choices. You must be relieved that Brad Pitt being on the cover of Sports Illustrated didn't jinx Moneyball at the box office this weekend. Were you concerned about that at all?

Why would it jinx the movie?

There is an urban legend that supposes that the individual or team who appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated will subsequently be jinxed either by injury or some kind of championship loss or general bad luck.

I hadn't heard of that, no.

As the director of Moneyball, do you have a say in how the movie is advertised or whether Brad appears on the cover of a magazine?

These things are discussed. He doesn't do a lot of covers and if I am ever involved in that, it is usually in the form of someone saying to me, "Would you mention to Brad that it would be really, really good if he did this?" Then I'll say to Brad, "They told me that it would be really, really good if you did this." But Brad makes his own decisions. That cover was really cool though.

Based on the box-office numbers so far, it seems that Moneyball has reached a broader audience than just sports fans. Were you concerned about transcending the sports genre when you were making the film?

That was a really big concern for everybody involved except me -- not that I didn't think it was a valid concern. But you can't get too caught up in things like that. There are plenty of people whose job it is to worry about that stuff. I basically chose to test a different theory, which is just, "Make a good movie that kind of transcends the limits of its genre." I hoped that if I made a movie that spoke to people, it would find an audience. Build it and they will come. When I pitched my take on the movie, that's pretty much what I said. I wanted to bet on the things that would make it a good movie and not anything else.

By the time you did pitch your vision of Moneyball, the project had been gestating for most of the last decade. Were you hesitant to take on a project that had been in so many different hands before yours?

Yes, which is also the same as saying: Was I hesitant to take on a studio movie? The same can be said about any studio movie that is brought to you. It's a movie that had a past, and that always presents challenges.

What compelled you to take on the project in spite of its past and it being a studio movie?

I fell in love with the story, and it became personal to me. That happened quickly and when that happens, the obstacles of the things that might complicate it fade away and lose their power. It was the material, it was Michael's book, it was Brad's passion for the project. It's like a relationship. Every relationship probably has, at its inception, a hundred things that you could pick on and divert you from it, but the feeling is there. You figure out a way to make it work.

Even with the studio involvement, how did you go about making the project your own?

It started at the very beginning with sitting down with Brad and pitching him my take of the movie and listening to his take and discovering that there was a common ground that we could commit to. And then from there, to be relentlessly communicative about what that is and be really open and straight all of the time and say all of the time, "This is the movie that we want to make and if this is not the movie that [the studio] feels great about making, then there is a better filmmaker to do it." It's just about communicating about what you are going to do, doing it and then communicating what you just did. And then, if people ever get nervous, that becomes Brad's job.

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