Brad Pitt and Bennett Miller tell Jeremy Kay how Moneyball withstood several curveballs in development before leaving the dugout as an awards contender.

Success in sport seldom comes easily, and so it seems only fitting that it took a team to coax Moneyball out of development hell and into life as a film, where it has soared like a home run. Brad Pitt, one of the three producers on board who also delivers one of the finest performances of his career, is in no doubt Sony’s compelling drama about the maverick general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team owes its existence to a joint effort.

“We had a few stops and starts, and because it was such unconventional material it took a long development process to get it right,” says Pitt with some understatement. His portrayal of Billy Beane, the real-life protagonist who enlisted the help of a statistics whizz to enable the cash-strapped California club to compete with the richer teams, is deeply satisfying — but it came close to never happening.

It was producer Rachel Horowitz who got the ball rolling when she acquired film rights to Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game in 2003. The project was set up at Sony, Michael De Luca joined as producer and Stan Chervin wrote a screenplay. Steven Zaillian was brought on board to revise the script, while Steven Soderbergh was lined up to direct.

Pitt had come on board around 2007 but, three days before principal photography was due to start in June 2009, the studio — having already invested some $10m — called off the shoot.

Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal and CEO Michael Lynton were unhappy with Soderbergh’s 11th-hour rewrite which had resulted in a quasi-documentary format. Plus the budget had swelled to nearly $60m. Soderbergh ultimately left and Pascal, who believed in the essence of the project, slashed the budget to just under $50m, hired Aaron Sorkin to polish the script, brought in Scott Rudin to lend his expertise, and asked Pitt to stay as the lead and join Horowitz and De Luca as a producer.

Everyone was scratching their heads over a new director when Pitt’s friend, Catherine Keener, suggested Bennett Miller, with whom she had worked on Capote, his first narrative feature.

Pitt had not warmed to an earlier version of the script, thinking it too comedic, but was re-invigorated on meeting Miller in late 2009 to discuss Moneyball. “A lot of people came and went, and I felt everyone’s fingerprints on the final product,” Pitt says, “but it took finding Bennett to bring these things together and meld the original footage with what we were creating, and to show the relationship between [Beane and Peter Brand, his assistant general manager and arch bean-counter, played by Jonah Hill].”

‘Trojan horse’

Miller flew from New York to see Pitt after receiving a call from the star’s agent, Bryan Lourd, and the project soon got its hooks into him. “We had a very philosophical conversation about why we were in it,” the director says, “and then it became a question of how to employ these two tremendous writers to orchestrate it in a way that could make it a movie about one thing and something else. On the surface, it’s an entertaining and engaging relationship film and on the other hand there’s a very internal personal story of somebody experiencing what it feels like to go against conventional wisdom.

“So we came up with this Trojan horse analogy of a movie about great characters that underneath the surface would articulate all these other themes.”

As Zaillian and Sorkin — who at this stage was working with Rudin on The Social Network — sent Miller revised pages and Rudin oversaw the process, a screenplay took shape that seemed to excite everyone. “A bigger theme is [Moneyball] doesn’t finish up like the traditional sports film, with people on shoulders and trophies — it was about the quiet victory,” Pitt says.

The Oakland A’s did not win the league in 2002, when the film takes place, but they go on a record 20-game winning streak and Beane’s ideas became influential further afield, in the English Premier League for example.

The “quiet victory” was particularly appealing to Pitt, who says he related to Beane’s steely resolve to turn the scouting process on its head using sabermetrics, an analytical approach that evaluates players based on their on-field achievements rather than kowtowing to reputation and market value.

“I had never thought of sports from the economics side and never understood the disparity in resources among teams, so there was a justice issue there. The character has this obsessive quality that reminded me of the characters I loved from the 1970s. It was a very complex and unconventional story, and I thought it would relate to our time.”

Hill was cast as the statistics whizz Brand — an amalgam of Beane’s actual colleague Paul DePodesta and others — and for the role of team coach, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was keen to reunite with the director who had guided him to a best actor Oscar for Capote in 2006. They shot in Los Angeles, Oakland and Boston over 55 days in summer 2010 before Miller headed into editing, which took more than six months.

“Every movie teaches you how to make that movie, and this one was hard in the beginning as we were trying to find our way,” Miller says. “But by the time we were three-quarters of the way through, I didn’t want to stop shooting. It felt like we got into our stride in a way I don’t know we could have done if we started shooting and had been forced to find our way immediately. As it went on, Brad inhabited this thing.”

It is said the first cut brought tears to the eyes of Horowitz and Pascal. At its world premiere in Toronto, Moneyball earned critical accolades and has gone on to gross more than $100m worldwide as of December 18. It has also garnered four Golden Globe nominations, including best motion picture (drama) and best actor for Pitt, who has also received a SAG nomination as well as a best actor prize from the New York Film Critics Circle for Moneyball and The Tree Of Life.

“A lead actor tells the story with their performance and that’s different from a character actor,” Miller says. “Brad had a holistic view of what the movie could add up to and I found that very compatible with my own [view]. I think this is a different kind of role for Brad. He has in the past done more character work than lead actor work. Some actors, very few, have this indescribable quality of presence and can just manifest magnetic energy on screen by the way they are.

“Brad can be colourful, magnetic and all these things that make up a movie star, but it doesn’t feel like being in the room with one. It felt like being with someone who wanted to commemorate something. What made this work for me is that he was about exercising restraint and he put away most of his arsenal and just pared it down.”

For his part, Pitt expresses gratitude Miller came along when he did and managed to pull everything together.

“I have seen too many of my projects and my friends’ projects fall by the wayside because it was difficult material,” he says. “At the time when most studios would have folded, Pascal was a patron saint. So instead, [Sony] doubled down, which is uncommon as a studio reflex, and we started trying to find the lift and lilt until we got to Bennett. I cannot say enough good things about him.”