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The legend of Billy Beane

by Bennett Cohen | August 25, 2011 | Lifestyle Story Reporters Notebook Reviews Culture

In 2003, not long after Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game was published, studios opened their doors to pitches for screenplays based on Michael Lewis’s already acclaimed bestseller. In one sense, the story had Hollywood written all over it—“a classic underdogs-vs.-establishment tale,” as Variety called it, that played out on two levels. The narrative follows the Oakland A’s during their near-miracle 2002 season, when they—one of the lowest-spending teams in baseball at the time—posted a 20-game winning streak and won a preposterous 103 games, thanks to statistical formulas dreamed up in the late 1970s by baseball guru Bill James, but used for the first time successfully by the A’s general manager, Billy Beane. The counterintuitive, but brilliant, idea was to boost a poor team’s chances of winning by assembling a roster of players whose hidden value showed up under this novel statistical microscope(which James called sabermetrics). The emotional journey of the book is Beane’s own story: a failed baseball player with a maverick streak who dared to challenge decades of baseball tradition and ended up changing the entire culture of the sport.

Despite Lewis’s literary success, the East Bay journalist was far from a hot ticket in the movie world in 2003. His bestselling first book, Liar’s Poker, about the time he spent on Wall Street, never made it beyond the script stage. Another book, Next: The Future Just Happened, had an undistinguished outing as a TV documentary. The Blind Side, which was to be his breakthrough film hit, hadn’t been written yet. Add to that the fact that baseball films are generally duds at the box office, with little if any international appeal, and you had a Hollywood heat index that was tepid at best. Still, Moneyball fell between the extremes of “buzz so great that a bidding war ensues” and “no buzz at all, so agents and authors have to beat the bushes in the hope of generating one.” Studios were intrigued, but the screenwriter’s “take” would have to be right.

That’s where things get sticky for anyone who thinks movies “based on a true story” should tell the truth. The rules for such films are a lot more slippery than those for the books that inspired them. Most people assume that feature films, for example, are more trustworthy than TV movies, which often seem hackneyed and littered with clich├ęs. Actually, the reverse is almost certainly true, since television networks have their own legal and ethical standards, so although the material may be schlock, the events depicted in a TV movie probably happened more or less as represented. And the Motion Picture Association of America’s only concern is how many times a character might say the f-word on-screen—not whether or not he or she ever said it in real life.

Of course, directors, actors, and studio execs want a good relationship with the subjects of the stories they dramatize, if only to avoid libel and to honor any contracts with the subjects—and also so they can rely on them to promote the movie once it comes out. But even so, it’s hard not to make things up when you’ve got to cram a messy true story into a neat two hours and include a clear character arc and a satisfying climax. We want movies to seduce us, to make us fall in love with the characters and their stories. Even if a tale is mired in tragedy, it needs to be mired in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing. Google a photo of the real Belle Starr sometime, and you’ll see that Gene Tierney she was not. And Billy Beane is a handsome, charismatic man, but he can’t compare with Brad Pitt, who portrays him in the movie. In biz shorthand, “Pretty plays.” Any Moneyball script that would satisfy baseball fans and movie lovers would have to balance such demands.

Starting in 2004, the evolution of the screenplay proceeded in typical Hollywood fashion: One writer after another was brought in to either polish or rewrite it entirely. In the movie business, writers tend to be treated the way the Pony Express treated horses: Ride them until they drop, and then get another, who might make the movie funnier, sexier, more exciting, or just plain better. It’s not clear how many writers or drafts Moneyball had, but four writers, including three of Hollywood’s elite, shaped the project more than any others.

I’ve read one version by each of them, versions I ferreted out online, where some screenplays meant to be confidential end up as PDFs. (Leaking scripts is common in Hollywood, but none of these was slipped to me.) Honestly, I’ve yet to read one that was bad. They’re not even wildly different from one another. But the changes from one to the next make for a fascinating case study of how Hollywood deals with true-life material and will have particular meaning to Bay Area folks, who know this baseball history and have a stake in seeing it represented accurately. Could Hollywood do justice to Billy Beane’s complicated personality and the reality of what has happened to the A’s since 2002, the time of the triumphant story told in the book?

Spoiler alert: This is not the type of question Hollywood decision-makers tend to ask.

It turns out, a true baseball story isn’t even what sold Sony Pictures, the movie’s production company, on the project; it was the personal element that writer Stan Chervin brought to the material in 2004. Chervin belongs to a literary species unique to Hollywood. (In the spirit of full disclosure: I went to school with Chervin at UC Berkeley.) A talented writer, he has made a good living penning numerous scripts over the course of two decades, and his particular knack for developing and pitching material was exactly what was needed to get Moneyball rolling. Yet the movie will be his first actual credit.

Sony was particularly taken by a central element in Chervin’s pitch: Beane rebuilding his relationship with his estranged teenage daughter, which would function as a personal-life mirror of his move from failure to redemption in his professional life. Chervin admitted he made it up and explained to me his deeper purpose: “For me, when you’re dramatizing a true story, the focus has to be more on the moral truth—the emotional truth—rather than the literal truth.”

His pitch successful, Chervin wrote one screenplay, then another draft, as various elements came and went. Other writers were brought in, director David Frankel (of The Devil Wears Prada fame) was attached, and Chervin was brought back for yet another draft. At this point he made perhaps his most valuable contribution to the project: What he wrote was good enough to interest Brad Pitt in playing Billy Beane.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of stars when it comes to getting movies made. Chervin tells a story about how he once pitched a project to two different studios. The first one passed on it, so for the second pitch, he made one slight change: He walked in with George Clooney, who had agreed to star in it. That time, it sold.

Chervin’s Pitt-attached draft, dated July 13, 2007, centers on Beane’s professional life, tracking his progression from a disappointing career as a player to a satisfying one as the A’s GM. In a way, Chervin transferred the emotional content of the father-daughter conflict, which was now gone from the story, into Beane’s relationship with his team, mimicking the logic of a romantic comedy: Billy meets team, Billy gets team, Billy almost leaves team, Billy stays with team. At the end, another suitor arrives—Billy is offered a job as GM of the Boston Red Sox (which did happen)—but he decides to stay with his true love. After he announces this decision, the team literally embraces him.

There was nothing major wrong with this script, but when Pitt requested some changes to it, the Pony Express got restless: It was time to get some new blood. Enter legend number one: Steven Zaillian.

“When it comes to screenwriters, there’s Steve Zaillian, and then there’s everybody else,” Chervin said, summing up Hollywood’s estimation of Moneyball’s next horse. Zaillian has penned some of the best—and most important—movies of the past 20 years, including Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York, American Gangster, Clear and Present Danger, and Searching for Bobby Fischer. His latest, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is due out this December. The only thing that doesn’t spring to mind when discussing his work is comedy, yet strangely enough, that may be what distinguished his 2008 Moneyball draft from the others I read. It was funny. Really funny.

Again, though, a good part of that humor was based on something that was made up. Zaillian turned Billy Beane into an inveterate womanizer, so committed to bedding down one beauty after another that he actually jokes about trading them the way he does ballplayers. In fact, Zaillian’s script probably strays further into fantasyland than any other I read. Yet, it was good enough to give the project what’s known in Hollywood as “traction,” meaning it was moving forward fast.

Enter legend number two: Steven Soderbergh. After Soderbergh came aboard as director, the film was given a production date of June 22, 2009, according to Variety. Soderbergh, too, has many great, and impressively eclectic, films to his credit, including Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, and his breakthrough indie hit— which he also wrote—Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Plus, he’s a longtime collaborator of Brad Pitt’s and a huge baseball fan, all of which madehim a natural choice to direct Moneyball. (He was even a talented pitcher in his youth.) And although he’s not primarily a writer, he decided to do a polish of the Zaillian script before starting production.

The film was budgeted at $58 million, so “prep,” the name Hollywood gives the period of time spent getting ready for physical production, had to be in high gear. That includes leasing office space, sound studios, vans, and trucks; finding and securing locations; hiring actors, designers, technical crews, and even caterers; and renting the “toys” of production, including lights, cameras, sound systems, and everything needed to begin the edit. Yet Soderbergh’s final script revisions weren’t delivered until just days before shooting was to begin.

What followed was one of the most spectacular meltdowns in Hollywood history. On June 19, just three days before Soderbergh was supposed to start filming, Sony Pictures’ cochair Amy Pascal shut the movie down. This wasn’t the first time a supposedly “go” movie had been stopped, in a film-industry version of coitus interruptus. A few years before Ridley Scott directed American Gangster, Antoine Fuqua had been slated to direct it, and Universal pulled the rug out from under him. That, however, was a month before production was to begin. This was three days. Again according to Variety, Pitt’s and Soderbergh’s agents spent the weekend trying to find the project a new home. But by Monday, the Soderbergh Moneyball was dead, and the blame game had commenced.

Pascal gave her version of events in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve wanted to work with Steven forever, because he’s simply a great filmmaker,” she said. “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.”

Indeed, Soderbergh hadn’t just tweaked Zaillian’s script; he’d conceived an entirely different version that suddenly swung in the direction of authenticity. Ten percent of the film, Soderbergh wrote in a script note—the part dealing with Beane’s playing career—would be shown via interviews. Another 10 percent would consist of dramatic reenactments of actual events, with real people playing themselves. Those portions, he said, would be written in the editing room. Also, there would be a voice-over narration by Paul DePodesta, Billy Beane’s assistant, who (unlike in other drafts) would be a presence from the start. Some of Zaillian’s snappier, funnier scenes were gone, as were his overtly made-up aspects, like Beane’s womanizing.

In July, I caught up with Moneyball coproducer Michael De Luca at a sports and entertainment conference cosponsored by Variety and the sports media company SVG, and he explained Soderbergh’s aesthetic this way: “If something in the Zaillian script took place in a car, but no one could verify it because no one had heard it, he cut it and replaced it with interviews and documentary-type material.”

In keeping with this devotion to facts, Soderbergh’s version also ends very differently. Every other script I read finishes with a sense of victory, the feeling one was left with after the 2002 season—and the feeling communicated by the book. In Soderbergh’s script, however, we see Beane kicking a chair across a room. Then we’re told in an after-note that despite returning to the playoffs in 2003 and 2006, the A’s didn’t advance to the World Series, and—what to A’s fans may be the most painful truth of all—they still don’t have a new stadium. The very last image in this script is of an empty Oakland Coliseum.

Alas, this is much closer to the reality of what actually happened after Moneyball, the book, ends. As even his boss, Lew Wolff, admits, Beane has been a victim of his own success: Many teams now use the statistical analysis he showcased, which means the strategic playing field is again even, and so, also again, money trumps all else. The three teams with the biggest payrolls— the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies—are at the top of their divisions, while the A’s, with one far smaller, are near the bottom of theirs. Beane is still trying to resurrect his team and is lobbying for a new stadium, without which, many people say, he’ll never be able to turn things around.

Is this accurate downer of an ending the reason Sony pulled the script? When I called Soderbergh’s reps, they told me he’d put the Moneyball experience behind him and didn’t want to talk. I reached out to Pitt’s people as well, but never heard back. And Sony has never offered anything more than the generic “creative differences” explanation Pascal gave the L.A. Times. I wasn’t surprised by the quiet. Hollywood doesn’t like to air its dirty laundry, especially when the laundry involves confidential drafts of screenplays by several different writers.

So I’m left with my own theory. The real red flag for Sony, I suspect, was the 20 percent or so of the story that Soderbergh left unscripted and claimed he’d “write” in the editing room. On the first film I wrote that got made, the director told me that movies are written three times: once on the page, once in production, and once in the edit. And I’ve seen that happen many times. But when a film costs in the neighborhood of $50 million to make, and probably double that once it’s been released and promoted, you can see why a studio wants a script to give a solid indication of what it’s buying rather than leave 20 percent “TBD.”

Even Soderbergh knew that Sony was uneasy. In a discussion after a screening of his film The Girlfriend Experience, in April 2009, two months before he was to start shooting Moneyball, he noted that he was making people at Sony “nervous” with his unscripted approach.

Or perhaps Hollywood balked because Soderbergh did what no one does in feature films. He took a “true story” and tried to make it literally true.

Enter legend number three: Aaron Sorkin.

After killing off Moneyball, Sony seemed intent on bringing it back to life—and Sorkin was part of the resuscitation. He’s had the kind of career writers dream about. In his mid 20s, he wrote A Few Good Men, which became a hit both on Broadway and as a film and is probably still quoted on a daily basis by someone somewhere in America: “You can’t handle the truth!” He went on to create Sports Night and The West Wing for television, and this past year won an Academy Award for The Social Network. Sorkin wrote a draft of Moneyball that put it back on the fast track to production; a director—Bennett Miller, of Capote fame—was hired; and, finally, the movie was shot. The draft of Sorkin’s that I read, which is based on Zaillian’s (both writers’ names are on the script), is probably not the shooting script, since its pages aren’t numbered, but it gives a good sense of where Sorkin took the material.

Basically, it seems to split the difference between the fictional and the factual. Beane’s womanizing is out, but DePodesta, whose role is easily the second largest in the film, and who is played by Jonah Hill, asked to have his name changed because he felt the script completely distorted his character. The story is told with Sorkin’s signature rapid-fire dialogue, which comes at an audience like blasts from a machine gun and gives a comic edge even to dramatic material. And, as in every other version of the story, the visionary young underdogs win out over the benighted old guard.

Although “best” is relative in any art, Sorkin’s draft is easily as entertaining and compelling as the others I read. And I’m told that when it comes to the game scenes, the production went out of its way to be as authentic as possible. At the end, Beane drives off into the sunset, smiling, but Sorkin does give a nod to the post-Moneyball reality. A line of dialogue acknowledges that sabermetrics guru Bill James has been hired by the Boston Red Sox, and the screen fills with a list of key players who have left the A’s—both signs that the team’s secret weapon is now out of the bag.

At least this isn’t as upbeat as Chervin’s or Zaillian’s ending. But if it stands, as a baseball fan I’ll still miss the final images of frustrationthat Soderbergh brought—the empty stadium and Beane kicking the chair. I can’t help thinking of a story Stan Chervin told me about going to the Oakland Coliseum to interview Beane while he was working on the first draft of his screenplay. He toured the premises and was struck by how small and crummy the workout room was. Then, a few years later, he saw the one the movie was shot in.

“That one was on a sound stage,” he said. “And I was amazed by how beautiful it was.” It was the sort of workout room Beane probably dreams of. Yes, “pretty plays.” And the current state of the A’s—even with Beane and the Moneyball philosophy behind it—is anything but.

Bennett Cohen has been writing and producing movies in Los Angeles for more than a decade. His last feature fo rthe magazein was "Who can we thank for not screwing up Milk?" (November 2008).

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