Last week Sony killed Moneyball, the Steven Soderbergh-directed $58-million baseball film starring Brad Pitt based on Michael Lewis' book about former Oakland A's GM Billy Beane, just five days before filming was set to start. So what the hell happened?
Rumors have been swirling since Variety first reported last week that Soderbergh's vision for the film differed dramatically from the vision studio executives had for the film, but up to this point no one associated with the project has been willing to speak on the record about it.
But yesterday Sony's Amy Pascal, the studio executive in charge of the film, spoke to the LA Times' Patrick Goldstein. According to Pascal, what it all boiled down to was essentially simple—The studio loved screenwriter Steven Zaillian's original adaptation of Lewis' book, while Soderbergh felt the script lacked authenticity and rewrote it himself, making radical changes that Pascal and the studio weren't willing to gamble on, fearful that Soderbergh would turn it into an "artsy" film like Solaris or Schizopolis, especially when baseball movies traditionally don't do well at the box office outside of the United States. Soderbergh was insistent that everything in the movie had to have happened in real life.
Some changes to Zaillian's script were subtle, others were dramatic. At one point, Beane signs Scott Hatteberg, a journeyman catcher with a bad arm whom Bean can get for peanuts and turn into a first baseman. Beane loves Hatteberg's ability to get on base, but his staff is appalled — he just can't turn anyone into a slick-fielding first baseman overnight. In Zaillian's script, one of the coaches watches Hatteberg taking ground balls at a Little League field, his wife armed with a plastic laundry basket full of baseballs. She hits the balls to her husband off a tee, with their 4-year-old daughter backing him up down the line. One ball takes a bad hop and goes between Hatteberg's legs. When his daughter scoops it up, the coach quips: "Maybe we should sign her."
Soderbergh cut out the joke because it was the screenwriter's invention — the coach had never actually said it. He also cut out a scene where Beane gives a tongue-lashing to Jason Giambi, one of his departing free agents, again because it didn't actually happen. Zaillian's script was anchored by on-screen monologues by Bill James, the oddball guru of modern-day baseball statistics (who today works in the Boston Red Sox front office). James functioned as a Greek chorus for the film, offering wry, Yoda-like explanations about the complexity of the game.
Zaillian's deft renditions of James' maxims were funny and always to the point, allowing the audience the opportunity to see inside the game. In one monologue, James says: "If you score three runs and the other team scores four, you can be inspired as all hell but you still lost. The numbers represent the ineluctable sum of victories and defeats, and that cannot be made one iota larger or smaller than it is by PR campaigns, personal animosities or any of the greater and lesser forms of B.S." But in Soderbergh's draft, the James material had all vanished, presumably to be replaced by interviews with Beane's real-life associates.
At a "summit" held after Soderbergh turned in his draft of the script, he reportedly pleaded "trust me" to the Sony executives, who were obviously unwilling to do so. Besides Pitt, the film was also set to star comedian Demetri Martin as well as former ballplayers Darryl Strawberry, Mookie Wilson, David Justice and Lenny Dykstra, but Soderbergh's unrelenting zeal for authenticity proved to be the project's demise.
Bob Costas would be proud.
As for Michael Lewis, he seems unfazed by the developments with the film version of his book, telling MSNBC recently, "I don't understand why they bought it for a movie in the first place."