Interview: 'Moneyball' director Bennett Miller

Posted by · 5:00 am · September 21st, 2011

Bennett Miller is knackered. He’s recently touched down from the Toronto Film Festival where his film “Moneyball” first screened for the masses. It was a project with plenty of baggage by the time he came around to it, and it was a studio system gauntlet in direct contrast to the experience of his directorial debut, “Capote.”

That 2005 would have been a dream introduction to feature filmmaking for any director. Miller was able to work with a slew of collaborators he calls “grounded,” from childhood friends Philip Seymour Hoffman and screenwriter Dan Fogelman to actress Catherine Keener (a close friend), to Sony Pictures Classics heads Michael Barker and Tom Bernard. Even the big reveal for the film — the laid-back Telluride Film Festival — was in keeping with all of that.

Flash forward six years, he’s seen a pet project, “Foxcatcher” — about convicted murderer and heir to the du Pont fortune John Eleuthère du Pont — nearly happen, then fall apart. He’s kept his commercial career going strong while finally saddling up to another feature, one that couldn’t have been more different: mega movie star, huge studio, a tug-of-war on the identity and vision of the film and a bow at the most media-frenzied festival on these shores. 

On a Saturday afternoon at Hollywood’s Cube Restaurant on La Brea, Miller considers his still on-going schedule. He has a few days of further press in Los Angeles (naturally squeezed for everything their worth), a BAFTA event the next day and the Oakland premiere of his film (which he is nevertheless excited about) later in the week. His own bed in New York probably feels like it’s light years away.

He wasn’t expecting a recorder, so I put it away when he’d probably have begrudgingly obliged it. Better to get a vibe and convey those gestures. He’s incredibly soft-spoken, so much so that it probably wouldn’t have picked up on the recorder anyway. But there’s real fire and passion there, if quieted.

He maintains consistent eye contact and uses his hands to help bolster his points with animated gestures. But he’s always listening, always considering, the gears always turning. He flashes a boyish smile when he recalls humorous anecdotes from the production, particularly the difficulty getting baseball fanatic Philip Seymour Hoffman (who he cast in a supporting role in the film) to put down the bat and step away from the batting cage so they could finish this scene or that.

In “Moneyball” — a project which had been nearly a decade in the making and had suffered a very public collapse before Miller ever came around to it — he sees a lot of his own struggles getting it made. “It was a beautiful nightmare,” he says of the process. “But I’m proud of it. It’s like Brad [Pitt] said to me, ‘I’m proud of it for how hard it was.'”

Of course, Pitt was with the project even longer, since 2007. And his sticking with it is likely the only thing that kept air in its lungs when director Steven Soderbergh left after a last-minute 2009 production stoppage (courtesy of studio head Amy Pascal). But Miller still had his fair share of difficulty — internally and externally — navigating a story that didn’t necessarily scream “MOVIE!,” even if it is loaded with themes ripe for expansion.

Miller grew up a Yankees fan, during the team’s late-1970s heyday. Eventually he grew apart from baseball, but the process of making “Moneyball” reinvigorated that spirit somewhat. Mainly he really liked Billy Beane, the subject of the film (who changed the game forever with his implementation of sabermetrics as General Manager of the Oakland Athletics). He was taken by a story of progress, of a man finding that his destiny wasn’t what he thought it would be. It’s not a story of the Holy Grail so much as a story of the quest for the Holy Grail, Miller said at one Toronto Q&A. “It’s a wisdom story,” he tells me.

And indeed, in the tale of a man struggling against the status quo to create something new and exciting, well, Miller says he can relate.

He has questions of the questioner, though. Brett Ratner producing the Oscars? I offer my thoughts: It’s part and parcel of the consumerism of everything (“That would be a great book title,” he says). The Academy wants ratings for its telecast and hopes Ratner can streamline things into something entertaining to watch. I tell him I’m fine with any changes to the actual show but it’s when they start fiddling with the functionality of their voting process (like expanding the Best Picture category to 10 nominees two years ago, then potentially edging out fringe indie cinema with it’s latest rule change) that it begins to bother me. He fully agrees.

He’s curious about the trajectory of cinema and what this point in history could mean for the industry. I humbly offer that DIY production and distribution is likely to become more and more prevalent, especially as streaming finds its way as a major delivery method. He’s saddened by the reduction of things. He recalls a recent New York screening of George Stevens’s “Giant” — one of his favorite films — and the transportation to another time that those three and a half hours inflicted on the still-captivated audience. “You’re never going to duplicate that on a computer screen,” he says. Of course not. “But, it’s like you say,” he ponders. “The consumerism of everything.”

“Moneyball,” though, represents a nice antidote to that. Here’s a sports movie that completely butts up against the grain of what you’d expect, so much so that, ultimately, it’s not a sports movie at all. It’s a mainstream film from a major studio with a huge star that nevertheless maintains a delicate, indie appeal and aesthetic. It exists on its own terms and outside the confines of what could have been rigid formula. It goes without saying, Miller’s very proud of that, too.

“Moneyball” opens nationwide this Friday, September 23.

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